TENS of thousands of civilians displaced by the Marawi crisis continue to languish in evacuation sites 100 days from the start of the conflict that saw Islamic militants lay siege to the Philippines’ only Islamic city on May 23.
Despite the difficult conditions and repeated requests to leave the refugee centres, people will likely have to endure prolonged suffering as the planned relocation sites still remain a skeleton, with no time frame given for their completion.
State forces are also still painstakingly clearing buildings and houses from booby traps and unexploded ordnances (UXOs) in areas retaken from the hands of the Islamic State-inspired Maute Group, another factor that may prolong the return of the refugees to the war zone and its peripheries.
On Monday, the military claimed the fighting with the Maute Group has been contained “in about 400m to 600m” amid the ongoing clearing operations in the besieged city.
“We are expecting the situation ‘to normalize’ in two to three weeks,” Lt. General Carlito Galvez Jr., commander of the Western Mindanao Command, told reporters at the Marawi provincial capitol on Monday.
“The terrorists are running out of ammunition and food and many have been wounded, about 20 of them,” he added.
According to Galvez, the “morale of the remaining” Maute fighters is sagging because their “world is getting smaller” and due to the death of the Maute patriarch.
Cayamora Maute, the father of the Maute brothers leading the Marawi siege, died of illness on Sunday while in government custody in Manila.
Around 40 Maute fighters continue to stand their ground against the military offensives that have cost the government at least PHP3 billion (around US$59 million). The terrorists are believed to be holding over two dozens hostages, including a Catholic priest.
Over 400,000 civilians have been displaced by the conflict in Marawi, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte to place the entire Mindanao island under martial law. Ninety percent of the displaced people are staying with their relatives or the so-called “home-based” evacuees.
Galvez said state forces had yet to clear over 300 buildings and houses in villages affected by the conflict.
“We are conducting a thorough clearing operation because we believe there are still many booby traps and UXOs left by the terrorists,” the official said, admitting the Philippines military lacks the expertise to sweep these unexploded bombs.
Owing to this, the military general revealed plans to seek the help of foreign countries for the systematic clearing of the UXOs.
Government forces have so far recovered at least 1,270 improvised explosive devices and UXOs in the different structures in the main battle area, he said.
As the crisis wears on, despair is growing among the displaced people, with many home-based evacuees claiming they don’t receive regular relief goods from the government and aid agencies.
Amrodin Macmod, whose family is staying with relatives in Pantar township near Marawi, bewailed the continuing war in the city for the hardship that they have to endure.
“We have not been receiving regular food supplies for two months now,” he told Asian Correspondent, stressing there are around 490 home-based evacuees in the village where they fled for safety.
“We are starving. I hope this war will end soon so we could start fresh lives.”
Macmod, a fruit trader, lamented the war deprived him of his livelihood.
“I have no more money to support my family. We have been here for over three months. We are depending on relief goods that scarcely come to us,” he bemoaned.
Franciscan missionaries who have been reaching out to thousands of individuals displaced by the Marawi crisis also confirmed that home-based evacuees seldom receive relief assistance, especially those in remote places.
Franciscans One With Marawi coordinator Reverend Elton Viagedor said donations had been waning unlike in the early days of the displacement.
“We are appealing for more donations to help the evacuees in remote areas seldom reached by the government and aid agencies. People are starving due to lack of relief assistance,” he told Asian Correspondent.
The Fransciscan mission has been assisting six evacuation centres and home-based refugees involving nearly 5,700 families in remote places in Saguiaran, Balo-i and Pantao Ragat towns in Lanao del Norte province, areas close to Marawi.
The mission provides each family with rice, noodles, dried fish, milk, coffee, toiletries and sweet potatoes good for a week, Viagedor said.
The donations came from Franciscan communities in the Philippines and foreign countries such as Japan, Korea and Malta, said Father Daniel Borromeo, administrator of the San Vicente Ferrer quasi-parish in Balo-i town.
“Some of our missions conducted second collections after Eucharistic celebrations particularly to help the victims of the Marawi crisis,” the priest said.
Borromeo hoped that the war will be over soon so that the evacuees can return to their communities in Marawi and begin to rebuild their lives.
Rama Madaya, a tricycle driver in Marawi who is now seeking refuge at a relative’s home, wished the same.
“We have been here for over three months. Life is very difficult. I have no work to support my family. I pray that the war will be over,” the father of four children told Asian Correspondent.
However, even if the war were to end tomorrow, those evacuees who lost their homes in the conflict would still have to wait for temporary shelter as the relocation site in Marawi’s Sagonsongan village is still in the groundwork phase. The completion date remains uncertain.
Joint Task Group Ranao deputy commander Col. Romeo Brawner said the construction of the temporary shelters had been suspended for two weeks because of stray bullets in the area.
“Last week, army engineers returned to start the ground works,” he said, declining to give a time frame for the completion of the shelters.
The 11ha relocation site is divided into five areas that will accommodate 1,000 houses each. Each area will have communal kitchens, comfort rooms and washing areas.
Meanwhile, the military said the Catholic priest held hostage by the Maute Group is alive.
Father Teresito Soganub was taken along with several others from the Catholic church, which the military recaptured on Aug 25 – day 95 of the Marawi crisis – according to General Galvez.