Through a sniper’s hole pounded through a wall, I could see smoke billowing from the firefight. It was raining steadily and the smoke hovered like a misty cloud. Marawi without the war has the splendor of cool mountain climate. Lending a surreal ambience to a city stamped with violence, fog would blanket the lake itself. From my view, a pink warehouse building was rendered a carcass from all kinds of blasts. Others were blackened and ruined. A few houses had lost roofs, walls, and were pockmarked with god knows how many rounds of ammunition. The destruction was unimaginable.
Up close, the central mosque, which had taken more than a decade to build, Marawi’s culminating place of worship before the nouveaux riches built their private mosques, was unveiled from the haze of gunfire and rain. There was an enemy sniper on the minaret. They’re good, some officers told me of the Islamist fighters. They’re very good. These ISIS fighters have trained well, borrowing tactics from the fight in Mosul. Here in Mindanao, they’ve challenged the armed forces to the hilt.
This was going to be a new terrain for the military, which had to blend in fast in urban warfare. All units could now not go without sledgehammers – the very tool used by the enemies to puncture the walls of houses to get their targets. It was making a labyrinth within a labyrinth. And the military had to learn this kind of fighting. A bulk of the infantry had to do a crash course in close-quarter battles. This wasn’t the jungle. This was the unknown.
The army sniper lay on a single-bed mattress on the floor. Flat on his stomach, his rifle propped on a pillow, its muzzle aimed through the hole. The bed sheet smelled of talc powder, I wondered if the appropriated mattress belonged to the girl whose picture was in a frame sitting on a side table. We were on the third storey of a house that speaks of a Maranao family’s level of wealth: the more money they have, the higher the house gets. Although the city is said to be the poorest in the region of Muslim Mindanao, Marawi thrived robustly on underground trade of just about anything from pirated DVDs to guns and drugs. Any of the houses could have in their storage guns, bullets, jewelry, cash.
The city lived by its own rules, and it was the power of guns that made them the ‘untouchables’ – which some say led to the years of warlord governance, to the destruction of their city. Outside the drizzle was hypnotizing. A silver fancy kettle – one that I have seen in weddings and funerals – was boiling water on a burner. The commander wanted an afternoon drink to perk him up, to resist the temptation of having a siesta on a lazy weather day like this one, a siesta he very well knew he could not have. A war like this has greater room for nightmares.
Seated on a brown velour couch at the end of the room, we sipped hot Milo chocolate and chatted about anything. The latest episode of The Game of Thrones. The abhorrent state of toilets in government offices. The importance of rapid deployment in this war. The beauty of the surrounding towns below the lake, despite the poverty, despite the armed clashes. His coffee mug was Donald Duck. Mine was Ninoy and Cory Aquino on a five hundred-peso bill. We strung together our candid words and thoughts that raised more questions about the future of our country. We sat there for the length of the rainy afternoon, as if the host to which the house belonged had left us to our whim of a tea party.
The thing about this house is that the family who might come back could still rebuild their lives within the four walls and patch up the holes made by the snipers; or they might come back to see that soldiers who did the fighting from their house would leave much more of an imprint in the story of Marawi.
The memory of this war will smolder for years to come. The last time something like this happened was in Jolo, in 1974, when Nur Misuari and his Moro National Liberation Front paved the way for a secessionist uprising. The town of Jolo was smaller, and the military had all the weapons in their might to burn it in order to save it, in just a matter of days. Symbolically the war in Marawi leveled to that of Jolo, but it has made Misuari and his decades of fighting for Mindanao almost irrelevant.
Because here in Marawi, we were staring violent extremism in the face, the virus of Islamist fanaticism infecting the Muslim rebels. It is a new chapter in our history. It was martial law that triggered the burning of Jolo, and the Muslims of the south would never forget the atrocities. Marawi on the other hand became convenient for declaring martial law in Mindanao, and the soldiers that came to free it were seen as heroes. The Marawi boys are a generation apart from the Jolo boys.
The sniper aimed and fired. Two successive shots, followed by a third after a pause. We cupped our ears. The rain petered out and a fresh round of ammunition fired off, right past the Bonggolo bridge that I could see from another sniper’s hole, just by the side of the couch. This hole had a foreground view of a dead tree shorn of leaves, as big as an acacia, bald and empty where birds, strangely, had flocked. The gunshots trailed in the background of our conversation, both intense and trivial. Out there on the front line, it was going to be a much longer day, the firefight raised to a pitch until nightfall.
I thought about the young soldiers I met the previous day taking a short break from the battleground, each one sharing their war stories. They were out there right now.
A captain from the Light Reaction Regiment said it was like being in an office-clockwork, planning first thing in the morning and trying to get some rest in the few hours of the night. Each day they decide which building to attack. It’s not like what you see in the movies, he said. You don’t see the enemy. A corporal who was a sniper himself was impressed by his counterpart who could shoot through a straight line between two holes in a house measuring about 50 or 60 square meters. They know their Tactics, Techniques and Procedures, he said. This is not the New People’s Army, not even the Abu Sayyaf in his previous encounters. They will hold their ground.
He was training in the jungle of Sulu when his Scout Ranger unit was deployed to Marawi, where he’d rather walk while in operation than ride an army truck. A Special Forces lieutenant had this war for a test mission, a leader of his course class he named Vishnu. He’s the very first vegetarian soldier I’ve met. He’s a year shy of 30 years old and is a big fan of the Filipino-Australian actress Anne Curtis, or she of him. For him being in Marawi is an honor, prestige. Bombs have dropped unnervingly close to him and they have miraculously turned out to be duds.
The commander took me to other houses in the neighborhood of Raya Saduc, where pastry shops seemed to have been the mode of business (and the pawnshops too). The Corner Cake was one. And there was Maika’s Café & Cakeshoppe. There was also a bookstore that was supposed to have opened on the day of Ramadan. The rebels were fond of graffiti: MARAWI IS FOR ISIS ONLY was sprayed on a red-orange gate that was taken over by the army troops.
Other houses occupied by soldiers underwent décor changes, evidently. If they had been out in the field, these would have been their detachments or tactical command posts. The commander led me through doors and corridors and through gaping holes, up steps and down, and up to a roof, to see the flattened rubble on the other side of the river. We crisscrossed three houses to make it to the top, ducking and running for cover to a spot that had a better view. As though we were on a tower given a tour of the telescopic scenery beyond our reach.
Earlier we were at a school whose grounds have been transformed into a firing base for mortars. The ammo in metal cases stacked by the side of the building was marked Made in Serbia. My memory clicked for a split second. Serbia. More than two decades ago, there was the Balkan War, in the former Yugoslavia. That was the last of a real war I’d seen, in a European country breaking apart. I didn’t know our military had diversified into buying ammunition from Serbia. They’re effective, the commander said, raising his thumb. They must be. I could see it from the frequent shelling fired from the open space of what might have been the school’s parade ground. By the playground nearby, a soldier was dribbling a basketball.
On the streets of Raya Saduc, armored personnel carriers stood by, all covered with wood planks and coconut lumber, a bizarre makeover for the mechanized infantry. Apparently in the course of the fighting it was discovered that there was less impact on wood than on the armor itself, especially those coming from rocket-propelled grenades RPGs. Thus using wood as armor to armor, who would have thought of that? The troops were painting them a camouflage wash. Each of the armored vehicles had a name, either in honor of a general they fought with or a place they fought in. Sidling up to the ghost streets, they had the veneer of a Mad Max preparing for a convoy.
One had at its front, PSALM 91. The Lord is their defender and protector, the Bible said. This was not a message of sectarianism; it was a question of life and death in this incomprehensible war. The Islamic militants could have raised their black flag for control of Marawi in their ultimate quest. They had children in their army, whom they had brainwashed in a boardinghouse school called the toril. Rasmiah had told me horror stories of parents losing their children to the Maute’s jihad. We studied Islam but never like that, Rasmiah said. We don’t believe the Islamic way of ISIS.
The militants sought refuge in the central mosque as their base for the battles. After more than a hundred days of fighting, the military re-took it. The houses around it lay in rubble, crushed to the ground, unrecognizable. Daily air strikes avoided the mosque – that was the order. The harrowing bombs flattened a great deal of the city below the river. But not the mosque. Never the mosque. It was the only symbol that could make Marawi rise again.
Criselda Yabes (firstname.lastname@example.org) is a prize-winning journalist and regular contributor to Asia Sentinel.