This is Chapter 2 of the book 'Marawi Siege: Stories from the Front lines.' Written by journalist Carmela Fonbuena, it provides context to the five-month battle in 2017 between Philippine security forces and Islamic State-inspired militant groups. It was one of 5 nominees to the 2021 Witold Pilecki International Book Award.
Marawi City was home to more than 200,000 residents, almost entirely Muslims who called themselves Maranaos or lake dwellers in the vernacular. Lake Lanao, a beautiful and fabled body of water straddling 19 of the towns of Lanao del Sur province, was the center of many people’s lives and livelihood, although in time fishermen woefully found there was not always enough catch. The lake was threatened by a growing population, siltation, water pollution, and global warming. The people of the lake had turned to trading for livelihood, selling garments and malong, wood carvings, and brassware. They worked in factories as machine operators and assemblers. They were sales workers. Despite the lake’s decay, however, it was Mindanao’s main source of power, generously sending water into the Agus River to turn the turbines of hydroelectric stations.
Marawi City was the largest urban center in the ARMM, and was the region’s center of commerce, services, and culture. It was host to government institutions, such as the Amai Pakpak Medical Hospital, a tertiary health facility that served patients from the entire region. It was host to dozens of educational institutions, including the main campus of the Mindanao State University (MSU) and the protestant-run Dansalan College, attended by thousands of students coming from as far as Davao City. It was host to the provincial capitol, a military headquarters, and a Catholic Church that served a small population of Catholics who found jobs in the city.
Marawi was busy and bustling, but it was surrounded by poverty. Six out of 10 persons in the city lived below the poverty line or less than $500 a year. The province was one of the country’s poorest, too.
Up to 99% of Marawi’s population was Muslim. They were very religious, just going by the ubiquity of mosques in the city. Visitors driving around would find them and their minarets coming into view every few blocks, making for a spectacular sight especially against the changing colors of the sky at sunrise or sunset.
On the fateful afternoon of May 23, residents were busy preparing for Ramadan when shots were fired in Barangay Basak Malutlut. Islam’s holiest month was to begin three days later.
Marawi, whose old name was Dansalan, was no stranger to violence. The city has a rich history of conflict against invaders who tried to undermine the independence of the Maranaos, a clannish people who wanted to keep their way of life. They were said to be the last major tribe to be Islamized in the 13th century. They fought the Spaniards, the Americans, and the Japanese who colonized the country. They fought the Philippine government, too, in support of the rebellion of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF) and, later, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
Violence and conflict had become part of Marawi’s present. Gun battles were not uncommon in the city and nearby regions, which was why many Marawi residents largely ignored the fighting in Basak Malutlut on May 23.
In recent months, the military had been aggressive in hunting down Marawi’s homegrown militants Omar and Abdullah Maute of the Maute Group, tagged as leaders of Islamic State-Lanao. The violence they started in Butig town 50 kilometers away, where they originally sought to establish a caliphate and engaged the military in gun battles, had spread to other towns in the province. In December 2016, elite troops from the police Special Action Force (SAF) also raided the Maute family compound inside the city. An improvised explosive device was set off, wounding one of the cops, but the occupants of the compound offered little resistance and the brothers were not found. In April 2017, clashes also erupted in Piagapo, a town near Marawi where foreign fighters were killed.
If it wasn’t a military operation, it could have been rido or clan war, which was pervasive in the ARMM provinces. These were outbursts of retaliatory violence between families which might have been triggered by multiple causes, but usually land disputes and deaths of loved ones. Experts had linked rido to people’s perception that the justice system was weak and courts were useless in any attempt to prosecute criminals. It had motivated people to take justice into their own hands.
In the years prior to the siege, clan-related violence was most frequent in Lanao del Sur. It recorded at least 24 incidents in 2016, following 36 incidents in 2015. It was an average of two or three incidents a month in the past two years, although it was assumed that many cases went unreported. Up to 100 people were killed from rido in 2016 alone. Families learned to live with the constant threat of violence. They stayed away from the conflicts of other families. They built their houses from solid concrete to make their homes impenetrable to small bullets. They also kept their own guns, many of them unregistered, creating a culture that continued to feed the violence.
Residents didn’t really know what was happening in Basak Malutlut, but they expected the clashes to stop after a few hours. That was usually the case. As the afternoon turned into night on May 23, however, they were horrified to discover that the city had turned into a war zone. The rest was history.
Past 1 p.m.
“Alex” was idling his time with his teenage son at a mosque inside the city center when they heard the heavy volume of gunfire from Basak Malutlut, about 10 kilometers away on the other side of Agus river. Later on the streets, he saw men distributing guns. They were telling people Islam was under attack and they needed to defend it. He grabbed a long firearm.
Alex was recruited a year earlier to join Dawlah Islamiyah — literally, Islamic State — by a local religious leader from his hometown of Piagapo, where he lived with his wife and six children. He said he was enthralled to imagine a place where everybody abided strictly by the Qur’an and Sharia because under them the sinful were properly punished. “We were told Dawlah Islamiyah was the true Islam,” Alex said. He claimed he didn’t know Dawlah Islamiyah had links to the Maute Group. He said he never met the Maute siblings nor were they ever mentioned to him.
Alex was probably recruited to join the group because of his experience as former combatant of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), an MNLF breakaway group that also rejected ARMM and grew to become the country’s dominant Muslim rebel group. The MILF fought government forces viciously before it also sat down for talks. It signed a peace agreement in 2014 but it was yet to be implemented when the siege erupted.
Alex was no longer with the MILF, had long retired as combatant, and had lost his appetite for battles when he joined Dawlah Islamiyah.
He embraced the teachings of the religious teacher, but swore that he ignored calls to join the fighting in Butig in 2016. He said he also ignored calls to join the fighting in his hometown Piagapo a month before the Marawi siege. What changed him? The religious leader he looked up to was killed in the clashes in April. “I was really angry at the soldiers who killed him,” Alex said. He wasn’t the only one in his neighborhood who joined the fighting in Marawi to avenge his death.
What surprised Alex was seeing his teenage son, a student at an Arabic school in Marawi, also grab a firearm. He was told to follow one group while his son and fellow students followed another.
Around 3 p.m.
From a CCTV screen on the second floor of the Amai Pakpak Medical Center, 23-year-old Jan Yamit saw how armed men in black clothing shot a police officer at the hospital gate. The armed men brought wounded comrades, whom Jan presumed came from the fighting in Basak Malutlut. He knew instantly they were local members of “ISIS,” acronym for Islamic State of Iraq and Syria or the original name for the Islamic State in international news. From the beginning, residents in Marawi referred to the black-clad fighters as ISIS. It was never the Maute Group, Dawlah Islamiyah, or Abu Sayyaf Group for them.
Jan was a Christian. He and his new family moved to Marawi when he got a job at the hospital. Seeing the armed men kill the cop, he knew he had to leave the hospital immediately. He ran to his brother, an elevator operator at the hospital, before the armed men could get to them. They spent the next hour moving from one room to another, looking for the best place to hide. They found a way out on the third floor, where the windows of the hospital and the neighboring building were close enough to cross using a wooden plank.
It was here, at the Amai Pakpak Medical Center, that the armed men flew the black flag of the Islamic State. It was one of the first images posted online and picked up by local and international media. It gave those who doubted reports of Islamic State influence on a small country oceans away in Southeast Asia something to think about.
Jan called his wife and instructed her to take their son and proceed immediately to Kampo Ranao, where he believed they would be safe. He and his brother first sought refuge in a house neighboring the hospital, but the Muslim owner only allowed them to stay until 7 p.m. As the violence escalated, the house owner grew wary he might anger ISIS if he protected Christians.
Jan and his brother navigated their way to Kampo Ranao. There was chaos in the streets. Gun battles could be heard erupting everywhere. Buildings — including the city jail where a hundred prisoners were released to join the fighting — burned against the night sky. At the gate of the camp, they found many Christians like them seeking the military’s protection.
From before 2 p.m. to evening
Marawi City Mayor Majul Gandamra was just leaving for a relative’s wake outside the city when he heard gunshots popping off early afternoon on May 23. There was heavy traffic when he reached Basak Malutlut. Vehicles were turning around because soldiers had blocked the road. People on foot, in different states of panic, were scrambling to get away.
Gandamra ordered his driver to park the vehicle on the roadside and asked his police escort to coordinate with the military. “The raid in Basak Malutlut was not a total surprise,” he said. Weeks before May 23, there was a raid in a nearby town, where wounded armed men supposedly from the clashes in Piagapo were brought to Marawi to get medical attention.
The military didn’t coordinate these kinds of activities with local leaders, which Gandamra said he understood. “These operations might be sensitive,” he said. Civil society groups in Marawi ascribed it to the personality of the new Kampo Ranao commander, however. They noted that Fortes, since he assumed the post in January, had not convened a meeting with them despite their requests. They would have wanted better cooperation between the military and the local population amid the threats that the city was facing.
As early as December 2016, President Duterte himself revealed that the Maute Group had threatened to burn Marawi City if the military didn’t stop its operations in Butig. He said the message was brought to him by his emissaries to the Maute Group, which he hoped would agree to talk to his government.
Gandamra said he had been getting increasingly paranoid because the clashes were getting closer to Marawi. He got his updates from the local media, which closely monitored military operations against the Maute Group.
Butig Mayor Jimmy Pansar, who was cooperating with the military to flush out the Maute Group from his town, had warned Gandamra to take the threat of the Maute Group seriously. He even suggested Gandamra should prepare the village officials to fight it out with the militants if they attacked the city.
Gandamra said he asked the city police to increase their presence in strategic areas, but he was told the cops didn’t have enough men and firearms. He said he also gathered village officials and the Barangay Peacekeeping Action Teams (BPAT), the civilian auxiliary force of the police, to prepare for the threat. “But what could they really do if a group of heavily armed men came to their areas? They couldn’t bring firearms to patrol the barangays because the soldiers might arrest them,” he said.
In Basak Malutlut, troops told the mayor’s police escort the situation was under control. But Gandamra said he had a bad feeling. He went home to gather men and guns. He returned to the city hall at around 3 p.m. and closed the gate of the compound.
The situation escalated quickly. Soon he received reports of black-clad armed men massing up in various parts of the city. He called Fortes, but he was in Manila. He talked to Bautista, who said soldiers were on their way to protect the city hall.
As nightfall came, and the soldiers had not arrived, the mayor got nervous. The armed men had occupied the city center; the police and the military were not taking his calls anymore. Speaking in a phone interview on CNN Philippines, a distressed Gandamra appealed for reinforcement. “It’s just me and my relatives guarding the city hall. I hope they will send forces to the city center so people will feel their presence, and we can prevent any plans that [the militants] might have to occupy government offices,” the mayor said.
Troops didn’t arrive that night. They were ambushed on the way and fought throughout the night, surprised by the defenses of the enemy. First Lieutenant John Carl Morales, commander of a company under the 49th Infantry Battalion, was the first officer killed during the siege.
Around 4 p.m.
In Dansalan College, teacher Lordvin Acopio was preparing his schedule for the next school year when he heard the popping sounds from Basak Malutlut. “We couldn’t tell at the beginning if those were fireworks for a party or an exchange of gunfire. It became clear later on that it was a gun battle, but like most people we thought it was just another rido,” Acopio said.
A native of the Visayas, Acopio had not stayed in Marawi for long, but he had grown to like the city despite his parents’ concerns. He just completed one school year teaching math and history to Grade 7 pupils at the protestant-run school that the Maute siblings attended when they were younger. He liked teaching there and decided to stay another school year.
He went back to his task, isolating himself to study the course loads of different classes to make sure his teaching schedule didn’t overlap. When parents started arriving to collect their children from their summer classes, he and fellow teachers realized the situation was more serious.
The teachers locked themselves inside one of the buildings. It was almost evening when the armed men reached Dansalan College and ordered them to come out. “They’re coming inside!” a fellow teacher screamed as she watched from the window how the armed men broke through the school gate. Most teachers had gone home, but Acopio and others who lived faraway stayed.
“Come out!” the armed men shouted as they occupied the school grounds. “They’re barricading the building!” screamed the same teacher. A Maranao teacher approached the armed men and tried to talk them out of their plans, but to no avail.
“Come out or we will burn the building!” the armed men growled. They made good on their threat and started burning the main building.
Of all the violence that happened that day, it was this act against a symbolic institution for the Maranaos that offended the residents deeply. They couldn’t fathom how fellow Maranaos would destroy their city.
By then the teachers knew they didn’t have a choice. “We went out of the building. They ordered us to surrender gadgets and all electronic devices, but they told us they were going to bring us somewhere safe,” said Acopio.
“They segregated the Maranaos from the Christians based on the way we spoke. We had teachers who knew Maranao, but they (the armed men) could detect the tone. They allowed the Maranaos to go home, but told them to tell the authorities and the military that they had us as hostages,” he said. Acopio and the remaining teachers, mostly women, were forced inside a van. They sat on the floor and began to cry as the vehicle rolled down the city streets. One of the armed men tried to give assurances that they would be brought somewhere safe; Acopio wanted to believe him.
All of a sudden the vehicle stopped. Catholic priest Teresito “Chito” Soganub and church workers at the Saint Mary’s Parish joined them in the van. The vehicle continued to circle the city streets, as if waiting for something, and made a few more stops to change guards.
“They later instructed us to reach out to powerful people and military officers we knew. They said, ‘Tell them we’ve taken you hostage. They should withdraw or we will hurt you.’ They tried to comfort us at first by saying they would bring us somewhere safe. But then they told us later they were going to kill us if the military didn’t withdraw. They said they’d start with the priest,” Acopio recalled.
Before 8 p.m.
Marawi Bishop Edward Dela Peña’s phone rang. It was his secretary’s number calling. The bishop was away and had been waiting for news all afternoon, praying fervently that church workers at the Saint Mary’s Cathedral in Marawi were safe from the violence unfolding in the city.
“To my surprise, it was the voice of an angry man on the other line. He was already giving me his demands. I should tell the military it should declare a ceasefire. Troops shouldn’t run after the group and they shouldn’t attempt to go near them. Otherwise, they would hurt the hostages. They gave me one hour to do it. The accent was very heavy. I couldn’t tell if he was Maranao or he was from another ethnic group,” Dela Peña said.
The bishop froze in fear as he heard women crying in the background. He imagined the terror the church workers were going through. His silence frustrated the man on the other end of the line, who then gave the phone to Father Chito. “Bishop,” Dela Peña heard the shaking voice of his right-hand man, “we’re taken hostage, Bishop.” The phone was snatched from Father Chito as soon as he had relayed the demands of their captors.
On May 23, the Catholics in Marawi were also busy preparing for the feast of the Immaculate Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary the following day. Even with gun battles raging in Basak Malutlut, Father Chito proceeded with the ninth and final day of the novena. They cleaned the parish and prepared food while they prayed for the clashes to be over. They were ready to have dinner at the bishop’s residence when the militants stormed in and took them.
The armed men also desecrated the cathedral — smashed statues of Jesus Christ and other Catholic figures, and then set the house of worship on fire — for a propaganda video they would release a few days later.
The bishop was still trying to reach out to the military when Father Chito’s captors called again. He asked for more time. Finally another bishop got him connected to Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez Jr., chief of the Western Mindanao Command, who instructed him to contact the number again and ascertain that the hostages were safe. But the bishop was horrified to discover that he could not reach his secretary’s phone anymore.
The final stop of the van carrying Father Chito, Acopio, and other hostages on May 23 was Banggolo, the central business district of Marawi. The armed men ordered them to disembark and join in the street the prisoners who had been freed from city jail. They were told to form separate lines for men and women. The hostages feared they were going to be executed, but they were brought to an outpost where they passed the night.
Early evening in Russia
President Duterte had just arrived in Russia for a state visit and was looking forward to meeting President Vladimir Putin when he learned of the escalating violence in Marawi City. He convened an emergency meeting at his Moscow hotel, gathering Cabinet officials and major service commanders he had brought along.
It was early evening in the Russian capital, close to midnight in Manila, when Duterte declared martial law in the entire Mindanao.20 Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana and AFP chief Año immediately made plans to return home, but they didn’t yet grasp the gravity of the situation until they were back in the country.
They persuaded the President to stay in Moscow and complete the state visit, assuring him that the battles would only take a few days. Duterte refused. “Gentlemen, we’re all going home,” Duterte announced to his delegation.
In Marawi and many parts of Mindanao, the declaration of martial law struck fear among residents who still carried the trauma from the brutality that they experienced in the 1970s under dictator Ferdinand Marcos.
The MILF, a thousands-strong Muslim rebel group, did not know what to make of the declaration. Its leaders were afraid the government had blamed them for the siege and was throwing in the towel on the peace process. They feared a repeat of the Mamasapano tragedy in 2015, when the death of 44 elite cops in a “misencounter” inside an MILF enclave threatened to end the peace talks.
As MILF Chairman Murad Ebrahim desperately sought clarification from the government, he ordered Sammy Al-Mansour, the chief of staff of the MILF Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces (BIAF), to consolidate combatants all over Mindanao and tell them to wait for orders.
Top Photo by Baltazar "Bobby" Lagsa
The book was funded by the Australian government through the Australian embassy in the Philippines and the non-profit German foundation Friedrich-Ebert Stiftung (FES). The views expressed here are the author’s alone and are not necessarily the views of the Australian government nor FES. The Australian government and FES neither endorse the views in this book, nor vouch for the accuracy or completeness of the information contained within. The Australian government and FES, their officers, employees and agents, accept no liability for any loss, damage or expense arising out of, or in connection with, any reliance on any omissions or inaccuracies in the material contained in this book.
It is available in Kindle Version here.