Two years after siege, no return to normal for Philippine city

May 24, 2019 - 8:31 AM
A family takes a nap in a tent at an evacuation camp for families displaced by the Marawi siege, in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur province, Philippines, May 12, 2019. Thousands of IDPs remain in limbo as they await the rehabilitation of Marawi City, two years since the siege started. (Reuters/Eloisa Lopez)

BANGKOK — Two years after pro-Islamic State militants laid siege to the Philippine city of Marawi, tens of thousands of people remain uprooted and rebuilding is slow, aid agencies said on Thursday.

The siege forced more than 100,000 residents from their homes in the predominantly Muslim city. Some went into transitional housing, built by the government, while others doubled up with relatives or made do with tents.

About 66,000 people remain displaced in Marawi, according to the United Nations humanitarian affairs agency (OCHA). Most are living with relatives, and about 4,500 remain stuck in evacuation centres, it said in a report.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) put the number at about 100,000, many of them lacking income and with only limited access to drinking water and healthcare.

“Two years on, there are still people in tents, and many are relying on aid. Everyone is waiting for a resolution,” said Martin Thalmann, head of the ICRC delegation in the Philippines.

“In addition to the physical needs, there is also a need for mental healthcare, as they have been through so much trauma,” he told the Thomson Reuters Foundation.

The siege in the once picturesque lakeside town began on May 23, 2017 and triggered five months of fighting, the Philippine military’s toughest and longest conflict since World War Two.

Much of the city was blown to rubble in 154 days of air strikes and artillery by the military, and booby traps laid by the rebels. Hundreds of militants, 165 soldiers and at least 45 civilians were killed.

President Rodrigo Duterte in October 2017 declared the city liberated, and its rehabilitation officially underway. But it has been a process beset with delays, hindered also by a cyclone that hit months later, according to community groups.

Bangon Marawi (Rise Marawi), an inter-agency task force in charge of reconstruction, has a deadline of 2021 to rebuild.

Task force commander, Eduardo del Rosario, said delays were caused by debris, unexploded ordnance and unsafe structures. But these will be cleared by November, with some construction to start in September, he said.

“We are confident in the deadline. It is very attainable,” del Rosario told reporters in the city.

Conflict over land was a major trigger of violence in the area even before the siege.

Fearing further losses during reconstruction, many residents have spray-painted their names over the ruins of their homes, said Ica Fernandez, a spatial planner who is part of a community rehabilitation effort called Open Marawi.

“The long, drawn out and repetitive nature of displacement has contributed to rising frustrations,” she said.

“It will take decades for Marawi and the surrounding areas to return to pre-siege levels of economic and social equilibrium,” she said.—Reporting by Rina Chandran @rinachandran; Editing by Lyndsay Griffiths, the Thomson Reuters Foundation