At the height of the 5-month war in Marawi City between government forces and groups influenced by the Islamic State, Saripada Pacasum Jr. was a “white helmet” first responder.
Amid artillery volleys, sniper fire and block-by-block skirmishes, the volunteers risked death to rescue folks trapped in “Ground Zero,” a 240-hectare sprawl of buildings and homes where the heaviest fighting took place.
“We went out not knowing if we could come back home alive,” Pacasum told journalists at a Nov. 6 briefing organized by International Alert Philippines.
Since the end of the 5-month war in 2017, Pacasum has lived in a temporary shelter. His family is among thousands, around half of the city’s population that cannot return home. The family residence still stands. But it lies within “Ground Zero”—composed of 24 villages, including the once thriving commercial center—which the military still deems unsafe for habitation.
Two years after the end of the war, the member of the Marawi Reconstruction Conflict Watch (MRCW) still weeps when he tries to describe the siege. His voice chokes when he warns of the consequences of the slow pace of rehabilitation and a state decision-making process that has all but shut out the voices of the Meranaw.
WATCH: Lack of government support for rehabilitation frustrates Marawi residents
The MRCW is a homegrown private monitoring group that tracks government rehabilitation efforts. It has tried to work quietly with state agencies and the local government since it launched in 2018. The network works with International Alert in an early intervention program focused on southern Philippines conflicts.
“We wanted to give the government breathing space,” said Pacasum.
“We don’t want another Marawi,” sums up their goal.
Their new public stance followed congressional hearings by the House subcommittee on Disaster Management to review the Bangon Marawi Comprehensive Rehabilitation and Recovery Program (CRRP) and their encounters with legislators while pushing for a compensation bill.
“The government is in disarray,” said Dr. Rolanisah Dipatuan, a member of the group. “They have been feeding us for so long with practically nothing about the status of the rehabilitation.”
Senior officials of Task Force Bangon Marawi were absent from the hearings. When asked by Rep. Mujiv Hataman on the causes of delay and inability to use allocated funds, middle-tier officials said they would have to ask task force executives.
Officials present showed an upbeat presentation of “edited” images that hid the reality on the ground, the group said. Maulana Mamutok, coordinator of the Ranao Ulama Leaders’ Conference, said the government has only built half of the promised 5,000 temporary shelters.
To MRCW members, the Meranaw of Marawi are not just displaced. They have been dispossessed.
Even those back in “cleared” areas struggle to return to old livelihood, work and education. There has been little financial aid for residents. The bureaucratic tedium of reconstituting permits and licenses bears down heavily on people still dealing with the effects of trauma. And now the military wants to build a 10-hectare camp on disputed land.
Dr. Fedelinda Tawagon, president of Dansalan College Foundation, which was completely destroyed by government air strikes, said so many teachers and students suffer from trauma, “but there has been so little help.”
The absence of a compensation package for survivors also hampers the reopening of private schools and hospitals that used to serve a majority of the population, the educator pointed out.
The Mindanao State University’s flagship campus is in Marawi but it cannot accommodate everyone. Elsewhere, Muslim youth struggle with discrimination. Many families lost everything they had before the war and cannot afford the additional expenses of board and lodging.
Jalila Hadji Sapiin, 28, the youth sector representative in MRCW, said the loss of homes and education has roused a simmering anger among youth. With every change in the government’s timetable for return, the resentment deepens, she warned.
A return to Ground Zero “is unlikely to happen in the near future, if it will happen at all,” journalist Luz Rimban wrote for the Ateneo de Manila’s “Agenda for Hope Project.”
Government officials insist they just want to build a better Marawi. But that vision—which has yet to be fully explained—is being created without the Meranaw, Tawagon said.
“We are from the ground. Why don’t you listen to us?” asked the exasperated educator.
Pacasum said they learned some hard answers while talking to legislators. The biggest, most painful realization: “We don’t really matter at all.”
President Duterte’s allies see passage of the compensation bill as an admission of accountability for the devastation.
The biggest blow was learning that Duterte was not joking when he blamed Marawi residents for their destruction.
The President earlier pledged to release P20 billion for the city’s rehabilitation. But in April this year, he said the city’s rich residents should shoulder the burden of rebuilding, not for the first time referencing trade in illegal drugs.
Task force chairman Eduardo del Rosario also told journalists during the anniversary of the liberation of Marawi last month that those capable of reconstructing their buildings should bear the expenses.
“All we heard was generalizing,” said Pacasum. “We are all lumped as drug lords. Is this because we are Muslims?”
“Nobody wants another Marawi. I have seen too many dead, children, mothers,” he said, before breaking down in tears.
The monitors have discussed the potential consequences of breaking silence. They expect attacks.
But the alternative is no better, they say. If you don’t stand up for your rights, you die, too.
Disclaimer: The views in this blog are those of the blogger and do not necessarily reflect the views of ABS-CBN Corp.