A year after assault on Marawi City, residents still unable to return
Conflict drove 360,000 Filipinos from their homes last May. Months after the city was liberated, destruction and unexploded bombs prevent many from going home.
MARAWI CITY, Philippines – Plant sciences student Saadodin Riga was studying at the university in this Philippine city when militants launched their offensive a year ago.
As gun battles raged in the streets, and militants seized public buildings, including the hospital, the quiet 19-year-old made his way across town, trying to locate his parents and eight siblings.
As the fighting spread, his family abandoned their home, fleeing with just the clothes on their back. They finally caught up with Saadodin later in the day in the outskirts of the city, now under a pall of smoke.
There he found his younger brother Saminodin, aged nine, who has seizures and is unable to walk. “I had to carry him on my back while we fled,” Saadodin says.
“As we were fleeing, bombs started falling from the sky,” he recalls, the fear evident in his eyes. “We didn’t know what we needed to do during that time. We did not know how we were going to escape.”
"Bombs started falling from the sky."
Determined to find safety, Saadodin’s family trudged on. Three days later they found refuge in an evacuation centre in Saguiaran, a few kilometers away.
The Riga family are among at least 360,000 residents who fled the assault by militants which engulfed the city on 23 May last year, turning into a battleground. It took Philippines troops five months, fighting street by street, to regain control.
That battle left the city in ruins, with homes, businesses, schools and places of worship alike blasted by artillery, pockmarked by bullets, or destroyed by fire. Unexploded bombs have made all but fleeting return impossible for over 42,000 displaced families.
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, was on the ground supporting the displaced as early as 27 May. It has provided them with aid including tarpaulins, solar lamps, and cooking pots, and supported the government issuing identity documents. Particularly vulnerable people, such as the elderly and people with disabilities, have also been provided with targeted assistance.
“I hope we can return to our home in Marawi."
For nearly a year, Saadodin’s family have lived in a makeshift room at the evacuation center, separated from other families’ living quarters by planks of plywood. Plastic sheets from UNHCR protect them from the rain.
Though he is grateful for the assistance his family receives, Saadodin says: “Our circumstances now are really different from our life back in Marawi,” where the Riga family ran a business selling aluminum and glass.
From April 19 to 22, they were able to visit their house during a government-facilitated return. Located in one of the most damaged areas, they found their home in ruins.
“I hope we can return to our home in Marawi, because we had livelihood there,” he says. Restarting the family’s glass and aluminum business while displaced has not been possible. “It’s been difficult to set up shop here, because a lot of us are already doing that.”
For now, he is helping his mother to take care of Saminodin. The youngster has not had seizures recently, but Saadodin keeps a watchful eye over him.
Saadodin has stopped studying—temporarily, he hopes—while he helps his family get back on their feet. They ration the assistance they receive from the government, and make do with what little they have.
It has been a tough year for the Riga family, but Saadodin remains positive. He thinks of his brother Saminodin and his smiles despite his condition, and Saadodin knows he must remain hopeful.
“My priority for now is my family,” he says, “especially to care for Saminodin.”