Civilians struggling to escape from war-torn Philippine city

PUBLISHED : Friday, 09 June, 2017, 3:14pm
UPDATED : Friday, 09 June, 2017, 3:17pm

It was during a lull in the fighting that Rohaina Salic first heard the bellow of a distant voice telling civilians trapped in the war-shaken city of Marawi they could finally emerge from their homes.

She didn’t know whether the plea came from the Philippine army or from black-clad militants linked to Islamic State who seized the mosque-studded southern town last month.

She had not set foot outside since the clashes – the worst to hit the Southeast Asian nation in years – began. But at that moment, the guns had fallen silent and it was time to go.

“We didn’t really know whether it was safe to come out,” said the 38-year-old Salic, who walked out of the rubble of Marawi on Thursday with six members of her family. “We put all our faith in God.”

More than two weeks after Muslim militants plunged the lakeside town into chaos with an unprecedented attack that has killed close to 200 people and triggered fears that extremists are trying to gain a foothold in the country’s restive south, hundreds of militants remain stubbornly lodged in Marawi’s city centre.

Every day, people like Salic trickle out. On Thursday, the lucky ones numbered 45.

Some had managed to walk – or run – out on their own. Others were plucked by the army or rescue teams that are launching risky missions near the front lines with white flags wrapped around their vehicles’ antennae.

The evacuees who end up at the provincial government’s headquarters are met by doctors and nurses who check their vital signs and offer first aid and emergency care before sending them on to safer areas further inland.

Sittie Johaynee Sampaco, a Health Department volunteer, said the new arrivals appear deeply traumatised, having spent days on end without food and water in a city crawling with insurgents that has been without electricity for weeks.

“We’re getting a lot of people with severe dehydration, fevers and coughs, hypertension,” Sampaco said. The fighting has also taken a mental toll.

It’s unclear how many people remain trapped in Marawi. Authorities have put the figure this week at anywhere from 100 to 2,000. They include at least a dozen hostages, among them a Catholic priest and parishioners who were seized when gunmen stormed their church shortly after clashes began on May 23. Their status is unknown.

Lieutenant Colonel Jo-Ar Herrera said the military’s main priority is to rescue trapped civilians, many of whom are in the same part of the city centre where the army estimates there are 240 Islamic fighters who have stockpiled food and ammunition for a protracted fight.

Despite days of punishing air strikes, Herrera said the military is treading lightly so it will not endanger the lives of those it’s trying to save.

He said the army is in contact with some of the trapped civilians and has helped direct them out of danger zones by telling them which areas are safe.

Salic said her family was able to survive for two weeks because part of their residence is also a grocery, stocked with biscuits, instant noodles and soft drinks. They also had a large stock of drinking water, but used rain water to wash their hands and the dishes. The family, she said, had not had electricity since May 24; they lit candles each night as the crackle of gunfire echoed outside.

When they finally left, what they saw outside was astonishing: destruction in every direction.

Salic, who was hauling two pink bags, said her family – three children and four adults – crawled over mountains of multistory homes and under downed electricity polls. Rubble from the fighting blocked many streets. There was not a soul in sight.

“We were the only people walking,” Salic said. “I kept waiting for us to be hit by the guns.”

Salic’s seven-year-old daughter Aljannah played another vital role. She carried a white flag made from a T-shirt and a pole they broke off a brush.

As they approached an army checkpoint in the afternoon, a single gunshot rang out. Aljannah made a move to run.

It wasn’t clear whether the army or insurgents had fired. But Salic quickly grabbed her daughter’s hand and yanked her close.

“Don’t run,” she whispered. “Trust in Allah.”

Shortly afterwards, troops helped the family onto a truck and drove them to the city’s western edge.

By Friday morning, explosions and bursts of gunfire downtown could be heard again, and smoke rose from city as helicopter gunships circled overhead.