MANILA: “President Duterte, please give Marawi back to us.” That was the appeal by Faisa Riga, a 54-year-old native of Marawi, who was among those forced out when the Daesh-inspired Maute group attacked the Philippines’ only Muslim city in May last year.
One year after fighting between government forces and the extremists broke out, thousands of people displaced by the violence and a five-month siege remain in evacuation centers or live with relatives on the edge of the war-torn city.
Others, such as Riga, find themselves far from home and struggling to survive.
Riga and her 21-year-old daughter Azisa are in Metro Manila, where they have found work but earn barely enough money to make ends meet.
Interviewed by Arab News at an event in Quiapo, where Christians joined Muslims for iftar, Riga was close to tears as she related the difficulties they endured after being forced to flee the Marawi siege.
Life inside an evacuation center was hard because of the cramped space and irregular relief supplies, she said.
Last August, a fellow Marawi resident convinced Riga to move to Manila to work as storekeeper. However, she ended up working as house-help.
Riga’s employers treated her well, but she can’t help but feel sorry for herself. “I have never been a servant to anyone in my entire life,” she said.
Before the conflict erupted, she ran her own small restaurant in Marawi City.
Now Riga has a new job, looking after children, which earns her 3,000 peso ($60) a month. Her daughter works as storekeeper with weekly pay of 1,400 peso.
As the Philippines marks the first anniversary of the Marawi siege, Riga said she longs to “return home.”
“I wish they will give Marawi back to us,” she said, adding that she has heard “outsiders” are “taking over” their city.
“I wish there will be no more war. I hope nothing like the Marawi siege happens again because it only brings misery to people like us,” she said.
Another Marawi resident, Dr. Potre Dirampatan-Diampuan, of the United Religions Initiative, said that amid the difficulties brought by the five-month siege, “we keep on praying that the consequence is more beautiful than negative.”
Like Riga, she also hopes that there will be no more war. “In war, nobody wins,” she said.
Diampuan said her family house, which was built in 1948 and was one of Marawi’s landmark buildings, had been destroyed. Five months of fighting had turned people in the city into vagrants.
“We cannot undo the Marawi siege and the destruction of Marawi city. And so we accept what has happened,” Diampuan said.
The government’s efforts can be a chance for peace or another spur for violent extremism, she said.
A growing number of displaced residents are dismayed at not being consulted by the government, Diampuan said.
“Everybody wishes that their voices can be heard, and issues and concerns be addressed... (but many) displaced people have not been consulted.”
Meanwhile, the government has appealed for more patience, assuring Diampuan and others that the Duterte administration is boosting efforts to rehabilitate and rebuild Marawi.
“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,” a presidential spokesperson, Harry Roque Jr., told a press briefing on Thursday.
He said the government wanted people forced out by the siege “to return to normal lives.”
Much work has already been done. So far, 70 percent of displaced residents have returned to Marawi, living in temporary shelters built by the government.
All 67 evacuation centers in northern Mindanao and parts of Lanao del Sur will be cleared before the end of the year, with evacuees allowed to return home.
Describing the rebuilding plan, Roque said: “It will be a very modern... an Islamic city that will make all Filipinos proud.”