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Philippines insurgency

Liberated Philippine city lies in ruins as its people seethe

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 10 December, 2017, 7:05pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 10 December, 2017, 9:17pm

More than six months after Filipino and foreign fighters claiming allegiance to Islamic State stormed this lakeside city, setting off a months-long war with Philippine troops, liberated Marawi lies in ruins and its people seethe.

The heart of the city has been bombed and burned beyond recognition, its mosque domes pierced by mortar fire. Homes are roofless, blackened. There are armoured vehicles on the streets.

Some 200,000 residents are still scattered across the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, living with weary relatives or in camps.

Those who have been allowed to return found their homes ransacked and looted – safes open, jewellery snatched, appliances gone.

Many are angry at the men who seized their city in a failed bid to establish a caliphate, taking hostages and targeting civilians. They are angry, too, at the forces that fought those men, namely the Philippine army and its backer, the United States.

Beyond earshot of officials and soldiers, people wonder why the army was so quick to pummel their predominantly Muslim city. They are also suspicious of the role played by US Special Forces.

With Islamic State fighters losing ground in Iraq and Syria, men and money may shift to Southeast Asia, experts have said. They will find in the southern Philippines an angry and vulnerable population, institutions racked by war, and a government, led by President Rodrigo Duterte, that sees shooting as a way to solve social problems.

In other words: prime recruiting grounds.

In that sense, what happened in Marawi is not the success that Duterte claims but a lesson in the limits of fighting extremism with force alone.

“Armed operations will never erase or exterminate the causes and roots of terror,” said Samira Ali Gutoc-Tomawis, a local official who quit her job over Duterte’s handling of the conflict.

“You can’t kill an idea.”

More than six months after the fighting started and more than two months after Duterte declared Marawi liberated, it still looks and feels like a war zone, with the destruction centred in the city’s heart, along the shore of Lake Lanao, and radiating outward.

The centre is a no-go zone controlled by soldiers. Militants had turned the houses that are still standing into snipers’ nests, where furniture has been trashed and pro-Islamic State graffiti is still on the walls.

It may be years before the main battleground is habitable. At the periphery, where people have been allowed to move back and schools are reopening, families are returning to wrecked and emptied homes.

There is certainly anger at the leaders of the uprising, Omarkhayam Maute and his brother, Abdullah and their fighters. Their violence against civilians, including the targeting of Christians, earned them little goodwill.

“They are not Muslims, because Muslims don’t kill,” said Maymona Akman Macabago, a Marawi resident now living in a refugee camp.

But the fact that the Mautes were educated abroad and worked with foreign fighters, far from lending them credibility, has made it easy for locals to dismiss them as interlopers. “This ideology was imported from different countries,” said Majul Usman Gandamra, the mayor of Marawi.

Among the displaced, a more proximate source of pain is how Manila responded – the declaration of martial law, protracted bombing and a heavy military presence.

According to the government, 920 militants, 165 soldiers and 47 civilians were killed.

The bombing is a source of tremendous anger here. “Why didn’t they warn us, ‘Hey, be prepared because we are going to deploy an air strike?’ ” asked Drieza Lininding, a displaced resident who runs the Moro Islamic Liberation Consensus Group, a charity that seeks to counter radicalisation.

The strikes sent people fleeing without money, documents, weapons and other valuables – much of which has since been taken from damaged homes. The military denies assertions that it was behind systematic looting, but civilians are not sold.

“Who are we going to blame for that looting? Nobody could do this without using a truck,” Lininding said.

“The Maute group was busy fighting in the main battle area,” he continued. “At midnight did they sneak across the river and take our TV sets and go back?”

The conflict has stoked longer-simmering resentment against the United States – something that could make it easier for extremists to recruit new followers.

Muslims in the southern Philippines suffered mightily during US colonial rule and many people, including Duterte, have expressed scepticism about the presence of US troops in the southern Philippines.

Among the refugees, the presence of US planes has fuelled rumours about what role the United States played. That could be used to stoke anger, experts said.

In messages this summer on Telegram, an encrypted messaging app, Maute fighters were already crafting their pitch. “We did not destroy Marawi, we did not bomb it to ashes,” read a message posted July 15, according to an IPAC report. “We never intended harm to the city and its people.”

“I don’t know to what extent the decision to take air strikes was the Philippines’ or the United States’, but it’s going to be a decision that has implications for many years to come,” said Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict, or IPAC, and an expert on terrorism in Southeast Asia. “It has created more anger against the government than the Mautes. It has helped turn the Mautes into local heroes.”