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The First Two Weeks of the Marawi Siege: A Time to Weep

Posted on: Thursday, March 08, 2018
Posted by: Anonymous

        The First Two Weeks of the Marawi Siege: A Time to Weep 

 by Rebekah M. Alawi, Ph.D. 



I was in Iligan with my youngest daughter for her medical check-up when some malevolent force cried “Havoc!” and let slip the dogs of war. Hell broke loose in Marawi City.


It was a sunny day that morning of May 23, just perfect for a Recognition Day.  My grandchildren would be romping away with the lion’s share of medals, another opportunity for their grandpa to proudly strut up and down the stage  – definitely a cause for jubilation and celebration. We could have gone to Amai Pakpak Medical Center as suggested by Concon, but my mind was made up. There was no portent of what would happen that afternoon when we left the campus at about 1 o’ çlock.  That same afternoon my youngest granddaughter Satya would be graduating from Senior Kindergarten, also with academic distinction (Top 7, First Honor). Already showing guile and cunning at her age, she would mention only First Honor, deliberately dropping Top 7. After the affair, there would be an exclusive party, more a ‘glutton’s delight’ affair actually, that everybody, including a small circle of friends, was excitedly looking forward to. 

A little past 3 o’clock, while enjoying our halo-halo that I thought should readily restore my daughter’s energy and color, a son-in-law called, urging us to  return home early as fierce fighting between government forces and the Maute Group – ISIS had broken out in Maletlet. I did not even know where Maletlet was. He said, we must go via the Capitol area and stay away from the highway. Only a few minutes after, my other son-in-law as frantically called, advising us not to return to MSU, and to pass the night in Iligan.

The gravity of the situation did not sink in at once. I thought it was only one of those sporadic skirmishes between the government forces and rebel groups, and we should be able to go home once the coast is clear. I even blithely reminded my daughters to set aside some food for me. However, that evening and throughout the night, early news reports and updates from the kids were proving my initial surmises wrong. The situation was growing serious. Innocent people like those poor ambulance drivers and passers-by were being ruthlessly killed; hostages, including my colleague Nikki Colina and Fr. Chito, and other devotees of Mary who were gathered to celebrate some important event were taken and held as hostages; and some parts of the city were burning.  The terrorist groups had torched some buildings of Dansalan College, a chapel, and other schools, and desecrated religious icons with sadistic glee. There were reports that some Christians were shot pointblank for the sin of “failing to recite the Shahada properly”.  I could only wonder where in the Holy Qurán and the Sunnah is this horrendous act sanctioned or required of the faithful.

This particular information about the insensate killings which media played up had a traumatic effect on my second grandson Yayi, aged ten, who grew up speaking English. According to his mother’s account, he would grow faint and limp and unable to walk, bawling: ”Waaah. They will kill me. I’m going to die.”

First thing in the morning after some fitful hours of sleep, I called up my daughters and instructed them to flee MSU in Lolo the old car; their Dad would drive as far as the situation on the road would allow him – Saguiaran and if possible, all the way to the campus – for the planned rendezvous, so the kids could transfer to the more reliable Fortuner. I also texted President Macaayong asking for information on campus security, especially for the more vulnerable non-Meranaws/non-Muslims, and the case of Nikki. He said: “Not to worry. The campus is on red alert. Our men can defend the campus.” Then all I could do was anxiously wait at the hotel while I stayed glued to the TV screen for the latest development on the Marawi Siege.

As the clock on the wall ominously ticked away, the news became more somber and alarming. Entire Marawi had fallen. I received several calls and text messages from my son-in-law in Bahrain (he was fearful and on the verge of panic about the safety of his kids) and my sister in Cagayan de Oro who reminded me about the 6 – 9 hour ultimatum of the military for the people to evacuate. They would be declaring Marawi “no man’s land”. As a military man’s daughter I knew what that meant. My mind wandered to the campus and downtown Marawi where many relatives, students, and friends live. Jahara. Sultan Hamidullah ‘’Pogi” Atar. Nancy (Nainobai), Farrahniva. Edenairah. Norolaine. Auntie Pendy and her family. My niece Alana. And more.  A peremptory knock on the door jolted me out of my reverie. The two hands of the clock converged on the number 12. He had been on the road since 6 o’clock and was back empty-handed. According to him, he reached as far as Baloi but had to return to Iligan because my son-in-law warned him that the rest of the road was well-nigh impassable due to traffic congestion. My daughters and the other son-in-law driving the car on the way to the rendezvous with their Dad decided to return to the campus. The situation could improve, they hoped.

I tried to overcome my hysteria and rage. That day my daughter Coco bore the brunt of my temper. I raved and ranted. I refused to accept their argument about the car being not in perfect condition and might conk out anytime on the road, which they said was likely because of the traffic snarl.  It took the first wave of evacuees twelve hours instead of the usual 45 minutes to reach Iligan City.  The first casualties would be my Persian cats that are so susceptible to heat stroke. Besides, all was silent in the campus, and there was nothing wrong about waiting for developments. At dusk, we drove to the mall to buy toiletries, some tee shirts and personal items as we had only the clothes we had on; the shopping was a welcome distraction.

The next day, my daughters texted to inform us of the eerie silence that pervaded the campus. That, as my soliloquy started, could be just the lull before the storm. Later in the day, my sister Emma called again to nag me about the few remaining hours of the deadline set by the military. Information about people leaving the campus in droves got through. I texted the President who at once replied that the problem he was faced with was, there were not that many vehicles available to get everybody out. He was, however, still his calm, imperturbable self. Just the kind of helmsman needed in such a time. My initial perception of him as “all steel underneath that mild and affable exterior” turns out to be more discerning than I thought. He would never bolt and abandon ship.  

That night, my daughters and I reached an agreement. My son-in-law Sam would drive Jaja and the kids to Saguiaran where my husband was to fetch them. Then the former would return to the campus to wait for a more opportune time for them --  Coco, my other daughter Aliyah and her husband, and the family of Sam’s younger brother – to leave. But I made them promise that should the situation grow worse, they must bail out. As early as 3 o’clock in the morning, my husband and I were awake to prepare for his trip to Saguiaran. In addition to the Red Ribbon fluffy mammon that in case of heavy traffic should tide the kids over to their next meal, I added some Jollibee ‘value’ breakfast for those staying behind. The joyous reunion with my grandchildren took place before noon.

We then received a call from Coco that they had decided to follow. The bombs had started raining over Marawi. We monitored their trip. I must have texted thrice or more, inquiring about my cats’ condition. No reply. On Pantar Bridge, the unmoving traffic held them up for seven hours. I was already half-asleep when they finally arrived  at about 11 o’clock at the Pension House where we would be staying in the next few days while we decide where to go from there. Then they gently broke the sad news to me: there was no room for the cats in the already crowded minivan. The pets would surely not be able to survive that long a trip and the heat. I hid my distress and sorrow from them, painfully accepting that human lives have primacy over pets’ lives.

In the next few days, I would see Nikki on television speaking for the hostages. She was wearing a black kombong and waswringing her hand and could hardly hold herself up, as she made a plea: the airstrikes must stop. We were in Cagayan de Oro where my husband, Mik, and daughter Aliyah and her husband, and eldest grandson Coby spent the first days of the Ramadhan when we were shown an aerial view of houses in Lilod (compliments of CNN) gutted by fire or leveled to the ground by bombs, among which was the house of my nephew, the former Vice Governor. All the houses within the same compound and those of their neighbors were reduced to rubble, including Nancy’s. I lost no time calling Nancy to express my sympathy. She said: “It is like there is a death in the family.” I awkwardly mumbled something like “”What matters more is, you’re together and well.”  After Lilod, Raya Madaya. Then the Padian and Lumber. Marinaut.

One time, after learning that the Marines had forcibly entered the cottage. I went up to MSU to check on the house and, of course, bring supplies for my pet cats and Parker, the German Shepherd. I was so relieved to find them more or less okay, though a little bit traumatized. Intending to stay overnight or even a number of days in the campus, we brought with us some provisions. I was emboldened, inspired and conscientisized by the courage of VP Alma Berowa who, in a meeting, sobbed out her appeal: “I am a non-Meranaw, but I have stayed in the campus. It is a lie for me to say that I do not experience fear, especially when the windows rattle from the impact of bombs. I stay and will continue to stay in MSU. For love. There must be an MSU that students can return to.”  That is rare courage, enviable and admirable. But after attending a meeting called by the President, I saw from the OP window the jets and helicopters circling over Marawi like birds of prey and dropping bombs and soon two smoke somewhat reminiscent of the mushroom-like fire wall created by an atomic bomb rose in two separate parts of the city. It was like watching a spectacle, with the window serving as proscenium or frame. I thought I would be protected by a kind of “psychical distance,” but I was wrong. A chill went down my spine and I experienced some tremors. How much more savage pummeling and bludgeoning could the already prostrate city take? We went back to Iligan that same day. There were, moreover, freak incidents like a bomb dropped on a gymnasium in Ramain. Close on the heels of this miscalculation was another human error which claimed the lives of fourteen soldiers. Friendly fire, as the military call it. God, when will these days of infamy, these days of wrath (Dies Irae), end? I cursed the war and its unspeakable horrors -- the slaughter of the innocent -- as depicted in Picasso’s Guernica. Is there ever a just or justifiable war?

In a moment of reflection, I tried looking at it from another perspective. A wise man once said “”War, which is no virtue, breeds virtue,”  and named patience as one such virtue. People learn to wait like Beckett’s characters – to wait for succor, to wait for the end of their suffering, to wait for some miracle. I would like to add courage, charity and selflessness, such as that exemplified by our version of the  “White Helmets” in Aleppo – rescuers braving danger to bring out of the hellhole children, women, and senior citizens. I learned from interviews of Christian survivors how their Meranaw employers, friends or neighbors lent them abaya, or coached them on how to properly recite the Shahada to be spared from the terrorists’ ire and possible summary execution. We, Muslims and Christians, can be one another’s keeper. I saw the outpouring of sympathy and empathy from various non-Muslim organizations like the group of nuns who doled out relief goods to evacuees (my kids among them) in Bayug; I saw, too, that  “forevermore” or real love in the persistent determined efforts of a Meranaw man to get permission from the military to enter the war arena, pathetically clutching bottled water and some food for his wife who was trapped in one of the charred, dilapidated buildings. Their sad reunion in a hospital, which brought tears to my eyes, makes a moving scene that should restore cynics’ faith in love. I cried at the sight of a dove stubbornly refusing to leave its wounded and dying mate. I was so touched, I wept even more lugubriously. I saw how  barriers or chasms like religion and ethnic lines fell away and compassion or common humanity triumphed. 

It is a time to weep. I weep for Nikki my colleague who has been held hostage with Fr. Chito and other nameless victims since Day One of the siege. I hold on to the hope that, however, grows more frail by the day that she will prove as strong as Granny Weatherall and there will be another opportunity for us to appear in a racy, zany and rollicking comedy like The Irrepressible Sister Miriam.  Nikki simply brought the house down with her au naturel acting. I do not know how I would comfort her son Toto who appeared with me in the play Kintin  as the suitor of my daughter when we meet some day. How will I convince him that not all Muslims espouse that accursed ideology and that Islam is a religion of peace and love? I weep for the Innocent – the children – for whom the long journey into night or to a nebulous future enveloped in fog begins. What will happen to their schooling now that there are no schools to return to in Marawi? I weep for that boy who would come to the office vending palapa for the family’s basic needs, remembering how Mahdz and I would advise him never to neglect his studies. On what will he and others like him live now? I wept for the countless families crammed like sardines in tents or allotted narrow spaces in squalid evacuation centers, especially because it was Ramadhan. How did they prepare for Ifthar? There are also tears for humble hardworking folks whose modest business ventures built from sweat, blood and tears, went up in smoke. I remember how a favorite graduate student of mine, Tirmizy, saved all his earnings to pay for a small stall in Padian for his mother, and feel at this loss what the Japanese call mono no aware as captured in numerous haiku. They have not even recovered the hard-earned capital sunk into that business.

How I miss my cats’ purring and meows of pleasure as Mik and I affectionately fondle them. I also find touching my dog Parker’s whine whenever we get into the car to return to Iligan after a few days stay in the campus. It is probably his way of reproaching us for not staying long enough. In the earlier days of the crisis, when Sam and nephew Jubal on the latter’s motorcycle defied the lockdowns to deliver food to our pets, our only means of communication were my calls on the cellphone which the two would let Parker hear; he would stop lapping up his dogfood and listen intently, then bark on recognizing my voice. I weep for my eldest brother who passed away two weeks after his grandson resolutely prized his fingers away from the post to which he desperately clung and bodily carried him, struggling, to the car to join the stream of displaced humanity heading for Iligan. He spent his final days in the same house in Bayug with my kids and grandchildren, who remember his hardly audible, feeble, hoarse cry “Home.” I remember Dorothy’s longing for home in The Wizard of Oz and become sentimental. Maudlin or mawkish sentimentaIity? Perhaps, but who cares? I know that this longing for home is shared by thousands of Internally Displaced People (IDP). Marawi has been home to them all their lives and now they have to languish in evacuation centers and depend on the kindness of strangers. I weep for the soldiers who fall in battle, particularly when the plaintive, gut-wrenching reveille is sounded. I wept when I read that soldier’s farewell letter -- a veritable “valediction: without mourning” -- to his wife; it must have been written when he had intimations of his mortality or portents of the end. The poems of Cummings, Crane and other war poets taught in class pale in comparison with the man’s raw and simple declaration of his love and grim resignation to the inevitable. 

Indeed this seemingly ineradicable evil, war, is the worst of times and, paradoxically, the best of times, too. It draws out the noble and the heroic in man. It shows man at his worst and at his best. There will be, for sure, testimonies or accounts of surviving hostages, if any, of their harrowing experiences.  Atrocities like beheadings have been reported by some survivors. Will these include horrendous violence such as those committed against women during the Bosnian war and the conflict in Congo?  And yet, there are contrasting stories about some members of the terrorist group helping captives escape. As Solzhenitsyn, author of The Gulag Archipelago, wrote, the problem lies in human nature; good and evil cut across the human heart. Noble and evil in man are of a piece. Anne Frank, the most well-read victim of the Holocaust, said something similar. Despite all the evil of war that she got acquainted with, she still believed that there is good in every man. Still we weep because there are images like those portrayed in Picasso’s Guernica -- dismembered or mutilated bodies of men and a horse -- that get impaled in the mind, and wounds that never heal. Did that comatose dog rescued by medics and administered dextrose survive? This scene was shown on TV. Will Nikki and the others make it through their ordeal? We can only continue to hope. We weep until there are no more tears left. Only a silent scream.

In Iligan, safe and insulated from the din and chaos of war, from the scenes of carnage and rapine in Marawi, from the pathos of the diaspora of humanity displaced by the cruel war, I could only wonder: Will summer come again to Marawi?      



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