By: Criselda Yabes

Rasmiah and her mother and three of her siblings had one hour to get some of the things they had left in their house when they fled Marawi, the Mindanao Islamic city devastated by war. One hour. That’s all they had. They had to consider themselves lucky being able to get permission from the military that locked down the city. Every day dozens of families came to line up at the temporary quarters of the Task Force Ranao in what used to be the provincial capital.

Rasmiah used to work there, an engineer for the governor’s office, and she knew this place like the palm of her hand. Her eyes moistened when she walked into the building that had a huge tarpaulin map put on the wall. The families were to show where they lived. Where they used to live. If they had their houses in a ‘cleared’ barangay, then they would get their chance to be escorted in by military truck. They had one hour to get to the house, get their things, and then get back.

Her aunt was heard wailing. Her request had been denied. The neighborhood not safe enough. Her wailing echoed throughout the building. She dropped herself to the floor, begging the officer in charge. Please let me see my house. Just let me see it. Every day families who came here had only that wish. If only they could see it again. If only they could retrieve things that were precious to their lives. Pictures. Heirlooms. Graduation diplomas. Documents that bore information of who they are, what belonged to them. Their homes could either be ruined or burned.

They had thought this war wasn’t going to be a war. They thought it was going to be the same old fight. They’d been so used to the clan wars, the rido among rival families. It would take three days at most, or so they thought, and they’d go back to their normal lives again.

This wasn’t going to be a rido, a sporadic burst of violence between clans. This was going to be a war that has never happened here before. More than 800 militants and 250 soldiers are estimated to have been killed, along with hundreds of civilians. Among the dead are the leaders who started it, Omar Maute and Isnilon Hapilon, out of a mistaken vision of the promise of Islam.  

When Rasmiah and her family reached their home, they stood by the gate, held each other’s hands and sobbed. They had made it and yet they knew they would have to leave it again. The gate had been barged open, the house ransacked and looted. But the house was there, miraculously unscathed by gunfire and bombing. It is one of the few odd ancestral houses squeezed into the density of modern concrete ones, some that were plain and functional, others fancy and garish. Rasmiah said it had been built more than a hundred years ago by her great-great-grandmother, who must have lived through the grandeur of Marawi’s past, who must have seen Capt. John J Pershing riding his horse around the dreamy, placid lake of Lanao. The house stood by the western flank of the lake, in the village of Toros. There was a mosque behind it, and above the dome, up in the sky across the lake two jets roared. Watching them, we were transfixed by a bomb falling in a stupefying motion. It was real. This was Marawi now. Rasmiah threw blankets and clothes from the second-floor balcony to the patio below. It was amazing how this house was held together by the strength of hard narra wood all these years, although chipped by termites and the elements of time.

The looters had taken their antique gold coins and other brass sets of Muslim design. The cupboards, their wardrobe, every drawer and cabinets in the house were spilled open. There is no mercy for Marawi. It has reached a reckoning. The street in the village was deserted, the fighting so close by there across the lake where the central mosque stood. Machine guns and rifles rattled. Bombs blasted and exploded.  Bullets whistled. They littered the air with a rhythm composed by two sides of the fighting. The military will no doubt win this one, but at a cost in the length of time. The Islamist rebels will die or escape, to their last deadly cry of Allahu Akbar, taking the victory of their extremism.

Hurry up! The military escorts summoned them. Let’s make it fast. The borrowed Hilux pickup was filled to the brim of the family’s belongings. Rasmiah’s mother gave the house one last look. How could she have known that on the day she went shopping for food stock in preparation for the month-long fast of Ramadan in Iligan City about 35 kilometers down by the zigzag road, that the Islamist militants would fire the first shots? They had heard rumors that the ISIS would take over the city. Nonsense, they thought. The radical Maute brothers whose bailiwick was a town below the lake had been dreaming of the day when Marawi becomes a wilayat, a province, to be with the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria. The plan for it, in late May, was around the time ISIS was losing control in Mosul in Iraq, and the leaders had called on their fellow Muslim fighters in Asia and elsewhere to join forces with the Mautes. It had been months in the making.

No one knows if Rasmiah’s family house will still be there after the war is over. They might again be welcomed by the same smiles of the colored portraits on tarpaulins hung by the streets, ladies in their glittering robes, men with their proud velvet fez – the leftover prestige of the torn city. On our way out of there, there was a flock of pigeons by the checkpoint at a roundabout proclaiming Marawi and Islamic City. Pigeons, would you believe? Earlier there’d been a pack of stray dogs, whimpering in fear.

Some houses and shops were spray painted CLEAR. That meant the police and the military had done their rounds. All of Marawi’s estimated 200,000 inhabitants were ordered to leave at the start of the fighting on May 23. There were those who were still trapped, including hostages. By the second month of fighting, the military was able to claim control of neighborhood villages north and west of the river that divided the city, although it didn’t mean that it was safe. Better yet it pushed the enemy down past the bridges – which was the frontline line – over which the fighting was compressed into the remaining neighborhoods where the jihadists held their ground. The bridges, three of them, were sites that would have plenty to tell about the start of this war.