Marawi, after the firestorm
The Philippines is battling to rebuild the city and wipe out sleeper cells
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’
PUNDUMA SANI VICE-CHAIRMAN OF MILITARY AFFAIRS FOR THE MORO NATIONAL LIBERATION FRONT
Clockwise from above, Pendoma Sani’s home was looted during the siege; most of Marawi is closed to civilians, who remain in evacuation centres