Over 120,000 People Remain Displaced 3 Years After Philippines' Marawi Battle
The last time Mustapha Alauya L. Pacasum saw his ancestral home standing was three years ago.
The spacious three-story concrete house in his hometown of Marawi, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao, was built in 1971. Pacasum, a 37-year-old political aide, still remembers the smell of the large living room.
"It had a distinctive old wood smell and visitors sometimes imagine it as a haunted house because of the large painting displayed in the center of the sala [living room]," he says. "I miss it so much."
Pacasum's dreams of living out his life in that house were upended when his neighborhood was devastated in the battle of Marawi — a five-months-long firefight between Philippine government security forces and militant groups affiliated with the Islamic State.
Starting in May 2017, the government forces, with support from the United States and other countries, carried out heavy bombing of the city to drive out the insurgents, leaving Marawi in ruins and more than 1,000 people killed. The United Nations says 98% of Marawi's population of nearly 200,000, as well as others in nearby municipalities, were displaced by the fighting.
Pacasum says his family wanted to stay in their home. But when rumors began circulating that the area would be bombed, much of the family evacuated the city. His brother, Saripada "Tong" Pacasum, headed the provincial risk management office at the time and stayed behind to help rescue survivors.
The siege ended on Oct. 23, 2017 — but now, three years later, much of the population is still displaced and asking when their city will finally be restored.
The government has since promised to fully rehabilitate the city by late 2021.
Yet, while some reconstruction has started, Mustapha Alauya L. Pacasum says, "from the looks of it, the only thing that has risen up from the war zone are the grasses."
Today Pacasum lives with his mother, sister and 13-year-old son in a temporary house on a 10-acre plot of land they own not far from their old neighborhood.
They donated land they weren't using to the government, which built 109 structures with red tin roofs to house displaced people. The homes are akin to studio apartments, he says, "too small for even a family."
"Would have wanted to build faster"
Marawi is a cultural hub in the predominantly Muslim south of the Philippines, which is over 92% Christian overall. In 2017, hundreds of militants swearing allegiance to ISIS launched a surprise takeover of the city. Philippine security forces fought back, waging ground and air assaults, with military support from the United States, Australia and China, in what became the country's largest battle since World War II.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law on the island of Mindanao, and did not lift it until December 2019 — more than a year after he declared Marawi "liberated."
Estimates vary as to how many people are still displaced across Lanao del Sur province, where Marawi is the capital, and the surrounding areas. Last month, the government said nearly 37,500 families remained displaced by the fighting, while the United Nations refugee agency counted a little over 25,300 families — almost 127,000 individuals.
Many displacement camps lack basic necessities such as water, electricity and sanitation, says Dahlia Simangan, an assistant professor at the University of Hiroshima who studies peace rebuilding. She visited Marawi last year.
The pandemic has made life even more difficult. The strict coronavirus lockdown in the province, suspended public transportation, imposed a curfew and only allows certain people to leave the home for essentials and work, making it difficult especially for displaced people to find employment, she says. While the Philippines has recorded more than 360,000 confirmed coronavirus cases overall — the second-highest in Southeast Asia — northern Mindanao has only registered 4,876.
"If I were in their shoes, I would also want to return home immediately," says Felix Castro Jr., the assistant secretary with the Department of Human Settlement and Urban Development. He's also the field office manager for the Task Force Bangon Marawi, a collection of government agencies charged with rebuilding the city, which is estimated to cost up to 80 billion Philippine pesos, or more than $1.6 billion.
He says steps such as clearing the unexploded ordnance and getting permission from landowners to demolish unsafe properties had to be completed before reconstruction could begin. He also notes that the pandemic is slowing down progress.
"Right now we're focused on the infrastructure projects inside the most affected area," he says, which includes buildings such as school houses, barangay (neighborhood) halls, police stations, fire houses as well as roads and water and electrical systems. Meanwhile, more than 120 permanent houses of the 3,055 the task force plans to build are also under construction. And Castro says the task force has already identified many of the displaced who will receive one of these homes.
Castro says that while the task force "would have wanted to build faster," it is "still hoping that we make it on target of 2021 — if not, maybe a little over 2022, maybe first quarter of 2022."
Outside observers say funding and coordination problems, land disputes and issues with contracts are other reasons the construction is taking so long.
Fedelinda Tawagon of Marawi Reconstruction Conflict Watch, a watchdog group that monitors the ongoing rehabilitation of the city, says while construction has been "significant" since the end of 2019, it is still "very slow."
"At the moment we do not have any assurance" that the deadlines will actually be met, she says.
Tawagon is also president of Dansalan College, a Christian school she says was "turned into rubble and ashes" after insurgents took it over during the fighting. She's been living with her son in a nearby city and says she's unable to return to campus because main utilities like electricity and water still have yet to be reinstalled. Tawagon blames the delays on "financial constraints."
In a statement on Facebook, the watchdog group said that the 22.2 billion pesos ($457 million) released so far by the government is a "dismal amount" that paints "a bleak picture for us all." During a news conference on Monday, President Rodrigo Duterte said "the money is there" and promised to spend "until Marawi is rebuilt to its former glory."
More than just rebuilding
While rebuilding buildings is important, "there also needs to be political and social reconciliation," Simangan says. Transitioning the displaced population to a "postwar, but normal life" and involving locals in everything from reconstruction to revitalizing the economy of Marawi is crucial to forging mutual trust with all parties involved.
"Peace has to be built and owned by the people who lost it in the first place," Simangan says.
But the government is "running against time," Jose Antonio Custodio, a Philippines-based military historian and defense analyst, says. People who feel marginalized following violence may be quick to embrace alternative forms of authority, which Custodio says will lead to the resiliency of terrorist and extremist groups. There are fears Abu Sayyaf and the Maute group, two ISIS-connected militant groups involved in the siege, could be regrouping.
Containing and ultimately defeating Islamist insurgents in the Philippines is not just important domestically, Custodio says, but to also "prevent the Philippines from being a staging ground for Islamic militancy to other adjacent countries in the majority Muslim countries in Southeast Asia."
The history of terrorist plots hatched in the Philippines is a concern to the United States, too, he notes. U.S. special forces have been engaged in the southern part of the country since the early 2000s.
So, making sure rehabilitation of Marawi is done correctly is important to all Filipinos because "it's not just the battle of Marawi," says Simangan. "It's also about the whole peace process of the southern Philippines."