“Please don’t take me. I don’t know how to hold a gun!”
These are the last words that Bae, 54, heard from her young nephew before they got separated. She said that a group of men wearing black declaring themselves part of the so called ‘ISIS’ (Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) forced the 12-year-old boy to join them as they were escaping their war-torn neighborhood.
“I lost everything. My house that I worked hard for, my trucks for the business I was running and my possessions. I went from riches to rags overnight. But most painful of all was losing him. He died for something he never supported. Neither did the innocent boy know what all that violence was for.
Now, he’s gone forever,” Bae shares while looking over her IOM-constructed Alternative Dwelling Space (ADS) in an evacuation centre in Lanao del Norte. She took care of her nephew since he didn’t have his parents around anymore and treated him like her own son.
Bae is one of the thousands displaced people from the recently war-torn Marawi City, the capital of the only city in Lanao del sur which is at the Southern island of Mindanao in the Philippines.
The Battle for Marawi
The battle for Marawi began on 23 May 2017 when the Philippine military tried to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the head of a southern militia that has pledged loyalty to the so called ‘Islamic State’ terror group. Another pro-IS brigade called the Maute Group allied with the militia, making the battle harder, longer and deadlier. Hostages were oppressed and prisoners from the local jail were freed by the group which took over the city.
Five months on, the fighting resulted in hundreds killed — militants, soldiers and civilians — and left thousands of families homeless and stuck in evacuation centres.
Now, almost three months after Marawi declared liberation, survivors tell their stories of escape, loss and hope. IOM travelled with some of them who are finally returning to what’s left of their homes.
Unfortunately for others who hailed from Marawi’s ground zero, home is just rubble, dust and empty bullet and mortar shells and therefore they are likely to remain indefinitely in evacuation centres.
“Everyone said and thought the fighting will only take a couple of days. So none of us took most of our belongings with us. Turns out, we will be homeless for quite some time. We don’t know how long,” Hassana says while sitting in a cramped evacuation centre in Buru-un, Iligan City which neighbours Marawi.
“For a moment, I thought I was going to die. But we survived. Although, the fight for survival doesn’t stop there. Here, in this evacuation centre, surviving is also a daily struggle,” she adds.
To support her family, Hassana opened a small convenience store at the evacuation centre. Even though most people at the centre don’t always pay for the goods they get at her store, she says she will continue running the store until such time when they can go back home too.
“I froze. I was scared. I can’t believe that these men calling themselves “ISIS” were standing right in front of me. We knew it was time to leave,” Lani says, while trying to hold back tears.
She regrets not bringing her family’s possessions, especially the academic medals that her kids worked so hard for. “They saw the medals burn and melt. Now, they don’t want to go to school anymore. It is also hard for them to excel in their classes because the mode of instruction is the local dialect, Bisaya, and not Maranao, which their old school used for teaching.”
Lani is also in need of treatment for the cyst in her gums. And even though it gets really painful, she says that she’d rather go back home than get herself the medication that she needs.
“My wife and I survived. My two daughters too. Although my daughters are alive, they are really not living,” Sam says, leaving those within earshot puzzled at what he means by that. He has just finished praying at the evacuation centre’s designated praying area and it becomes clear when Sam gives further details about his daughters’ situation.
Two of his daughters are in hospital. The eldest, he says, was bewitched and became unable to walk even before the fighting started in their town. When they brought her to the bustling evacuation centre, a few days after the siege broke out, she became worse and was then sent to a community hospital with the help of the government.
“My eldest really can’t stay in this evacuation centre, so being in the hospital is the best for her and I hope she gets well soon. But just when I thought everything is okay, my youngest daughter started acting strange. We later found out that she had a bad case of mental trauma from the war. She is now also staying in the hospital with her sister. My wife and I visit them every Sunday.”
Despite the series of unfortunate events in his life, Sam remains positive that one day, he will rebuild a home for his family away from the discomfort and noise of the evacuation centre they are in now.
Driving around the areas secured by the military, the word “clear” painted on doors and gates gives some sense of relief and safety. For some families who are returning, the word “clear” on their houses means hope.
After the declaration of Marawi’s liberation on 17 October 2017, IOM is now assisting the authorities to facilitate the return of displaced families to what’s left of their homes. IOM met some of them who have lived in the tent city for months. IOM travelled with them as they returned home.
Saidali and Saima
“We were preparing for Ramadan when the fighting broke out. We didn’t know we would fast and be hungry for real,” Saidali and Saima, parents to six children say, while trying to hold back tears. It is the day that their family is finally returning home. But ‘home’ no longer feels like one.
Looking around what’s left of their house, Saima, the mother, laments how badly their house looks. Important documents, possessions and even a memory of how it looked before can’t be seen anymore.
“I worked as a welder and as a carpenter before. I’m not sure if I can still do that now. The siege has destroyed all my machines and the tools I had are all gone.” Saidali, the father says. “You see how violence destroys lives? This is the reason I will teach my kids to be kind, to be righteous. So that something like this won’t happen again in the future.”
“My daughter was heavily pregnant when the fighting started. We had to walk for hours before we reach the tent city. A few days after our arrival, she gave birth”, Haji Ismael says as he sits on his destroyed living room, with no trace of emotion on his voice.
“Living on the tent city was hard. Everyday, it’s heartbreaking to see my wife cry. She wants to go home and I feel helpless that I can’t do anything. I can’t even go back to fishing, which was my source of income for the the family. We lost everything.”
Despite everything, Haji Ismael is happy that his house is within the area that has been cleared by the military. “When they told me we can go back already, I felt alive again. We’ve waited for months for this to happen”, he shares enthusiastically, with a contained yet infectious smirk on his face.
Like other displaced families who are returning, livelihoods are a priority. “Now it’s time to rebuild. I hope we get support to go back to fishing again. Hopefully, people learned that violence can’t do anything. I really hope they did learn.”
The government of the Philippines, with the support of IOM, the UN Migration Agency and its sub-office in Iligan, have so far facilitated the return of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) back to Marawi.
As of 15 December 2017, 13,820 families have already returned to their places of origin. IOM mobilized vans and distributed food to returning IDPs.
In the months since the crisis began, IOM has provided Alternative Dwelling Spaces (ADS) privacy partitions, multipurpose halls and Camp Coordination and Camp Management (CCCM) welfare desks for evacuation centres.
IOM has also partnered with Maranao People Development Centre (MARADECA), Ecosystems Work for Essential Benefits (EcoWEB) and Mindanao State University-Iligan Institute of Technology (MSU-IIT), to implement the Displacement Tracking Matrix (DTM), IOM’s system which was used to track and monitor the needs, gaps and concerns of more than 87,000 IDPs.
The Marawi response is funded by the United Nations Central Emergency Response Fund (CERF). Once the clearing operations are done in the Main Battle Area and the transitional shelters for families living there are constructed, all the remaining IDPs are expected to return throughout 2018.
A Song for Marawi
As IOM team packs up to leave, little Sahania, 6, approaches with a smile. She wants to sing for everyone. And it is not just any song. It is a song of hope for Marawi that she has learned and heard from other kids.
When she finishes, she is asked what she aspires to be in future. She gives a surprisingly simple yet selfless answer. With a big smile on her face, she says gleefully, “All I want is well-recovered Marawi. That’s all I hope for.”