Remnants of life in war-torn city

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A DUSTY teddy bear strewn on the floor, family photos on a wall and dried underwear on a clothesline are among the few remnants of life in deserted homes of a Philippine city left in ruins by war.

A dog eats the carcass of a cat on a street littered with rubbish where soldiers patrol, while military planes and helicopters continue the relentless bombing of Islamist militants hidden in other homes a kilometer (half a mile) away.

Nearly all of the 200,000 residents of Marawi have fled since hundreds of gunmen linked to the Islamic State  group went on a rampage on May 23, triggering a conflict that has destroyed entire districts and left the others vulnerable to looting.

Marawi has long been the Islamic cultural and commercial capital of the mainly Catholic Philippines, with a lake and cool mountain air making it a popular summer retreat, but parts now resemble the war-ravaged Syrian city of Aleppo.

Its residents are left in torment in nearby evacuation centers or friends’ homes, waiting for the fighting to end and find out what has become of their homes.

“Maybe there is nothing left. Our home may have been reduced to ashes. We heard our village was bombed and our house is just made of wood and bamboo,” Rasmia Abdullah, 24, told AFP with watering eyes in a crowded gym close to Marawi.

“It’s very painful because we were already rebuilding our house after a fire when the war broke out. Now we really have nothing.”

The war has also ended all types of business in Marawi —a city renowned for its traders—and locals fear looting has stripped well-off homes that were known to keep vaults of cash, jewellery and heirlooms.

ABANDONED PLACE. A government soldier stands  next to  abandoned houses and shopfronts near the frontline in Marawi as  hundreds of gunmen linked to the Islamic State (IS) group went on a rampage on May 23, triggering a conflict that has destroyed entire districts and left the others vulnerable to looting. AFP

But the impact is hardest on poor residents such as Abdullah, a mother-of-three and a banana and rice cake vendor, who fled Marawi with only the clothes on her back and leaving her wares to rot.

“If I could only save the machine I used to make rice cakes, I would do that to make a living. It pains me that the city I grew up in, all I worked for was gone and I don’t know how to bring it back,” she said. 

President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across the southern Philippines immediately after the militants began their rampage in Marawi, which he said was part of an effort to establish a local IS caliphate.

Duterte has deployed the full force of his military to end the uprising, most notably with a US-backed bombing campaign that has flattened entire neighborhoods.

However, the militants still hold three of the city’s nine districts, according to the government, using hostages as human shields while sheltering in bomb-proof basements and countering with brutal urban warfare.

Sixty-seven soldiers and police have been killed, according to the military, which estimates nearly 300 militants have died.

As the fighting continues with no signs of a quick resolution, the government and aid workers are starting to plan for the rehabilitation of the city on a scale as massive as for the most powerful typhoons that regularly smash the Philippines.  

Duterte has promised to set aside P20 billion  ($397 million) for the rehabilitation of Marawi, a process the provincial government expects to take 10 years.

Locals authorities are planning to build tent cities over the next six months.

In the schools and gymnasiums being used as evacuation centers, residents’ trauma is compounded by not knowing what has happened to their homes.

Vegetable farmer Amerodin Esmayatin, 35, said his cousins had told him that his house was first looted and later on bombed.

“We were already fleeing for our lives and yet people still took the little we had,” Esmayatin told AFP in a displacement camp where he and his family of five were staying.

“I can’t sleep at night thinking about what happened.” 

Abdullah said she was haunted by thoughts of what she would see when she finally did return home.

“I am steeling myself for the time I am able to come back but I imagine myself crying,” she said.

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