Marawi, 3 years on: 120,000 still displaced, now vulnerable to COVID-19

JC Gotinga

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Marawi, 3 years on: 120,000 still displaced, now vulnerable to COVID-19
The 5-month battle in 2017 left Marawi City's central district in ruins. Three years on, it is still a rubble and remains off-limits to residents.

MANILA, Philippines – Three years since gun-toting terrorists besieged the city of Marawi in Lanao del Sur, more than 120,000 residents are still displaced from their homes, leaving them vulnerable to the coronavirus pandemic.

Citing figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, civil society leaders of Marawi’s ethnic Maranao people said on Friday, May 23, that as of April, 25,355 families or 126,775 individuals still live as evacuees in the outskirts of the city and in different parts of the Lanao provinces.

Many evacuees live in clumps of temporary shelters, where physical distancing and strict personal hygiene are difficult to practice.

“The evacuees are highly vulnerable especially now that we have a global health crisis. Additionally, many internally displaced persons (IDP) migrated to the National Capital Region and other parts of the country. This multiple displacement aggravated by the government’s delayed clearing operations have deprived the evacuees of much needed income for survival,” the Marawi civic leaders said in a media statement.

Since government forces retook Marawi from the ISIS-linked Maute terror group in October 2017, efforts to clear the city’s once-bustling commercial hub have been plodding. (READ: Robredo urges gov’t to end ‘3 years of inaction and neglect in Marawi’)

The military has kept the “most affected area” (MAA) off limits to residents and outsiders, saying the ground is laden with unexploded ordnances from the 5-month battle.

Meanwhile, the national government has shuffled reconstruction plans and project contractors, and has mostly failed to satisfy residents with explanations for the delay in the city’s rehabilitation.

Peculiarities in the Maranao’s way of reckoning land ownership go against the grain of the national government’s plans, which include the establishment of a new military base on a significant portion of what used to be homes and commercial establishments, now in ruin.

Maranao civic leaders have railed against the government’s Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBM) in charge of the rebuilding effort.

“They have a consistent supply of excuses during our dialogues with them as to why until now we can’t finally go home. It has been 3 years of waiting in vain. Our demand is simple: safe, dignified, and unconditional return to the MAA in Marawi City by the IDPs including those in diaspora nationwide,” said Amenodin Cali of the Kalimudan sa Ranao Foundation.

“This is overkill and superfluous. TFBM should open the MAA the soonest, prioritize shelter reconstruction with less conditionalities, and not wait for the completion of large-scale infrastructures. Allow us to live the ‘new normal’ in Dansalan (Marawi), our place of origin,” said Maranao civic leader Samira Gutoc, who ran for senator in 2019 under the opposition slate.

‘Inroads’ by the administration

“The Duterte administration has already made inroads in relocating internally displaced persons and building the key infrastructures of Marawi,” said Presidential Spokesperson Harry Roque in a statement on Saturday, the anniversary of the 2017 siege of the city.

Some 4,866 transitional shelters have been “programmed” by the National Housing Authority, Roque said, of which 2,911 have been occupied as of January.

“The remaining balance of housing units are in different stages of completion and it is expected that they will be finished before yearend,” Roque said.

The government also plans to build 3,580 permanent shelters to be completed in the first quarter of 2021. Of these, 165 are already occupied, Roque added.

“The reconstruction of Mapandi Bridge, the center of the initial clashes, is now 100% complete,” he said.

Bangsamoro expectations

Marawi City and the rest of Lanao del Sur province is part of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM), established in early 2019 to replace the previous autonomous administration largely seen as having failed to quell violence in the Moro homeland.

In a statement on Saturday, BARMM Chief Minister Al Haj Murad Ebrahim “acknowledged” that efforts to rehabilitate Marawi “are far from over.”

“I would like to assure our Maranao brothers and sisters that the Government of the Day remains committed in helping to rebuild Marawi City, and that we have not forgotten our promise to find a way in bringing its residents back home,” Murad said.

‘Today, we grieve’

Some BARMM members of parliament (MP) criticized the national government’s tack on Marawi, and reiterated calls to replace the TFBM’s leadership.

“With rehabilitation taking this long, we can only ask: what has the government done in the past 3 years? Why are we still not allowed to return? Why is the government unable to facilitate our return? Where are the funds allotted for the rehabilitation?” BARMM MP Marjanie Mimbantas said in a statement.

Mimbantas called for a “reorganization” of the TFBM. “It is the right time to place someone who knows the sentiments and needs of the IDPs to lead the team – someone who is an IDP,” he added.

The TFBM is currently headed by Secretary Eduardo del Rosario, a former military general who is also the government’s housing chief.

BARMM MP Anna Tarhata Basman, vice chair of the transition authority’s committee on Marawi, said the regional government would support the national government’s rehabilitation efforts “in a manner that puts the real needs and sentiments of IDPs first.”

“Today, we grieve. We remember whom we lost and what was taken from us 3 years ago. But today we also look forward to a more prosperous, more peaceful, and more hopeful future. We pray with you, for the sake of our sisters and brothers, that it comes sooner rather than later,” Basman said. –

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JC Gotinga

JC Gotinga often reports about the West Philippine Sea, the communist insurgency, and terrorism as he covers national defense and security for Rappler. He enjoys telling stories about his hometown, Pasig City. JC has worked with Al Jazeera, CNN Philippines, News5, and CBN Asia.