NAMRODIN Didato’s family and about 40 others have been languishing at an evacuation center since Islamic State-aligned militants occupied Marawi City on May 23, leaving their lakeside hometown in shambles.
On Monday, Philippine Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana declared the battle in Marawi over, giving Didato and the rest of the hundreds of thousands of evacuees a ray of hope to start a fresh chapter in their disrupted lives.
“I’m happy that soon we can finally go back home,” Didato told Asian Correspondent Tuesday on the phone, thanking the state forces for finally ending the war in Marawi, the center of Islam in the Philippines.
“Rebuilding our lives will be difficult but there’s no other way but to move on,” he added.
Before clashes erupted between government forces and the Maute Group, Didato ran a small farm trading business while his wife Norhaya sold hotcakes and coffee to augment the income of the family consisting of five children, four of whom are still in school.
The big challenge now is how to restart their business due to lack of capital since the months-long war deprived them of their sources of income, Didato said, appealing for whatever financial assistance from generous individuals to help them stand on their feet again.
At their evacuation center in Balo-i township in Lanao del Norte, about 18 kilometers away from Marawi, Didato’s family and the rest have been dependent on rationed food assistance from the government and non-government organizations all those months.
“Life is terrible at the evacuation center. We have no income. We have to sleep in hard and cold pavement,” Norhaya bemoaned.
They have to bear some more time at the evacuation center even after the government declared the fighting over, as Didato revealed that their village chief has yet to issue the greenlight for his constituents to return.
Residents in several areas already cleared by the military have been allowed to go home earlier, with the rest expected to be allowed to return in the next few weeks.
Lorenzana announced the termination of military operations in Marawi during the 11th ASEAN Defense Ministers’ Meeting in Clark, Pampanga north of Metro Manila.
“After 154 days of the Siege of Marawi by the Daesh-inspired Maute ISIS-Group, or after a week since the Commander-in-Chief’s declaration of the liberation of Marawi, we now announce the termination of all combat operations in Marawi,” Lorenzana said.
During his seventh visit to Marawi on Oct 17, Duterte declared the “liberation” of Marawi from the clutches of the Maute Group following the killing of their two top leaders.
He issued the pronouncement a day after military officials confirmed the death of Isnilon Hapilon, the designated emir of Islamic State in Southeast Asia, and Omar Maute, the last of the Maute brothers who led the siege of Marawi.
DNA tests conducted by the United States confirmed the death of Hapilon, who carries a bounty of US$5 million from Washington for his role as leader of the Abu Sayyaf Group notorious for beheading local and foreign captives – including US nationals – who failed to comply with their ransom demands.
After Duterte declared the “liberation,” and up until Lorenzana announced the end of fighting in Marawi, clashes between state forces and the remaining Maute fighters continued.
Troops recovered 42 bodies of the last remnants of the Maute Group on Monday, Lorenzana said.
“The Philippine security forces, aided by its government and massive support of the Filipino people, have nipped the budding terrorism infrastructure and defeated terrorism in the Philippines,” Lorenzana said in announcing the battle is over in Marawi.
“In crushing thus far the most serious attempt to export violent extremism and radicalism in the Philippines and in the region, we have contributed to preventing its spread in Asia and gave our share to maintaining global peace, stability and security,” he added.
Lorenzana admitted, however, that the tactical and strategic gains against the Maute Group will not annihilate the Islamic State ideology completely.
According to him, the achievement is “a clear manifestation of how our regional cooperation can lead to a decisive advance against the proliferation of terrorism in this part of the world.”
“We hope that this operational achievement in Marawi, Philippines will be the catalyst that shall bring to the fore future cooperations and partnerships not only against terrorism but also those that shall defeat other regional and global security threats,” the secretary said.
The government announced an initial allocation of P5 billion (US$97 million) that will be spent until yearend for the rehabilitation of Marawi on the same day that Lorenzana declared the end of fighting there.
Office of Civil Defence Assistant Secretary Kristoffer James Purisima told the televised Mindanao Hour press briefing that a big chunk of the fund would be allotted for relief efforts.
As of the latest count, he said there are more than 72,000 displaced families still housed in evacuation centers as well as those who are home-based.
Purisima added that part of the initial fund would also be used to fund the construction of transitional shelters for those displaced families.
The government earlier estimated the cost of rebuilding Marawi would exceed P50 billion (US$971 million).
Felino “Jun” Palafox, Jr., a noted Filipino architect whom the government consulted for the rehabilitation of Marawi, suggested that ground zero be preserved and build new and expansion cities around it.
“The schools, hospitals, and places of worships and other institutions should be rebuilt. But a portion of the ruins should be preserved as a reminder of what terrorism can do,” he wrote in a column at The Manila Times.
“It can be designed like Hiroshima and Nagasaki wherein thousands of tourists flock to the site (to) be reminded of the devastating effect of nuclear war. When I was there a few months ago for my birthday, I saw how the tourists felt engaged with the memorial,” he added.
Palafox also pushed the involvement of the locals in the planning and development of their embattled city to address cultural sensitivities.
For Namrodin Didato and his wife Norhaya, they welcomed the local involvement in the rehabilitation of their ruined city.
“But before anything else, first give us livelihood,” said Didato, adding he will accept whatever available job so they will not starve as they begin charting their new lives.