Olowan Magarang recalls the moment he knew it was time to flee his home in Marawi, on the southern Philippines’ island of Mindanao. It was in May 2017, two days into a siege by militants aligned with the Islamic State.
“I spotted ISIS fighters moving up my brother’s four-story house, carrying long guns and high-caliber weapons,” he says.
Magarang was living in what became ground zero — the epicenter of months of fighting — when Philippine troops waged house-to-house combat against hundreds of ISIS-affiliated fighters in Marawi.
Authorities allowed him to see the ruins of his concrete house for the first time last August.
“I couldn’t even recognize it. The second floor is destroyed. It has no roof or walls. I will renovate,” he says. “As long as I have money.”
Magarang is one of about 100,000 displaced residents — a number about half the size of Marawi’s population — waiting to return home, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.
The largest Muslim-majority city in this mostly Roman Catholic country, Marawi has a rich cultural and architectural heritage. But more than a year and a half after the government declared victory, the battle scars in the city are as prominent as ever and residents displaced by the conflict chafe under sluggish reconstruction.
At 61, Magarang, a medical technician by training, is having to start life over. He has learned construction and applied for work renovating ground zero, “but I cannot get hired,” he says.
Magarang breaks down in sobs. “I’m old,” he says, “How am I going to provide for my family or put my children through school? We’ve lost everything.”
Magarang is married and has two girls, ages 12 and 15. For over a year, the family has been living in a tent city, one of three set up by the government after the fighting laid waste to homes, buildings, shops and schools, and emptied the city.
Today, evidence of the fighting persists, especially in what the Marawi rebuilding task force calls the “most affected area.” Houses are blown to bits. Buildings are reduced to decimated hulks. The domes of mosques, shredded by war, are silhouettes against the sky.
A shock siege
The island of Mindanao, with thick jungle and loose governance, has a history of armed insurgency.
In 2016, militants were circulating online videos here to lure prospective jihadists and galvanize existing insurgents.
Hundreds answered the call with local fighters joining militants who had come from as far away as Yemen and Chechnya to burrow into Marawi.
In 2017, the extremist alliance swore allegiance to ISIS, and, on May 23 of that year, launched a takeover of Marawi, in a siege that took government troops by surprise. The Philippine military waged ground assaults and airstrikes to defeat them, in fighting that dragged on for five months.
When the war was over, 165 soldiers, 67 civilians and 954 militants were dead, according to the Philippine military.
Brig. Gen. Romeo Brawner tells NPR the number of remaining militants in the area “is down to 25,” from the hundreds that poured into Marawi in 2017.
In April, officials said DNA tests confirmed the death of Owaida Marohombsar, also known as Abu Dar, the last known surviving leader of the alliance of extremists that laid siege to Marawi.
“Worse than feeling abandoned”
Many of the displaced, however, remain discontented.
An estimated 11,400 families are holding up in homes of relatives and friends, while thousands of others wait in temporary shelters.
Magarang has lived in the encampment known as Sarimanok Camp II since the government opened it in April 2018. Before that, he doubled up with relatives on the island of Cebu, a 12-hour boat ride away.
Willing to speak up on residents’ behalf at meetings with government officials, Magarang emerged as an unofficial camp leader.
He guides NPR through the muddy lanes of the camp, as squealing children play, seemingly oblivious to the misery.
“There are 218 families here,” he says, quoting an official figure, and estimates there are “more than 1,000 people.”
Yet there are just nine toilets, and clean water is scarce. It is worse when it rains and the track leading into the camp becomes slippery. “The drivers tanking in the water are afraid of the roads, and so don’t come in,” he says.
During heavy tropical rain, Magarang says, the evacuees have to evacuate again a mile away to Marawi City Hall, until flooding recedes from the grounds and leaky tents dry out.
Magarang’s wife Rohaina, who is 52, steps from their mosquito-infested tent and tells NPR their lives are “endangered” at the camp. She says there is virtually no security and claims tent dwellers “rob from each other.”
“It’s worse than feeling abandoned,” she says. The teachers barely show up for classes and there’s no doctor on duty. “The children are always sick. The 73,000 pesos [$1,400] of government assistance — it’s all spent,” she says.
She begins to cry, and says, “In truth, I have a bad heart. We can’t live here much longer.”
The Marawi rehabilitation task force says the displaced population can begin returning home at the end of July.
A recent tour with authorities of the areas hardest hit by the conflict, however, suggests the government timetable might be ambitious.
Earthmovers grate against the mountains of rubble. But they are few.
The recovery has been plagued from the start. A Chinese-led consortium was initially involved but were ultimately rebuffed by local leaders and residents. The private Filipino contractor now clearing the debris has moved slowly.
No house can be knocked down without the owner’s consent, according to Cabinet Housing and Urban Development Secretary Eduardo Del Rosario, who chairs the city’s rebuilding task force. Many competing claims filed over the damaged and destroyed property have caused confusion, he says.
“You see, there are so many challenges. … We have to ensure that when they go back there — 6,000 owners — that they will be residing in the right location, and 55% do not have titles,” Del Rosario says.
Some unexploded bombs also pose a risk in the area. Del Rosario says they are “90% cleared.”
Last year, Finance Secretary Carlos Dominguez said the government had budgeted 62 billion Philippine pesos (nearly $1.2 billion) over five years toward rehabilitation and reconstruction of the devastated city of Marawi. Much of the funding has come from international donors and lenders, including China, Japan and Spain. The U.S. Agency for International Development has committed almost $59.1 million to the area. Locals are concerned about corruption siphoning off aid money.
Fears of regrouping
Filipinos are also worried about the prospect of more violence in the region.
In January, the ISIS-aligned group Abu Sayyaf bombed a church in Jolo, on the island of Mindanao, killing 20 and wounding dozens.
That same month, the Philippine military said it clashed with at least 24 armed members of an ISIS-inspired group in another municipality of Mindanao, Sultan Dumalondong; three militants and a few soldiers were wounded.
Brawner, commander of the 103rd infantry brigade, acknowledges that militants could regroup, leverage residents’ discontent and incite new conflict.
“In fact, a lot of groups are really using this issue to gain advantage or to try to influence some of the victims,” Brawner tells NPR, referencing in particular communist insurgents who have long agitated in Mindanao against poverty and land abuse.
“They’re using this to discredit the government and its efforts to rehabilitate Marawi City,” he says.
Waiting residents endure
Despite security measures including a curfew, business is flowing again in parts of Marawi. Vendors ply their wares in the markets where residents from tent cities join the thousands of residents lucky enough to have returned to undamaged homes.
Back in Sarimanok Camp II, Magarang is excited about the new gas oven in the family’s tent that was donated by the government.
If he can’t be a carpenter, he says, he’ll use the oven to “bake and sell cakes.”
No matter that he and his wife do not bake, he says, he can “go around and ask people how to make things.” The couple has already experimented with cassava cake and bread. Magarang admits they have “yet to be perfected.”