Marawi under siege: It's like 'looking at Aleppo'

RESCUE AMID RUIN. Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rescue workers helping trapped residents of Marawi City to evacuate to a safer place. Handout/GPH-MILF photo released June 4, 2017

RESCUE AMID RUIN. Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) rescue workers helping trapped residents of Marawi City to evacuate to a safer place.

Handout/GPH-MILF photo released June 4, 2017

MARAWI CITY, Philippines – "It's like I'm looking at Syria and Aleppo."

This was what Zia Alonto Adiong said about the scenes of destruction he is now seeing in his hometown.

"The footage that came out online, on Facebook, we cannot recognize them. I was raised here in Marawi City all my life. And looking at these pictures, there is no semblance of Marawi in them," Adiong, the spokesman of the provincial crisis management committee here in Marawi, said Tuesday, June 5.

Image of destruction in Banggolo – the heart of Marawi City, once among the region's busiest trading centers – and nearby barangays surfaced in the past days as hundreds of trapped residents are rescued or are able to escape.

Aleppo, meanwhile, was once Syria's largest city and its former economic powerhouse. Now, it is the epicenter of a vicious war, where Syrian government troops, Syrian rebels, and terrorist fighters linked to the Islamic State (ISIS) group are fighting for control.

Two weeks of heavy clashes have torn down high-rise buildings occupied by the combined forces of two local terrorists groups – the homegrown Maute Group of Marawi and the Abu Sayyaf Group faction from Basilan. They have become the target of air strikes and other heavy weaponry.

The high-rise buildings made perfect nests for enemy snipers. From the roof, they could see approaching government troops, who can turn into easy targets if they are not careful.

"Marami talaga ISIS doon pero nakahiwalay sila. Bawat bahay may ISIS na lima o tatlo. Naka-poste sniper kaya hindi makapasok ang mga sundalo. Mataas man ang bahay. Nasa baba ang sundalo," said Marjune Sumandoran, a construction worker who was trapped in Marawi for several days.

(There are many ISIS fighters but they are spread out. Each house there are 3 to 5 ISIS fighters Their snipers are well positions that is why the military can't get in. The houses they occupy are tall while the soldiers are on the ground.)

"Kahit may tangke pa. Matamaan ng RPG (rocket-propelled grenade) ang tangke (Even if the military has tanks. The tanks can be hit by enemy RPGs)," Sumandoran added.

Sumandoran and fellow Christian friends braved an escape from the combat zone recently after a stray bullet pierced a wall of the house he was hiding in and hit his leg. Rappler found him at a clinic at the provincial capitol, waiting to be transferred to a proper hospital in Iligan City.

These are the same enemy snipers that have prevented teams from retrieving dead bodies on the streets, a tragedy for Muslims who are supposed to bury their dead within 24 hours.

AIR STRIKE. Smoke rises after aerial bombings by Philippine Air Force planes on Islamist militant positions in Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao on June 6, 2017. Noel Celis/AFP

AIR STRIKE. Smoke rises after aerial bombings by Philippine Air Force planes on Islamist militant positions in Marawi, on the southern island of Mindanao on June 6, 2017.

Noel Celis/AFP

The clashes are now on its 3rd week. The military admitted the war against the well-trained and heavily armed terrorists is not easy, especially because most of them grew up in the battle zone and know the nooks and crannies of the place.

"A sniper can paralyze the movement of a whole company, even battalions," said Major General Rolando Bautista, the ground commander, told Rappler in an earlier interview. (READ: How a military raid triggered Marawi attacks)

The mission of the military is to clear the city of the presence of terrorists groups, and save trapped civilians and hostages. The buildings had become collateral damage. 

The military reported the terrorists have occupied the mosques, too, because they know the troops won't touch it.

Residents' cries to end the air strikes grow louder. Civil society leader Meno Manabilang, 75, of Barangay Upper Marinaut, is among those trapped inside the combat zone, said Samira Gutoc, a former member of the Bangsamoro Transition Commission.

Gutoc said Manabilang has been texting them to "stop bombing" for several days staring last May 26. But the messages have now stopped. "Is he still alive?," Gutoc asked.

But even after military air strikes have killed its own soldiers, the bombings continue.

"We even cried during that time. Our officers were very emotional. Losing people, our own people, napakasakit nun (it's very painful)," said Lieutenant General Carlito Galvez in a press conference here.

"But I called up the commanders and said we have to move on. We have to finish this fight. We have to start again and again. We will pinpoint responsibilty later. We have something to finish immediately," Galvez added.

The residents are victims, but so are the soldiers. – Rappler.com