By Luz Rimban
Marawi City—Construction workers are clearing the area which was the main battleground between government forces and extremist rebels, carting away the debris of a war that hogged international headlines two years ago.
The city’s described Most Affected Area, also known as Ground Zero, was the arena of battle between government and Maute/Abu Sayyaf forces in 2017.
It is now nothing but empty spaces littered with gigantic coils of copper wire, concrete slabs, and patches of GI sheets.
The landscape has changed.
There is no restoring the landmarks of the bustling Marawi city center of old, its commercial area called Padian, and houses, mosques and schools.
For 127,309 of the people of MAA—by count of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees—who fled the city in May 2017, leaving everything behind, there is no going back.
Since President Rodrigo Duterte declared Marawi liberated on Oct.17, 2017, the government rhetoric has been that the people would be able to return to their homes in the MAA based on a per-sector schedule in the coming months.
The reality is that it is unlikely to happen in the near future, if it will happen at all.
For Marawi’s internally displaced persons, it has been a struggle complying with the requirements, mostly in the form of documents, that government has asked of them in exchange for relief and aid, for livelihood assistance, and for a chance to visit the land where their homes or shops once stood.
In an ordinary place, these requirements would be standard procedure as a disaster response.
But Marawi and the Meranaw who are the majority here are different, their identities inseparable from a long history of resistance against raiders of their land.
For Task Force Bangon Marawi, the agency on top of the Marawi rehabilitation, this is all part of a plan for the country’s only Islamic city to start over and finally enforce laws.
“We would like to make things right,” TFBM chairman Eduardo del Rosario said, referring to the reality that the Meranaw exist outside national laws, among them land, water, tax and registration laws, as a consequence of which they lack documents to prove ownership and sometimes even identity.
Government is planning to rehabilitate MAA and to turn it into a modern urban center.
Part of the rehabilitation program is making the IDPs undergo profiling and biometric registration, and for the entire MAA to be surveyed and tagged, the better to identify who owns what property.
“Once they go back, they have the right titles, and we have established the right ownership,” Del Rosario said.
But residents at the Sagonsongan shelter site just want to go home, even if home is now a mere memory.
Some of them were still seething at the long delays when they spoke to a research team from the Ateneo de Manila University last March.
“Sinong hindi galit? Siyempre lahat ang ari-arian mo naiwanan mo (Who wouldn’t be angry? We left everything behind),” said a woman who, like her parents before her, had a small business at Marawi’s main commercial center.
“Yung mga galing Maynila kahit anong oras pwede makapasok. Pero kami mismo na may-ari ng lupa, hindi kami basta-basta makapasok. Sa anong dahilan? (Those from Manila can enter anytime, but we who owned land could not. Why?),” she added.
IDPs in other shelters harbored the same sentiments in interviews conducted in June. “Hindi naman biro yung nangyari sa amin. Yung lahat ng sulok ng bahay namin nawala na. Wala na talaga. Zero. Back to zero (What happened to us was no joke. Everything within our house is gone. Nothing. Zero. We are back to zero),” said a man who used to live in Barangay Wawalayan Calocan outside the perimeters of Ground Zero but has still not been able to return.
The IDPs’ clamor to return home is a manifestation of what international agencies say is the Marawi siege’s biggest impact. “The destruction of private homes in the MAA can be considered as the most serious impact of the siege. Most Meranaw traders have [therefore] designed their homes to double up as shops,” wrote the Asian Development Bank in a document titled “Summary Assessment of Damage and Needs.” An estimated 5,627 “dwelling units” inside MAA’s 24 barangays were completely damaged by the five-month siege.
Some 15,000 MAA residents have filed claims for damages totaling more than P90 billion in affidavits submitted to the Lanao del Sur and Marawi Chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines. In March 2019, the IBP transmitted the documents to the House Sub-Committee on Marawi Rehabilitation which was deliberating on a Marawi rehabilitation bill.
With the election of new members of Congress this year, a new Marawi Siege Victims Compensation Act is being drafted, so as far as official compensation goes, MAA residents will have to wait for the legislative mill to roll.
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