By Annalisa Burgos
(UPDATED) Marawi City, Philippines — The rehabilitation of the Philippine city that jihadist militants tried to capture two years ago is on schedule and will be completed by December 2021, say government officials who downplayed criticism of delays and a slow bureaucratic process.
Marawi City residents who own property in the central business district – the most devastated area known as “ground zero” – will be allowed to return to their properties by July of next year, said Marawi Mayor Majul Gandamra.
Rebuilding would be at their own expense, he added, unless lawmakers decide to set aside funds for them.
Meantime, demolition, clearing, and construction work continue in the city center, leveled from five months of urban warfare and Philippine military air strikes attempting to flush out terrorists during the siege from May to October 2017.
At least 250,000 residents were forced to flee their homes to escape the fighting, and Philippine president Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across Mindanao to help the military target and eliminate the terror threat.
Martial law remains in effect through the end of this year, but Colonel Romeo Brawner, head of the 103rd infantry brigade that oversees Marawi, says he would recommend extending it.
Two years since the siege, thousands of displaced families still live in cramped, poorly ventilated conditions in temporary and permanent shelter communities or with relatives across the Philippines, waiting to return to their properties. Many are eager to start rebuilding their homes and lives.
It would have been faster to let Maranaos rebuild their community on their own, said Marawi resident Dr. Monasir Bantuas, who believes government officials are clueless to local cultural norms and vulnerable to corruption.
“I don’t know how they are managing, how are they tasking it, who will organize, and how will people agree with their plans,” he said. “It’s all communication.”
But national and local officials dispute perceptions that the government is not doing enough, saying they have held multiple consultations with residents and involved them throughout the process.
To squash rumors of mismanagement, the Philippine government’s inter-agency group charged with rebuilding the war-town city, Task Force Bangon Marawi, invited more than 40 international journalists to meet with officials and tour construction sites and a shelter community for displaced residents.
Housing czar and task force chair Eduardo del Rosario attributed perceived delays to multiple protocols involved in clearing debris and remaining explosive devices, demolishing at least 6,400 destroyed buildings, and incorporating residents’ feedback into the government’s development plan.
In addition, more than half of the ground zero properties are missing titles. Officials conducted a social cartography to establish the legitimate owners, but to complicate matters, “there are numerous claimants in one building, there are numerous claimants in one lot,” del Rosario said. “We assure them that rightful claimants of those lots and buildings, we assure them that it will be returned back to them 100 percent.”
To settle the disputes, a local land arbitration committee headed by the Department of Justice will be formed in June 2020, composed of community, religious and business leaders from Marawi.
“We’re trying to explain to our fellow Filipinos how hard this process is,” said Mayor Gandamra. “It’s not that fast. It’s not like putting up a subdivision. We have to consider the sensitivities of our people.”
The cartography identified more than 15,000 displaced families from the most affected area, who are entitled to receive benefits including cash, health services and livelihood training.
But observers say technicalities in the rehabilitation process only breed resentment among residents and send a message that the government cares more about protocol than empathy.
“I find no legal reason at all why we’re not allowed to go home in the ground zero,” says community leader and journalist Maulana Abu Mujahid Mamutuk. “Either this is an intentional tactic or due to lack of funding. If they can stop us from coming back to our homes, sure enough, they have the same power to demolish ground zero.”
“Most residents feel bad that their fate to have new homes depend mostly on technical grounds,” says Rommel Banlaoi, international security analyst and chairman of the Philippine Institute for Peace, Violence and Terrorism Research. “Their current shelters further degrade rather than raise dignities and hopes.”
Banlaoi and other terror experts have expressed concern that the longer residents are displaced, the more vulnerable they are to recruitment for jihadist ideology and extremist violence. Colonel Brawner says the military closely monitors security threats and identifies about 25 terrorists, from a high of 1,000.
For now, it’s full speed ahead for Marawi’s rehabilitation, which is estimated to cost at least USD $1.16 billion (PHP 60.51 billion). More than half will be funded by grants and loans from the Asian Development Bank, World Bank and countries including Japan, Spain, China and Saudi Arabia. The Philippine government will appropriate the rest.