Froilan Gallardo and Richel V. Umel
Marawi City, Philippines
After nearly a year of waiting, thousands of displaced residents of Marawi will soon be allowed to visit what’s left of their homes in the “main battle area” of the southern Philippine city and retrieve abandoned belongings, officials said Friday.
About 11,163 people have been identified as residents of the war zone and will be allowed to return in batches, starting on April 1, said Felix Castro, field manager of Task Force Bangon Marawi.
This will be the first time they will be visiting their homes since May last year, when militants linked with Islamic State (IS) took over the city, precipitating a five-month battle with government forces that left much of Marawi in ruins and 1,200 people – mostly militant fighters – dead.
“The residents can go back and retrieve whatever possessions they have left behind,” Castro told BenarNews, during an inspection of the area.
The visit, however, will be subject to time limitations and a window of five days, after which the area will again be closed to civilians.
With most of the buildings and structures in the city still heavily damaged, Castro said residents should brace themselves to see their homes in ruins.
“What we are doing is that by April 1, they will be allowed to visit their houses and get things,” he said. “They will be given the opportunity to retrieve their belongings in preparation for the rehabilitation.”
He said those who used to live in the most affected area and were displaced by the fighting would be prioritized and given shelters immediately.
Not entirely safe from bombs
Col. Romeo Brawner Jr., deputy commander of the military task force in the area, said officials believed that allowing the residents to visit their homes briefly would help ease tensions at evacuation camps.
“We cannot say that it is 80 percent or 100 percent safe, but the visit will be regulated by our soldiers,” Brawner said.
As of late February, Brawner said, army ordnance experts had recovered at least 70 unexploded bombs dropped from military planes during the battle, which ended in late October. These explosives ranged in strength from 112-pound to 500-pound bombs.
And not all of the sectors that were previously deemed as off limits to civilians had been cleared of explosives, Brawner said.
At least four sectors in Marawi remained critical because most of the buildings and structures there had collapsed, making it difficult for ordnance experts to dig through the rubble, he added.
These areas include parts of Marawi’s commercial district of Banggolo, and lakeshore buildings where militant leader Isnilon Hapilon and his top aides were killed in a last stand against government forces in October.
Most of the 11,000-plus displaced residents are staying at evacuation sites in the nearby towns of Saguiaran, Baloi and Pantar and the city of Iligan. The municipalities had already appealed to the national government for help because their resources were fast dwindling.
Iligan city spokesman Jojo Pantoja said officials there had told the city government of Marawi that Iligan could only accommodate evacuees until the end of this month.
Pantoja said Marawi city mayor Majul Gandamra had assured them that there would be enough shelters for the evacuees.
“Our city finances are already strained after most national government agencies, including the Department of Health, stopped giving aid,” Pantoja said.
While foreign governments have said they would help rehabilitate Marawi, but many have not followed through on their pledges, the Marawi mayor said.
“For example, the United States of America said they would donate 20 million dollars, these are just pledges,” Gandamra said Friday. “And these are sometimes made to pass through U.N. agencies for example, or through USAID.”
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