Teary-eyed, hundreds search through rubble in devastated Philippines city

A woman looks at ruined houses, after residents were allowed to return for the first time to their homes on April 19, 2018, in Marawi, southern Philippines, since the battle between government troops and Daesh-inspired militants began in May 2017. (REUTERS/Erik De Castro)
Updated 21 April 2018
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Teary-eyed, hundreds search through rubble in devastated Philippines city

  • Daesh militants seized parts of the Muslim city of 200,000 people in May 2017, prompting massive evacuations
  • Damage to property was estimated at $211 million after government troops fought for five months to retake the city

MARAWI, Philippines: Surrounded by the ruins of homes they fled nearly a year ago, many residents of war-torn Marawi City in the Philippines were in tears when they briefly returned this week and sifted through rubble to salvage any possessions they could find.
The Muslim-majority city of 200,000 was over-run by militants loyal to the Daesh group last May, who fought the military for five months before they were ousted. After almost daily aerial bombardments and artillery fire, large parts of the picturesque, lakeside city have been devastated.
Hundreds of residents who had fled to refugee camps or to relatives’ homes in nearby towns were briefly allowed back by authorities to the ruins of the central business district on Thursday.
Calim Ali, 50, stepped out of her vehicle to find a ruined, empty plot where her home had stood in the bustling heart of the city. The only possession she could recover was a charred weighing scale that she said her family used in their fruit and rice business.
“I brought empty sacks. I thought we would still find something, like pots, and our money box,” Ali said, while her husband searched through the thick vegetation growing in the rubble.
Ali’s family is among about 27,000 others that lived in the main battle area, straddling over 24 barangays, or municipal districts. The area has remained off limits until this month, when the military said it had cleared it of hazards like booby traps and unexploded ordnance.
No civilian was permitted to stay in the area after 3 p.m. on Thursday, and the rule will remain in place on other days when visits are permitted, officials said.
There are 20 other barangays in the city which were not affected, and 50 others which were spared heavy shelling. Families have moved back to these areas.
There seems no chance of any early return for the residents of the city center.
Most buildings are in ruins and there is no food, electricity or any sewage facilities. Authorities say the area will take years to rebuild.
Meanwhile, posters showing residents how to recognize live mortar shells, grenades, aircraft rockets and improvised explosive devices were put up on every street, to remind the people to be careful as they sifted through the ruins.
Soldiers manning the area on Thursday ordered a group of residents scouring debris to quickly leave one of the streets after they found an unexploded bomb, which they detonated.

“Hurts so much"
“I’m at a loss for words,” Aisah Riga, 54, told Reuters, wiping away tears as she and her family rummaged through debris to find anything of use from what used to be their glass and aluminum supply store.
“This is our only source of livelihood and now it’s gone. I don’t know how we will survive. I have nine children,” she said.
Sobaidah Moner, 43, was waiting for the military to let the long line of vehicles into the main battle area as she recounted the day she and her family hurriedly left the city a day after fighting broke out on May 23.
“We were not able to bring anything except for the clothes we were wearing that day. All the clothes we are wearing right now were given to us by relatives,” she said, her voice breaking with emotion.
Like Moner, several residents who spoke to Reuters said they abandoned their belongings and only brought clothes for a few days when they sought safety in nearby towns, thinking that the gunbattle, which was not uncommon in Marawi, would soon be over.
“I thought the fighting would be over in three days. We didn’t expect this. It hurts so much,” Moner said.
Residents said they are pinning their hopes on the government’s promise to rehabilitate and rebuild the city. But the extent of damage, estimated at 11 billion pesos ($211 million) means it would take years of work to reconstruct Marawi.
“The most affected area has its own development plan which is expected to be finished by 2021,” said Felix Castro, housing assistant secretary, and field office manager of an inter-agency government task force named “Bangon Marawi (Rise Marawi).”
A Chinese-led consortium, also called Bangon Marawi, has been chosen for the reconstruction, but other bidders would be asked to compete and it will be allowed to match the best proposal, Castro said.
Rehabilitation work is scheduled to start in June, he said.
For now however, the once-bustling center of the city is lifeless.
“Before you could hear the sound of cars, and anything you wanted to buy was available. But now that we are here, there’s only silence,” said Jalil Solaiman, a 39-year-old resident.


Italy tells rescue ship to take migrants to the Netherlands

Updated 25 min 39 sec ago
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Italy tells rescue ship to take migrants to the Netherlands

  • Italian Interior Minister Matteo Salvini: “You have intentionally not listened to Italian or Libyan authorities. Good. Then take this load of human beings to the Netherlands.”
  • Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Lennart Wegewijs: “They have a Dutch flag, but they are not registered in the Netherlands, and therefore are not under Dutch state flag responsibility.”

ROME: Italy’s anti-immigrant interior minister accused a German charity on Thursday of ignoring coast guard orders when its Dutch-flagged ship picked up 226 migrants off Libya’s coast and he said they should be taken to the Netherlands not Italy.
Earlier this month Matteo Salvini pledged to no longer let charity ships offload rescued migrants in Italy, leaving the Gibraltar-flagged Aquarius stranded at sea for several days with more than 600 migrants until Spain offered them safe haven.
On Thursday, Mission Lifeline, a charity based in Dresden, Germany, pulled migrants off two rubber boats in international waters even though it was told by Italy that Libya’s coast guard was coming to get them, a spokesman for the charity said. They would not have been safe if taken back to Libya, he said.
Salvini, also leader of the anti-immigrant League party, addressed the charity in a Facebook video: “You have intentionally not listened to Italian or Libyan authorities. Good. Then take this load of human beings to the Netherlands.”
International maritime guidelines say that people rescued at sea should be taken to the nearest “place of safety.”
The United Nations and other humanitarian agencies do not deem Libya “a place of safety” because they say migrants there are subject to indefinite detention, physical abuse, forced labor and extortion.
A Lifeline statement indicated its vessel was heading northwards with the 226 migrants and called on “the competent authorities to swiftly react according to their obligation to designate a place of safety.”
“They have a Dutch flag, but they are not registered in the Netherlands, and therefore are not under Dutch state flag responsibility,” Dutch Foreign Ministry spokesman Lennart Wegewijs said in response, without elaborating.
Italian Transport Minister Danilo Toninelli said he had asked the coast guard to investigate state flag issue.
Lifeline spokesman Axel Steier said the migrants aboard its boat included 14 women and four small children. “We didn’t want to wait for the Libyan coast guard because people were in danger,” Steier told Reuters.
Waiting for the Libyans would have constituted allowing “an illegal pushback” of refugees to a country where they are not safe, he added.
With its hard line on rescue boats, Italy’s new populist government has thrust migration back onto the European Union agenda. Italy has seen more than 640,000 land on its shores since 2014 and is currently sheltering 170,000 asylum seekers.
Germany is also seeking to restrict asylum-seekers’ movement in the bloc. An emergency “mini-summit” has been called for Brussels on Sunday to discuss immigration ahead of a full, 28-state EU summit on June 28-29.
Toninelli, who oversees Italy’s ports and coast guard, had called last weekend on the Netherlands to recall Lifeline and another Dutch-flagged ship, Seefuchs. On Thursday, Toninelli said Lifeline was acting “outside of international law.”
“The transport minister is lying,” Steier shot back. “We always act in line with international law. Always.”
Salvini has denounced the charity ships as “deputy traffickers,” suggesting they profit from the rescues.
Earlier this week a tribunal in Palermo shelved an inquiry into whether German charity Sea Watch and Spain’s Proactiva Open Arms were in contact with smugglers, saying no evidence was found.