Five years later, the Maranao still cannot return home – Philippines

Marawi, Philippines – The road to Marawi Town winding its way around Lake Lanao is idyllic, surrounded by lush vegetation endemic to the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. But the dusty path leading to the northern shores of the lake soon unfolds a devastated city of hollowed-out buildings hammered by bullets – scars left by intense urban warfare.

On May 23, 2017, jihadists loyal to the Islamic State (IS) took Marawi by force. In the ensuing five-month battle between the jihadists and the Philippine military, known as the Siege of Marawi, more than 1,000 people were killed and 98% of the population — nearly 350,000 people — were internally displaced.

It has been five years since the siege ended and the government has steadily built infrastructure projects in the heart of where the firefights took place, including a cultural centre, sports complex and road networks. But what’s missing from the town’s rehabilitation are the residents — the displaced Maranao, or “lake people,” who have been waiting to return to their ancestral lands along one of the Philippines’ oldest lakes. Without them, the gleaming new structures, meant to be an enduring legacy of the Duterte administration, serve only as an ominous contrast to the lifeless, desolate streets that still bear the scars of war.

Last May, on the fifth anniversary of the siege, Anisah Guro visited her ancestral homestead at Ground Zero, a prime section of land overlooking the lake that suffered the brunt of the gunfire. Her plot of land was unrecognizable, she said — except for the bamboo trees that once lined her house.

Guro now lives in a small apartment with his family along Raya Saduc, a stone’s throw from Ground Zero. She works as a school district supervisor and was once in charge of eight elementary schools and one high school before the Marawi siege. Each barangay, or village, had its own school. Today, she oversees the three remaining schools that have been moved to temporary learning shelters in Sagonsongan, Marawi.

Like many others, Guro was not allowed to return to her land, which once included a dwelling house, an Islamic school, a small pharmacy and a commercial space. In a meeting with government officials in Manila shortly after the siege, Guro learned that his land would only be affected by a road-widening project. But in 2019, his property was demolished without justification or consent. No identification tag was left on the ground.

That same year, Guro filed a complaint with the city mayor’s office. “I submitted all the necessary papers with proof that the land belongs to my family, she said. “But I’m still waiting for permission to rebuild what’s been lost.” He was not told what would happen to his property, but an early construction plan released in 2019 outside Ground Zero revealed that a heritage museum was to occupy his plot.

The Duterte administration boasted that 95% of its rehabilitation plans would be completed by the end of his term in June, but two months later 28% remained unfinished.

A series of inaugural ceremonies were held by the government to commemorate each newly constructed building inside Ground Zero. Guro did not attend a single one. “How can I party with them when my own house is still in ruins?” Gouro asked. “What good are these building projects if there’s no one around to use them?”

The Marawi City Government identified 2,800 internally displaced families (mostly informal settlers) who were living at Ground Zero and in the dangerous areas of Lake Lanao and Agus River. As of October 2021, 657 permanent homes have been constructed out of the 2,776 targeted homes through coordination with the National Housing Authority, UN-Habitat and the Government of Japan in the *barangays* of Kilala, Gadongan, Dulay West, Dulay Proper, and Patani in Marawi. 620 homes are now occupied by displaced persons. By the end of May 2022, UN-Habitat provided 1,000 housing units. But 120,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) remain displaced to this day.

Not all families in the predominantly Muslim region have official land titles recognized by the Christian laws that govern the rest of the country, which poses a problem in filing claims.

Housing Secretary Eduardo del Rosario told a recent press conference that many residents did not want to go through the process. “If we allow them to enter without the regulatory powers imposed by the city government, it will be chaotic,” he said. “They will end up fighting because there are so many applicants in one or two lots.”

Residents are disappointed with the lack of a recovery plan for the displaced, and basic public services like water and electricity have yet to be restored. The national government has only channeled Php10.7 billion out of the estimated Php350 billion in foreign donations pledged for the rehabilitation of the war-torn city. When del Rosario was summoned by the Nominations Committee and asked about the remaining commitments, he claimed that the remaining funds were channeled from other countries through NGOs that coordinate their projects with local officials. The task force recognized shortcomings in procurement and implementation, which also caused further delays.

Residents suspect the government’s plans to commercialize the city, making it a tourist hotspot for neighboring Mindanao provinces, could explain its rush to push through demolitions and building permits — and prevent people from returning displaced.

Lockdowns imposed by the local government during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 worsened the living conditions of displaced people, who were relocated to transitional shelters in the villages of Sagonsongan, Boganga, Dulay and Rorogagus in Marawi . Due to harsh quarantine protocols, movement has been restricted, which has not only affected people’s livelihoods, but also hampered their access to water and sanitation.

All schools inside Ground Zero have been demolished. Instead, the government built a single integrated school to accommodate teachers and students of all levels. “Does this mean that the old schools and villages will cease to exist? Guro wondered.

In October 2021, during the last Department of National Defense (DND) budget hearing before the Senate, Philippine Army Commanding General Andres Centino said that 188.16 million pesos had been allocated in 2019 to fund a camp 10.2 hectare military on a hill overlooking the lake and the entire city using private land belonging to the internally displaced Maranao. The project has been postponed, but DND is expected to resubmit the project details with a larger budget of Php297.1 billion for this year.

Meanwhile, IS militants are expected to take advantage of these dire conditions to recruit new recruits from displaced residents, who are exasperated by the slow pace of the rehabilitation process.

Newly elected Philippine President Ferdinand Marcos Jr. is convinced rehabilitation work was completed by his predecessor and failed to mention his plans for Maranao in his first State of the Nation Address. But local leaders in Maranao hope the new administration will allow a dignified return for its displaced residents.

As Guro nears retirement, she will continue to oversee temporary learning spaces in Sagonsongan so that war-affected children can have access to a decent education. She accepted the possibility of not being able to return to her land in this lifetime.

“Even if we don’t live to see it, we hope the children we leave behind can get a glimpse of Marawi’s beauty.”

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