World News

Fleeing ISIS in the Philippines: 'I will never go back to Marawi'

Posted June 25
Updated June 26

Following a shock attack by ISIS-aligned militants which captured the southern Philippines city of Marawi last month, hundreds of thousands of its weary citizens have fled the horror of life under the control of jihadists -- a horror compounded by a relentless campaign of bombing by the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP).

With echoes of ISIS' impact on communities across Iraq and Syria, thousands have left everything they knew to escape the militants' clutches.

While most have found shelter with friends and family in the surrounding towns and villages, thousands have been classed as Internally Displaced Persons (IDPs) and remain homeless, confined to hot and uncomfortable displacement camps.

Here are some of their stories.

'Our homes might have turned to ashes'

For 70-year-old Gute Umpa, the sight of the black ISIS banner filled him with dread when he saw young militants parade it through his neighborhood, Barangay Dubduban, in the final, frantic days of May.

They were young, he says -- in their late teens and early twenties. They were well-equipped and looked professional, but he can't understand why Muslims would attack other Muslims, particularly at this time of year.

"It's appalling that they would strike during Ramadan," he said. "Because of what happened, we cannot celebrate Eid."

Two days after the fighting broke out, he called a nephew who worked at the Marawi campus of Mindanao State University (MSU) and owned a motorbike.

Taking little with him -- he had sent his family, including his young son, the day before -- he fled on the back of the bike to the displacement camp at the National School of Fisheries in Barangay Buruan, in nearby Iligan, on May 25. He said he saw several corpses on the road as he left the smoking, ruined city.

Umpa has been the IDP camp ever since and, while he's convinced family and friends are safe, he isn't so sure about his property. "I'm afraid our homes and properties have been turned to ashes," he said.

'I will never go back to Marawi ever again'

Rohayma Macarimbor, 55, sits on a small plastic chair amongst the bustle and chaos of the IDP center in Barangay Maria Christina, Iligan. When she talks of escaping the city she has called home for 20 years, tears roll down her cheeks and she dabs at them with her smock.

She stayed in Marawi for three days after the fighting started, she says, but amidst the chattering exchange of gunfire and warnings of airstrikes from the military, she decided it was time to head out.

Macarimbor, along with her neighbors, left on foot, dragging her painful, swollen ankles slowly along the 17 kilometer (10 mile) road to safety.

While fleeing they encountered a truck full of ISIS militants, mostly men in their 30s and 40s, but, strikingly, some who looked as young as 14, or 15 years old, she said.

"I will never go back to Marawi ever again," she tells CNN. Everything she owned, including her P15,000 (US$300) savings remain in the town but she is too traumatized to return. Even the rumbling of thunder, or a piece of fruit falling from a tree onto the tin roof of the IDP center, sets her heart racing and turns her mouth dry with terror.

'All we have here is what we were wearing'

Nora Casam sits with her eight family members on the hard, concrete floor of a re-purposed basketball court, the white lines of the court marking out her family's eked-out space in this sweltering camp. A few blankets spread around give a semblance of comfort, but she says it isn't enough.

"All we have here is what we were wearing" when they fled, the 45-year-old says. There was no time to grab anything; just enough to gather her family and head towards the Philippines military lines.

Casam shifts uncomfortably on the thin blanket, laid directly on the concrete court. "We need mattresses," she says. The old and the young are starting to get sick. "It's uncomfortable here but at least we're safe."

She says they'll stay as long as necessary, until her home town has been rid of the fighters that came from nowhere and upended their lives in an instant. "It's really painful, what happened," she says.

"We're Muslim and this happened during Ramadan. They should have respected that but now everything is destroyed.

"What they did is unjustifiable."

'We can be safe here, but it will be hard for my family'

Rahmah T. Abdou, 26, has been a community empowering facilitator of the Department of Social Welfare and Development (DSWD) in Iligan City for two years. She was in Iligan, working, when she heard that Marawi City, her home, was under attack by militants.

Members of her family weren't home either -- some were at the market, and her mother and a sibling were at her other sister's graduation. When her neighbors heard gunshots, many of them fled, running from the neighborhood, but others sought refuge at home.

Her family is still near the city, and her mother told her they received a "letter" from the military warning them that their place will be bombed soon and that they should leave. She's looking for a way to get them to safety and ideally she wants to find a house or an apartment outside the danger zone for them. But if need be she'll bring them to the IDP camp.

"As much as possible, I want to look for a house," she tells CNN. "I know we can be safe here at the evacuation center, but I know it will be hard for my family."

She isn't cowed by the attacks, however. Despite the terror she and her family have faced she still wants to go back to Marawi and rebuild the house where she grew up.

'You should stop this war now, we are the ones who are suffering'

Some of those who fled sit in the camps, unable to shake thoughts of those who have not yet made it out.

Aniah Dimaampao, 28, is a mother and while her five kids are with her she's concerned about her mother, Manita, who remains inside the city. She lives in a different "barangay" -- the Filipino word for neighborhood. The distance between their two homes prevented Dimaampao from going to get her.

When they last spoke, Manita was waiting for a rescue team -- she cannot walk anymore because she's sick. Dimaampao is also worried about her brother, and her uncle, who are both trapped within the city.

When they fled Marawi, they weren't able to bring anything, only what they were wearing and they don't have a great deal of optimism about the fate of their homes. Dimaampao told CNN she believed her house had already "turned into ashes."

She is angry with the militants -- like many in these camps, she already refers to the loose coalition of militants as ISIS -- who started this chaos. She says if she had the opportunity to talk to them she'd tell them: "You all made us suffer, you should stop this war now, we are the ones who are suffering."

Like many who had to flee, Dimaampao is a practicing Muslim. Eighty percent of the IDPs here are her co-religionists, the remainder are Christian. It's a ratio that holds true for Marawi in general. Dimaampao says that she's "sad that the family cannot practice Ramadan properly."

'I'm not afraid for myself. But I have to secure my family.'

Isabelo Holes, 55, is Catholic in a Muslim-majority town, but says there have never been tensions between the two religions in Marawi -- he has many Muslim friends, he says, and many are still trapped inside the besieged city.

Since the ISIS-affiliated militants descended upon the town last month, however, there have been reports of fighters stopping residents on the street, demanding proof that they are Muslims. If they cannot recite certain verses from the Koran, the reports say, they are summarily shot.

Holes works at the Marawi campus of MSU, at the motorpool, and until May 25 lived inside the MSU compound. The campus was outside the areas controlled by the militants, he says, but although he felt that they were safe from Islamist extremists, he decided to bring his family to the evacuation center in Barangay Maria Christina, Iligan, because he fears, the school will be bombed too.

"I'm not afraid for myself," Holes tells CNN. "But I have to secure my family." Now that he's brought them out of harm's way, he's waiting on word from his boss as to when he can return to the campus to help others still there.

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