MARAWI CITY, Philippines: Citizen volunteers, dubbed the “white helmets”, from across the Philippine island of Mindanao have been risking life and limb going into Marawi’s danger zones to rescue people trapped inside their houses.
Most of the city’s 200,000 residents have already fled since gunmen waving the black flags of the Islamic State (IS) militant group began rampaging through the Muslim city of Marawi last week.
However, there have been thousands of distress calls coming from areas controlled by the IS-aligned Maute group – many of which are still impenetrable, according to relief teams – and more calls keep on coming.
It is Saripada Pacasum’s first time working in a conflict zone and for him, it is also personal as he has relatives trapped inside Marawi. He is among a group of volunteers from ARMM HEART, the civil arm of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao. They have been trained in disaster relief and have worked in other disasters on the island, such as the Zamboanga siege in 2013.
Saripada Pacasum says he is worried that it is not going to be bullets that might kill these people, but the lack of water and starvation.
“That’s my greatest concern. All of us here are having our Ramadan fasting. It’s hard for us already to not eat or drink water in the day. How about these people who don’t even have a chance during night time – and multiply that by the number of days they’re there,” he said.
Channel NewsAsia followed a team on two rescue missions. On both occasions, sniper fire could be heard in the near distance and the extraction process had to be quick. They were wary of bringing media because of the possible dangers. While the area had been cleared by the military, there was still a chance that militants could be hiding in the empty buildings.
The team drove quickly with police escorts through a series of ghost towns. Only a few chickens remained, pecking at rotting fruit in a market stall. Bullet holes punctured the sides of the buildings and houses were shuttered. A shoe in the street or piece of clothing left behind by a fleeing resident were the only remaining signs of the people that once lived there.
The rescue team pulled up at a gate and called out – and a shaky 16-year-old Fatima emerged from the top floor.
She slid down the roof and fell to the ground, to be caught by the volunteers. Her mother, brother and sister appeared shortly afterwards. Their frail bodies were shaking as they were put into a car and given food and water.
At the second location, there was no response when Abdulhalim’s name was called. The rescuers had to break down the front gate before going in. When they finally kicked open the front door, they found him on the floor with his wheelchair close beside him. “I don’t want to leave!” the 102-year-old screamed as they carried him out.
Meanwhile on the border of a Maute-controlled town, volunteers and the military ran to the bridge. The other side was lined with snipers, according to one of the volunteers. Suddenly, a big group of families emerged, running towards the checkpoint. The military stood alert, their guns trained on the other side of the bridge. The children were carried onto the truck and transported out quickly, while sniper fire could be heard in the distance.
Those who were rescued emerged visibly shaken and scared. Most had not eaten or drunk anything for days. They came back with stories of fear; of days cowering in their houses hiding from explosions and the terrorists.
Jenite said she was scared the next explosion would hit the house she hid in with her family.
“When the bomb fell, we just leaned down and covered our ears. Then we also covered the mouths of our kids so they wouldn’t make a sound. Hour by hour, minute by minute, we heard the explosions,” she said.
It was only a lack of food that drove her out. With her family, she risked walking across Maute-controlled territory until she reached a military checkpoint. That was when she knew she was finally safe.
She is now staying at an evacuation centre with all her belongings tied up in a few bags. She wants to go home but she is scared that this might happen again – the same thing many evacuees told Channel NewsAsia. Most of them do not even want to return.
Jenite was one of the lucky ones, but there are still thousands of people waiting to be rescued – and without any more food or water left, time is running out for them.