Marawi, af­ter the firestorm

The Philip­pines is bat­tling to re­build the city and wipe out sleeper cells

The Weekend Australian - - INQUIRER - AMANDA HODGE

On Wed­nes­day this week, Re­vie Sani, a lo­cal karate cham­pion, buried 38 uniden­ti­fied bod­ies in a ceme­tery near Marawi City’s ground zero, the for­mer cen­tral busi­ness district razed to the ground in a five-month bat­tle by Is­lamic State mil­i­tants to es­tab­lish a caliphate in the south­ern Philip­pines. As his team was lay­ing those re­mains to rest, an­other was pulling 37 bod­ies from the rub­ble of the ru­ined city, among them twom­onth-old and seven-month-old in­fants. Op­er­a­tions chief for the city’s newly es­tab­lished man­age­ment of dead and miss­ing com­mit­tee, Sani has over­seen the burial of 202 bod­ies, all of­fi­cially un­claimed.

Re­cov­er­ing and iden­ti­fy­ing the more than 1100 ca­su­al­ties of this con­flict, po­lice, soldiers, civil­ians, but mostly mil­i­tants, is just one mam­moth task in the al­most in­con­ceiv­able ef­fort re­quired to re­build the once pros­per­ous and vi­brant Is­lamic City of Min­danao prov­ince. Of­fi­cials will not re­lease the dead to loved ones with­out a DNA match, but the process is tak­ing so long that de­com­pos­ing bod­ies are be­ing buried by the dozens in num­bered graves as lab­o­ra­to­ries plough through DNA sam­ples look­ing for matches.

At his green and white fu­neral home in neigh­bour­ing Ili­gan City, 37km away from a con­flict that brought the Is­lamic State threat to South­east Asia’s door­way, Dani­lan Capin has doc­u­mented and pre­pared for burial 238 bod­ies since the start of the con­flict in late May. Many were sus­pected mil­i­tants and just 10 have been claimed, though not for lack of ef­fort by some de­ter­mined fam­i­lies who have turned up reg­u­larly at the fu­neral home to wait for news and pray for their dead.

Even the In­ter­na­tional Com­mit­tee of the Red Cross, whose job it is to record the names of the miss­ing, says so far it has reg­is­tered just 80 fam­i­lies search­ing for loved ones. The prob­lem is not just that the DNA process is tak­ing too long for those who come for­ward to claim the bod­ies of loved ones, though that is cer­tainly the case. Those who have given DNA sam­ples in re­cent weeks have been told not to ex­pect a re­sult be­fore next year. Amid the fear and height­ened sus­pi­cion, of and within the dis- placed mostly Mus­lim Maranao com­mu­nity, few griev­ing fam­i­lies of militant fight­ers are will­ing to risk the in­evitable in­ter­ro­ga­tion and pos­si­ble brand­ing as a sup­porter of Is­lamic State, also known as ISIS, by com­ing for­ward.

“This is one of the big prob­lems we face; no one is claim­ing,” says Sani when we meet at his fam­ily’s ran­sacked home less than 2km from the main bat­tle area.

“Some are too scared to come for­ward. Some are send­ing us pri­vate mes­sages ask­ing us to find their rel­a­tive. They say, ‘This is what he was wear­ing the last time we saw him. This is what his face looks like’ … But we have to tell them we can’t give them the an­swers be­cause we are not crime lab of­fi­cials. We are hope­ful that one day peo­ple will come for­ward to claim their rel­a­tives.”

Pres­i­dent Ro­drigo Duterte was quick to de­clare Marawi City lib­er­ated last month, fol­low­ing the con­firmed deaths of Is­lamic State’s South­east Asia emir Is­nilon Hapi­lon and lo­cal militant leader Omarkhayam Maute, one of seven broth­ers in the group, but life has been slow to re­turn to this rav­aged city.

Its eerily quiet streets are pop­u­lated mostly by mil­i­tary and emer­gency ser­vices per­son­nel and ema­ci­ated dogs. Graf­fi­tied doors and walls point a path to­wards the city’s main bat­tle area, where author­i­ties be­lieve up to 700 bod­ies may still be buried in the rub­ble, even as strag­glers con­tinue to emerge from the ru­ins in hope­less last stands against se­cu­rity forces.

Just 25,000 civil­ians of an es­ti­mated 250,000-strong pop­u­la­tion so far have been al­lowed to re­turn to cleared neigh­bour­hoods, ev­ery one of them to houses and busi­nesses ran­sacked and looted.

More res­i­dents may re­turn by the end of this month, says Colonel Romeo Brawner, the deputy com­man­der of the Philip­pine mil­i­tary’s Joint Task­force Ranao. In those ar­eas each house has been marked “PNP and AFP Cleared”, re­fer­ring to the Philip­pine Na­tional Po­lice and Armed Forces of the Philip­pines se­cur­ing the city.

But the closer you get to the cen­tral busi­ness district, the more vis­i­ble are the signs of Maute sup­port. Scrawled in candy-pink paint on the side of one mini-van, left hot-wired and trashed in the carpark of a four-storey health cen­tre, is “Maute ISIS, Never Sur­ren­der”. The mes­sage is fin­ished with a love heart flour­ish.

On the walls of one build­ing, which served as a dor­mi­tory for Is­lamic State fight­ers be­fore the mil­i­tary pushed them across the Agus bridge and into the closely built CBD, a red “ISIS” has been spray-painted over a neatly penned mes­sage that reads “Bet­ter luck next time”.

While thou­sands of evac­uees will leave rental ac­com­mo­da­tion, rel­a­tives’ homes and crowded evac­u­a­tion cen­tres in com­ing weeks to re­pop­u­late Marawi, those with busi­nesses and homes in the vast ru­ins of ground zero will not be re­turn­ing any­time soon. Per­haps they never will.

“I don’t think they can go back be­cause it’s re­ally not in­hab­it­able,” Brawner says from the mil­i­tary’s tem­po­rary head­quar­ters at the Marawi mu­nic­i­pal govern­ment’s com­plex. “Plus there are plenty of dis­eases in there. We’ve had 1000 soldiers sick with dengue, malaria, lep­tospiro­sis, vi­ral in­fec­tions.”

Not a sin­gle build­ing was left un­scarred by weeks of ar­tillery bomb­ings by mil­i­tary forces, fol­lowed by a ground cam­paign that forced both sides into house-to­house com­bat. It will take months, if not years, for anti-ex­plo­sives teams to root out the im­pro­vised ex­plo­sive de­vices planted across the for­mer bat­tle zone.

Twelve ter­ror­ist strag­glers were killed in ground zero this week de­spite down­scaled op­er­a­tions, af­ter most mil­i­tary units were re­called to Manila to guard next week’s As­so­ci­a­tion of South­east Asian Na­tions 50th an­niver­sary sum­mit and East Asia Sum­mit that Malcolm Turn­bull will at­tend along­side US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and Chi­nese Premier Li Ke­qiang.

Brawner dis­misses crit­i­cisms that Duterte’s vic­tory dec­la­ra­tion was pre­ma­ture, point­ing to sim­i­lar mop-up op­er­a­tions at the end of World War II af­ter US gen­eral Dou­glas MacArthur’s dec­la­ra­tion of vic­tory in The Philip­pines. But he ac­knowl­edges the low civil­ian death toll, 47 since the first days of the siege, al­most cer­tainly will rise as teams comb the rub­ble of cen­tral Marawi.

“I don’t think we are ever go­ing to get an ac­cu­rate fig­ure given the level of de­struc­tion and time it has taken to end the bat­tle,” he says.

In the days lead­ing up to May 23, when 500 Is­lamic Statelinked mil­i­tants from the lo­cal Abu Sayyaf and Maute militant groups seized the city hop­ing to es­tab­lish South­east Asia’s first caliphate, Marawi bris­tled with ru­mours of an im­mi­nent at­tack.

The Maranaos, a largely Mus­lim pop­u­la­tion famed for high lev­els of ed­u­ca­tion, rel­a­tive wealth and marata­bat, which trans­lates roughly as ex­treme pride, took lit­tle no­tice. Many have told In­quirer they be­lieved any at­tack would last three days to a week. That was ap­par­ently ac­cept­able in a city where rido, clan feuds char­ac­terised by re­tal­ia­tory vi­o­lence, is preva­lent.

No one ex­pected such a pro­longed siege, least of all the ter­ror- ists, it seems. Doc­u­ments and videos re­trieved from var­i­ous militant com­mand posts around the city sug­gest the Maute Group com­man­ders and Abu Sayyaf leader Hapi­lon had an­tic­i­pated a quick vic­tory in Marawi, aided by the sup­port of a pop­u­la­tion they had cal­cu­lated (wrongly) would be sym­pa­thetic to their cause.

“In the videos from their plan­ning ses­sions, they were plan­ning to con­trol Marawi City in a mat­ter of days and then at­tack Ili­gan City and Ca­gayan de Oro. This was not the end. They wanted to es­tab­lish a caliphate and they were build­ing a war ch­est to do it,” says Brawner. “We have no idea how much they looted out of Marawi City but there are sev­eral banks in the main bat­tle area and they were all emp­tied.”

This week troops re­cov­ered 800,000 pe­sos ($54,500) stashed in one build­ing; a few weeks back 300,000 pe­sos and a big bag of gold jew­ellery. In June, 52 mil­lion pe­sos in cash was re­cov­ered from the house of Maute sym­pa­this­ers.

Marawi was a loot­ers’ par­adise thanks to the Maranaos’ well­known aver­sion to banks, but given the scale of the sack­ing across the city the big ques­tion is: Who did the loot­ing? A num­ber of re­turn­ing res­i­dents have pointed the fin­ger at the mil­i­tary, adding that to their list of griev­ances against a force widely blamed for flat­ten­ing the city.

Loot­ers did not spare Sani’s fam­ily home, even though his fa­ther is one of the city’s best-known vet­eran guerilla fight­ers and now vice-chair­man of mil­i­tary af­fairs for the Moro Na­tional Lib­er­a­tion Front. Punduma Sani helped launched the MNLF’s armed strug­gle for land rights and au­ton­omy in Mus­lim Min­danao in 1972 with a sep­a­ratist in­sur­gency that has since spawned dozens of off­shoots, each one more rad­i­cal and vi­o­lent than the last.

The ex­tended Sani fam­ily re­turned to their home above a bank of shops this week to find it in tur­moil: clothes and be­long­ings ev­ery­where, fur­ni­ture de­stroyed, lap­tops and elec­tri­cal goods gone, along with 1.5 mil­lion pe­sos stolen from a jem­mied safe. Even so, they recog­nise they are the lucky ones. No fam­ily mem­bers died and they still have a roof over their heads.

Count­less oth­ers lost ev­ery­thing, says Punduma Sani, among them most of the city’s traders, who now face steep monthly pay­ments on busi­ness loans they have no way of ser­vic­ing.

“If we are hurt­ing, many oth­ers are even un­luck­ier,” he says.

Still, like his son, he is an­gry at the mil­i­tary for not pro­tect­ing peo­ple’s homes and be­long­ings.

“My ex­pe­ri­ence in 1972 was we al­ways fought in the jun­gle; we didn’t fight in our kitchens. Peo­ple are now sym­pa­this­ing with the Mautes and this is a prob­lem. The mil­i­tary were not able to pro­tect us. They did not pro­tect our prop­erty, which they are obliged to do by our con­sti­tu­tion.”

Brawner un­der­stands the anger, but says with­out heavy ar­tillery “we would still be fight­ing Maute, and we might not even be close to the end”. He will con­cede, too, there was some early loot­ing by soldiers and that oth­ers req­ui­si­tioned ap­pli­ances from houses to use dur­ing the siege. Ev­i­dence of that is stock­piled in the foyer of Joint Task­force Ranao HQ, where pedestal fans, tele­vi­sions, stereos, com­put­ers and even ex­er­cise bikes are wait­ing to be claimed. But re­spon­si­bil­ity for the plun­der­ing of Marawi lies with pro­fes­sional loot­ers, and more squarely with the ter­ror­ists, he says.

Rom­mel Ban­laoi from the Philip­pine In­sti­tute for Peace, Vi­o­lence and Ter­ror­ism Re­search be­lieves much of the city’s wealth, and a good num­ber of its many guns, was se­creted out of the city by es­cap­ing mil­i­tants.

“We don’t know the ex­act num­ber of mil­i­tants that es­caped but I can say sig­nif­i­cant num­bers, sig­nif­i­cant enough that they can mount ter­ror at­tacks.”

Can­berra up­dated its Philip­pines travel ad­vi­sory last week, cau­tion­ing Aus­tralians against trav­el­ling to west­ern and cen­tral Min­danao and to “ex­er­cise a high de­gree of cau­tion” in the rest of the coun­try be­cause of the threat of ter­ror­ist at­tacks and high crime lev­els. Ban­laoi says the ad­vice is “pru­dent”, not­with­stand­ing a gov- ern­ment and me­dia back­lash. He says at least one of the Mautes is alive and hiding with other ter­ror­ist es­capees “some­where in Min­danao”, de­spite mil­i­tary as­sur­ances all seven of the highly ed­u­cated Maute broth­ers be­hind the siege were killed, and that fresh Is­lamic State re­cruit­ment is oc­cur­ring.

“Sleeper cells are ev­ery­where in The Philip­pines, made up of both nat­u­ral-born Mus­lims and con­verts rad­i­calised by fight­ers. The sit­u­a­tion in Min­danao is re­ally very com­pli­cated be­cause of on­go­ing pro-ISIS ac­tiv­i­ties in ar­eas where they con­tinue to re­cruit fight­ers for Is­lamic State.”

With the en­cour­age­ment of the Is­lamic State leadership, Ban­laoi says, four main pro-Is­lamic State groups in The Philip­pines — Bangsamoro Is­lamic Free­dom Fight­ers, Hapi­lon’s Abu Sayyaf Group fac­tion, Khi­lafah Is­lamiyah Min­danao and An­sarul Khi­lafah Philip­pines — are work­ing to unify. Dec­i­mated by the loss of its de­facto Iraq and Syr­ian cap­i­tals of Raqqa and Mo­sul, Is­lamic State is des­per­ate for new bases and sees Min­danao, a prov­ince racked by a decades-long in­sur­gency and in­ter­sect­ing Is­lamic militant groups, as a per­fect can­di­date.

That prospect prompted The Philip­pines’ al­lies and neigh­bours — Aus­tralia, the US, Sin­ga­pore, Malaysia and In­done­sia in­cluded — to of­fer mil­i­tary in­tel­li­gence and sur­veil­lance help dur­ing the re­cent con­flict. Aus­tralia sent two P3 Orion sur­veil­lance air­craft in June and has de­ployed 80 mil­i­tary train­ers to help Philip­pine se­cu­rity forces sharpen ur­ban war­fare skills to pre­vent the spread of ter­ror­ism from its vul­ner­a­ble south.

Brawner says it is the mil­i­tary’s job, as part of the re­ha­bil­i­ta­tion ef­fort, to stop the new re­cruit­ment it knows is oc­cur­ring, in par­tic­u­lar among the fam­i­lies of those who died in the fight­ing. It must en­sure all 350,000-plus evac­uees are looked af­ter, that the city is re­built as quickly as pos­si­ble and that all lev­els of govern­ment work to pro­vide es­sen­tial ser­vices.

“We know ISIS re­cruit­ment is still go­ing on, though we don’t know the ex­tent,” he says.

Just as they did in the years lead­ing up to the May siege, Is­lamic State re­cruiters are again of­fer­ing a sign-up purse of 30,000 pe­sos, with the prom­ise of more once they join a bat­tle­front. Re­venge groups are also crop­ping up. The so-called Maranao Victims Move­ment has re­leased a video threat­en­ing to wage war against the govern­ment and Is­lamic State for the death and de­struc­tion wrought in Marawi.

Faced with the prospect of fresh vi­o­lence, pro­vin­cial may­ors in Lanao del Sur, of which Marawi is the cap­i­tal and eco­nomic heart, have asked the mil­i­tary to arm a civil­ian force so they may fight any fu­ture en­emy.

“We said no, though we have au­tho­rised a mil­i­tary aux­il­iary force (Dad’s Army) that we can help or­gan­ise and closely su­per­vise,” says Brawner.

He is de­ter­mined Marawi’s no­to­ri­ous gun cul­ture will not sur­vive the city’s re­build and is en­forc­ing a gun ban for all re­turn­ing res­i­dents, aided by the likely ex­ten­sion next month of the Min­danao-wide mar­tial law. “Be­fore, politi­cians would come in ac­com­pa­nied by sev­eral pick-up trucks of armed se­cu­rity dis­play­ing their weapons,” he says. High school stu­dents roamed cor­ri­dors with ob­vi­ous gun hol­sters at their hips.

With­out the gun ban, Brawner says, fur­ther vi­o­lence is as­sured.

“Be­cause it is not just rido, it’s also pol­i­tics, some­times ban­ditry. It’s very real and it’s very com­pli­cated.”

‘Peo­ple are now sym­pa­this­ing with the Mautes and this is a prob­lem’


Clock­wise from above, Pen­doma Sani’s home was looted dur­ing the siege; most of Marawi is closed to civil­ians, who re­main in evac­u­a­tion cen­tres

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