Losing home.

As a life condition, nothing can be more harrowing. As a result of government indifference, it’s a traumatic injustice. But losing one’s home as a result of government’s misplaced sense of infrastructure development — over the rights, dignity and cultural sensitivity of the displaced – borders on the outrageous.

Past Ferdinand Marcos Jr.’s first 100 days, the so-called independent and quasi-judicial Marawi Compensation Board seems to have been stuck somewhere between the imagination and amnesia. After five long years, the supposedly nine-member board has yet to be created, leaving tens of thousands of displaced Meranaw residents at risk and in dire living conditions.

By force of Republic Act 11696 or the Marawi Siege Victims Act of 2022, the job of the group, if it ever sees the light of day, is to evaluate and process the requests of thousands of Marawi evacuees for tax-free monetary compensation due to the 2017 siege.

Foremost is the drafting of the Implementing Rules and Regulations (IRR) in consultation with various government agencies “within 60 days from the effectivity” of the law.

But for reasons yet untold, government has dilly-dallied on this issue for the past five years, Rodrigo Duterte’s former administration not the least, lagging desperately behind continuing calls to put RA 11696 into action.

First question: is funding available? So far, the Department of Budget and Management said one billion pesos have been apportioned in the 2023 national budget for Marawi rehabilitation. This is sourced from the P31-billion Calamity Fund.

Good news or not, it’s up for debate. Anyone familiar with the devastation wrought by the siege would know it would take more than P1 billion to spring the effort. Government’s Post Conflict Needs Assessment had already judged the value of losses at P18.6 billion, with full recovery of affected areas calculated at P51.7 billion.

Moreover, on March 2019, the Lanao del Sur-Marawi City chapter of the Integrated Bar of the Philippines submitted documents to the House Committee on Rehabilitation based on the claims of 15,102 displaced residents, which amount to P91.6 billion in total damages.

Other hurdles come into play such as foreign donations. Why is the rehabilitation getting very little financial attention even after US$7 billion or P350 billion in foreign aid, to say little of P22 billion from government coffers, have been earmarked for the effort? This is based on a paper released by the Justice for Marawi Justice for All People’s Campaign and submitted to the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro.

The document, signed by close to 40 heads of interfaith groups, including Archbishop of Cebu Jose S. Palma, Chairperson of the Muslim Council of Elders Visayas (Region 6, 7 & 8) Imam Najeeb M. Razul, and Bishop Emeritus of Sorsogon Most Rev. Arturo Bastes, calls for a transparent audit of the funds, among others.

The same document says that only 10 shelters are currently operating to assist the displaced residents, six of which remain temporary. To make matters worse, I’ve gathered from sources that plans to determine rent payments are in the works.

It bears mentioning that any modernization plan launched within the affected areas without seriously respecting the cultural sensitivities of the Marawi people is unacceptable to the evacuees. According to the Declaration of Unity of Justice for Marawi Justice for All People’s Campaign entitled, We Support Marawi:

“Of serious concern is the on-going infrastructure-led redevelopment plan that is geared towards modernization without consideration to cultural sensitivities […] The construction of stadium, convention center and museum could permanently displace those who were original settlers of the affected area – without certain on-site relocation. The IDPs contend that such development was not what they wanted and needed. They assert that there was no representation nor IDP participation in the process of crafting the rehabilitation plan.”

It’s only proper, therefore, for the displaced residents to call for a legislative inquiry into the matter. Deaths that remain unaccounted for, human rights violations, and reports of looting and destruction of property, have been noted down and reported to authorities.

Above all, the people’s insistence to be included in the decision-making process should unequivocally be honored by the State. The ball is now in the government’s court.

Marawi, before the siege, was a city beaming with the artistic, religious and cultural life of its residents. It is with profound sadness, too, we remember that more than half its inhabitants were considered poor.

Nevertheless, no amount of commercial facelift, regardless of economic windfall, can ever replace what has been lost due to conflict and armed aggression. As 2022 slowly grinds to an end, perhaps the current administration can look at the problem squarely in the face and see how it can step up all labors to fully revitalize this once majestic city.

Above all, the rights of the inhabitants over their home city must be respected.

JOEL PABLO SALUD is the author of several books of political nonfiction. He has sat for 11 years as editor-in-chief of one of the country’s foremost newsweekly and literary magazines and is currently the chair of the Writers in Prison Committee of PEN Philippines.