Year after Marawi Siege, Families Search for Missing Relatives

MARAWI CITY, PHILIPPINES, May 23 — Hashima Mohammed Salim recently convened a meeting of members of her clan who lost relatives after militants allied to the Islamic State (IS) laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi a year ago.

They had to make a decision – and quick – because what little money they had saved was dwindling fast and aid agencies were delivering less assistance every week, she recalled. After a brief huddle, they made a painful decision.

Her family opted to migrate to Manila to find jobs, but she would stay in Iligan, about 38 km (23.6 miles) north of Marawi, to carry on a grim search for their missing relatives.

“It is very sad to come up with a decision that will break up my family and for me to stay,” Salim, 29, told BenarNews.

As the Philippines marks the first anniversary of the siege this week, dozens of families, including Salim’s, are searching for loved ones missing from the violence that transformed Marawi from a peaceful southern trading hub into a ruined cityscape, where health experts keep unearthing human bones amid piles of rubble.

The family picked Salim to stay behind, she said, because she was the most outspoken and educated member of the clan, which, like hundreds of others, live in dire conditions in evacuation camps or with relatives. The government has not allowed them to rebuild their homes, citing lingering dangers of unexploded ordnance strewn about Marawi.

Salim said some of her relatives remained missing, although she would not discuss their identities. They were believed to have been taken by gunmen when pro-IS fighters stormed the city exactly a year ago Wednesday in a failed bid to set up an Islamic caliphate in Southeast Asia.

What followed was an intense five-month battle that left some 1,200 people dead, many of them militants, according to the Philippine authorities.

During the siege, which the Philippine armed forces finally broke in late October, the gunmen took scores of civilians as hostages. The government has since said that all were accounted for and those still missing and feared dead were members of the enemy.

Many families, like Salima’s, however, contest the government’s account and have kept on searching for their loved ones.

100 remain missing

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) reported at least 100 people remain missing almost seven months after President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi City “liberated” from the militants.

“But we believe there are more,” said Camilla Malteuci, who heads the ICRC Protection Team in the Philippines.

Duyog Marawi, an NGO that coordinates the rehabilitation efforts of the Catholic Church, placed the number of missing at 70. Rey Barnido said his group’s estimate was lower because members concentrated their efforts on the Christian minorities in Marawi city.

“If we find a witness who will say he or she saw that the missing person was gunned down, we immediately change the status to dead and remove him from the missing list,” Barnido said.

Christians are a minority in Muslim-dominated Marawi City, accounting for just 5 percent of the estimated 200,000 population.

Many here found work in Marawi City as laborers, carpenters and store helpers. Most found themselves trapped when the gunmen took over the city last year, shooting dead any Christians on sight. Some hid in basements for weeks, managing to escape only when Air Force planes dropped bombs that dispersed the enemy.

For Muslims listed as missing – like those of Salim’s family – the Task Force Ranao Rescue Team, a private aid organization, put the number at 100 more or less.

Zia Alonto Adiong, former leader of the defunct Marawi Crisis Committee, said DNA samples taken from about 150 unidentified cadavers did not match any of the people searching for their missing relatives.

“It would be difficult to find the missing a year after. We have been telling the relatives to presume that their loved ones are already dead,” Alonto said.

A tattered Philippine flag flutters in the wind near the pockmarked Grand Mosque in Marawi, May 16, 2018. (Richel V. Umel/BenarNews)
A tattered Philippine flag flutters in the wind near the pockmarked Grand Mosque in Marawi, May 16, 2018. (Richel V. Umel/BenarNews)

A long climb to rehabilitation

For antique shop owner Abdulbasit Solaiman, thinking about how to survive in post-war Marawi far outweighs thoughts about the dead and those still missing.

“I only loaned all the items I am selling right now. I don’t know how will I pay my suppliers,” Solaiman, 48, said at his tiny shop along Basak Malutlut, a Marawi village where the local IS leader, Isnilon Hapilon, had lived and plotted the siege.

The shop, which had stood for years, was reduced to ashes after being hit by bombs. Solaiman returned to rebuild, but the extent of the damage has made it a losing endeavor.

“If only I knew the fighting would last for five months, I should have joined the fight with military against the militants,” the father of three told BenarNews. “I will not allow it again to happen. Even just with my bare teeth, I would fight for my children.”

Solaiman’s clan, like Salim’s, has scattered as members try to piece back together their ruined lives.

Nearby, Alamina Barapantao, 33, rummaged through a mound of broken furniture and wood, looking for a stuffed toy that her young son had asked her to retrieve.

After a few minutes of digging through the rubble, she found the soiled toy – a memento of their simple life back when Marawi was still a thriving trading hub.

“My home is indescribable now. I cannot even recognize it. There were many good memories here,” Barapantao said, as she choked back tears. “But now it’s gone.”

Only memories captured in a soiled picture album that she had retrieved is what’s left of their life here, Barapantao said.

IS presence felt

But while others can retrieve things lost in the battle, Sarifa Dizo, 43, said 10 of her relatives were recruited by the militants who survived the siege and were believed to be somewhere in nearby mountain jungles.

“They could be dead now. It’s sad because they were my family, but I cannot do anything about it,” she said, adding that many had chosen to join the enemy because there was nothing to go back to in Marawi.

About 100 to 150 fighters were believed to be hiding in surrounding towns and recruitment to replenish the militants’ ranks continues, a local army deputy commander, Lt. Col. Romeo Brawner, told BenarNews.

“They want to remain here because this is comfort zone. This is where they can recruit, from the displaced people as well the orphans of war,” he said.

Citing intelligence data, he said militants were offering as much as U.S. $300 as a monthly stipend – a kingly sum in a region where a family is considered lucky to have three meals a day.

“But right now, they don’t have the capacity, unlike in the Marawi siege, when they combined forces,” Brawner said. “Now they need more skilled fighters, technical know-how and armaments … we are preparing for it,” he said.

With most of the key militant leaders believed to have been killed in the battle, the military said the stragglers were likely led by Humam Abdul Najid, also known as Abu Dar.

He is said to be a cousin of Omarkhayyam Maute, one of the leaders of the Marawi siege killed along with Isnilon Hapilon in October. (BENARNEWS. Froilan Gallardo, Jeoffrey Maitem and Richel V. Umel reported from Marawi, and Mark Navales contributed reporting from Cotabato City, Philippines.)

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