RESIDENTS of war-torn Marawi City began returning to their homes Tuesday, but gunfire greeted them as soldiers scoured the devastated neighborhoods for remaining militants, who had waged a brutal five-month battle with government troops.
“We are afraid but we want to check on our houses,” Jamaliah Lomontong, a village official in her 40s, said as she and some relatives walked into their neighborhood near where the main fighting occurred.
Lomontong said her house had survived, although it had been looted.
“Anything easy to take away has gone—televisions, laptops,” she said.
Defense chiefs announced on Monday that the fighting, which claimed more than 1,100 lives and left the eastern half of Marawi in ruins, had ended following a final clash in a mosque in which dozens of gunmen were killed.
The militants had overrun Marawi on May 23 in what President Rodrigo Duterte and security analysts said was a bid to establish a Southeast Asian base for the Islamic State.
The campaign to oust them turned into the Philippines’ longest urban war, forcing about 400,000 people to flee their homes as the militants defied near daily bombing raids by hiding in basements, tunnels and mosques.
Only a few dozen civilians could be seen on Tuesday morning on the outskirts of the mostly destroyed eastern half of Marawi, where regular bursts of gunfire and occasional explosions could still be heard.
However, the sounds of war did not mean there was renewed fighting, said Col. Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of Marawi forces.
He said they were due to soldiers going through buildings looking for militants who may still be hiding, while troops were also detonating bombs that the gunmen had planted.
“It’s possible that there were some [militants] left behind. In every war, that is the SOP [(standard operating procedure],” Brawner said.
“So the firing is part of the mopping operations, because if there are holes, tunnels [in buildings], then the troops fire first into the hole before they check with their flashlights,” he said.
In the western half of the city, which largely escaped the fighting, hundreds of residents had begun returning.
“I feel a mixture of joy and sadness,” businessman Gonaranko Mapandi Jr., 46, said as he stood close to a military checkpoint.
“I’m happy because we are able to return. But I’m very sad at what happened to my city.”
In the Senate, Senator Nancy Binay called on the authorities to hasten the clearing operations so that rebuilding could begin.
She earlier called for the inclusion of indigenous peoples and internally displace persons in the 23-member Task Force Bangon Marawi, which was tasked by the national government to lead recovery and rehabilitation efforts in the war-torn city.
The Chinese embassy on Tuesday has handed over 47 units of heavy equipment for the rehabilitation and rebuilding of Marawi City, noting that Beijing was the first country to donate and deliver support to the Philippines.
Chinese Ambassador Zhao Jianhua congratulated the Armed Forces for ending the five-month siege and assured the Philippines that Beijing would not only be Manila’s partner but also its friend.
“I’m glad China is the first country to donate and deliver rehabilitation equipment to the Philippines. There is a Chinese saying, that is, when you want to do something good, then do it in a timely way,” Zhao said in his speech during the turnover ceremony.
“These equipment arrived just at the time when the reconstruction of Marawi City is about to begin,” the envoy added.
The 47 units of heavy equipment are worth P155 million and include eight excavators, wheel loaders, dump trucks, and cement mixers; five compactors, track type tractors, and bulldozers; and one container van.
“The donation is timely and they are going to put to use immediately,” Zhao said.
Zhao, who was in Marawi Tuesday, said that he observed that the government has been “quick in planning the rebuilding and recovery” of Marawi City.
In his speech he said the the crisis faced by the Philippines can be considered as an opportunity to build a new Marawi and rebuild lives.
“As the Chinese saying goes, in every crisis, you have an opportunity. To build a new Marawi is a unique opportunity to demonstrate that you can defeat terrorists, you can also rebuild lives. To demonstrate that you can defeat terrorists, you can also build harmony. To demonstrate you can defeat terrorists, you can also win the heart and soul of the local Muslim community,” he said.
He urged the administration to launch a campaign that would turn Marawi into “a grand example for a beautiful, prosperous, sustainable and inspiring city.”
“A new Marawi City of this kind rises from ashes and ruins will surely have great and positive impact on the future of Mindanao,” he said.
A leftist lawmaker, meanwhile, raised concerns over the participation of the World Bank in the rehabilitation efforts.
“The World Bank should have no role at all in the Marawi reconstruction and rehabilitation given its notoriety in imposing loan conditions that push pro-business reforms and open up local economies for corporate plunder,” said Gabriela Party-list Rep. Emmi de Jesus.
De Jesus said a Marawi rehabilitation master plan must primarily address the needs of its people for food, housing, education and basic services instead of putting investor interest on top of everything else.
“World Bank and its pro-business rehabilitation plan should stay out of Marawi. The welfare of the victims should be the utmost concern of the government, and that WB should not take advantage of the situation, to make money out of it,” De Jesus said.
De Jesus criticized the Duterte administration for being “very giddy” at the thought of investors rushing in to prey on the devastation in Marawi while thousands of families have no homes to return to.
“We fear that the WB template for rehab will open up Marawi City to foreign business interests eyeing tourism, trade and oil, robbing Maranaos of their own resources while the corporate entities bank on the massive housing problem. This is a recipe for disaster… much worse than terrorism,” she added.