Husnaa Bayat | Image: AFP (file)
There’s a violent yet silent war ravaging parts of the Philippines at present. Since May this year, hordes of men aligned to ISIS have attacked the town of Marawi, an act that has drawn the Philippines army into battle, supported by the US in a deadly confrontation.
Over 300 000 individuals have been displaced. Civilians are suffering but very little news is reaching the world.
Muallima Farida Sulaiman, a local female Islamic scholar who has taken refuge at a refugee centre one hour away from the war-ravaged city of Marawi, explained her personal experiences to Salaamedia. After her return from studies in South Africa, she has found herself in a grave situation and described how the outbreak of the war changed their lives overnight.
On the 23 May 2017 at around 2pm, local time, Marawi was attacked by by an armed group known as Maute. They have been influenced by ISIS, the now defunct Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or Islamic Caliphate.
The group is apparently being lead by Abdullah Maute, the eldest of the Maute brothers. Abdullah’s father, Cayamora Maute, was a senior official of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), which is now involved in peace talks with the government.
According to Muallima Sulaiman, the rise of the group witnesses increased beheadings, bombings, explosions and shootings. Evacuation procedures were employed as the war broke out between the ISIS linked groups and the government forces.
Rescue teams have been working tirelessly to save people. Thousands of innocent civilians are still trapped in Marawi, caught in the crossfire.
“The government has been using heavy weaponry against the rebel groups, but civilians have suffered more losses. Bloodied corpses of the people lie abandoned as food for scavenging dogs and the streets reek of death. Some of the trapped civilians have turned bony due to lack of sustenance and have been surviving on leaves and paper,” Sulaiman told Salaamedia in a telephonic interview.
“We are currently living in one of many cramped community centres which civilians were transferred to. Due to the dreadful living conditions, refugees in some of the evacuation centres are dying. Nobody is able to go to work. The government has been unable to provide temporary sources of income as the number of displaced individuals are too high to sustain. Without money and income the refugees have become completely dependent on humanitarian aid.”
A ray of light shone on the Eid celebrations in Sulaiman’s community centre when her friends in South Africa, raised funds to provide meals for three days.
In the rush to evacuate civilians, many families and friends were separated. Sulaiman lost her loved ones during the chaos. She said some families have reunited with their loved ones, while others have no knowledge of their whereabouts or whether they are alive.
Hussein Oruc, vice president of IHH, a Turkish humanitarian aid organisation that has been handling peace negotiations between the government and MILF (Moro Islamic Liberation Front), explained the mechanics of the war in a podcast interview with Salaamedia’s Ebrahim Gangat.
The MILF, the biggest Muslim rebel organization in the country from which the Maute Group broke away from has recently made an offer to negotiate a peace deal.
For the past 45 years the people of Mindinao Island, including Marawi city have been victims of clashes between Islamic fighters and the Philippines government. Over 150 000 people have been killed. Oruc noted that the people of Marawi, approximately 80% of whom are represented by MILF, have been struggling against the government to implement Shariah law.
“There are over 40 000 Mujaahideen with the MILF who are currently negotiating a peace process with the government.”
According to Oruc, there are only 300 fighters in the Maute and similar groups who refuse to participate in the peace process and continue to fight against the government. Allegedly, ISIS supports those who support the Maute mission, so while delays occurred in the peace process, ISIS joined forces with the two main rebel groups- Abu Sayyaf and Maute.
Muallima Sulaiman said that the Maute group has grown in strength with ISIS reinforcements as well as support from a local opposition party who seized the opportunity to oust newly elected President Rodrigo Duterte.
According to Sulaiman, the Philippines is one of the central drug trading countries in Asia. The free moving drug trade has been threatened by the newly elected president. Thus, she claims that one of the underlying motives of the fighting is to eradicate the president who is an enemy to drug trafficking. She lamented that innocent civilians have become pawns in these power games.
The Philippine government has declared a possible delay of 6 to 12 months before displaced civilians are able to return home. Clean up operations may take a while as the city has been destroyed. The government has promised that temporary relocation venues will be erected to house civilians during the time that restorations are expected to occur. Dispirited Marawians look forward to returning home, but they have accepted that home will no longer be the same.