For ground zero IDPs in Marawi, there’s no going back

Luz Rimban, Agenda for Hope Project, Ateneo de Manila University

Posted at Oct 16 2019 09:02 PM

Most Affected Area (MAA), Marawi City — Construction workers are clearing the area that was the main battleground between government forces and extremist rebels, carting away the debris of a war that hogged international headlines two years ago.
 
MAA, also known as Ground Zero, the arena of battle between government and Maute/Abu Sayyaf forces in 2017, 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. And for the people of MAA who fled the city in May 2017 leaving everything behind, 127,309 of them according to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, there is no going back. 

TFBM map of the Most Affected Area. Map from Task Force Bangon Marawi Kambisita flyer

Since President 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 (IDP), 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 chair 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. 

Dr. Jowel Canuday, Ph.D., (left) chair of the Ateneo de Manila University’s Department of Sociology and Anthropology and board member of Mindanews, talks to residents of Bito Buadi Itowa shelter during a visit to Marawi in March 2019.

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 sulod 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. 

A succession of programs

In the meantime, they have to contend with government requirements. Before they could return to what remains of their property, the IDPs are being asked to apply for a permit to repair and rebuild their homes, under a procedure called Kathagombalay that TFBM launched in July 2019. Kathagombalay means “to build” in Meranaw.

Kathagombalay comes in the heels of Kathanor, a census started in October 2018, intended to collect the number, location, status and other characteristics of the IDPs of Marawi. Kathanor classifies the different kinds of IDPs into property owners, renters and sharers. Kathanor means “to arrange” or “to fix” in Meranaw. 

Kathanor, which is funded by the World Bank and implemented by the World Food Programme, is a campaign to collect biometric data from IDPs. It was supposed to be the basis for the distribution of aid packages worth P20,000 up to P73,000. 

Kathanor itself comes after the Marawi City Residency Master List, which according to a TFBM flyer “is TFBM’s baseline to validate IDPs from Marawi City. The master list was rigorously verified and vetted by the IDP Technical Working Group composed of Task Force Bangon Marawi, the Marawi City Local Government, the Barangay Local Government Units, Department of Social Welfare and Development and the Department of Interior and Local Government.” TFBM said in its flyer that Kathanor applications will be verified from the Marawi City Master List. 

To get a permit under Kathagombalay, residents need a house tag from the Department of Environment and Natural Resources (DENR). House tagging is part of another government initiative called Kambisita-II, a land, property and social data-mapping program. The first Kambisita was in early 2018 and focused on residents, who were allowed to visit their homes for a few hours each day for three days, under the strict supervision of soldiers. 

Residents can only return to visit their properties after they secure a permit from the city government. To get a permit, they need to fill up a form, present land titles or deeds, barangay clearance, and tax clearance. 

Less than half the land titled 
 
This requirement could mean the land dispossession of more than half the displaced population. Based on the Kathanor census, not all IDPs could present titles. "Only 45 percent of properties have titles," Del Rosario said. 

In the absence of a title, the next best thing would be a tax declaration, the piece of paper that proves ownership by means of payments of real estate taxes. 
 
"Not everybody has tax declarations," said Dr. Emelda Gandamra-Taib, the sister of Marawi Mayor Majul Gandamra who is also his chief of staff. "May makikita ka na isang land na ni isa walang tax declaration (You’ll see land that has no single tax declaration)."

Taib said the mayor had wanted to professionalize the management of the city and called for the titling of ancestral lands handed down by forebears and occupied by the current generations of Meranaw. He also wanted businesses registered and permits issued. 

"During his first 100 days (in 2016), isa yan sa mga panawagan nya. Yung mga gagawin natin na pinapa business permit kayo, na lahat everything should be legal kasi balang araw, you’re going to need that. So nangyari nga (During his first 100 days [in 2016], that was his call. What we’re doing is having you get business permits, so that everything should be legal. Someday you’re going to need that. So it has happened), " Taib added.

The requirement to have all lands titled is causing friction within families as well. Meranaw clans are known to share homes, with many families inhabiting a single residence. Deciding who should be named the owner is tearing families apart. 

The nongovernment organization Mediators’ Network for Peace which advocates alternative dispute resolution is working on the case of a house in Norhaya Village inside MAA that two siblings are claiming. As is common in Meranaw clans, the house was bequeathed by now-deceased parents to no particular child, and all were welcome to live in it. Two male children and their huge families were residing in the house at the time of the May 2017 siege. Who gets the title to the property is not a simple matter of the two brothers agreeing between themselves, especially since one of them pawned off his share of the house to a sister-in-law who is also claiming a share of whatever proceeds to be gotten. 

Marawi’s land problem

Two buildings of the Philippine Muslim Teachers’ College on Sarimanok Avenue are sitting on land that has been declared a military reservation way back during the American occupation of the Philippines. Photo by Luz Rimban

While the siege was happening in 2017, the Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process held consultations and conversations with various IDP sectors in Marawi, Iligan and Cagayan de Oro cities to make sure future interventions were aligned with the needs of the displaced population. The outcome was a report was titled "Post-conflict Needs Assessment Report for Marawi and Other Affected Localities." 

The report noted the land problem as a major issue government needed to approach with caution. 

“The land issue in Marawi is complex,” the assessment noted. “Existing laws may not suffice (and in fact even serve to escalate issues) and extra-legal options and alternative dispute (traditional) resolution mechanisms need to be explored. Such creative solutions must consider the need to correct historical injustices brought about by land dispossession during the colonial period.”
 
When the American colonial government ordered the titling of land, not all Muslims were fully informed of the legal significance of the process, and so not all complied. As a result, Meranaw residents interviewed for this report said, many of them have no proof of land ownership except for pieces of paper written in the hand of their forebears, passed from generation to generation. 

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An example is the Philippine Muslim Teachers’ College owned by the Sharief family, which has two buildings standing on Sarimanok Avenue outside Ground Zero. According to the school’s acting president, Datu Agakhan Sharief, “Hindi ito na titulo ng mga lolo namin kasi hindi nila alam ano ang ibig sabihin ng titulo (This property is not titled because our grandfathers did not know what a title meant).” 

As far as he knows, Sharief said, the land also cannot be titled because it is part of what has been classified as a military reservation from way back during the Amercian occupation. All structures in the vicinity up to the bridge, he said, would be in the same situation as PMTC. 

Sharief believes government should impose a status quo on all land in Marawi or risk facing a problem too difficult to solve. "Kasama yan sa pinagrerebelde namin, na bakit kami naka military reservation...Nauna kami rito (Part of why we are rebeling is why we are under military reservation.... We were here first)," he said 

Marawi’s total land area is around 8,700 hectares, of which 6,600 have been classified military reservation since the early 1900s when the Americans built their first camp in Lanao. Over the years, at least seven different land proclamations have covered Marawi. A portion of the military reservation would later be reclassified and set aside to build what would become the Mindanao State University campus. 
 
Muslim leaders foresaw that land in Marawi would be a post-conflict issue. In September 2017, before the liberation of Marawi, the late Ghazzali Jaafar, vice chairman of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, had appealed to President Duterte to correct the historical injustice by giving back to the Meranaw the land the Americans took from them. 

Instead of heeding the Muslim leaders’ call and working to assuage fears over the touchy land issue, Duterte ordered the expropriation of MAA land to establish a new military camp in Barangay Kapantaran, estimated to cost P400 million. The groundbreaking took place in January 2018. 

In April 2018, the Legislative Assembly of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao passed a resolution formally asking the government for the return of military land to the Meranaw. Nothing came of that appeal. 

Social healing not a priority

As important as the land question and the rebuilding of homes is the need for social healing. The post-conflict needs assessment noted the trauma the Meranaw felt from the destruction of Marawi, considered the heart and soul of the Lanao provinces, and the spiritual and business center of Muslim Mindanao. 

Central to any post-conflict action, the report said, would be the need to address and overcome “the pain, grief, hurt, and anger over the destruction of Marawi City, the displacement of the population, the loss of cherished properties, the prospects of land dispossession, the uncertainty of access to basic needs, and of their future in general.” 

Even the Joint Task Force Marawi through the Philippine Army made a similar assessment. “The Marawi crisis affected the displaced civilians physically, psychologically, emotionally, and socially. The people of Marawi City suffered a great loss – death and injury; damage to personal property, cultural and religious structures; loss of livelihood and income; and a disruption of business and education. They were also confronted by the appalling living conditions in evacuation centers. We could not and should not have been indifferent to the plight of these displaced persons,” wrote the Philippine Army in an article titled “Soft Power Approach” published by the Joint Task Force Marawi in its website "Marawi and Beyond."

The task of psychosocial healing fell on the groups like the International Committee of the Red Cross because government failed to allocate funds for this need in its budget. “Social healing was not included because in the initial stage in the drafting MOA we didn’t really know what we were facing,” Del Rosario said. TFBM ran into problems with the Commission on Audit for allocating funds for social healing in the form of trips to Mecca for select IDPs that were not part of the budget allocation. 

The post-conflict needs assessment had emphasized the importance of social healing. "Rebuilding will require not just physical reconstruction of destroyed infrastructure, but the repair of damaged relationships and weakened social cohesion, as well as psychosocial healing processes."

-- with additional reporting by Jowel Canuday and Maitel Ladrido.

(This report was produced as part of the Ateneo de Manila University's Agenda for Hope project and is a collaboration between Ateneo and the Davao-based Mindanews. The website containing this and other stories will be launched on Oct. 17, 2019.)