MARAWI, Philippines: There is very little sign of normal life now left on the abandoned streets of Marawi. The fighting is unrelenting and it has been for nearly one month.
The battle is centred on just four districts – about 10 per cent of the city. The rest of it lies abruptly deserted.
Homes and businesses are shuttered, food sits rotting and the only movement comes from patrolling soldiers and feeble animals. Even some of them are victims of this conflict; a small puppy lies dead in the middle of one road, flies buzzing around it.
Posters congratulating young graduates on their law and engineering degrees stand still in time, a wretched reminder of the lives that have taken abrupt turns. What fate has befallen these budding professionals remains uncertain in the fog of war.
Marawi has descended into despair. More than 200,000 residents managed to flee its bounds within days of the eruption of violence triggered by militants inspired by Islamic State.
Tales of black-clad gunmen going door to door assassinating Christians speak of the terrible atrocities that may long haunt this place. The death toll is officially in the hundreds, but there are underlying fears of much grimmer reality waiting once the deadly struggle subsides.
The military has for weeks stood firm on a quick and efficient liberation. But urban warfare of this scale rarely gives easy victories and an unknown number of assailants have repelled all comers; they were prepared for this.
There are no more marks on the calendar for what was once thought of as an inevitable army breakthrough.
The early stanzas of the fight saw violence break out around a local hospital. Bullets fired in anger have fractured the building’s exterior. Heavily protected, it is still in operation and patients too frail for evacuation centres receive treatment from a committed team of doctors.
“We need to serve the community although there is danger. So we have to be careful,” said Hussein Samporna, a surgeon in residence continuing to perform his duty during troubled days.
There are still about 1,300 residents unaccounted for and believed trapped in the core of Marawi, the commercial district lined with shops and markets. There are efforts to save them but attempts at extraction are heavy with risk and reliant on complex negotiations from trusted anonymous intermediaries.
A so-called “peace corridor” is seen as the best solution for a bad situation.
Reliant on agreed-upon ceasefires, it is meant to provide a safe passage for aid going in and civilians coming out. But the pact to momentarily lay down arms has proved hard to secure and gunfire has broken the agreement on at least one occasion.
The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) is an unlikely bedfellow for the government and military in making a peace corridor happen. Long pushing for self-rule in Mindanao, it is a group that has chosen dialogue over a duel.
A 30-person strong MILF team has been involved in rescuing hundreds of people in recent weeks. “What is somehow unique is going inside the war zone. If not because of this peace corridor, perhaps no group would be able to get inside,” said Marjanie Mimbantas, a member of the corridor’s implementing panel.
“We are very grateful to be saving lives.”
Still, many of the MILF’s former members have turned defectors and stand in the way of the peace the group says it is striving for.
“It’s a known fact because of their mistrust, perhaps because of the frustration … (There’s a) message that the government is not serious enough in delivering on their commitment,” he said. “I’m not saying the government is not serious, but that’s how (these other groups) attract people.”
The government itself proclaims the peace corridor, the first of its kind in the country, as “valuable for every family whose relative or loved ones are safe from this”, according to Jesus Doreza, a key official tasked with overseeing its peace process.
“You could imagine how families react. But there are still many more families agonising day in and day out still hoping their relatives will be safe,” he said.
Those days continue to float by and the flow of civilians escaping the clutches of their oppressors has become a drip. Those who manage to will be leaving deeply scarred neighbourhoods, through streets more intact – but hollow and comatose.
The familiar sounds of these streets may return, perhaps soon, perhaps not. But they surely will never ring the same.