‘We lost everything in the fighting — but not our faith’

A family breaks fast during Ramadan in its temporary shelter in Marawi City. (Reuters)
Updated 28 May 2019

‘We lost everything in the fighting — but not our faith’

  • Displaced families in Philippines celebrate Ramadan in makeshift ‘tent city’

MARAWI CITY: Thousands of Filipino Muslims who lost their homes in a bitter five-month battle between security forces and terrorists in 2017 welcomed Ramadan this year in evacuation centers and a “tent city.” 

The country’s only Muslim city fell to the Daesh-inspired Maute Group, forcing 44,000 families to flee, according to official figures. Up to 18,000 of these families are still living in makeshift shelters awaiting a return home. 

In Sarimanok, one of Marawi City’s evacuation sites, Imam Omar Tindugan Shariff, 65, who serves as spiritual leader in the community, told Arab News that “life is hard, but we’re OK somehow because we get to receive help from well-meaning people, especially fellow Muslims.”

Holding his three-year-old grandson as he stood outside his tent, Shariff said the community also received help from the government and different aid organizations.

Most of the help came in the form of food and other items, but sometimes cash assistance was also offered.

“It’s not enough, but it helps us survive and so we are still thankful for that,” he said.

Shariff and his family moved to the tent city in April last year after spending several months with relatives who took them in after the conflict forced them to to flee their home. Eleven members of the Shariff family, including his grandson Abdul Ryan, share the small tent.

“This is the second year we are spending Ramadan here (at the tent city). Before the siege, we always had a beautiful celebration for Ramadan. Now we only have an improvised mosque, it’s a tent with tarpaulins,” Shariff said, adding that food for iftar is also donated by various organizations.

“On days when when there are no food donations, we prepare on our own, usually just rice and sardines,” he said. 

Shariff admits there are times when he asks God: “Why did this happen to us?”

“But I know this is just a test of faith for us. If you’re a true Muslim, Allah will sometimes let you face challenges. At first, you will face hurdles and if you are able to overcome them, Allah will reward you.”

Shariff said he still hopes that through the grace of Allah, a better life awaits the evacuees. 

FASTFACT

More than 44,000 families were forced to flee in 2017 when Marawi City was attacked by Daesh-inspired terrorists. Two years after the city’s liberation, many are still waiting to return home.

“It never crossed my mind to turn my back on my faith, even if those who did this to us claim to do it in the name of Islam,” he said. 

“We lost our house. It was burned down at the height of the fighting. And right now I don’t have enough money to send my daughter to school. So she has stopped attending school for two years now. She is in her second year in college.”

Amid their hardships, Shariff said his faith “is what helps me survive.”

Asked about his thoughts on the terrorists who attacked their city, he replied: “Those who did this to us, the Maute group, what they did is un-Islamic. Muslims are for peace, there’s no rich or poor, we are all equal — that’s the real Muslim. I don’t believe in what Daesh say they are fighting for.”

During the holy month, Shariff said his prayers are for the government to allow the Marawi City evacuees to return home.

Mansawi Hadinonamen and his family were also displaced during the siege. But unlike Shariff, they have already moved to temporary shelters in Sabonsongan, where living conditions are better than in the tent cities.

Hadinonamen’s family lost everything in the war. But still he is grateful they are alive. He also looks forward to rebuilding their house when the government allows them to return.

Asked what Ramadan means to his family in their current situation, he replied that it is a time to reflect and show that they remain strong in their faith. 

“The war has taken everything from us — our house, our belongings — but not our faith,” he said.

Another resident, Khalid, said fasting has become a daily recourse for many evacuees. Food donations are not enough. 

“There are no regular food donations and we don’t have enough money to buy food. Some areas also lack water, so people are forced to use rainwater that is not safe for drinking,” he said.

Meanwhile, Marawi Mayor Majul Gandamra declared that the city is now “on its way to being well.”

However, the rehabilitation process has yet to be completed, and Gandamra urged people to put more emphasis on social healing. 

“Peace starts with us. Peace must be realized,” he said during the culmination of the Week of Peace Festival to commemorate the Marawi siege.


Sri Lanka minister claims constitutional changes meet people's aspirations

Justice Minister Ali Sabry. (Supplied)
Updated 5 min 7 sec ago

Sri Lanka minister claims constitutional changes meet people's aspirations

  • Concern over separation of powers and free elections

COLOMBO: Constitutional changes giving Sri Lanka’s president immunity from prosecution and the power to dissolve parliament will meet the “aspirations of the people” and help “push the country to become a developed nation,” the country’s justice minister told Arab News in an exclusive interview.

The widely criticized 20th amendment, which will be voted on by lawmakers in October, will roll back the 19th amendment of 2015 that curtailed presidential powers. It would empower him to dissolve parliament at will a year after the election of new lawmakers, appoint ministers and remove the prime minister.

Last month President Gotabaya Rajapaksa said he would overturn the legislation during a speech inaugurating the country’s new parliament after his family-led Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna Party claimed a landslide electoral victory.

Justice Minister Ali Sabry said the 20th amendment would give people what they wanted.

“People voted for peace, security, the nation’s development and peaceful coexistence among all communities on the island,” Sabry told Arab News on Thursday.

“The proposed amendments would ensure the aspirations of the people, who lacked confidence during the previous regime between 2015 to 2020.”

The minister referred to a series of suicide bombings in Colombo in 2019 as well as the Central Bank of Sri Lanka bond scandal in 2015, saying the 2015 legislation was not accepted by people as it brought no sense of security.

Sabry, quoting Rajapaksa’s words from the last cabinet meeting, said: “The government does not want impediments and obstacles to achieve the nation’s goals, what people want is results on the ground. A country like Sri Lanka needs a strong leader, clean leader and an independent man, who can run the nation free of corruption and nepotism, coupled with his innovative ideas to push the country to become a developed nation.”

According to Article 35 of the 20th amendment's draft, which was published earlier this month, no proceedings can be instituted against someone who holds presidential office “in any court or tribunal in respect of anything done or omitted to be done by him either in his official or private capacity.”

Under the 20th amendment, appointment of members to the country's three independent commissions — the Judicial Service Commission, Election Commission, Public Service Commission — will be in the hands of the president himself.

The proposed clauses have caused concern over the separation of powers and whether the new constitution will guarantee free elections. But, said Sabry, there were no moves to jeopardize the commission's accepted functions. “There will be timely intervention if there is any breach in the discharge of its regular functions.”

The minister, who is a Bar Association of Sri Lanka lawyer and for years has been Rajapaksa’s legal adviser, said the 20th amendment would strengthen the powers of the president and remove some of the clauses from the 19th amendment to “ensure the rule of law and democracy” in the country.

“Actually, we want to go back to the pre-19th amendment period where the country witnessed developments, prosperity and the required security,” he said, referring to the period before 2015 when the country witnessed growth and security after a 26-year military campaign against the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam that ended the country’s civil war. “We need a peaceful Sri Lanka, where people can live in harmony, happiness, with prosperity and developments to take us to a new height.”

While Attorney General Dappula de Livera said earlier this month that the draft of the 20th amendment could be passed in parliament and did not require a referendum, Sabry said that people's opinions would be respected “at all costs.”

“Separation of powers will be enshrined and the proposed amendment will be discussed at all levels before it is enacted,” he added.