The Philippine government sought to assure the public Thursday that Marawi residents who were displaced during last year’s siege by pro-Islamic State militants would return to their homes this year amid concerns over slow rebuilding efforts.
Presidential spokesman Harry Roque told reporters in Marawi that the government’s top priority is to restore normalcy to the lives of at least 200,000 residents affected by five months of vicious gun battles that left at least 1,200 dead and left much of the once-prosperous Islamic city in ruins.
“We remember Marawi. We pay tribute to the sacrifices of our fallen men in uniform and recognize everyone’s efforts in rebuilding the Islamic city,” Roque said, emphasizing that about 70 percent of displaced residents are living in nearby temporary government shelters.
He said that within the year all 67 centers housing evacuees in towns in the Lanao del Sur area would be cleared of occupants – meaning all evacuees would be allowed to return to their homes soon. Residents were authorized to make short trips to the city over the past two months to retrieve valuables, but were not allowed to stay because the area was littered with unexploded ordnance.
“We have a master plan and that’s phase by phase. And by and large, we are on time,” Roque said, adding that the plan is targeted for approval by President Rodrigo Duterte’s cabinet in June, the same month full-scale rehabilitation is to begin.
Felix Castro Jr., the head of Task Force Bangon Marawi, told BenarNews the comprehensive plan for Marawi, including the main battle area covering 24 villages, would cost 75 billion pesos (U.S. $1.4 billion) and was expected to be completed by 2021.
“We will start with the debris clearing and we will not allow the civilians to get inside the war zone. We want to be fast. After the initial works of the developer, they will be permitted do whatever they want in their homes and properties,” Castro said.
Castro said those who lost their homes and properties will get a compensation package to use for reconstruction, but did not say how or when the funds would be released. A Chinese-led group called Bagong Marawi Consortium (BMC) has been awarded the Marawi project.
While the government did not name the Chinese firms involved in the consortium, Rep. Gary Alejano, a member of the political opposition, said the list includes China State Construction Engineering Corp. and China Geo Engineering Corp.
“The majority of the companies included in the BMC are Chinese. Two are even state-owned enterprises, which mean that state funds of China would be used,” Alejano said.
Worries on the degree of control that China would have on these projects could not be dismissed especially since the Filipino companies included have no history of contracting big government projects, he said.
Alejano said the firms he cited were blacklisted previously by the World Bank.
“China State Engineering continued to get involved in corruption scandals in other countries,” Alejano said. “How can we assure that the Marawi rehabilitation would not be marred by corruption cases in the future with such kind of participating firms?”
A spokesman for the Chinese Embassy in Manila could not be reached for comment.
Red Cross calls for stepped up efforts
The International Committee of the Red Cross reported that virtually everyone from Marawi remains displaced and are in need of immediate care.
“Efforts to rehabilitate Marawi and assist its people must be stepped up to reduce the suffering of thousands of those who were displaced over the past year. The efforts are there, but these must match the growing needs of those who face prolonged displacement and are close to despair,” said Pascal Porchet, head of the Red Cross delegation in the Philippines.
Porchet said with the response shifting from emergency phase toward early recovery, food donations have dwindled and job opportunities are reaching only a few. Many still depend on relatives and friends to survive, while those in evacuation sites and makeshift camps live in poor conditions.
“The pending issues concerning the transitional site such as lack of a regular supply of water and absence of proper sewage collection and treatment should be resolved soon,” he said.
Jeoffrey Maitem and Richel V. Umel in Marawi and Felipe Villamor in Manila contributed to this report.
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