Desperation builds for Marawi folk
MARAWI CITY—Omalia Baunto keeps a desperate vigil for news of her husband, Nixon, trapped just a short walk away in brutal fighting between terrorists allied with the Islamic State (IS) group and government forces that has ruined Marawi City.
Nixon, 40, has called her only twice since the terrorists rampaged through Marawi and laid siege to the city on May 23.
He is among hundreds of civilians pinned down in pockets of Marawi that are controlled by the terrorists, and they are facing an onslaught of deadly threats including bombs, sniper fire, hunger and a lack of medical care.
Dash to safety
Some have made a 2-kilometer sprint to safety during the four weeks of conflict, risking being shot at by the militants, and Omalia waits every day at a secured government building nearby hoping her husband will run into her arms.
“He told me last week that he was with four other men who were wounded. They were moving from house to house,” Omalia told the Inquirer.
“I have not lost all hope and in my heart I believe he will return,” she said.
“It’s really painful for me. I’m always scared he’ll be hit,” Omalia, 43, said in an interview with Agence France-Presse (AFP) on Wednesday.
“He is too traumatized to escape. Even we on the outside are afraid because you don’t know which direction the bullets are coming from,” she said.
The fighting began on May 23 when hundreds of terrorists from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups rampaged through Marawi, the most important Muslim city in the mainly Catholic Philippines, waving the black flags of IS, the jihadist group that is losing ground to allied forces in Iraq and Syria.
They have since withstood a relentless, US-backed bombing campaign and intense ground battles with government troops that have left large parts of Marawi resembling devastated cities in war-torn Syria and Iraq.
One of the keys to their survival has been the trapped civilians, who are acting as human shields in stopping the military from completely destroying the small areas controlled by the gunmen.
Even so, entire streets are now just full of rubble and the military’s bombs have not always hit their targets—with one strike going astray and killing 10 soldiers on May 31.
Most of the city’s 200,000 residents fled during the early stages of the fighting.
Authorities say anywhere between 300 and 1,700 civilians remain trapped in the terrorist-held areas.
Snippets of survival
Omalia’s family was visiting a nearby town when the clashes began but Nixon returned to check on their home and their hardware store.
Since then, Nixon has been able to call her only twice and report terrifying snippets of survival.
“He hasn’t eaten. He hasn’t slept. A bomb here, an explosion there. He is getting weak,” she said at the provincial government office’s entrance, from where she could see military helicopters bomb terrorist-controlled areas.
Twenty-six civilians have been confirmed killed in the fighting.
But local officials and aid workers believe dozens more have likely died, with their corpses rotting in the terrorist-held areas, and that conditions are growing increasingly dire as food runs out.
“Some residents are eating (cardboard) boxes. They just dip it in water to soften the material and eat it,” provincial crisis management committee spokesperson Zia Alonto Adiong told AFP, recounting testimonies from people who escaped.
“It’s heartbreaking. It’s almost unbelievable to think that people are living this way,” he said.
The military has also reported that the terrorists are using some civilians as slaves, making them cook and carry munitions.
One survivor who escaped on Tuesday, Christian housepainter Nick Andeleg, 26, said he and his colleagues decided to flee after coming to the realization that waiting any longer would certainly lead to death.
“We thought we were the only ones left trapped. We felt it was better to try escaping. If we died outside our house, at least we tried to save ourselves,” Andeleg told AFP as he recounted watching bombs destroy houses around him.
“We hid anywhere we could. We’d go under all kinds of furniture: beds, cabinets, in the toilet. We were like rats hiding under anything we could find,” he said.
President Duterte has declared martial law in Mindanao to resolve the crisis quickly, but the military has missed a June 12 deadline to expel the terrorists from the city and the fighting has entered its fourth week with no timetable for the city’s liberation.
The displaced residents are angry with Mr. Duterte for what has happened to them and their city.
“We [voted] for him because we thought he would bring peace,” Omalia said. “Now Marawi is in ruins. He has called in the tanks and airplanes bomb the homes we have built with our own sweat. When Marcos declared martial law, we were at least left in peace.”
She was referring to the iron-fist rule of the late dictator Ferdinand Marcos, who placed the entire Philippines under martial law to combat growing communist insurgency compounded by a Moro rebellion in the country’s south.
Thousands of his political opponents were killed, arrested or went missing during his nearly 20-year rule, which ended in his downfall in a popular revolt in 1986. He died in exile three years later.
Omalia Baunto, who has left her six children with her in-laws outside of Marawi, said she was determined to wait for her husband.
She appeared tormented by the wait though, mumbling to herself while sitting alone sometimes, and asking unanswerable questions to others at the government building.
“When is this crisis going to end?” she asked. “When will this chaos be over?” —WITH A REPORT FROM AFP
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