The Battle for Marawi City

The Battle for Marawi City by Joseph Hincks - Time Magazine

On what was to be her wedding day, Stephanie Villarosa ate chocolate-flavored rice porridge out of a styrofoam cup. Under normal circumstances—rings exchanged, fidelity promised, bride kissed—she and her family would have been feasting on lechón, roasted suckling pig, a delicacy in her fiancé’s hometown of Iligan City on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Instead, Villarosa was huddled on an institutional plastic chair 38 km south of Iligan, inside Marawi City’s provincial government building. Outside, sniper fire crackled over the mosque-dotted hills to the east and military FA50 fighter jets thundered overhead. Wedding or no, the porridge was nourishing, and Villarosa was happy: “God is good. Today we survived.”

Survival has become a daily battle in Marawi, the capital of Mindanao’s Lanao del Sur province and whose mostly Muslim 200,000 population make the city the biggest Islamic community in what is otherwise an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Villarosa, a teacher in Marawi, was handing out wedding invitations when black-clad fighters of what the locals call Grupo ISIS swarmed the streets. She ran, hid, and took shelter in a nearby house with 38 other people. Outside, she heard, her workplace Dansalan College was burning, and Christians were being killed. “We rescued ourselves—no military,” says Villarosa. “We had to run, walk, crawl.” Seven of her colleagues, including the school’s principal, were unaccounted for, but, low on food and water, and with news that the military was set to bomb the area, Villarosa decided to get to the sanctuary of city hall. “It looked like a movie outside, it looked like The Walking Dead,” she says, referring to the post-apocalypse U.S. TV series.

The battle for Marawi began on May 23, when the Philippine military tried to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the head of a southern militia that has pledged loyalty to ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. But the army met fiercer than expected resistance. Allied with another pro-ISIS brigade called the Maute Group, Hapilon’s fighters took a priest and his congregation hostage, freed prisoners from the local jail, and overran the city. More than three weeks later, the fighting persists, hundreds have died—militants, soldiers, civilians—and hundreds more residents remain trapped in the city. Many have no electricity or running water. Food stocks are diminishing fast. As residents seek safety, much of Marawi has become a ghost town.

Iligan’s Capin Funeral Homes, one of a scattering of morgues in the area for Marawi’s minority Christians, is where some bodies from the conflict have been taken. A handwritten stack of crocodile-clipped papers logs newly received cadavers. In parenthesis, next to the names of two bodies that arrived one Saturday, a note says “decomposed.” That Sunday, six more decomposed bodies were logged, including two women and a girl. On Monday, another eight bodies were registered. A Marawi survivor later told local journalist Jeff Canoy that those were his colleagues from a rice mill. About a hundred of them had hunkered down at the mill, the survivor said, and the Muslims taught their Christian co-workers Islamic prayers to deceive the militants. After four days hiding, the rice millers made a break for it. Most reached the army checkpoints ringing the city, but a few didn’t. Their remains were found in a ravine with the word munafik—traitor in both Arabic and the local Maranao language—written on placards across their chests. As TIME toured the Capin morgue, four men wearing masks hoisted in another cadaver from Marawi. It was missing its head…

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