Residents mourn battle-ridden Philippine city of Marawi

As government forces clash with ISIL-linked fighters, those who call the city home bear the brunt.

Women and children have been caught up in fighting in Marawi City [Noel Celis/AFP]

“Fatima! Fatima!”

Fatima emerged from her the second-floor veranda of her home.

She closed her eyes, ran to the edge and leapt barefoot, with one hand clutching a bag of her meagre belongings and a blue veil wrapped around her tiny head.

The rescuer caught her in time, but not before her body hit a steel rod – twice.

READ MORE: Marawi: A scarred city of Philippines

She was carried into the back of the car where I sat. She looked at me and opened her mouth to say something, but no words came out of her mouth. She kept shaking her head as her tears continued to fall.

I took both her cold hands between mine. In a whisper, I told her, “You are safe now,” but that was all I can do. Overwhelmed by her presence in the car, I did not have the courage to hold her.

Three other civilians were rescued from that house.

102-year-old begs to stay at home

Before long, we were off to our second location in Marawi City to rescue Abdulhalim Lumipao.

For eight days, Abdulhalim, 102, was trapped in the house he shared with his family, all of whom eventually left as soon as the conflict took a turn for the worse.

He stayed, however; he was too old.

He fell back when the rescuers kicked the door of his house open because he was right behind the door as it gave way.

But unlike Fatima, Abdulhalim did not want to leave his house.

He begged rescuers to leave him alone. “My house, my house,” he cried as he held his forehead. His own grandson had to carry him out.

This is a war that separated fathers and sons, where women weep softly to themselves.

Most of the residents have fled and the ones who got out first were those who had the means to escape.

Among those who left is Elvira Pakot. She has lived in Marawi since she was 12.

“I no longer recognise it,” she says.” It hurts to lose everything but I won’t be coming back.”

Residents of Marawi City have made their exodus down narrow dirt roads, walking for days under the searing heat with their shoes caked in mud and their hearts scarred. They are students, workers, business owners – all of them with lives left behind.

For many of them, what is left of what they own is only what they could carry, wrapped in malongs or flimsy plastic bags.

They had a life before the war started. Now, they are called Bakwits, a term for those who have been displaced.

Women, children caught up in fighting

At an evacuation centre, I saw a woman lining up for food as she carried her two-month-old baby.

“How is the situation here?” I asked.

“We are okay,” she replied. She said nothing more and looked away.

After speaking to a volunteer, I found out that the woman had been separated from her husband.

In the silent hours, it was easy to imagine that they are haunted by the ghost of their loved ones.

I entered a public health clinic, right next to an evacuation centre in Saguiaran. Nuraisah Untao was there with her sick one-month-old baby, Mishael. He was only three days old when they fled, and he was suffering from diarrhoea brought about by the difficult situation in the camp.

“We have been poor even before this war started ma’am, I hope they haven’t forgotten us,” Nuraisah said.

I looked at Mishael, and he reminded me of my son. I then stood up and walked out.

I had no right to cry in front of them. As a journalist, I have been trained to deal with grief, not of my own but of others. But I have learned to accept in all humility that, in my lifetime, I will never be able to gauge their loss or understand completely the depths of their despair.

I walked to another room of the health clinic where a woman was in labour. She was all alone, enduring the pain in a dingy, muddy hallway. No, the husband is not there she says, as he has to look after the kids in the camp.

READ MORE: The battle for Marawi – Confusion and contradictions

And then another woman on a hospital bed, who had just given birth to her tenth child. “This baby is my last. I can’t take any more uncertainty,” she said.

She named her baby boy Martial, in keeping with these uncertain times.

How many of these children in evacuation centres will be able to finish school? How many of them will be orphaned and will grow up with revenge in their hearts? These children are the perfect recruits for groups like the Maute.

In another evacuation centre, this time in Balo-i, Lanao del Sur, 80-year-old Fatima Coro Slaimah lined up for food under the unforgiving heat with her great granddaughter, but there was nothing mendicant about how she behaved.

She wore a bejewelled veil and wore red lipstick. She had gold bracelets on her wrists. Her face was full of wrinkles. When I approached her, she smiled.

She thought I was a social worker so she proudly handed over to me the blue card that bore her name. Like for so many others here, this blue card may be a matter of life and death. It detailed every single aid they have received, along with the time and the date.

The card had become symbolic of their present, but hopefully not of their future.

Driving down from Marawi back to Iligan, I saw an old man sitting on the pavement, under a shade. He was dirty and half-naked. From the looks of it, he was barely alive.

And yet people milled about him as if he were invisible. I stopped the car and gave him a bag of bread. He barely noticed me.

Several days later, my cameraman and I were going through videos from an evacuation centre during the early days of the siege and discovered the man was among those we filmed.

Back then, he looked all right. He was clean, sitting on a mat with whom I suspect are his family. I imagined he must have lived a good life before the war, before it all came crumbling down very quickly.

I quickly regretted my action. I wish I did something more for that man.

Hope and despair

I have never been to a place of both hope and despair. Every person I came across spoke of optimism mixed with fear and burden on their shoulders.

One of them is Nariman Taha of Lanao del Sur, a doctor. She is also an evacuee, but she continues to fulfil her duty as a medical worker by attending to the needs of other evacuees.

What does it mean to lose everything? How does one start over? How does one deal with the daily bombardments, the loss of loved ones, of precious possessions? Of old photographs and mementos carefully passed on from one generation to another?

Having attended daily pressers and listened to recycled press releases from the military, it was easy to understand that there was a clear absence of national leadership here. Even other politicians from other parts of Mindanao who advocated for this war, even for martial law, were nowhere to be found.

Once, I was at a meeting with a local government official. “I worry not much will be left of Marawi after all this,” I told her.

She looked at me and said, “That is not true. We are still here.”

For the first time in decades, they have been subjected to humiliation, these proud and resilient Maranaos. They are known to be entrepreneurial and clannish, and how many of them have found themselves in evacuations centres, mendicant and dependent.

And yet, there was dignity in how they conducted themselves – on how they laid out their mats for their children, on how they folded and adjusted their veils and sarongs, on how they lined up in evacuation centres.

In every gesture, I sensed an inner upheaval. Maybe even rage.

For every single step is deemed an act of defiance. Every single movement an act of refusal, of giving in to despair.

Source: Al Jazeera