Photo from the Philippine Information Agency during the implementation of ‘Kambalingan’- a Maranao term that means ‘returning.’ PIA ICCC

On a road trip to Marawi City, two years after a five-month government conflict with pro-Islamic State militants ended and left the main business center in ruins, you know the proud Maranao are slowly getting back on their feet and returning to normalcy.

From Balo-i town, a predominantly Muslim town in Lanao del Norte up to Marawi City, the heart of Lanao del Sur and the only Islamic City in the country, you will not miss billboards and tarpaulins congratulating sons and daughters of the people from the lake for their achievements, like passing professional board examinations, promotions to a government position and other personal achievements.

The signs are common in Muslim communities in the southern Philippines, but in the Maranao culture, it is distinct and unique as it reveals a particular character – a “can do” spirit.

Upon reaching the city’s outskirts, shops and restaurants are open and a jewelry store is doing brisk business. But the city will never be the same again. There’s a certain sadness and gloom as residents in the 24 villages in the “most affected areas” during the conflict remain a “no man’s land” – virtually a ghost town.

More than 17,000 families are still housed in temporary shelter areas and more families have moved to Manila or other parts of Mindanao, or are staying with relatives in nearby towns in the Lanao provinces.

Marawi City is not only the capital of the province, it is the heart that provides the political, economic and social life of the Maranaos. The daytime population exceeds 400,000 as people in towns around the lake transact business, attend schools and sell produce and wares in the city every day.

All were displaced when a small band of radical Muslim extremists, who had pledged allegiance to the brutal and violent Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, seized control of the city after an incident in May 2017  when soldiers and police officers attempted to serve warrants of arrest against Isnilon Hapilon, a Yakan from Basilan and the recognized emir of the Southeast Asian militants.

What followed was a destructive conflict that lasted for almost five months. Marawi’s main business center was left in ruins, a destruction seen only in Manila during the Second World War in 1945. More than 1,500 people died, including about 60 soldiers and police officers. Damage to infrastructure and livelihood was estimated to cost up to P90 billion.

The cost could run higher because Marawi had a thriving underground economy. Muslim residents, which make up more than 90 percent of the population, do not believed in the Western-style banking system and kept valuables and cash in their homes.

President Rodrigo Duterte, in many speeches during and after the conflict, talked about the huge illegal drug trade ran by local officials working with criminal syndicates, and possibly with support from Islamist militants who also benefited from the “shabu” to finance their “jihad” aimed at creating a pure, Islamic caliphate in Mindanao and in Southeast Asia, including Indonesia and Malaysia.

There were proofs of the drug trade as soldiers recovered huge stashes of cash and drugs from the homes of former city officials. There had been also speculation that “soldiers” of these drug lords aided the small Islamist militants during the conflict, supplying them with weapons, ammunition and warm bodies, swelling the “enemy” ranks to more than a thousand fighters at the height of fighting.

The government response was also excessive and brutal as the military used old doctrine and tactics in waging modern urban warfare, something it had done in about half a century of fighting a guerrilla war with the communist New People’s Army.

The Marawi conflict was different from fighting large formation of Muslim rebels during the 1970s Mindanao rebellion or during limited war with the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) forces in 2000 and 2009, fought in rural communities in Lanao provinces and in marshlands in Maguindanao Cotabato areas.

It was a different experience for the army and exposed the weaknesses of the Philippine military, which lacked modern and sophisticated equipment and capabilities in waging limited urban warfare. It had to rely on Australia and the United States to provide technical intelligence to search and pinpoint locations of “enemies” hiding in a maze of reinforced concrete structures, crevices and underground tunnels in the city.

Thus, the military was forced to deliver, through the Philippine Air Force, conventional 250-pound to 500-pound bombs and rockets from various aircraft, including trainer SF-260 propeller-driven planes, Vietnam War vintage OV-10B planes and the faster FA-50A jets.

The Philippine Army also pounded the city with artillery and mortar fire to provide cover for its commando units to inch closer to their targets. It was a sniper rifle mounted on a mechanized unit, an Israeli-supplied M113 armored vehicle, that ended the conflict, when Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute were killed on Oct. 17, 2017. Days later, Duterte and the defense and military establishments announced the “liberation” of Marawi.

The volume and amount of ordnance left in the city were probably the biggest since World Wat II and many did not explode, making it unsafe for Marawi residents as well as soldiers to return to the city and rebuild public infrastructure, mosques and churches, commercial buildings and private residences.

Until today, thousands of UXO, or unexploded ordnance, are still in the city. Some are half buried in the rubble. The situation may be similar to Indo-China after the Vietnam War in 1975, when many people lost their limbs due to landmines left after the war.

Assistant Secretary Felix Castro of Task Force Bangon Marawi, the government agency tasked to clear and rehabilitate the city, said they have a deadline to clear the “most affected areas” with UXO by the end of the month and declare “ground zero” safe by the end of November. Of course, the military would not be able to recover all UXO in the area as many World War 2 vintage bombs are still unearthed to do this day in many parts of the country.

The task force has until 2021 to complete its rehabilitation work after Congress gave it a P10-billion fund to rebuild Marawi. Congress is deliberating on a separate funding of about P30 billion to pay damages to Marawi residents, about one-third of the estimated actual cost of destruction.

On paper, the task force has an ambitious design to transform Marawi City into a model community with modern facilities for road, sewerage and drainage networks, public and commercial spaces and a large area for agriculture and fisheries. It has allocated huge areas for 78,000 residents to rebuild their homes, providing them free services from architects to design their new homes.

However, it remains doubtful if Marawi residents could return and rebuild their homes, businesses and their lives after 2021 or even after Duterte steps down on June 30, 2022, as the government has required people to secure many permits to construct new structures and occupy them anywhere in the 24 villages in the so-called “most affected areas.” During the conflict, it was called “main battle area.”

In some parts of Mindanao, people displaced by the conflict stayed for months or even a year or two in a temporary shelter area but returned to their old homes without securing permits from the government. Apart from the permits, the return to Marawi is complicated by potential land disputes and centuries-old cultural practices.

Castro said more than a thousand structures remained standing in the city because their owners refused to give the military permission to demolish them without settling first land ownership. The city sits on a huge military reservation area, an old fort occupied by the American colonial forces in the early 20th century. The residents do not have land titles but decades of occupation have legitimized their stay in the city. Each resident is jealous of what he or she used to occupy and own. Many of these individual properties have also become burial grounds for their ancestors.

The situation is so complicated the government will find hard to resolve sensitive cultural issues. Meanwhile, as residents stay longer in temporary shelter areas and await the green light to go back and rebuild homes and lives, resentment and frustration grow stronger every day among Maranao.

A walk through the campus of the Mindanao State University and through the city’s outskirts where life has slowly returned to normal, one could feel the sadness and disaffection of the Maranao people. It is a potentially dangerous undercurrent in the once proud Islamic city by the lake.