By: Criselda Yabes

For months, hardly anyone walked the streets in the dead atmosphere in the impoverished town of Butig, below the mystical Lake Lanao, following a five-month siege in the Islamic city of Marawi that ended nearly two years ago.

Butig was the stronghold of the Maute brothers, who led the Marawi siege in May 2017, driven by their allegiance to the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria. Marawi lay in rubble in the aftermath, the brothers dead. Before the siege, they had planned to turn Butig into an Islamic community along with a third partner who went by the nom de guerre Abu Dar, whose face was on the wanted posters around the small town.

Abu Dar was killed in a firefight with the military in mid-March, bringing the news of defeat among the radicals as a new chapter opens for the future of Filipino Muslims in the Mindanao region of the south. A transitional commission for a Bangsamoro autonomy is set to begin parliamentary sessions for a three-year period before leadership elections, part of a recently signed law after years of negotiations with government.

The dominant rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) that forged a peace deal with the government, once had its base in Butig, in a camp that had been taken over by the Maute brothers and which is now transformed into some sort of a resort and a scenic spot for the locals to visit for picnics – the undertaking of a classic civil-military campaign of a battalion calling itself the “Good Samaritans.”

Just a year ago, Butig was a ghost town. Most houses in the town center were empty and ruined by air strikes from previous military operations and rebel attacks preceding the siege in Marawi. It is coming back to life with stalls selling barbeque, bread and other provisions. Children have returned to school, the sight of boys biking home a wonder compared to earlier sights of children bearing rifles.

Today the fight was a basketball tournament among teams from other towns around the lake, coming here hoping to win a prize, playing at the court right outside the quarters of an army battalion that initiated the games – to try to get the youth into shape for better things and out of a culture of violence.

And now a new road has been built near the former rebel base, to connect it to a neighboring province through the mountains in a bid to enable mobility and the expansion of small commerce.  

The Maute brothers had once been tied to the MILF before a falling-out forced a split, by which time Abu Dar joined forces with the brothers for their vision of a Daulat ul Islamiyah, an Islamic state under the aegis of ISIS. It thus later linked arms with Isnilon Hapilon of the radical Abu Sayyaf Group from the southern island of Basilan – who was then made the emir in the planned takeover.

After five bloody months, the siege was declared lifted when Hapilon was killed, in mid-October 2017.  All seven of the Maute brothers were dead along with 971 other Muslim combatants and 169 Philippine soldiers. Another 1,400 soldiers were wounded and Marawi was a charnel house in the longest urban battle in the modern history of the Philippines.

Abu Dar, whose full name was Humam Abdul Najid, escaped from Marawi during the thick of the battle, presumably through the lake with which he was familiar, being a Maranao of Lanao’s Muslim tribe. Along with the Maute brothers, they had formed a triad of millennial fighters preaching Wahhabi Islam to create an absolute Islamic state that they had envisioned for a Wilayat, a province, in Marawi.

Abu Dar didn’t retreat far from Butig, merely 30 kilometers into the thick cover of the forest where he was attempting to put together the remaining army of fighters, when apparently he was killed. His wife was arrested in July 2018 and it was from one of their children that authorities took DNA samples to match that with Abu Dar’s corpse, its face obscured by burns. He was left behind by his comrades in fleeing a firefight.

But while the latest military score on the death of Abu Dar and two of his comrades at the same time meant a blow to the radicals, and therefore diminished their threat, the destruction of Marawi remains a gaping hole that continues to remind the displaced Maranao Muslims of what they perceived as inadequate priority to the rebuilding of their lives.

A task force in charge of Marawi’s rehabilitation has announced that residents – many of whom are living in evacuation camps and others in nearby cities – may return to their destroyed city by September, which would be roughly two years after the end of the siege. It had offered promises of rebuilding, only to fall into long delays and problems of bidding, complaints and the usual politics of greed.

Combat engineers have cleared about 90 percent of what was the battle area, meaning they have combed through the destruction to recover nearly 4,000 devices, improvised ones and those that did not explode. A private contractor chosen after a series of biddings will have to do the clearing once more with the aid of sophisticated technology and equipment.

It’s been a messy process of figuring out land titles and owners who could give permission for total demolition of their already ruined homes unless authorities rule otherwise through examination of leftover structures. No demolition can take place without permission from the owners and unless authorities say so upon examination of the structures. Some homes have been left spray-painted with names of the owners, their phone numbers, and land title numbers, hoping that would serve as insurance to having their property back.

The danger, according to the military, is the unexploded bombs dropped from the air strikes during the battle. About 50 general purpose bombs have yet to be recovered, and until then, the affected area may not be safe for habitation. Until now it has stood as a memorial with some markers describing scenes of the battle, the site open to a few students or special groups touring the destruction – and taking selfies as well.

The residents have been demanding to be allowed to return to the ruins of their homes no matter what, parts of ground zero still off-limits to civilians. If the government couldn’t do much to help, they said they could get by on their own, drawn to their land that is attached to the pre-Islamic symbol of the lake. They are the people of the lake, they said, and without them the lake will dry up.

Criselda Yabes (yabescriselda@gmail.com) is a prize-winning journalist and longtime contributor to Asia Sentinel. She is writing a book on the violence that wracked Marawi