People in the battle-scarred Southern Philippines city of Marawi are trying to rebuild their homes and lives one year after the place was stormed by Islamist militants.

On 23 May 2017, militants belonging to the Maute group, an affiliate of Islamic State, took over Marawi.

In what followed, five months of fighting between the militants and government forces, 40 per cent of the city was destroyed and 98 per cent of the population displaced. Militants entered homes and set buildings on fire, including a cathedral and a Protestant-run college.

They also took over a dozen Christians hostage, including a Catholic priest, as Christians were a particular target for the extremists, according to Christian charity Open Doors International.

According to one of its local staff, Ayesha*, “there were really many Christians who were killed at that time”.

“There were eight Christians who were asked to recite the Al-Fatiha and Shahada [Islamic prayers]. When they refused to recite them, right then and there they were shot, with placards placed on their bodies stating they were traitors”, she said.

The daughter of Pastor Leo* found herself trapped in the hospital when Maute militants invaded the buildings. Her father received a phone call from her.

“I was on my way to pick her up and, before I reached the hospital, she called telling me that there were ISIS and Maute [militants], who attacked them and took control of the hospital”, the pastor said.

“She also said that there were already many dead including the security guards and policemen. There were other Christian hostages while the others ran for their lives,” he told Open Doors. In the end his daughter managed to escape and survived.

Scars of war

Since the government forces liberated the city in October, approximately 3,000 homes are waiting to be rebuilt while some 50,000 people still live in temporary shelters, according to Open Doors. The rebuilding of the city is estimated to costs at least US$ 1 billion.

A wall of a building marked by military to say that the site is cleared from weapons or bombs. (Photo: Open Doors International)
A wall of a building marked by military to say that the site is cleared of weapons and bombs. (Photo: Open Doors International)

Most of the city is still cordoned off. Some homes and businesses on the outskirts appear to be intact, but bear the scars of war. Their gates and walls are punctured by bullet holes and are marked by crude army graffiti. “X” stands for ‘ISIS was present’. “XX” means the ‘presence of weapons or bombs’.

Ayesha is involved with helping people to not only rebuild their homes but also their lives. “Many [people] lost their jobs because of the war, and how we’re going to respond to that is very important. It is their daily sustenance. If they don’t have jobs, they don’t have food to eat,” she said.

Fasting together

However, she added, the most challenging task is to help people in Marawi to stay and to reach out to their neighbours, despite what happened.

“That to me is really the most painful part – to reach out to those who caused the death and destruction of your loved ones and took you out of your normal life. This is the most painful thing.”

Despite being a majority-Muslim city, Christians and Muslims used to live in Marawi side by side, peacefully. Also, during and after the war there were stories of how they helped each other.

Ahead of the first anniversary, religious leaders in the troubled Mindanao region, to which Marawi belongs, published a manifesto titled “Marawi and beyond” in which they declared the “need to restore … relationships of trust and mutual caring” among the population, reported UCAN.

Muslim scholars and clergy both said they were “against violent extremism” but, among other issues raised, said that young Muslims were particularly attracted by armed groups because of the government’s failure to deliver on promises.

Earlier this month Christians and Muslims started the Islamic month of fasting together, as part of a local tradition dating back almost 40 years.

Marawi’s bishop, Edwin de la Pena, said this year’s Ramadan would be an opportunity to promote peacebuilding involving Muslim and Christian youths across Mindanao.

Meanwhile the threat of more terrorist attacks in the country remains very real. Two weeks ago, two people were injured after a bomb went off outside a Catholic cathedral in the city of Koronadal, which is also in Mindanao. only seven hours’ drive from Marawi.

(*) Real name withheld because of security reasons