Isnaira Ismail Ibrahim and her husband begged local government officials to allow their family to return to their bungalow home in Barangay Moncado Kadingilan in Marawi City.
They have 12 children. When the coronavirus pandemic hit, they knew they could no longer squeeze themselves into a relative’s home.
“We pleaded with them (local government officials) because there’s COVID and you need to do social distancing. How can you do social distancing in a small, crowded house?” Ibrahim told the Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism (PCIJ) in Filipino.
They returned to their house in October 2020, one of a hundred or so families allowed to go back to the former battle zone after the siege in 2017. It’s an area that’s about 2,500 square meters, where some 11,000 buildings used to stand.
“My house was so damaged, I nearly didn’t recognize it,” said Ibrahim. Yet families like hers were luckier than many because their house was still standing. Other homes were reduced to rubble due to heavy artillery and air strikes during the siege.
The Ibrahims reopened their carinderia, and found customers among the construction workers rebuilding the city’s infrastructure. “It’s hard because there’s no money to be made here, but we came back because it’s harder to live in someone else’s house when you’ve got so many children,” she said.
They also opened their home to a couple who had two children and who had nowhere else to stay.
Japar Hadji Rauf of nearby Barangay Tolali also found his four-storey home mostly intact. He spent a fortune repairing broken windows and bullet-riddled walls, but he said what’s important was he was back home. “Many of us were born here, and our dead are buried here,” Rauf said.
Barangay Tolali has seen the most number of residents go back to their homes so far. It’s also the quickest to see some normalcy return. At least 113 families had moved back, according to data provided by the Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBM) Field Office to the PCIJ.
Rauf, an official of the barangay (village) and an influential radio broadcaster, said the actual numbers of returnees were higher. He boasted of helping about 200 families return to their homes in Tolali.
On the eve of May 23, when the city marked the fourth year since the siege erupted, Tolali’s new barangay complex was also unveiled. TFBM led a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
The villages of Moncado Kadilingan and Tolali are located at Sectors 1 to 3 in the government master plan to rehabilitate Marawi. They’re at the northern edges of the former battle area – the staging area of the military push against the militants during the 2017 siege.
It was also the starting point of the city’s rehabilitation. Residents here were among the first to secure permits to build or repair their homes and, once construction was finished, permits to occupy their homes.
The rest of the residents who lived closer to the banks of Lake Lanao (Sectors 4-9), where the final and fiercest battles took place, have yet to be allowed to begin construction on their properties.
City life used to revolve in these areas, where markets, mosques, schools, commercial centers, and slaughterhouses were located. Many if not most of these structures were flattened. Those that didn’t turn into rubble during the siege were later demolished because of structural damage.
Life for the returnees is not easy without a functioning city center, but Rauf said they have been able to manage. “We’re doing okay here. It’s not so bad,” he said.
As a member of a committee that monitors the reconstruction, Rauf enters the former battle area regularly. He has been witness to the slow but steady construction work inside, and was happy to see new roads and buildings springing up on ground zero.
Complete by December 2021?
It has been four years since the slain Islamic State emir Isnilon Hapilon and brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute of a homegrown militant group led the five-month siege of Marawi City on May 23, 2017.
The military cordoned off the battle area after the siege, keeping residents from immediately returning to their homes, due to unexploded ordnance that littered the place. They were only allowed brief visits to salvage what they could from their homes, but many found theirs looted and damaged, if not flattened to rubble.
In February 2020, the unexploded ordnance were finally dealt with, signaling the start of construction activities. Based on the government timeline, roads, utilities and other basic infrastructure will have to be completed before residents are allowed to return. But they may start rebuilding their homes as soon as they’ve secured permits to build from the city government.
Buildings have since risen and roads have been paved inside the former battle area. Marawi City Mayor Majul Gandamra said work was 60% to 65% done as of May 22, 2021.
Mapandi Bridge and Banggolo Bridge, which saw the fiercest battles during the siege, have been repaired. Phase 1 work at the Marawi City Central Fire Station has been completed, while a four-storey classroom building in the Marawi Integrated School is almost finished.
Work at the Grand Padian market has started, as well as in the Peace Memorial Park, Marawi Museum, and the School of Living Tradition.
Road infrastructure and utilities are also about 50% complete, based on data from TFBM.
“The pandemic had a huge impact on our progress. We had to stop construction activities. When we resumed the projects, many workers did not come back so we had to look for new people,” said Assistant Secretary Felix Castro Jr., manager of the TFBM Field Office.
The government’s deadline to complete all projects is seven months away. The TFBM chairperson, Secretary Eduardo del Rosario of the Department of Human Settlements and Urban Development, remained confident of meeting the deadline. “All ongoing projects now will be completed by December 2021,” Del Rosario told PCIJ.
The city mayor agreed. “We’re still on the right track,” Gandamra said.
Not all rehabilitation projects have started construction work, however. Several projects were still undergoing the procurement process, including a sewage treatment plant, bulk water supply, hospital, port facilities, the Maritime Group Building, and the Halal Slaughterhouse, among others.
Many residents have yet to get their permits to begin rebuilding, too.
No money to rebuild their homes
Based on data from the TFBM Field Office, a total of 2,118 families have been granted building permits, mostly in Sectors 1 to 3.
Other than the hundred or so who have returned to their homes, only 482 of the permit holders have begun construction work.
Others didn’t have the money to rebuild.
Farhana Ampuan was a resident of Barangay Daguduban, which belonged to Sector 2. She and her family could have returned, too, like Ibrahim and Rauf. But they found their house destroyed, and didn’t have the money to rebuild it.
“They told us we can already go home, but if we want to rebuild our house, we’ll have to pay for it ourselves. Where do they expect the people to get the money to rebuild on ground zero?” said Farhana.
The family situation was complicated. They owned the house, but not the land, which belonged to a relative. Since her family could not afford to build a house again, the relative made other plans for the property.
It’s not just the house that was lost because of the siege. Farhana made plans before the battles to go to college to become a teacher, but it’s a dream the family can no longer afford.
Her family was broken apart, too, despite their efforts to stay together after fleeing their home.
The family first ran to relatives in Zamboanga, then back to Lanao del Sur province, in the town of Baloi, where they stayed with other relatives for a while.
When her mother Nuraima sensed that the family was becoming a burden to their hosts, she was forced to separate her children. She sent two of her daughters to her siblings’ farm in Bukidnon province. Her only son went to live with his wife’s family in Malabang.
Nuraima stayed with daughters Farhana and Raihana in a 24-square-meter temporary shelter in Barangay Sagonsongan.
Sagonsongan, a village located off the road from the archway that marks the entrance to Marawi, has been home to some 15,000 displaced residents.
Farhana worked hard despite their poverty to finish high school in 2019, thinking it should be enough for her to get a decent job in the towns around Marawi. But the coronavirus pandemic obliterated her options. There were no jobs available.
Still, she drew hope from seeing the city slowly getting rebuilt. “If the old Marawi returns, I’ll find work there,” said Farhana. “Just work, because my family has nothing left there. Our house is totally ruined.”
Drieza Lininding, chairman of the civic group Moro Consensus Group, said the government should help the residents shoulder the cost of rebuilding their homes. It should be the priority instead of what he called the “ornamental” projects that the TFBM had been funding, he said.
“What use will we have for a museum? It will only remind us of our pain,” said Lininding.
It’s better to just give whatever money is left to the displaced Maranao because the people will know how to get the city back on its feet, he said.
“We are resilient. We will fight for the dignity of our families. We will never show weakness. We are still the Maranao whom they call ‘the proud people,’” said Lininding.
Residents have pushed for a compensation bill so poor residents could have some money to start over, but it’s still pending in both chambers of Congress.
Different versions of the bill propose P30 billion to P50 billion in total compensation to benefit some 27,000 families displaced from the former battle area.
“Up to now, we are still talking about the compensation bill, which is surprising because there are members of Congress who say they’re in favor of it. But if you look at the slow progress of the bill, it’s quite disappointing,” said Zia Alonto Adiong, a member the parliament of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM).
Adiong said he and other members of parliament were also pushing for a standing committee to “complement gaps and loopholes” in the delivery of the national government’s promises.
BARMM has stepped in to help sort out residents’ land ownership claims.
Rido, illegal demolition, and other problems
Residents of Sectors 4 to 9, who have secured permits to build, may begin rebuilding their homes in October 2021, Del Rosario said.
“[T]he road networks will be completed already by September 30. Entry of residents to construct their houses and buildings will start in October,” he said.
“The building permit is mandatory to ensure that only legitimate owners can construct on lots of their own. Land conflict is still an issue,” he said.
The problem is residents of these sectors have been having trouble securing this permit.
“Uncertain number of applicants are approved but are on hold due to a lot of problems such as rido [or clan war], illegal demolition, and/or property located along the highway,” according to a TFBM document.
Gandamra said he’s still expecting some 8,000 to 9,000 applications on top of the 2,118 permits already granted.
Castro said many others applied for permits to build, but they were not able to submit complete documents. “We cannot process your permit if your documents are incomplete,” he said.
The Ampuans’ situation was only a glimpse of the complexity of land ownership among the tightly-knit Maranao clans that is making the process of securing permits from the local government a headache for everyone.
There have been claims of residents finding out after the siege that their lots were mortgaged by family members without their permission, for example. There are also different clans laying claims to overlapping lots.
A Land Dispute Arbitration Committee was formed to resolve these land disputes.
TFBM is also facing court cases over allegations of illegal demolition of homes. Complainants said their houses could still be repaired, but these were demolished by government contractors without their consent.
“More than 1,000 houses have been demolished without their owners’ consent,” said Lininding.
With the ground cleared and overlain with new structures, there will be no way to identify old property boundaries, and owners whose traditional land titles bear no precise coordinates or measurements will have trouble claiming compensation, he said.
Lininding’s own house would have been demolished, too, if not for a friend “from inside” who called him when he saw the demolition team massing in front of his lakeside property in Barangay West Marinaut.
Lininding found a way to get into the cordoned-off area to confront the demolition team, which produced a permit signed by Gandamra. They spared his house following his protests.
Talks are ongoing with residents whose properties would be hit by road expansion projects. Work was delayed at the Pumping Bridge, for example, because it took a while to persuade residents of lots that will be affected by the project.
Gandamra said those who lived in the danger zone areas and government lots would be relocated to permanent shelters outside the former battle area.
These are problems that may not go away easily even after the rehabilitation is completed.
“When the government’s rehabilitation ends, that’s when the bigger problem begins,” said Lininding.
Four years of displacement has taken its toll on the residents. An estimated 100,000 Marawi residents were forced to live in different parts of the country. Some are renting houses, while others are living with relatives.
Like the Ampuans, tightly-knit clans were forced to break apart. Lininding is worried this will affect family relationships.
“Now, we’re scattered all over. We only see one another at reunions, and you get shocked to see your niece or nephew having grown so big,” said Lininding.
“Distances have started to form between our families. Our sense of kinship is very strong, but now it has come to a point where you don’t think of your relatives anymore. We worry that this will become normal,” he said.
Lininding said the government should just give the residents the freedom to return to ground zero at will, never mind if their houses were ruined. He said they would find ways to patch up broken roofs and walls, and look after one another. What’s important, he said, was that they would be together on land that they owned.
Adiong was fearful of what would happen if rehabilitation work took longer, which would postpone their return. Maranaos who have found work or started businesses elsewhere might have second thoughts going home, he said.
“They might no longer go back to Marawi because they feel they’re okay, so what’s the point? Why go back when you’re okay where you are, right?” said Adiong.
Adiong said the Maranaos must be vigilant to ensure that the Marawi they knew would not disappear.
In Sagonsongan, the transitory site that allowed residents like Farhana Ampuan to stay within Marawi, life is hard and their temporary shelters have been slowly falling apart.
There is no electricity, and water is still rationed weekly by the fire department. They collect rainwater in gallon-size containers to use for bathing, washing dishes and laundry, and watering plants. If there is no money to buy clean water, which happens often, Farhana said they drink this water, too.
Food is scarce. The family has been living mostly on leftovers from nearby relatives who are faring better. On days when they don’t get a call to collect leftovers, they sleep off their hunger.
Time and the elements have taken their toll on the temporary shacks.
“It’s terrible when it rains. We get flooded here inside the house. We all end up drenched,” said Farhana.
They have to pin plastic sheets onto the walls of their temporary shelter to keep the rain out. Back in May, Farhana’s mother Nuraima was sweeping flood water out of the house when the plastic sheet fell off, causing her to step on a loosened thumbtack that had pinned the plastic to the wall. She slipped and fell on the floor.
Farhana said they had to bring their mother to the hospital for a tetanus shot. “She is okay now. She just complains that her legs hurt sometimes and she couldn’t move them. Raihana and I take turns massaging them, and it makes her feel better,” said Farhana.
They know their temporary shelter won’t hold out much longer, and without the means to rebuild their home in Daguduban, they are counting on the government’s promise of permanent shelters.
“No word of applications for permanent houses have reached us here in Sagonsongan yet, but we will apply for one as soon as it’s available,” said Farhana.
Adiong said the construction of permanent shelters for internally displaced persons was going rather slowly.
He’s also worried about what would happen to the residents if the private owners of the land where the temporary shelters stood wanted it back.
“This is now the problem. The land occupied by temporary shelters were mostly donated by private owners, and the agreement with the National Housing Authority is that after five years, NHA will return the management of the land to the owners. They will then start asking the tenants to pay rent every month,” said Adiong.
“How would you solve that? Majority of the people in temporary shelters are not fixed earners. They don’t have monthly incomes to expect,” he added.
Farhana said they had nowhere else to go.
“We can’t move to the countryside because there’s nothing to be done there. Do we expect our mother’s siblings to feed us when they are also struggling to make ends meet?” – with reports from Carmela Fonbuena