It was three years ago today, May 23, when fighting erupted between government troops and militants claiming links with the so-called Islamic State in the southern Philippine city of Marawi.
After five months, the battle for the city left over a thousand people dead, including 160 government soldiers and policemen.
Sources in the government claimed that at least 800 rebel fighters were killed and at least 47 non-combatants.
Graphic photos and footage of the war showed intense fighting and aerial bombardments that left the city devastated.
After three years, residents of Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city, continue to hope for the government promise of a better life in a new city.
Professor Francisco Lara, senior adviser of the non-government International Alert, said some activists have been monitored trying to convince young people to join extremist groups in the area.
“They may be convinced to consider the militant’s alternatives,” said Professor Lara, adding that failure to resume normal lives, or go back to school, or land decent jobs have left the youth hopeless.
The professor said that despite the assistance from various local and international agencies, the rehabilitation of the city remains wanting.
Many displaced residents remain in cramped makeshift shelters even in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic.
Bishop Edwin Dela Peña of Marawi said three years after the war “nothing much happened.”
The bishop noted that “Ground Zero” remains an image of destruction “reminiscent of the early days of the siege.”
He said a lot of people are either living in temporary shelters in the outskirts of the city or in exile in other areas.
The prelate the future is “still uncertain” because Marawi has been “overtaken by events” including the eruption of Taal volcano in January, the pandemic, and even the recent typhoon that hit the central part of the country.
“[These] have relegated us to the backdoor of history, to the point of being completely forgotten from the national psyche,” said Bishop Dela Peña.
Professor Lara said residents have to rely on their local leaders, tribal chiefs and politicians, for survival.
The leadership of the newly established Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao are still focused on reorganizing the government.
Task Force Bangon Marawi, a government agency that is supposed to spearhead the rebuilding of the city, still has to make its presence felt, according the Professor Lara.
“While they have cleared certain areas of debris, three years after the siege, there’s no water system, no electric power, no sewerage system,” he said.
The initiative of national legislators to pass a law that will compensate victims of the war has been overtaken by the pandemic.
Bishop Dela Peña reiterated his message during the first anniversary of the war in Marawi lamenting the cost of the conflict in terms of properties and livelihood.
He said it resulted in “deeper impoverishment” of people already considered poorest by national standards.
The prelate believes that inter-religious dialogue can play a crucial role in the rebuilding of the city.
He noted that even during the height of the armed conflict, Muslims protected Christians in the city.
“There were Muslims who negotiated with the [rebels] to allow the safe passage of Christians out of the conflict,” recalled the bishop.
Professor Lara expressed doubts that things will change for the better soon, noting that people who were displaced in previous conflicts still remain in temporary shelters up to now.
“The government needs to learn how to deal with our brother Muslims so they will not feel discriminated and neglected,” he said.
He also reminded the government not to renege on its promise of a better life for the displaced people of Marawi “because they value commitment.”
Vice President Leni Robredo also urged the government to end three years of “inaction and neglect in Marawi.”
“To this day, the city lies in ruins, and its people’s lives are frozen in time,” she said.
“Three years of inaction and neglect in Marawi is a thousand days too long. We call on all concerned agencies to accelerate their actions while exercising full transparency,” said the vice president.
She said Marawi is “not merely a tragedy to be remembered; it is an ongoing problem that needs to be solved.”
On May 23, 2017, gunmen claiming to have links with the so-called Islamic State attacked Marawi City, prompting a military operation that lasted five months.
The conflict resulted in the imposition of martial law in Mindanao until Dec. 31, 2019, supposedly to aid in the rehabilitation efforts in the city.
As of April this year, 25,355 families or about 126,775 individuals are still living in various parts of the province of Lanao.