Almost a Year on from ISIS, Marawi’s Displaced Residents Face a Long Wait to Return Home

Many of Marawi’s former residents remain displaced across Mindanao. The city’s central Banggolo area remains off-limits while the military works to clear unexploded bombs and war materials left behind from the conflict. (Image Source: Philippine Information Agency)

Five months since President Duterte declared Marawi city ‘liberated from terrorist influence’ after the slaying of militant leaders Isnilon Haplion and Omar Maute during the final throes of battle, the vast majority of the city’s war-weary former residents have not yet been able to return to their homes.

More than 200,000 of Marawi’s inhabitants remain displaced and are at the epicentre of what has become a prolonged humanitarian crisis, which is beginning to foster an atmosphere of hopelessness and despair among the resilient but increasingly forlorn community of Marawian evacuees.

The exiled are desperate to resume their lives and begin the slow process of rebuilding everything they have lost, yet the path ahead appears uncertain, dangerous and littered with obstacles.

The government says the full reconstruction and rehabilitation of Marawi could take up to four years to complete, whilst the flattened streets of the city centre remain littered with unexploded ordnance. The scale of devastation across the war-ravaged city makes a return to normality a distant prospect.

In the interim, the prolonged marginalization and disenfranchisement of Marawi’s exiled community could create fertile ground for recruitment by ISIS in the areas of western Mindanao worst-affected by the displacement crisis. Should the government be doing more?

The scale of the humanitarian crisis is huge. More than 353,000 people from around 77,000 families were displaced by the five-month war which pitted government forces against jihadists from the Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups. The vast majority fled during the early days of the conflict after militants took the authorities by surprise and over-ran the city on 23 May last year, leaving only around 2,000 civilians stranded in areas of heavy fighting. Several-hundred were taken hostage by the Mautes.

Most internally-displaced persons (IDPs) sought refuge in the nearby provinces of Lanao del Sur and Lanao del Norte, with smaller numbers residing in Misamis Oriental and South Cotabato. The majority of those who fled have stayed with friends or relatives, yet tens-of-thousands more have been forced to seek shelter in cramped conditions in hastily-established state-run temporary evacuation centres.

The military initially hoped to defeat the jihadists within a few weeks, but as residents anxiously waited for news the conflict ran-on for five long months as the city was reduced to rubble through intense ground battles and sustained aerial bombardment. The scale of devastation was immense, as security forces engaged in some of the heaviest fighting witnessed in the Philippines since World War Two.

Whilst the small number of civilians trapped in the conflict zone endured a desperate daily battle for survival, dodging bullets and launching daring attempts to escape from their captors, those who had already managed to flee to safety were confronted with a new set of dire challenges.

In overcrowded evacuation centres, health became a major concern as cases of fever, diarrhoea and respiratory illnesses soared. Inadequate sanitation facilities increased the risk of waterborne diseases, whilst safe drinking water was in short supply. Dwindling food supplies led to a rise in malnutrition among the elderly and young children, many of whom remain out of education as twenty of Marawi’s 69 schools were totally destroyed. Most other schools suffered extensive damage and remain closed.

The sheer extent of the unfolding humanitarian emergency overwhelmed local authorities, who were ill-prepared to cope with the burgeoning crisis. The siege of Marawi not only destroyed homes but also jobs, livelihoods and entire communities, prompting a sudden exodus with little prior warning.

Some families from the outer-regions of the city were able to return home in the weeks immediately following the ‘termination of military operations’ in the city by the armed forces in late-October. A few thousand others have been moved to temporary resettlement villages built by the government, the largest of which is in Sagonsongan and will eventually be able to accommodate 4,600 families.

Bombing of Marawi City
ISIS-linked militants from the radical Maute and Abu Sayyaf groups laid siege to Marawi on 23 May 2017. The authorities were initially taken aback at the scale of the assault, and it took almost five months for the Philippine military to retake the city. (Image Source: Mark Jhomel)

Yet the majority of Marawians remain displaced. According to the latest figures released by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) only 87,306 individuals from 16,930 families have returned to Marawi so-far, leaving another 266,615 residents from 53,323 families still without a home.

Contamination of the main battle area with IEDs planted by the militants and unexploded ordnance (UXO) from military air raids presents the most immediate barrier to return. Task Force Bangon Marawi (TFBN), the multi-agency group set-up by the government to co-ordinate the rehabilitation effort, is currently working alongside military engineers to clear the hard-hit central Banggolo area.

As of the end of December, TFBN said 30% of the area had been cleared with the army having removed 2,853 items of UXO and 415 IEDs from the ruins. Military spokesman Col. Romeo Brawner says clearing operations in the area, which covers 24 of the city’s 96 villages, are scheduled to be completed by mid-April. Even then it will not be safe for residents to return permanently, only to pay a fleeting visit.

The government estimates that full reconstruction and rehabilitation of the city will take up to four years and cost PHP50bn, yet some have predicted the final bill will surpass PHP150bn. International organizations such as the World Bank and foreign governments including Australia, China, Japan and the US have all pledged financial support, whilst President Duterte has allocated an initial PHP10bn for the rehabilitation of Marawi in this year’s budget. Despite these commitments, little can be done to speed up recovery and get residents home sooner.

More however could be done to support Marawi’s displaced inhabitants while they are living in a state of flux. Nine months after the siege began host families are still struggling with the burden of care, whilst the basic needs of many IDPs staying in evacuation centres are still not being met. It is now clear that most evacuees will not be able to return home for years, prompting calls for greater support.

In the present void, resentment and anger are rising. This could play directly into the hands of the very people who drove Marawi’s residents from their homes. The Philippine military has already voiced concerns over radicalization in the provinces surrounding Marawi, warning that ISIS-linked groups such as the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters (BIFF) and remnants of the Maute group are actively seeking to recruit new fighters, first targeting young men from the most marginalized communities.

Marawi’s residents are eager to return home, but their city has been reduced to rubble and large parts of it will remain uninhabitable for the foreseeable future. The conflict will leave lasting scars not only on the landscape, but also in the minds of those who witnessed the horrors inflicted by ISIS and those who have lived through its aftermath in desperate conditions.

By extending Martial Law until the end of 2018 and looking to bolster the military’s presence in Mindanao, as well as reaffirming his commitment to pass a law creating a new autonomous Muslim region in the south, President Duterte is at least attempting to ensure that the siege of Marawi is not repeated elsewhere in the region whilst concurrently dealing a blow to ISIS’ recruitment ambitions.

Yet with an eye on securing peace for the future, Duterte’s administration is arguably not doing enough in the present to help Marawi’s displaced residents recover and get their shattered lives back on track. Despite starting the process of rebuilding the city and providing various means of assistance to IDPs, the state’s response has been criticized in some quarters as being too slow and inequitable.

The void is being filled by NGOs and the charitable nature of victims’ friends and families. Yet as time passes and funding dries-up, these additional resources will likely wear thin. Duterte must hope that radical groups are not able to also fill part of the void and take advantage of the situation.

Just like the siege itself, the path home for Marawi’s displaced inhabitants is set to be long, arduous and fraught with setbacks.

A version of this article is also published on Eurasia Review.

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Yemen facing humanitarian crisis as war takes devastating toll on civilians

One year on from the start of a bombing campaign against Houthi rebels, launched by a Saudi-led coalition of Arab states, the air strikes continue as the increasingly complex war in Yemen shows little sign of ending. The impact on civilians has been huge: almost 6,000 have been killed, 2.5 million displaced from their homes, and almost 20 million people left without access to a regular food supply, safe drinking water or medical supplies. Whilst the world’s attention has been focussed on Syria, the destructive war in Yemen has left the country on the edge of ruin, and the population on the brink of a humanitarian disaster.

The conflict has its origins in September 2014, when Houthi rebels based in the north of the country, launched an offensive against the government and seized control of the capital, Sanaa. The country’s President, Abdrabbuh Mansour Hadi was initially placed under house arrest, before fleeing across the border to neighbouring Saudi Arabia. In the following months, the rebels quickly took control over almost all of western Yemen, whilst government forces retreated to the east. In the midst of the chaos, jihadist militant groups such as Al-Qaeda were also able to exploit the power vacuum and gain a foothold.

The Houthis, who constitute a minority of Yemen’s population, allied with former President Ali Abdullah Saleh, who was ousted from power during the 2011 Arab Spring protests. Saleh remained a powerful force in Yemeni politics, retaining the loyalty of a large portion of the security forces.

Article 8 (1) Sanaa
Yemen’s capital, Sanaa, has been under the control of Houthi rebel forces since September 2014 (Image Source: Ferdinand Reus)

The major Gulf power, Saudi Arabia, looked on with increasing concern and interest as the conflict unfolded across its southern border. In March 2015, the Saudi defence minister Prince Salman quickly assembled a coalition of Arab air forces, including the UAE and Bahrain, and began a campaign of air strikes against the rebels on 26th March. Initially, the alliance hoped that their overwhelming firepower would turn the tide of the conflict within a few months; yet 12 months later, little progress has been made and civilian casualties are mounting.

Over the past 12 months Saudi Arabia has been increasingly involved, training and equipping forces loyal to President Hadi in an attempt to confront the rebels on the ground. Law and order has collapsed, leaving the country in a state of chronic disintegration with no central authority. In the East, the conflict has gained a new layer of complexity as armed militias and violent jihadist groups have emerged to play a more prominent role.

There is now growing international opposition to the bombing campaign, with the EU Parliament recently voting to call for the imposition of an arms embargo on Saudi Arabia. However, not all world powers share this view, as the US and the UK have continued to supply aircraft and weapons to their long-standing regional ally Saudi Arabia, including precision-guided missiles which have been used in the air campaign.

Whilst numerous human rights groups have argued that civilians represent the majority of casualties from air-strikes, the Arab coalition has said that its targets are chosen carefully, and continue to insist that they abide strictly to international rules on the conduct of war. Several previous attempts at peace talks in Switzerland have failed, but a new round of talks is due to be held in Kuwait in the coming weeks, initiating a renewed attempt to find a solution. However, as the war has become increasingly complex and more international actors have become involved, a peace deal any time soon is looking unlikely.

To understand the complexity of the conflict, it is important to look at the wider strategic context. The division between Sunni and Shia Muslims has long been a source of tension in the Middle East, with Saudi Arabia (the most powerful Sunni state) sharing an intense and long-standing rivalry with Iran (the most powerful Shia state). The Houthi rebels in Yemen are also Shia, and are backed by Iran. In this context, the conflict in Yemen can be viewed as a sectarian, proxy war between the two regional rivals, with Saudi Arabia reluctant to allow one of its neighbours to be controlled by a Shia-led government, and determined to maintain its dominant influence in the Arabian Peninsula.

These tensions have flared up more visibly in recent years as the Middle East has entered a period of upheaval, and Iran has re-entered the international community after signing a nuclear deal with the West. As a result of these two factors, the rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran has increased dramatically, with both states looking to increase their control and influence over the region, driven by a sense of paranoia and opportunity. In particular, Saudi Arabia’s foreign policy has become more assertive and outward-looking since King Salman replaced King Abdullah in January 2015, revoking the country’s traditional diplomatic stance in favour of a more confrontational and active approach.

Article 8 (2) Saudi Air Strike
A coalition of Arab states led by Saudi Arabia has been conducting air strikes against Houthi rebels since March 2015 (Image Source: Ibrahem Qasim)

As this geopolitical game has extended its influence to Yemen over the last 18 months, it is civilians who suffer the worst consequences. Yemen was already the poorest country in the Arab world before the conflict began, plagued by years of instability, poor governance and widespread poverty. Even prior to the conflict, 50% of Yemen’s population lived below the poverty line, whilst the youth unemployment rate was over 60%. Now, after 18 months of fighting, the humanitarian situation has ‘severely deteriorated’, according to the UN’s Human Rights Co-ordinator Johannes van der Klaauw. Since the conflict escalated in March last year, the UN estimates that 5,878 civilians have been killed and up to 30,000 wounded. The country’s infrastructure has been almost completely destroyed, and basic services have ground to a halt.

Both sides in the war have been accused of committing serious abuses, many of which amount to war crimes. Human rights groups have accused the Saudi-led coalition of using cluster bombs, and targeting homes, hospitals and factories. The Houthi rebels have also been accused of shelling residential areas and laying mines; whilst the UNHCR said in November last year, that it has verified more than 8000 reports of human rights violations since the conflict began.

Further exacerbating the effect on civilians, the Saudi-led coalition has imposed crippling import restrictions and a naval embargo on the country, resulting in severe food and fuel shortages. According to a UN report, 21 million out of Yemen’s 26 million population now require humanitarian aid, whilst 19.3 million are without access to safe drinking water, and 2 million people are ‘acutely malnourished’.  In addition, 14 million people lack basic healthcare due to the destruction of hospitals and a lack of supplies, whilst 1.8 million children have been unable to go to school. An estimated 120,000 people have fled the country, whilst those that do remain in Yemen, live under the fear of constant bombardment from aerial attacks and ground fighting. Humanitarian organizations attempting to work in the country have been severely hampered by funding difficulties and access constraints.

As each month passes, the situation for civilians in Yemen is becoming increasingly desperate. A solution looks to be a distant prospect, as the conflict continues largely un-noticed by an outside world focused on recent developments in Syria and Europe. Obscured from view, the war in Yemen shows little sign of ending, leaving its cities in ruin and its citizens on the edge of a humanitarian catastrophe.