Why is Marawi still a ghost town?
Why is Marawi City still a ghost town nearly two years after its liberation?
That is a question posed by Otso Diretso senatorial candidate Erin Tañada almost a week ago, but it is a question long in the minds and hearts of, and voiced by, displaced Marawi residents, the survivors of the five-month-long armed conflict between government forces and elements of the rebel Maute group and gunmen affiliated with the Islamic State (IS).
When the smoke cleared after the ground battle and the bombing and strafing that reduced the country’s Islamic spiritual capital to rubble, evacuees from Marawi, Filipinos elsewhere and even concerned folk from around the world expressed shock and alarm at the almost total destruction of the city. Certainly, none of the survivors had expected things to return back to normal at once, even if they had spent almost six months living in filthy, fetid conditions in evacuation centers, tents and makeshift shelters.
But weeks later, they were dismayed to find that they could not even return to the remains of their shattered homes, with the military first using the excuse that unexploded devices and booby traps laid by the rebel forces posed a danger to them. And then came news that the government through President Duterte was in negotiations with the Chinese government to carry out the rehabilitation of Marawi, without any consultation with the displaced residents who had lost not just homes and schools, places of worship and centers of civic life, but also livelihoods and a future of hope and renewal.
To this day, displaced residents are not even allowed to set foot on the so-called “ground zero”—the geographical center of Marawi, the hub of Marawi city life, and the most damaged area in the fighting. What is the government keeping from them? What is it that they are not supposed to see?
One resident, Farina Pagazad, taking part in a rally some months back to demand greater transparency from the government regarding plans for the rehabilitation of her city, bemoaned that she and her five children had been living in an evacuation village since 2017. Before the fighting, she said, they used to have a sari-sari store, a small computer store and “a good life for a mother of five children.”
But, she added, “all of that is gone now and here we are. We do not even know if we can go back to our house. I do not even know if I have money to start a new life.”
For Samira Gutoc Tomawis, a Marawi resident, civic leader and former member of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission (she resigned in protest over President Duterte’s remarks about soldiers raping women in Marawi, later typically dismissed by Malacañang as a joke) and now another senatorial bet, the vital task of returning Marawi to its old self should be one shouldered mainly by the Maranao, the predominant Islamic ethnic group in Marawi, who know the city’s history, heritage and identity.
But even that is still farfetched for now, because the minimum demand of Marawi’s displaced residents—that they be consulted regarding plans for rebuilding the city—is seemingly being ignored by the government body tasked with Marawi’s rehabilitation.
Many in Marawi, said Drieza Lininding, chair of the Marawi-based Moro Consensus Group, have become frustrated with the government because “it keeps issuing timelines,” only to offer excuses for not meeting them later. “As far as the rehabilitation phase is concerned, the government has failed us,” said Lininding, warning that IS militants who escaped from Marawi and were now in hiding “could tap this anger among local residents to boost their ranks.”
If that transpires, it would indeed be the irony of ironies. Two years after reducing Marawi to debris to free it from Islamist radicals, the government may end up having to deal with such armed groups again, or at the very least an embittered populace, because of what looks like neglect and indifference on its part to the real and growing plight of the people for whom Marawi is home, shelter and sanctuary.
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