Hamidah Abdullatif was on top of the world. It was the spring of 2017 and she had just graduated from college with a degree in computer science. She was ready to embark on a career in information technology in her beloved hometown of Marawi, the historic and picturesque Islamic city on Lake Lanao on the southern Philippines island of Mindanao.

“It was a beautiful city,” Hamidah recalls of Marawi, the capital of Lanao del Sur province, where the Maranao, the dominant, mostly Muslim ethnic group, lived side by side with Christians, the dominant religious group in the Philippines. “It was a joyful place to live. People here would wave when they saw each other.”

But a month after graduation, Hamidah’s highest high soon spiralled into her lowest low.

On the afternoon of May 23, 2017, hundreds of militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (IS) fought back against a counterterror offensive by the Philippines army and national police. In a matter of hours, Marawi’s bustling streets – the biggest trading centre in the southern Philippines – became a war zone as militants and security forces engaged in street-to-street fighting.

As many as 350,000 people fled in the days that followed. Hamidah and her family were among the first to leave.

“It was sudden,” says Hamidah’s mother, Sapia Gaga. “I was cooking bananas. Suddenly, someone shouted and told us to leave because there were many IS militants. Just like that. I ran together with my grandchildren.”

The flood of evacuees congested the roads inside Marawi and the two-lane highway leading out of it. Sapia and her family joined thousands of others who fled on foot, walking two and a half hours north to the city of Pantar in the neighbouring province of Lanao del Norte. Sapia’s eldest daughter, Hayamera, made the trek carrying precious cargo in her arms, Samsodin, her two-month-old son.

“We thought we could go back after a few days. Maybe after two or three days or a week at most,” Sapia says. “We never expected this would happen.”

‘NOW EVERYTHING’S GONE’

Eighteen months on from the day they left, Sapia, Hayamera and Hamidah, are standing in their old neighbourhood once again. The Philippines military has allowed This Week in Asia to take them into the area where the battle took place – limiting the stay to 30 minutes, under a military escort. But we are not allowed to go to the family’s house 100 metres down the street, which the military is still clearing of debris. It is the first time Sapia’s daughters have been back since they fled.

“My hometown. My memories and my soul. It pains my heart,” Hamidah says, struggling to hold back tears. “We walked here on this road to go to our house. But now everything’s gone.”

I sold my son to IS: how battle for Marawi ripped this family apart

The militants had laid siege to Marawi for five months before the government was finally able to regain total control of the city. Officers admit being taken by surprise and said they were not ready for the kind of urban warfare waged by the extremist fighters. With neither the training nor equipment for such battles, the military responded with air strikes, bombarding the eastern part of Marawi – the main battle zone – with explosives that targeted militant positions.

The siege of Marawi became the longest urban battle in modern Philippine history. It was the heaviest fighting the country had seen since the second world war. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi “liberated” on October 23, 2017, saying nearly 1,000 militants, including key leaders, had been killed. The militants’ plan to establish the first caliphate for IS in Southeast Asia had been thwarted.

But the eastern section of the city, its economic heart, an area of 260 hectares consisting of 24 barangays (the Philippine equivalent to a district or ward) and some 7,000 buildings, was devastated. The government has designated the area as the Most Affected Area (MAA).

While residents in other parts of Marawi have been allowed to return home, and parts of the city have come back to life, the MAA, which makes up about 30 per cent of Marawi’s total area, remains uninhabitable. Buildings were completely bombed out during the military’s offensive. Walls left intact are riddled with bullet holes. The ground is covered with shattered glass and debris. Foliage has crept on and sometimes overtaken the destroyed structures.

For Sapia and her family, home for the past 18 months has been a 12-square-metre white tarpaulin tent at an evacuation camp set up in the barangay of Buadi Itowa, just a 15 minute drive from the MAA. Eighteen members of the family sleep inside the tiny tent. Still, it’s an improvement from when they arrived. In October, the family was given a second tent, where nine members now sleep. Before that, all 27 family members crammed inside a single tent.

“During the day it’s scorching hot inside. At night until the early hours of the morning, it’s chilling cold,” Sapia says. “We can’t always rely on relief because sometimes there is none.”

Sapia ekes out a meagre living in Buadi Itowa operating a small snack stall at the front of the camp, selling deep-fried bananas. On good days she can earn 1,000 pesos (about US$19), but on others she can’t break even. It’s hardly enough to support her large family.

“My son was in his second year of college, but he can’t go to school now because I can’t pay the fees,” she says. “I want him to finish his studies. He’s my only hope.”

Chinese cash, American muscle, and Marawi’s discontents

The evacuation camp in Buadi Itowa still houses 667 people. In total, 812 families remain in 22 evacuation centres across Lanao del Sur. Many, like Sapia’s family, hope to return to their homes in Marawi, but the initial clean up in the MAA only began in November.

The military has spent the past year and a half securing the area, finding and disabling more than 3,000 unexploded bombs and clearing the streets of rubble and debris. Access remains highly restricted, with armed troops stationed at checkpoints and outposts. The government has told people with properties in the MAA it will be five years before they can live in their homes again. It’s a time frame many struggle to accept.

“We can’t take it any more and we can’t afford to wait for five years,” says Hamidah. “Every day that passes and we’re still here in the camp, it only pains us more.”

Assistant Secretary Felix Castro, who heads the government’s joint task force responsible for rebuilding Marawi, says the government is doing its best to help.

At the task force headquarters, a two-storey mansion in a wealthy area of Iligan City, an hour’s drive from Marawi, Castro is quick to highlight the 15 billion pesos (US$285 million) the government has already poured into a master plan for Marawi’s rehabilitation and reconstruction. “All in all there will be around 744 programmes, projects and activities until 2022,” he says.

But he admits work in the MAA is only in its initial stages. After clearing the roads, the government wants to widen them and construct public facilities, before allowing residents to return and start rebuilding their homes. The time frame for that is a year to 18 months away.

Property owners were allowed three days in April to visit their homes inside the MAA and collect whatever belongings remained.

“When I came back here, I thought our house wasn’t damaged,” Sapia says. “But when I entered, it was totally wrecked. The roof fell. All our clothes were ruined. Even the money that I had hid in the closet was gone.”

Sapia says that, like many Maranao people, she hadn’t kept her money in the bank. She had 90,000 pesos (US$1,700) in cash saved up, but it was stolen during the siege. Allegations of looting have been made against government soldiers, but the military says extremist fighters captured in battle have admitted that stealing from people’s homes was part of their plan to pay for the conflict.

“When we left Marawi I almost lost my mind,” Sapia says. “I asked myself ‘where will I get the funds to build my house?’”

It’s a question Castro can’t answer. The government still hasn’t awarded a contract for Marawi’s reconstruction. A bid by a consortium of Chinese firms with Filipino partners was rejected in June because it failed to prove its financial capacity to take on the mammoth project. Another bid by PowerChina, a Chinese state-owned engineering company to do the reconstruction, is on hold pending a government review.

Castro admits the government still has yet to decide on how to help property owners fund the rebuilding of their homes and businesses. He said the money could come in the form of a loan, or a grant, but such details have not been worked out.

In the meantime, Castro says the government intends to close the evacuation camps and transfer the remaining people to temporary shelters.

“We understand their frustrations being there for more than a year,” Castro says. “But the reality is it takes time to build the temporary shelters.”

But those who have already been transferred to these developments say conditions are only a slight improvement from the camps. Families of six or more members still have to share a 14-square-metre, one-room temporary house.

We had a home, our own home, in our own lot. Now we have nothing
Sayralyn Dimaampao

“Living here is really hard,” says Sayralyn Dimaampao, who shares a unit with her husband Jamarol and their three daughters, ages nine, eight and three. She is pregnant with her fourth child. The family lives in Sagonsongan, the largest of the temporary shelter villages that houses more than 1,000 families. Even though they are in a sturdier structure, food security remains a major problem.

“Sometimes we just eat rice with salt. There are times that we don’t have water,” Sayralyn says.

Before the siege, Saryralyn had a store that sold women’s clothes in Marawi. Her husband did odd jobs, such as selling vegetables.

‘I cried in anger’: Marawi residents make painful homecoming to city

“We were happy because we had our own livelihood,” she says. “We had a home, our own home, in our own lot. But now it’s as if we have nothing. All of us have no money. No livelihood.”

Saryralyn’s husband hasn’t been able to find work, because he is deaf.

“I feel that the government’s rebuilding process is slow. It’s been a year and they haven’t started any rebuilding yet,” she says. “We don’t want to wake up in the morning with no food on the table. That is so frustrating.”

It’s this kind of frustration that concerns Captain Ron Villarosa, who works with the military’s joint task force to facilitate Marawi’s rehabilitation. He acknowledges there is concern the militants who escaped towards the end of the siege could capitalise on peoples’ grievances.

“It’s not just about fighting the enemy, but it’s also about how to win back the community,” Villarosa says.

An 11-year veteran of the military, Villarosa has spent most of his career based on the southern island Basilan, specialising in dealing with armed Islamic separatist groups including Abu Sayyaf and the Moro National Liberation Front.

“We must understand that to prevent and counter violent extremism, we must go down to the roots. We must go down to the very, very basic needs,” he says. “What we found out in Basilan is that, the people out there – those who surrendered to the government – are not really fighting for an ideology. They’re actually just fighting to survive. And by fighting to survive, they are attaching themselves to their leaders and those leaders in turn attach themselves to the ideology, because they need that ideology to fund them, and that funding in return provides for his people.”

Standing on the banks of the Agus River that runs through Marawi, against the backdrop of the MAA, Villarosa seeks to deliver a message of unity and the military’s commitment to helping the Maranao people.

“Beyond physical security, the military is also looking at social security, we’re also exploring economic security, food security, all of those different aspects that will somehow contribute to lessening the vulnerabilities of the different communities of the different people and prevent them from being dragged into conflicts such as this.”

His efforts to connect with the community seem to be working. Upon walking back to the main street, Villarosa is cheerfully greeted by a group of local Maranao men he calls his friends. The men, who live on the opposite side of the river from the MAA, were allowed to return home after the fighting ended, but conditions for them are far from ideal. One man points to his house across the road and says after all this time, there is still no electricity or running water.

What now for Duterte’s China pivot as Marawi cements US importance

“We cannot promise to give them what they had before,” Villarosa said. “What we can promise though, is that we will be with them through hardship and we will be helping them to overcome [their problems].”

Such promises provide little comfort to people like Sapia Gaga, who still hasn’t been told when she and her family can move out of the evacuation camp and into a temporary shelter.

“We are just sacrificing for now,” she says. “Where are we supposed to go? We have no house to go to.”