Marawi recovering, but rights groups bemoan military abuses

Violations still to be addressed as martial law remains in force across the southern Philippines
Marawi recovering, but rights groups bemoan military abuses

The war-torn city of Marawi in the southern Philippines remains devastated two years after extremist gunmen laid siege on the city in May 2017. (Photo by Mark Saludes)

The physical rehabilitation of Marawi in the southern Philippines is yet to take off two years after extremist gunmen occupied the city, but officials said the people are "on their way to being well."

"We are finally learning what peace is all about," said the city's mayor, Majul Gandamra.

In a speech at the end of the recent "Week of Peace" observance, the mayor stressed what he described as "social healing" that can result in "genuine peace."

"Peace starts with us. Peace must be realized," he said in the grounds of city hall where two years ago he tried to shoot it out with the attackers.

On May 23, 2017, gunmen claiming allegiance to the so-called Islamic State group attacked the city of Marawi resulting in a siege lasting five months that displaced about half a million people.

Despite Gandamra's optimism, rights groups said rights abuses have still to be addressed in relation to the declaration of martial law in the southern part of the country following the attack, and which is still in force.

After the military declared "victory" in Marawi, the government refused to lift martial law and has even extended it twice.

Military rule in the southern Philippines will remain in effect until December 2019.

Rights groups complain of abuses

Father Rolando Abejo of the Philippine Independent Church said martial law "was being clearly used as a weapon by the government ... against its perceived enemies."

"It is used as a weapon to justify attacks against the Moro people and progressive groups," said the priest who also serves as spokesman for the Movement Against Tyranny in northern Mindanao region.

He said keeping military rule across the island of Mindanao until end of this year has "emboldened state forces to commit 'terrorist acts' in peasant and tribal communities."

Father Abejo said martial law has allowed "state forces to continue threatening, harassing, and inflicting violence against communities and people's organizations."

Human rights group Karapatan claimed to have documented 93 killings, 136 attempted murders, 35 cases of torture, and 1,450 illegal arrests allegedly committed by security forces.

There were also 28,813 reports of alleged threats, harassments and intimidation, and 423,538 victims of forced evacuation across the region.

"Various incidents under martial law are either swept under the carpet or blatantly whitewashed," said Karapatan leader Cristina Palabay.

The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) also noted that the displacement of people from Marawi and surrounding areas persists.

"Despite numerous aid efforts that have truly helped those in need ... the people of Marawi have grown tired and frustrated," said Martin Thalmann, head of the ICRC delegation in the country.

He said the conflict has left more vulnerable groups, such as families of missing people and victims of violence, with "invisible scars."

But retired general Carlito Galvez Jr., a peace adviser of the government, said the "healing process" could now begin.

He said the people of Marawi showed their best quality by being "resilient" at the height of the conflict.

"It is you, the people of Marawi, who have inspired and strengthened my resolve to work for genuine and enduring peace," he said during the "Week of Peace" observance.

"You now have the opportunity to play a key role in charting the course of Marawi's future," Galvez said.

Returning back to the city

Eduardo del Rosario, head of the government task force set up to rehabilitate the city, expressed optimism that all families displaced families will soon be rehoused.

Of 57 evacuation centers that existed after the siege only two remain occupied by displaced individuals, he said.

"By July, all these families will be accommodated in temporary shelters, nobody will be in evacuation centers," said Del Rosario, adding that Marawi is "gradually bouncing back."

Critics, however, warned the government against depending on private corporate efforts to rebuild the city.

"Marawi is part of our identity and any and all rehabilitation efforts should take into account and be respectful of our social, economic, political, and cultural rights," said Dalomabi Bula, who heads the group Reclaiming Marawi Movement.

The people of the city "merit a safe and dignified return and demand that the government rebuilds what it had destroyed," she said

Jigger Jerusalem contributed to this report.

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