A soldier waves to the crowd as government troops leave Marawi after a five-month shooting war with Islamic State-inspired terrorist gunmen. (Photo by Divina Suson)
Residents of Marawi in the southern Philippines have gathered for a "people's day" to celebrate the city's liberation from Islamic State gunmen and mark the start of the "rebuilding and healing" of the city.
The government last week declared an end to almost five months of armed clashes with Islamic State-inspired gunmen that left Marawi devastated and close to 400,000 people displaced.
Mujiv Hataman, governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao, called on the ethnic Maranao tribe of Marawi to show their determination "to rise from the debacle of war."
"Now is not the time for blaming but for unity," said the governor. "There are opportunities in every crisis," he said as he appealed to donors to help in the rehabilitation of the city.
Marawi Mayor Majul Gandamra said the "people's day" on Oct. 30 was meant to welcome those who have returned to the city and to serve as a "running cry for unity and peace."
For the first time since the May 23 attack, the Philippine flag was raised in front of the city hall.
Of the 96 villages in Marawi, 51 have been cleared for people to return. Military "clearing operations" continue in other parts of the city.
Zia Alonto Adiong, spokesman of the Marawi crisis management committee, was surprised by the amount of people who returned to the city on Oct. 29.
Bishop Edwin de la Pena of the Prelature of Marawi, meanwhile, appealed for prayers for those who died in the clashes as the country marks All Souls' Day this week.
"Pray for all who died in Marawi, especially our gallant soldiers who gave their lives so that we can live in peace, the civilians, and hostages who lost their lives in the process," said the prelate.
The bishop said he would issue a call for prayers for victims of the siege in his predominantly Muslim diocese, hoping that other Catholic dioceses in the country would do the same.
"Other dioceses and local churches can join in praying for all who died in Marawi," said Bishop de la Pena.
At least 47 civilians, 165 security forces, and 920 terrorist gunmen died during the clashes.
The military announced that it plans to complete the return of displaced residents to the city by December.
Col. Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of the military's Joint Task Force Ranao, said if everything proceeds as planned, "all [refugees] will be able to return to the cleared areas."
"We're still trying to restore electricity, clearing operations are still ongoing in the villages, and our engineering equipment are also clearing the roads of debris," said the military official.
Residents whose houses were destroyed by the fighting will be housed in temporary shelters.