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Marawi evacuees rally to be allowed to return home for good

MANILA, Philippines (UPDATED) – Marawi residents held a peace rally on Friday, March 30, to call attention to their continued displacement months since the end of the battle with local terrorist groups linked with the Islamic State (ISIS).

They attempted to march toward ground zero – the heart of the battle where most homes were flattened – but they were blocked by security forces.

"Let us go back to Marawi and we will rehabilitate Marawi," read a sign held by a participant.

The military has not allowed residents to go back to ground zero, saying it is not done clearing the area of unexploded ordnance. It's been more than 5 months since the battle ended. (TIMELINE: The 'liberation' of Marawi)

Other residents living outside the battle area have been allowed to go back home. 

The protesters secured a permit from Marawi City Mayor Majul Gandamra on March 26 but he told Rappler he didn’t know they planned to enter ground zero. 

"The sentiment of the general public is not necessarily represented by this group (protesters)," Gandamra said. He urged them to understand the situation on the ground.

The participants apparently wanted to hold Friday prayer inside ground zero. They did not force it when they were blocked from marching on. Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of Joint Task Force Ranao, said the rally was "generally peaceful."

Protesting rehabilitation plans

The peace rally comes two days before residents will be allowed from April 1 to May 10 to temporarily visit their homes inside the ground zero . This was a previous commitment by Task Force Bangon Marawi – the national body responsible for the rehabilitation of the city – to let residents see their homes before the rehabilitation work is launched. 

But the participants also protested rehabiliation plans for the embattled city, including the construction of a 10-hectare new military camp. They said the government should allow the residents to rehabilitate their own homes. 

The protesters called on President Rodrigo Duterte to let the Marawi residents return to their homes. They said they want to be consulted in the rehabilitation plans. 

One sign read: "Give us what is ours." Another read: "Best way to prevent violent extremism is to let the IDPs go back to Marawi."

Gandamra urged them to continue to participate in consultations with the national government. He said proper consultations are being held with the chiefs of barangays inside the battle area. 

Photos of the Friday morning protest were shared by residents, groups, and a few media outlets, like Davao Today, which has a reporter on the ground.

They gathered around 8 am at Barangay Saber in Marawi. They attempted to march toward ground zero, but were reportedly stopped by security forces at the Rapitan Bridge in Barangay Fort. 

A Facebook live video by a local radio reporter showed the participants earlier speaking about their plans to a military officer, who was asking questions about the activity. The dialogue, based on the video, was cordial.

Senator Francis Pangilinan meanwhile supported the call of Marawi's residents to return and rebuild, calling on the government to give the people access to resources "to ease the burden of those whose houses have been flattened or damaged from the fighting."

Said Pangilinan, "The residents should have a voice and stake in the planning stage of rebuilding. They should be allowed to return to ground zero and be given assistance, if not compensation, for the damages to their homes and properties. After all, what we are rebuilding is not simply structures, but lives of the Marawi people."

Marawi City, tagged an Islamic City, has a predominantly Muslim population. The peace rally coincided with the observance of Good Friday, a Christian holiday commemmorating the crucifixation of Jesus Christ.

"As Christians around the country today will commemorate Jesus' walk to Calvary to redeem humanity, our Maranao brothers and sisters will walk in peace to Ground Zero today to redeem Marawi City," read a Facebook post by Bro. Reynaldo Barnido, executive director of Duyog Marawi.

"As far as I can recall, this will be the first time in the history of Emergency Response and DRR in the country where the IDPs are united to protest and change the direction of rebuilding and rehabilitation," Barnido said.  – Rappler.com