The battle for Marawi has been raging since May 23. The Islamic city’s more than 200,000 inhabitants were ordered to leave; there were those who were still trapped, including hostages. They thought it was going to be the same old fight among rival clans and that it would take three days at most and they could go back to their normal lives again. It turned into a wider battle that had never before happened in the recent history of Muslim Mindanao, not since the burning of Jolo in 1974. Early this week the military announced that Isnilon Hapilon, the leader of the pro-ISIS militants, was killed. It could mean the end of the fighting, but there's more that has to be done to gain peace in Mindanao.
One hour: That was all they had to get their things and then get back out.
Her aunt was heard wailing. She’d been denied her request; her house was in a neighborhood not safe enough. She dropped to the floor, begging the officer in charge. Please let me see my house. Just let me see it. Every day families who came here had only that wish. If only they could see it again. If only they could retrieve what were precious. Pictures. Heirloom. Graduation diplomas. Documents.
When Rasmiah and her family reached their home, they stood by the gate, held each other’s hands, and sobbed. The gate was barged open. The house was ransacked and looted, but it was unscathed by gunfire and bombing. It is one of the few odd, ancestral houses squeezed in the density of modern concrete ones, some that were plain and functional, others fancy and garish. Rasmiah said it was built more than a hundred years ago by her great-great-grandmother, who must have lived through the grandeur of Marawi’s past.
The house stood by the western flank of Lake Lanao, in the village of Toros. There was a mosque behind it, and above the dome up in the sky two jets roared. The sight of a bomb falling from one of the planes transfixed us.
One heap after another, Rasmiah threw blankets and clothes from the second-floor balcony to the patio below. The looters had taken their antique gold coins and brassware. The cupboards, their wardrobe, every drawer and cabinet in the house was spilled open. The street in the village was deserted; the fighting was so close by, there across the lake where the central mosque stood. Machineguns and rifles rattled. Bombs blasted and exploded. Bullets whistled.
Hurry up! The military escorts summoned them. Let’s make it fast. The borrowed Hilux pickup was filled to the brim with the family’s belongings. Rasmiah’s mother gave the house one last look. How could she have known that on the day she went shopping for food in preparation for the month-long fast of Ramadan in Iligan City about 35 kilometers down by the zigzag road, the Islamist militants would fire the first shots. The radical Maute brothers whose bailiwick was a town below the lake had been dreaming of the day when Marawi would become a wilayat, to be with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria.
Some houses and shops were spray painted CLEAR. That meant the police and the military had done their rounds. By the second month of fighting, the military was able to claim control of neighborhood villages north and west of the river that divided the city, although it didn’t mean that it was safe. It pushed the enemy down past the bridges-– which were the frontlines–the fighting isolated the remaining neighborhoods where the jihadists held their ground.
Through a sniper’s hole, I could see smoke billowing from the firefight. It was raining steadily in mid-August, and the smoke hovered like mist. From my view, a pink warehouse building had been rendered a skeletonized hulk by blasts. Others structures had been blackened and ruined. A few houses had lost roofs, walls and were pockmarked with god knows how many rounds of ammunition. The destruction was unimaginable.
Up close, the central mosque, which had taken more than a decade to build, Marawi’s culminating place of worship before the nouveau riches built their private mosques, veiled by the haze of gunfire and rain. There was an enemy sniper on the minaret. They’re good, some officers had told me of the Islamist fighters. They’re very good.
They’d trained well, borrowing tactics from the fight in Mosul in Iraq, where the ISIS was losing control and had called on their fighters elsewhere to join the Maute group in Marawi.
The army sniper lay on a single-bed mattress on the floor. Flat on his stomach, his rifle propped on a pillow, its nozzle poking through the hole. The bed sheet smelled of talcum powder; I wondered if the appropriated mattress had belonged to the girl whose picture was in a frame sitting on a side table. We were on the third storey of a house that was typical of a middle-class Maranao family. Any of the houses could have in their storage guns, bullets, jewelry, cash. The city lived by its rules, and it was the power of guns that made them the “untouchables” under years of warlord governance.
Outside the drizzle was hypnotizing. A silver fancy kettle – similar to one that I had seen in weddings and funerals – was boiling water on a burner. The commander wanted an afternoon drink to perk him up. Seated on a brown velour couch at the end of the room, we sipped hot Milo chocolate and chatted about anything. His mug was Donald Duck. Mine was Ninoy and Cory Aquino on a five hundred-peso bill. We strung our candid words and thoughts that raised more questions about the future of our country.
We sat there for the length of the rainy afternoon, as if the host to which the house belonged had left us to our whimsical tea party. The thing about this house was that the family who might come back could still rebuild their lives within the four walls and patch up the holes made by the snipers; or they might come back to see that soldiers who did the fighting from their house would leave an imprint in the story of Marawi.
The army sniper aimed and fired. Two successive shots, followed by a third after a pause. We cupped our ears. The rain petered out and a fresh round of ammunition was fired on a target right past the bridge that I could see from another sniper’s hole, just by the side of the couch. This hole had a foreground view of a dead leafless tree as big as an acacia, bald and bare where birds, strangely, had flocked. The gunshots trailed in the background of our conversation.
Out there on the frontline, it was going to be a much longer day, the firefight raised to a pitch until nightfall. I thought about the young soldiers I met the previous day taking a short break from the battle, each one sharing war stories. They were out there right now.
A captain from the Light Reaction Regiment said it was like being in an office schedule, planning first thing in the morning and trying to get some rest in the few hours of the night. Each day they decide which building to attack. It’s not like what you see in the movies, he said. You don’t see the enemy.
A corporal who was a sniper himself was impressed by his counterpart who could shoot straight between two holes of a house measuring about fifty or sixty square meters. They knew their Tactics, Techniques and Procedures, he said. This was not the New People’s Army, not even the Abu Sayyaf in his previous encounters. They would hold their ground. He was training in the jungle of Sulu when his Scout Ranger unit was deployed to Marawi, where he’d rather walk while in operation than ride the army truck.
A Special Forces lieutenant had this war for a test mission, a leader of his course class he named Vishnu. He was the very first vegetarian soldier I had ever met. He was a year shy of thirty and was a big fan of the actress Anne Curtis. For him, being in Marawi was an honor, a source of prestige. Bombs had dropped so close to him but had miraculously turned out to be duds.
The commander took me to other houses in the neighborhood of Raya Saduc, where pastry shops seemed to have been the favored type of business (and pawnshops too). The Corner Cake was one. And there was Maika’s Café & Cakeshoppe. There was also a bookstore that was supposed to have opened on the day of Ramadan. The rebels were fond of graffiti: MARAWI IS FOR ISIS ONLY was sprayed on a red-orange. The commander led me through doors and corridors and gaping holes, up steps and down, and up to a roof to see the flattened rubble on the other side of the river. We crisscrossed three houses to make it to the top, ducking and running for cover to a spot that had a view of the fighting.
On the streets of Raya Saduc, armored personnel carriers stood by, all covered with wood planks and coconut lumber, a bizarre improvisation for the mechanized infantry. Apparently in the course of the fighting it was discovered that the wood dispersed the impact of anti-tank rounds on the armor itself, especially those coming from the rocket-propelled grenades. Thus using wood as armor to armor, who would have thought of that?
The troops were painting them camouflage. Each of the armored vehicles had a name, either in honor of a general they fought with or a place they fought in. Sidled up in the ghost streets, they looked like Mad Max preparing for a convoy. One had scrawled on its front, PSALM 91. “The Lord is their defender and protector,” the Bible said. This was not a message of sectarianism; it was a question of life and death in this incomprehensible battle for Marawi.
The Islamic militants had children in their army, whom they had brainwashed in a boardinghouse school called the toril. Rasmiah had told me horror stories of parents losing their children to the Maute’s jihad. We studied Islam but never like that, she said. We don’t believe the Islamic way of ISIS.
The militants sought refuge in the central mosque as their base for the battles. After more than one hundred days of fighting, the military re-took it. The houses around it lay in rubble, crushed to the ground, unrecognizable. Daily air strikes avoided the mosque-– that was the order. The harrowing bombardment had flattened a great deal of the city below the river. But not the central mosque. Never the mosque. It was the only symbol that could make Marawi rise again.
Criselda Yabes is the author of "Below the Crying Mountain" set in the rebellion of the 1970s in the south. It won the UP Centennial Literary Prize in 2008 and was nominated for the Man Asian Prize in 2010. She is currently based in Manila.
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