AFTER months of suffering in squalid evacuation centres, thousands of Filipino residents have been finally allowed to return to war-devastated Marawi City, including those in the village of Basak Malutlut where clashes first erupted between state forces and the Islamic State-inspired Maute Group.
Although the evacuees were feeling hopeful as they could finally go home, those from Basak Malutlut were also bracing for the worst because their village, unknown then to many of them, served as the hiding place of Isnilon Hapilon, the slain emir of the Islamic State in Southeast Asia.
The initial batch of 4,000 evacuees raring to go home brought heavy traffic at the national highway towards Marawi, only to feel devastated upon their arrival in the village where the war began.
One of them was Abpisa Barese, 63, who left along with her family three days after the war broke out.
The day they went back, they were stunned and cried upon seeing what was left of their home that was almost totally destroyed by the war.
“We’re left with nothing but damaged properties that were beyond use,” she lamented.
Abpisa was at a loss on how to start rebuilding their lives after the siege despite the assurances from the government and foreign donors that they would help the war victims stand up on their feet again.
Military clearing operations are still ongoing in the main battle area and the remaining evacuees are expected to return soon to their homes — or what’s left of them.
The war displaced over 400,000 civilians from Marawi and neighbouring areas, who either sought refuge at various evacuation centres or with their relatives in surrounding localities.
Those whose houses were totally destroyed will be staying at temporary shelters being constructed by the government within Marawi, dubbed as the country’s Islamic city.
On Oct 30, officials from the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM) and Marawi City celebrated the initial return of the evacuees by holding a “People’s Day” at the Marawi city hall.
Different line agencies of the ARMM set up booths in the city hall grounds where they provided various services, while relief goods were distributed to returning Marawi City residents present in the event.
It was also the first time that the Philippine flag was hoisted at the Marawi City hall since the clashes erupted on May 23, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte to place the entire Mindanao under martial law.
“Despite our current situation, let us remember that a new opportunity can and will always present itself even in times of crisis,” said ARMM Governor Mujiv Hataman, addressing thousands of residents and local government employees attending the event.
“This is not the time to blame each other for the things that have happened, but a time for us to work together towards rebuilding and rehabilitation. We must not only express sympathy for each other; we need to exert effort towards helping one another in the long process of healing,” Hataman said.
“We are thankful to everyone who has made this day possible, as we commemorate our symbolic return to where the conflict began, which is now the same place where the revival of our city begins,” Lanao del Sur Provincial Crisis Management Committee spokesman and ARMM assemblyman Zia Alonto Adiong said during the programme.
He noted the flow of traffic was heavy when the initial batch of residents from nine villages was allowed to return starting Sunday.
“It’s the first time in five months to see private vehicles going in and out of Marawi,” Adiong said.
“The usual traffic flow I used to experience along the Marawi-Saguiaran national highway months ago is apparent (now). It’s a good sign.”
For his part, Marawi City Mayor Majul Gandamra recognised the happiness that comes with being home again but “gently reminded” everyone that there is still much more to be done.
He also expressed the local government’s gratitude to those who helped addressed the humanitarian crisis all throughout the deadly siege and for the troopers who sacrificed their lives.
“This event (People’s Day) is meant not only to welcome those who have come home to their barangays. It also serves as a running cry for unity and peace,” the mayor said. Of the 96 villages in Marawi, 51 have been cleared for the return of the displaced civilians as of October 28.
Before the Philippine government declared the war in Marawi over on Oct 23, or exactly five months after clashes erupted between state forces and the IS-inspired Maute Group erupted, only a few private vehicles could be seen going in and out of the city.
Residents had to secure clearances as well as car passes from the military with the prevailing martial law in the city and the rest of Mindanao.
As Marawi residents are now allowed to return home, they no longer need to secure clearance as well as car passes from the military. However, they must be in the master list of the village government or vouched by village officials deployed at the checkpoint so they can enter the city.
The Marawi siege left 165 government troopers, over 45 civilians and 920 terrorists dead, including the Maute brothers who led the carnage, the military said. The government estimated the cost of rebuilding Marawi would exceed PHP50 billion (US$971 million).