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Book review: ‘The Battle of Marawi’

/ 05:05 AM September 03, 2020

Marawi City now lies in ruins, a no man’s land. Grief, terror, and anger remain in the hearts of those who experienced the 2017 battle up close. More so for the soldiers who stared death in the face and cradled comrades felled by gunfire.

Those of us who were not physically there shared in the pain even as colleagues in journalism stalked danger and shucked fear to get to the heart of the story.

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Hot off the press is Criselda Yabes’ latest opus “The Battle of Marawi” (Pawikan Press, 2020). This is Yabes’ 10th book. Though Manila-based, Yabes is no stranger to the landscape of the south.

A story must be told before the embers turn cold. The book is the result of Yabes’ hundreds of post-battle interviews with government forces as well as individuals whose lives had a bearing on the bloody events that transpired from May to October of 2017 in the lakeside city of Marawi in Lanao del Sur. Here, a battle raged between government forces and the IS-inspired Maute group (led by Maute brothers Omarkhayam and Abdullah) that wanted to turn Marawi into an IS-ruled Islamic city.

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Yabes’ story is a blend of investigative and literary journalism. Fast-paced, it reads like a suspense thriller, the pages bursting with artillery and sniper fire and bombs from the air, dripping with blood from mangled heads and severed limbs, and filled with the cries of the wounded and the dying. Cinematic, with lots of dialogue, faces, names. Courage is the Filipino soldier’s name.

Reader, be aware that the story is told mainly from the vantage point of government fighters on the ground and air who, take note, had been trained for jungle counterinsurgency but not for urban warfare. And there lies the crux of the matter.

But be that as it may, through the eyes of these soldiers who fought day after day for five months, one could slowly see, as they did, the nature of the enemy. A deadly force to reckon with, equipped with a battle plan, inspired by a foreign religious ideology that promised heavenly paradise for jihadi fighters. For context, read the author’s prologue and epilogue.

The book is divided into chapters under three main parts: The Race to the Lake (June to July), Trident (August to September), and the Final Days which ends in October. But the story begins earlier when the commander of the Philippine Army’s 1st Division called seven officers for a meeting. The moment they had been waiting for had come. Isnilon Hapilon, top renegade of the Abu Sayyaf faction, was nearing the military’s crosshairs. Or so they thought.

The book provides a map of Marawi and the site of fierce firefights as well as the Marawi military chain of command. Officers and foot soldiers are identified in the story by their call signs — Azalea, Firefox, Raptor, Braveheart, Six-Eight, etc. One answers to the call sign Padre Pio.

One has to go above the sea of military jargon and then dive into the battle scenes, hear the crackle of gunfire, and feel the eerie silences. The first three chapters are jolting but soon one gets into the thick of it, the military maneuvers, the strategies and tactics, the call signs. The what, when, where, how, why. House to house, floor to floor, hole to hole, building to building. The school campus, the bridges, the mosque. The casualties.

I teared up for the foot soldier who saved lives but lost his. I crumbled at the deaths by friendly fire, my heart jumped with every bomb dropped and gasped at split-second decisions that were made.

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“There are young boys with guns. They are marching toward us. Sir, do we shoot the kids?”

“We have no choice. They will come for us.”

The Final Days chapter is the push toward the misty Lanao Lake that spelled the death of Omarkhayam Maute (Abdullah was presumed to have been killed early on), “the last stand in 1010,” and the release of hostages. Oh, while in the Raven’s Plight chapter, read between the lines.

Yabes’ count: 188 soldiers, 900 rebels and civilians dead.

Yabes writes: “As in the past, the battle was again an example of reacting to a visible threat that caught them by surprise, rather than preventing and nipping it in the bud.”

Order your copy via “The Battle of Marawi” Facebook page.

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TAGS: book review, Criselda Yabes, Ma. Ceres P. Doyo, Marawi siege, The Battle of Marawi
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