MARAWI CITY, Philippines: Salidu Palawan had been waiting months for the chance to step back into his home. What he found crushed him.
His house is far removed from the city centre, where fighting has raged for more than four months. However, due to security restrictions, residents have largely not been allowed to return.
Thick and overgrown foliage block the entrance to the modest house’s front door. It is clear though that someone has already been inside since he and his family were forced to flee.
“When I arrived here I felt like crying. It hurt so much,” he said. “But even then I couldn’t cry because I couldn’t understand what was going on.”
Inside, there is utter disarray. Clothes are strewn across the floor, cardboard boxes of possessions have been ripped open, suitcases have been cut and cabinets raided.
A lifetime of accrual – investments, keepsakes and memories – pilfered with no regard for what they once might have meant.
He says his wife’s jewellery, the family’s gold and electronic appliances have all been looted. The perpetrators are unknown.
“I can’t accept what has happened – what they did to our house,” Palawan said. “I went back to my work and I just tried to calm myself.
“When I left with my family we packed all of our belongings carefully.
“I only thought this conflict would last one to three weeks. It didn’t turn out that way. It’s been so long.”
Palwan’s wife Sittie and their children live in an internally displaced person’s camp some 45 minutes’ drive away. They only see each other about once every two weeks.
After being shown a photo of the state of her home, she immediately bursts into tears, shaken by a reality she had feared but not visualised.
“I feel deeply sad,” she said. “Because the arrangements in the house aren’t the way I left it and I guess all my things aren’t there anymore.”
There was a deep anguish for Sittie when she and her family were forced to escape their city. They suffered in a void of uncertainty for weeks and months, normal people suddenly stripped of all belongings and bearing.
“When the fighting started my husband said ‘let’s just stay here’. But then the fighting increased and I said ‘no I cannot stay here, I cannot stay here anymore’.”
“We hadn’t really brought anything because we thought it would only last for three days. We looked like slaves. We had no proper clothes.”
Her life in a tent city is just a temporary solution for now. But she is too scared to consider the prospect of returning to Marawi, even if their neighbourhood is cleared and deemed safe.
Indeed stepping back into a city shadowed by so much death and dread will be painful for many.
“A MORE BEAUTIFUL CITY”
While the conflict remains bogged down in the supposed final days before Marawi is liberated and the black flag of extremism ripped asunder, focus is pivoting to how the city will ever be rehabilitated.
During his latest visit to the conflict area, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte declared that, amid the chaos, rebuilding was an important measure of progress.
“I promise to build a more beautiful city,” he said in a speech at the opening of Bahay Pag-asa, which will provide hundreds of people improved shelter and accommodation.
Authorities are busy trying to assemble more enduring accommodation for hundreds of thousands of displaced people. It could be more than a year before residents can safely renew their lives in the war-ravaged city.
At Sagonsongan Village, 1300 pre-fabricated homes are being constructed by a South Korean building firm and are due to be completed by the end of the year.
Families unable to go home will be accommodated here, in 25 sq m dwellings, at a picturesque green clearing near the outskirts of Marawi.
At present, there is little to show for the strategy but some levelled earth and a motley brigade of local workers. But this is an important step to phasing back the return of residents, according to city mayor Majul Usman Gandamra.
“Initially we have estimated it will take three or more years to bring back Marawi and this time in a better state than before,” he said.
“Those who are really from Marawi City really want to return and start all over again. They are willing to go back.
“Right now you cannot discount those possibilities that there are some people who really have apprehensions of going back because of fear. But the government is exerting itself to really address the issues.”
A symbolic sign of what that effort might look like came when the mayor led a street clean-up this week involving hundreds of volunteers, an initial step to prepare for the homecoming of some Marawi residents in barangays abandoned but largely spared from the scars of this conflict.
Houses have been broadly boarded up, padlocked and left frozen in time since the first deadly firefight involving Islamic State-inspired militants ignited on May 23. Residents who could escape fled for their lives over the proceeding days.
The volunteers hack at overgrown grass, scrape at piles of smashed rock and pick up trash. It is mostly superficial beautification of lonely streets that may not ever be restored to what they once were.
And the echoes of divided sentiments are on display.
On the interior walls of one house, sprawled crudely, are the words “I love ISIS. Welcome”, while a crudely assembled shotgun lies among the dust on the ground. Another house has the words “Maute” adorned with love hearts spray painted onto a metal door.
Whether these are genuine proclamations of support for the militants, mischief making or deliberately planted propaganda is unclear.
What is certain is that the physical construction of shelters, the cleaning of streets and the unshuttering of businesses will not heal this city.
Marawi needs a complete rebuild. And it will begin and end with its people.
“After seeing the city truly devastated it was really painful on my part,” Mayor Gandamra said.
“But this suffering or this misfortune may be a wakeup call for all of us Maranaos willing to stand again, forget the past and look forward and reform ourselves.”