‘The most important rehabilitation is that of our identity as Meranaws’

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One year after the Marawi siege, the Meranaws cling to faith, community, and the chance of returning home. Illustration by JL JAVIER

Manila (CNN Philippines Life) — If there was one thing that the people of Marawi City feared as the siege began on May 23 last year, it was the airstrikes. While discussions in Manila were mostly about fears of martial law, the Meranaws were on social media, desperately pleading against the use of airstrikes.

Noddy Summer, a Meranaw who found herself stranded inside the city with five children, was interviewed in a morning show on the second day of the siege. As the interview was winding down, she asked one of the hosts if she could make an appeal to the Philippine government. Her voice, clear and steady all throughout the interview, was now straining as she tried to hold back tears.

“I am asking the Philippine government to not launch aerial strikes over the city,” Summer said. “This is what truly strikes fear in me because look at the map; study the terrain of Marawi City. All of our houses are right beside each other. I hope that the whole world understands that the people whom they call Muslims are not terrorists. We are the victims here,” Noddy said.

Later that day, Lt. Col. Jo-ar Herrera, spokesperson of the Philippine Army’s 1 Infantry Division, said that the fears of airstrikes were based on information from the local terrorist group that was currently in the city.

“The situation there is that it is a built-up area, it [has] a population, so we need maximum tolerance,” Herrera said. We place premium on the rights of the people; actually we didn’t use any aircraft to launch surgical airstrike to target the local terrorist group. Ang ginagawa po natin dito is a very precise deliberate operation in order to protect the people. Ang marching orders sa akin is protect the civilian at all costs. Iyon po ang ginagawa natin dito.”

“In terms of airstrike po, that’s not an option right now because of the people around and in the area,” he added.

On May 25, bombs started falling from the sky.

***

Fears of an airstrike were not unfounded. In January 2017, the Armed Forces of the Philippines launched airstrikes in the town of Butig, Lanao del Sur, during operations against local terrorists who were earlier reported to have raised a black flag in the grounds of the old town hall.

“After the Butig war, we distributed relief goods in the area. That was when I experienced how painful the war was for Marawi children. A plane was flying overhead when some of the children started crying, so I asked the people why the children reacted that way,” Fr. Teresito “Chito” Soganub, a Catholic priest who was formerly based in Marawi, shared during a forum in Davao City last May 19.

Turns out, the children were out playing one day when they saw a plane overhead. “Miyakaudo so plane,” one of them said in Meranaw, amused by how the plane looked like a giant bird relieving itself, until a bomb hit the ground right next to their home.

Fr. Soganub would later on experience the fear of airstrikes firsthand, as he was taken hostage by the local terrorists during the Marawi Siege.

“Every day we would hear bombs, every day we would hear gunfire, and everyday we would just hide. We faced death every minute; we were never sure if we would live to survive another minute and we couldn’t do anything except pray and prepare ourselves knowing we might not survive,” he said.

“I kept telling myself, ‘you will die.’ In my mind I kept praying, and my spiritual sanity was tested, sometimes even wanted to die. Once I found myself praying, 'Lord, if ever I end up dying, please don’t let it be in this place, but I want to die.'”

***

Prof. Dalomabi “Dolly” Lao Bula was in a kanduli, waiting for her children, when the Marawi siege began. All she had with her was the clothes on her back when she realized she couldn’t come home for a long time.

“The things that I thought I would only get to see on T.V., especially when all that was on the news was the Zamboanga siege, they all happened to me. Things like having to wash your clothes late in the afternoon, wearing a borrowed shirt as you hang your clothes outside, hoping they would be dry enough the next day, and then waking up early in the morning to dry the same clothes under the sun so you could wear them again that same day,” Prof. Bula shared.

She stresses that the rehabilitation of Marawi must not only focus on the city’s infrastructure and facilities. “The most important rehabilitation is that of our identity as Meranaws,” she said.

“We lost our identity in one year’s time, and we pray to Allah to give it back through the help of His other creations,” she added. “We are again experiencing the historical injustices inflicted on us by the colonizers.”

Many of the evacuees from Marawi City are currently staying with relatives in nearby municipalities, while some of them are with relatives in places as far as Manila.

“The lake or the ‘ranaw,’ is our identity,” Prof. Bula said. “It is our language and name — Meranaw, the people of the lake. If we will be separated from the lake, we will no longer be called Meranaws.”

***

In Manila, cab drivers usually notice my weird accent which is a result of having lived in Manila for most of my life and then relocating to Mindanao in 2012. More than once, I have been asked if I speak Bisaya, to which I reply, “Makasabot man ko, ‘ya, pero gamay lang. Dili man ko sanay mag-istorya nang Bisaya.”

It had been two weeks since the siege started, and I was in Manila for three days. I was in a cab, and the driver noticed my accent like many other drivers have had before him. I went through the motions of speaking in my broken Bisaya, trying to tell him that I understood the language but I’m not particularly fluent in it, because I work in the Bangsamoro and I hear different languages everyday.

“Meranaw ako, ma'am,” he then told me.

It was an unexpected introduction. I suddenly greeted him the way I usually greet people of the Bangsamoro. “As-salamu alaikum,” I said, and he answered with “Wa alaikum us-salam.”

I asked if he had relatives in Marawi, to which he replies “ang Marawi at mga Meranaw ay iisa lang, ma'am.”

At that moment, I knew that the grief of the Meranaw people extends far beyond the city of Marawi. It was a grief that I shared with the people of Marawi as we watched the city turn into rubble. It was a grief I tried to run away from, only to find that my grief lies heavy within.

***

On July 1, during his speech at the 50 Founding Anniversary of Davao del Sur, President Rodrigo Duterte blamed the Meranaw people for the siege of Marawi City.

“Such was the rage I felt towards my fellow Meranaw,” Duterte said. “I said I was angry, why did you let the bastards into the city. Why did you allow the terrorists?”

Former Armed Forces Chief Eduardo Año expressed a similar sentiment days after the siege ended, “For so many years that the Maute Group built up in Marawi,” he said, “not even one of them gave us information.”

“Who is at the losing end here? It’s the people of Marawi who did not give us information and didn’t cooperate,” Año said.

Prof. Bula, however, has a response.

“On the several trips of the President, I have not heard of a Meranaw displaced family whom he visited. To him, we seem not to exist. Most probably because he believes that the Meranaws let the ISIS or Maute Group get into Marawi,” she said.

“But, may I ask, who controls the airports, the seaports, the highways, and the intelligence machinery? Definitely not the Meranaws! Before the siege, the government already knew the ISIS were in nearby areas because of the Butig and Piagapo attacks. Why put the blame on us?” she asked.

“The government did not do its job to protect us.”

***

“I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from the terrorist influence,” Duterte said during a visit to the Islamic City in October 2017, following reports of the death of terrorist leaders Omar Maute and Isnilon Hapilon.

“There was a firefight and they were finished,” National Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said a week later, as he then announced the end of fighting between local terrorist groups and state forces in Marawi City.

But what does it mean to be liberated?

These days, areas identified as parts of the ground zero of the Marawi siege resemble ghost towns. Meranaw residents of the city have tried to enter ground zero, including an attempt to hold Friday prayers inside the grand mosque.

Blocked by state forces, the residents decided to pray at the Unayan Bridge where they were forced to stop their march into the city.

When asked about their aspirations after the siege, the answer of the Meranaws is clear: “kambalingan.” In the language of the Meranaw, it means “coming home.”

From April 1 to May 10, Marawi residents were given the chance to enter Marawi City through a program, led by Task Force Bangon Marawi.

The program was called “kambisita.”