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.