By DEE AYROSO
MANILA – Like other displaced residents of war-torn Marawi City, Motalib Sarip Ismael, 19, is heartbroken about what has happened to the Islamic city, the once beautiful and bustling home of the Maranaos, now reduced to rubble and honeycomb structures by government bombing and airstrikes.
But more than the ruined properties in the city, Ismael is worried about the fate of its missing residents, among them his half-brother and his family: Asgar Macasalong Ismael, 28; his wife, Amina Lomondot, and their three children, aged four and two years old, and the youngest, three months old.
Asgar and his family lived in Marinaut, where the first government airstrikes against the terrorist group Dawlah Islamiya were launched. Ismael lived in his parents’ home in Mocado village, along with his older brother, Abubakar.
They last saw Asgar and his family on May 19, when they visited his home. Asgar is Ismael’s older half-sibling by his father’s first wife.
“Gusto ko lang ipanawagan, kung nasaan man sila ngayon, sana huwag silang mag-solo. Ipaalam nila sa amin na okey lang sila. Kasi nag-aalala kami nang sobra (I just want to call on them, wherever they are now. I hope that they will not bear things on their own, and let us know if they are okay. Because we are worried sick about them),” Ismael said in an interview with Bulatlat.
Ismael’s brother and his family are among scores of Marawi city residents who were believed trapped when the fighting broke out in the city on May 23. Although thousands have been rescued or had escaped on their own, an undetermined number of people are yet to be accounted for.
Evacuees like Ismael are left on their own to look for their missing kin, which is particularly difficult because of the restriction on mobility under martial law in Mindanao, and the growing Islamophobia.
Ismael is among the Marawi evacuees who joined the Lakbayan ng Pambansang Minorya or Lakbayan this year led by the national minorities alliance, Sandugo. They compose a bulk of the 187 Moro delegates, who along indigenous peoples, want to make President Duterte accountable for the worsening human rights situation and oppression of national minorities.
The fighting in Marawi began on May 23, between the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and the Dawlah Islamiyah, which government calls as the Maute group, after the name of its leaders, brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute.
Even as the military has repeatedly announced over the month that the Dawlah’s force and controlled area is “shrinking,” the airstrikes and clashes have kept on. Meanwhile, hopes to find trapped civilians still alive diminishes every day.
“Ten percent na lang,” Ismael admits the shrinking odds of finding Asgar and his family alive.
“Mahirap talaga lumabas sa erya na tinitirhan nila (It is difficult to get out of their residential area),” he said. Trapped civilians could be mistaken for Christians by the Dawlah, who might take them hostage; or they could be suspected as Dawlah members by soldiers.
Humanitarian missions by progressive groups have documented cases of missing civilians who were last seen accosted and taken by soldiers.
Ismael and his brother left Marawi on May 25, when the airstrikes began. They alternately walked and caught a ride from Mocado up to Iligan City, travelling from morning and arriving at midnight at their sister’s house in Iligan City.
Before they left, they tried to call Asgar on his cellphone, but it was off. Electricity was cut off when the clashes began, and Ismael believed that Asgar’s phone was drained.
They also tried to contact their sister-in-law’s relatives, but in vain. Those that they know of also lived in Marinaut.
Except for Asgar, Ismael said his other siblings were all accounted for. They traced one of their half-siblings at an evacuation center in Balo-i, Lanao del Norte. The others live in other provinces.
Ignored by police, families left to search on their own
Ismael said they went from one evacuation to another, looking for Asgar and his family, including in Saguiaran and Wato, Lanao del Sur; in Buru-un village, Iligan City, and Balo-i, both in Lanao del Norte.
He recalled that it was hard enough for them to travel from Marawi, as they go through a series of military checkpoints, where soldiers ask for identification cards and go through their belongings. But it was even more difficult looking for their missing brother.
They had to get various security passes from the provincial capital in Marawi, such as a car pass and individual clearance. The evacuation center in Wato even requires a clearance before they can enter.
At the Saguiaran police, Ismael said they attempted to file a missing person report, but they were literally ignored by the police desk officer.
“Di kami pinansin. Nakikinig lang siya ng music. Salita kami nang salita pero parang walang narinig (He ignored us. He kept listening to his music. We tried to talk to him but he pretended not to hear us),” Ismael recalled. They failed to get the name of the police man, who had his earphones on, but had clearly seen them. Frustrated, they just left the Saguiaran police station.
At the provincial capital in Marawi, they no longer attempted to seek help from the police. They just put up the posters they made with their brother’s family picture. They realized they were not alone.
“Marami pang nawawala, bata, matanda (So many others are also still missing, children, the elderly),” Ismael recalled the posters of the missing he saw at the provincial capital.
‘Our voices are not being heard’
Ismael said many fear that their loved ones are among those found dead but are being touted as slain Maute members. The Lanao del Sur provincial has retrieved dozens of bodies and conducted three mass burials, after processing the remains for DNA samples.
But Ismael said they did not attempt to seek help from the provincial government. In spite the hardship that Maranaos already face because of the conflict, he cited the discrimination against Muslims.
“Mahirap po humingi ng tulong dun, kasi pag narinig na Muslim ka, di ka papansinin…dahil karamihan sa amin pinagbibintangan na terorista (It’s hard to seek help there, because when they learn that you’re a Muslim, they would ignore you…they suspect most of us as terrorists),” Ismael said.
He lamented how people rely only on what they hear on the news, which he said barely carries the voice of Marawi residents: “’Yung naririnig sa balita, ‘yun lang pinaniniwalaan. Di naririnig ang hinaing ng totoong taga-Marawi.”
He said he joined Lakbayan to heighten the call to stop the bombardment in Marawi, and to find other ways to find Asgar. Lakbayan also calls to end President Duterte’s martial law in Mindanao.
Back in Marawi city, his parents’ home was built of wood, and Ismael said it had been razed to the ground, as he had seen from the pictures of their village that were posted on a social media site. His parents, who live in another province, owns the residential lot, but its land title was among their many properties that were reduced to ashes.
“Wala na po kaming babalikan, kasi wasak na lahat. Mabuti pa kung sinalanta kami ng bagyo, kasi me maliit pa kaming maisasalba. Pero sa gyera, wala (We have nothing there anymore, everything is destroyed. A typhoon would have been better, because then we could still salvage something. But with a war, nothing is left),” he said.