MANILA – “Life in Marawi was quiet and peaceful. I awoke every day at the sound of the ‘adhan’ (Muslim call to prayer), to the astonishing view of Lake Lanao, and with a breeze of cold, fresh air.”
Such is the memory of Asmenah Manabilang Barambangan, 24, of her home city in the southern Philippine island of Mindanao before Islamic State-inspired terrorists infiltrated it six months ago, triggering a five-month-long battle with government forces.
Barambangan, a law student in Manila who grew up in the predominantly Muslim city, said its cool weather, lush environment and simplicity is what likely enticed many people to settle there.
Another native, 16-year-old high school student Aklimah Lao Batao, said separately, “It’s a city where multicultural differences are respected, and is a living proof that religious tolerance is very achievable.”
The thriving city of over 200,000 people had an economy largely based on agriculture and trading, and its peace was only disrupted by the occasional gunfight related to clan wars.
That all changed on May 23 when hundreds of Islamist militants seized control of parts of the city, including its commercial center. The fighting since then, including military airstrikes, has left it devastated.
Batao vividly recalls that initial day of the conflict when around nine fighters — either militants or prison inmates who had been set free — briefly entered their house that night.
“Everyone was flustered, others started to cry. Thank God, they left,” he said.
As the battle raged on, the city was left deserted. Residents were forced to leave not just their homes, but also abandon their livelihoods. Students stopped going to school. Even residents of nearby towns evacuated for safety.
In all, some 360,000 people were displaced, among which some 70,000 have been allowed to return home.
By the time the battle ended last month, 170 soldiers and policemen, and 50 civilians had been killed.
The insurgency’s key leaders — Isnilon Hapilon of the extremist Abu Sayyaf Group and Omarkhayam Maute of the allied Maute Group — were among the nearly 1,000 militants who died.
Parts of the city, including its commercial center, were reduced to rubble.
Barambangan said that seeing the destruction “gives the sense of loss to everyone.”
“It is not about the properties damaged, but knowing that Marawi will always bring the memory of war and will never be the same again,” she said.
Barambangan showed video footage of her family’s home being hit by a bomb and engulfed in flames.
“We have to start from scratch and rebuild our lives completely. … It will take time, probably years, for our city to be habitable. Yet, we will be patient to come back home, as it is our only home,” she said.
Batao said he feels his “entire identity crashed to the ground as well” when he saw the results of the war in photos. “The places I used to go to are now mere soil on the ground,” he said.
Aside from government’s declaration in late October that full-fledged rehabilitation of Marawi had commenced, the private sector also committed to contribute to the city’s rebuilding and rehabilitation “to help bring back security and a vibrant economy as soon as possible.”
On Nov. 10, several nongovernment organizations and private companies launched the “United For Marawi” consortium, gathering pledges from various entities to engage in land surveys of affected areas, provision of educational assistance, and putting up of innovative street lamps, among others.
The government plans to flatten all structures in the worst affected areas and build new infrastructure, including highways, underground electric cables, and a lakeside promenade.
“We can use our core expertise in critical infrastructure such as telecommunications, water, power, fuel and energy, roads, and hospitals, and even sewage plants to help the city continue to deliver basic and lifeline services,” Rene Meily of the Philippine Disaster Resilience Foundation said at the event.
The private sector, Meily said, can “jump-start and reinvigorate the local economy by ensuring the continuous flow of goods and services in and out of the city and neighboring areas.”
Pending the completion of the government’s post-conflict assessment, which will set the required amount to rebuild Marawi, Mayor Majul Usman Gandamra said the initial required cost for the rebuilding of Marawi is 90 billion pesos (over $1.7 billion) “to make it better than before.”
A comprehensive rehabilitation plan is expected to be available by next March.
While thousands of houses, both temporary and permanent, will be provided by government and some private donors to some residents, financial assistance will be extended to those who can build their own houses on lots they own.
“There is a commitment on the part of Task Force Bangon Marawi that in rebuilding Marawi, government will consider the religious beliefs and conviction of the residents of Marawi,” said Harry Roque, spokesman of President Rodrigo Duterte.
“The goal is to completely rebuild Marawi during the term of President Duterte,” he added. Duterte’s term in office ends in 2022.
Barambangan said she prays that as the government, private sector and international community work to rehabilitate her city, “we will not be stripped of our identity as Maranaos,” as the local people are known.
She said the rebuilding process should take account of the city’s original character, art and history, while respecting and preserving its residents’ traditional way of living and customs.
Batao, for his part, said, “I want the city to emerge as a place that can compete with other developed cities and provide the needs of its people, and still uphold its values and culture.
Although Barambangan, Batao and their family members remain unable to return to Marawi, their hope to eventually do so remains very much alive.
“My entire family and I consider Marawi as our only home,” Barambangan said.