The Battle for Marawi City – TIME

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The Battle for Marawi City

A soldier carries a captured ISIS flag while clearing a street in Marawi City on May 26. Jes Aznar—Getty ImagesA soldier carries a captured ISIS flag while clearing a street in Marawi City on May 26. Jes Aznar—Getty Images

By JOSEPH HINCKS / Marawi City

On what was to be her wedding day, Stephanie Villarosa ate chocolate-flavored rice porridge out of a styrofoam cup. Under normal circumstances—rings exchanged, fidelity promised, bride kissed—she and her family would have been feasting on lechón, roasted suckling pig, a delicacy in her fiancé’s hometown of Iligan City on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Instead, Villarosa was huddled on an institutional plastic chair 38 km south of Iligan, inside Marawi City’s provincial government building. Outside, sniper fire crackled over the mosque-dotted hills to the east and military FA50 fighter jets thundered overhead. Wedding or no, the porridge was nourishing, and Villarosa was happy: “God is good. Today we survived.”

Survival has become a daily battle in Marawi, the capital of Mindanao’s Lanao del Sur province and whose mostly Muslim 200,000 population make the city the biggest Islamic community in what is otherwise an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Villarosa, a teacher in Marawi, was handing out wedding invitations when black-clad fighters of what the locals call Grupo ISIS swarmed the streets. She ran, hid, and took shelter in a nearby house with 38 other people. Outside, she heard, her workplace Dansalan College was burning, and Christians were being killed. “We rescued ourselves—no military,” says Villarosa. “We had to run, walk, crawl.” Seven of her colleagues, including the school’s principal, were unaccounted for, but, low on food and water, and with news that the military was set to bomb the area, Villarosa decided to get to the sanctuary of city hall. “It looked like a movie outside, it looked like The Walking Dead,” she says, referring to the post-apocalypse U.S. TV series.

The battle for Marawi began on May 23, when the Philippine military tried to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the head of a southern militia that has pledged loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the army met fiercer than expected resistance. Allied with another pro-ISIS brigade called the Maute Group, Hapilon’s fighters took a priest and his congregation hostage, freed prisoners from the local jail, and overran the city. More than three weeks later, the fighting persists, hundreds have died—militants, soldiers, civilians—and hundreds more residents remain trapped in the city. Many have no electricity or running water. Food stocks are diminishing fast. As residents seek safety, much of Marawi has become a ghost town.

Iligan’s Capin Funeral Homes, one of a scattering of morgues in the area for Marawi’s minority Christians, is where some bodies from the conflict have been taken. A handwritten stack of crocodile-clipped papers logs newly received cadavers. In parenthesis, next to the names of two bodies that arrived one Saturday, a note says “decomposed.” That Sunday, six more decomposed bodies were logged, including two women and a girl. On Monday, another eight bodies were registered. A Marawi survivor later told local journalist Jeff Canoy that those were his colleagues from a rice mill. About a hundred of them had hunkered down at the mill, the survivor said, and the Muslims taught their Christian co-workers Islamic prayers to deceive the militants. After four days hiding, the rice millers made a break for it. Most reached the army checkpoints ringing the city, but a few didn’t. Their remains were found in a ravine with the word munafik—traitor in both Arabic and the local Maranao language—written on placards across their chests. As TIME toured the Capin morgue, four men wearing masks hoisted in another cadaver from Marawi. It was missing its head.

Smoke rises after aerial bombings by Philippine Air Force planes on Islamist militant positions in Marawi on June 9, 2017. Noel Celis—AFP/Getty ImagesSmoke rises after Philippine Air Force bombings on militant positions on June 9. Noel Celis—AFP/Getty Images

Since he came to power a year ago, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s obsession has been his brutal war against drug dealers and users. Now he is facing a different fight. When Marawi hostilities broke out, Duterte declared martial law for 60 days across Mindanao. “The dream of the Maute Group, which has pledged allegiance to ISIS and its flag, is to transform Mindanao into an Islamic state,” said Jose Calida, solicitor-general of the Philippines. The situation has become so serious that the U.S. is now involved. Washington no longer has military bases in the Philippines. But a 1951 mutual defense treaty allows the two governments to come to the aid of each other, and more recent agreements have seen American military personnel acting as advisers to Philippine forces, especially in Mindanao and the adjacent Sulu archipelago, both hotbeds of insurgency. On June 9, a U.S. Navy P3 Orion plane hovered in the cloudy skies above Marawi providing surveillance support to Philippine ground troops. A Philippine military spokesman later confirmed that the U.S. was providing “non-combat assistance.”

Marawi is the latest front in what has been a recent surge of apparently ISIS-linked attacks beyond the carnage in Iraq and Syria. These include: a bloody late May assault on Coptic Christian pilgrims in Egypt; the suicide bomber at the Ariana Grande concert in Manchester, the London Bridge assailants the following week; twin suicide bomb attacks that killed three policemen in Jakarta; and twin attacks in Tehran.

Marawi eclipses all those in deaths and duration. But perhaps its most crucial significance is the potential for ISIS and its affiliates to grow and spread in Southeast Asia, where many countries are Muslim-majority or have sizable Muslim populations. At a recent security conference in Singapore, the city state’s defense minister, Ng Eng Hen, said: “If the situation [in Marawi] is allowed to escalate or entrench, it would pose decades of problems … It can prove a pulling ground for would-be jihadists.”

Referring to a summer 2016 video in which fighters speaking Filipino and Malay urged their compatriots to head to the Philippines, Calida had earlier said in Manila: “What’s happening in Mindanao is no longer a rebellion of Filipino citizens—it has transmogrified into invasion by foreign terrorists.” Philippine officials say at least eight foreign fighters—from Indonesia, Malaysia, Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Chechnya—have been killed in the Marawi fighting. Said Indonesian Defense Minister Ryamizard Ryacudu, also at the Singapore security meeting: “The death group’s area of operation has gone global.”

Indonesia, the world’s biggest Muslim-majority nation, is particularly concerned about ISIS using the southern Philippines as a gateway to establish a foothold in Southeast Asia. The two countries are separated by poorly policed waters through which militant extremists can flow. “It’s easy to jump from Marawi to Indonesia,” Indonesia’s armed forces chief, General Gatot Nurmantyo, told reporters in Jakarta on June 13.

Indonesia also knows what it’s like to be terrorized. In the early 2000s, Jemaah Islamiyah (JI), a homegrown extremist group allied with al-Qaeda and with cells in neighboring countries, was responsible for a spate of attacks, the deadliest of which were the 2002 Bali bombings that killed 202 people. Like the Mindanao militias, JI’s goal was an Islamic state in Southeast Asia. Through a counter-terrorism offensive aided by the U.S., Jakarta eventually broke JI. Now the danger is ISIS. “In almost every province [of Indonesia] there are already ISIS cells,” General Nurmantyo told reporters. “But they are sleeper cells.” While few Indonesians have gone to fight in Iraq and Syria, a 2015 Pew survey found that 4% of the population held a “favorable” view of ISIS. That’s 10 million people. Says Sidney Jones, director of the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict (IPAC): “The mistake [in the Philippines] has been to see the danger as foreign fighters coming from Iraq and Syria coming back. The problem is foreign fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia, very close by, who’ve never set foot in Syria but who are attracted by the struggle.”

Residents who escaped from Marawi's inner city besieged by militants are evacuated on June 3, 2017. Jes Aznar—Getty ImagesResidents who escaped from Marawi’s inner city are evacuated on June 3. Jes Aznar—Getty Images

For now that struggle revolves around Marawi and Mindanao. On a recent Saturday, nearly 200 families were squeezed into Iligan’s rapidly repurposed Buru-un evacuation center. Some occupied squares of floor space partitioned by wooden slats and shared with bags, cardboard boxes, and tupperware containers of milk powder. Others spilled onto an adjacent sports field or baked under the tarp of U.N. tents. Two weeks earlier, this center had been a school assembly hall, says camp manager Eva Dela Cruz. It isn’t clear where these families will, or can, go when classes restart.

Tens of thousands of Marawi’s inhabitants have fled since the fighting broke out. Many have ended up in evacuation centers like Buru-un. Among those in limbo is Naima Abdullah, who says that she left the city with her five children, including a five-month-old baby, her 100-year-old lola (grandmother) whom she carried on her back, and a live chicken. “We walked for five hours because there was no transportation available and we had no money,” she says. “The [youngest] ISIS boys were around 12 or 13 years old. They had guns. They were wearing black suits with the flags of ISIS. There were so many armed men. We feared for our lives.”

As uncertain as the future is for Abdullah and her family outside Marawi, it is more confusing inside the city. The number of ISIS-allied fighters, as stated in military press briefings, has ranged from 150 to 1,000. At least two deadlines for clearing the city of militants have elapsed. And while the military officially pegged the death toll at 290 on June 14—including 26 civilians—both evacuees and army officials who declined to be named told TIME they thought more than 1,000 people had perished. “There is going to be an epidemic because there are so many rotting bodies in the streets,” says Norodin Lucman, a local clan chief and businessman.

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Information out of the President’s office has been similarly muddled. Reports that militants had beheaded the local police chief, referenced by Duterte in his declaration of martial law, were proven false when the chief showed up alive some days later. A claim that a hospital was attacked and its staff taken hostage—detailed in the government’s seven-page martial law report—was later denied by the hospital chief and the army. There have been contradictory reports as to the number of Filipino troops killed in a friendly-fire air strike—now thought to be 10. Reports of another errant airstrike that hit a small town 22 km from Marawi remain unconfirmed.

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