Banggulo is Marawi’s city center. What was once the hub of commerce is now reduced to ruins. Signs of bombs are everywhere, buildings are pockmarked with deep holes; while heaps of debris made other streets impassable. Offices, shops, and a hospital has been brought down to uneven mounds of rubble where the faded odor of dead bodies still lingered. The place is a burned-down ghost town except for the occasional clank of a truck, piled with soldiers.
This was how Marawi looked like after four months of war. It claimed hundreds of lives, destroyed livelihood, and broke down dreams to dust.
I am proud Meranawon and my roots are in Lanao del Sur. My grandfather was Sultan of Lumbayanague, a 90-minute drive to Marawi. When my father moved to General Santos City, South Cotabato, he enrolled me in a Christian school. Our vacations wer spent with our relatives in Marawi.
In college, my father sent me to Mindanao State University in Marawi so that I could be reacquainted with Islam culture. Unlike the traditional and conservative attitude in the city, MSU had a liberal atmosphere since the students came from various creeds.
Yet in spite of the conservatism, I had seen how immorality crept in. The past mayors were allegedly linked to peddling drugs. In the late ‘90s, a prostitution den and a cockpit had been set up in the country’s only Islamic city.
Five years ago, there were whispers of recruitment for extremist groups in Marawi. The talks were dismissed as rumors. We heard stories that a monthly stipend of P50,000 was being dangled to Islamic students so that they could learn Arabic, and embrace a radicalized Islam.
The war began as a blow to the locals when it first broke out in May of 2017. My friends and relatives from Marawi were doing business and stocking up on supplies in Iligan City, Cagayan de Oro, and other municipalities. Suddenly, they received news that their city was under siege. They were stranded and unprepared for the shocking event. It took four days before they were allowed to return.
Upon returning, they discovered that their homes had been ransacked. Nobody knew if it were the Maute or the government soldiers who broke into their residences and looted their money. Since Marawi only has two rural banks, businessmen kept their money at home.
The war extended when Maute had instigated a complicated assault using tunnels.
I recently had a reunion with a former classmate, a military officer, at a bar in BGC. He invited me to see Marawi for the day. For so long, several of my good friends, one of them being Mayor Majul Usman Gandamra, had been asking me to come to Marawi. After all, people were slowly returning to their homes, and to return to normal life.
My heart skipped a beat upon the officer’s invitation. Painful memories came to mind.
It was also during the Martial Law ‘80s that we experienced abuses of the military. A drunken soldier or marine would molest women or gun down men.
Still, I gathered the courage to visit the city of my youth. The next day, we drove to Clark airbase and took a military plane to the old airport in Cagayan de Oro. After getting a military pass and putting on a bullet-proof vest, I rode with my friend and some soldiers on a helicopter and landed on Camp Amaipakpakan. We then hopped on a tank to Banggulo, the business center and an affluent residential district where royalty had lived. It was now a war –zone, lined with grimy bombed-out streets.
After a quick inspection, we returned to the camp. We took a packed lunch of halal food then flew to back to Cagayan do Oro and finally to Clark air base.
In a phone conversation a few days after the visit, Mayor Gandamra sounded tired but optimistic.
The locals were slowly moving out from the evacuation centers or living with their relatives in Lanao del Sur or South Cotabato. Some families bravely returned to Marawi. Electricity and water supplies are adequate. Residents buy their groceries in Iligan City. The trip took longer because of thorough body search and inspection at military checkpoint under Martial Law conditions.
Since the business center of Banggulo was savaged, the displaced residents of Marawi depend on government support. LGU’s and the private sector send relief goods in the evacuation centers.
The mayor lamented that the locals are impatient for quick relief. They think that he is responsible for the disbursement of foreign aid. He clarified that these donations must undergo the government process before they are channeled to the city’s relief and rehabilitation.
Gandamra maintained that he never solicited donations to maintain the integrity of the local municipality.
For income, the government has been providing livelihood programs for the IDPs (internally displaced people). They are given fees to clean the centers, assist in the giving out of relief and plant vegetables in the backyard for food.
Fortunately, the cultural heritage such as the torrogan, the Muslim homes with handcarved designs, and places with their artefacts are still intact. Gandamra said they are located in the Western district of the city. The war zone is in the eastern district.
“I’m thankful that Allah gave us a second life,” he said.
Likewise, lawyer Maki Datu Ramos’s relatives were distraught by the war.
“As Meranawons, we are all affected psychologically, financially and spiritually. We wondered why this happened. It was like a nightmare,” he said
A cousin, Jasmin Mamacotao of Lumbatan, Lanao Del Sur, has a residence beside their ancestral home in an affluent subdivision in the war zone. While in Mindanao, she has been renting a house after her home and ancestral home were flattened down. She has been feeling anxious about the trauma of war and the loss of close friends and property. Fortunately, her job in the Department of Justice in Manila provides some stability.
“It’s a nightmare. All the homes of our aunts and siblings were either bombed or razed to the ground,” said Dr. Sainodin Moti, a medical officer of the Philhealth Regional Office of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. At the onset of the war, he stayed in Iligan City because he was not allowed to visit his home in Lilod near the center of the war zone. He received photos that his house has been part of the ruins.
During the crisis, he prayed for strength. The breadwinner in the family, he has to keep his composure and look after his ailing mother.
The family’s income is boosted by their general merchandise stores in Iligan and Cagayan de Oro.
“I have to be strong to boost their morale,” he said.