PHILIPPINES

How Filipino Muslims are saving Christians trapped by IS group

Part of the town of Marawi was taken over by groups affiliated with the Islamic State jihadist organisation. (Photos posted on Facebook and Twitter.)
Part of the town of Marawi was taken over by groups affiliated with the Islamic State jihadist organisation. (Photos posted on Facebook and Twitter.)

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Rubble, bodies and cartridge cases litter the streets in Marawi, a town in the Philippines, where hundreds of jihadists affiliated with the Islamic State group have been waging an urban war against the army for the past month. Residents, who are being used as human shields, are desperately trying to flee the zone controlled by the Islamist combattants.

Shortly after Philippine authorities identified Isnilon Hapilon as the leader of the Philippine armed groups affiliated with the IS group, about 500 jihadists took over part of the city of Marawi on May 23, 2017. The armed groups Maute and Abu Sayyaf took over the hospital and the university, freed detainees from prison, burnt down a police station and a church, decapitated a police officer and executed nine civilians, shooting them at point-blank range.

Close to 3,000 soldiers from the Philippine army were rushed to the area to combat the militants and President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law across the southern island of Mindanao.

A decomposing body lies abandoned in a street in the Bongolo commercial district (photo posted on Facebook on June 7, 2017).

Our Observers, who were trapped when militants invaded on May 23, 2017, told us how they managed to escape. Now, they help others flee.

"Some people are so hungry, they eat their blankets out of desperation"

Our first Observer, Alexander Alag, works for the city of Marawi.

On May 23, around 2pm, I was in the city hall with the mayor and other city workers. We suddenly realised that we were trapped. The mayor decided that we should stay to protect the building.

"They’ll kill me before they take it,” he told us. We stayed there for five days before soldiers from the Philippine army finally liberated us. I thought that the fighting would last two or three days at most. Today marks a month.

This map of Marawi shows areas where fighting is intense. It was made by journalists at Rappler.com, using information gathered on June 16, 2017.

Alag decided to stay in Marawi. Today, he works at a provincial crisis management centre, which supervises organised rescues of those who are still trapped in the war zone.

In the war zone, aside from the army’s continuous bombing campaign [Editor’s note: during our hour-long phone conversation with Alag, the army dropped three separate bombs], people are running out of food and water and don’t have electricity. Some of them end up eating their blankets out of desperation.

The Philippine army is carrying out a relentless bombing campaign on the city of Marawi. This video, which was posted on Facebook on June 1, 2017, documents the continuous bombs falling.

Saving trapped civilians

Rescuers from the organisation Peace Corridor help civilians trapped in areas with intense fighting. (Photo taken by our Observer and posted on Facebook on June 5).

I want to fight these monsters but because we can’t use our own weapons under martial law, I help the army with civilian rescue operations. The injured or the sick can’t call on us directly for help, they have to go through the jihadists who then contact us to come and get these people. Then, we work with the army to establish a two-hour ceasefire and then go in to save as many people as we can.

Rescuers wear pink and green T-shirts, which are visible in this photo by our Observer. Sometimes,

they wear orange T-shirts.

The Muslims helping persecuted Christians

Three days ago, 51 trapped people tried to escape to our side by crossing the Banggolo bridge. However, only 34 of them were able to cross. The jihadists stopped the other 17, who were all Christians. They used the Christians as human shields.

Many Muslims haven’t left yet because they have been hiding Christians. They told me, “I may be free to go but I can’t abandon my friends.” There was a baker, for example, who taught his Christian employees to recite the shahada, the declaration of Islamic faith, so they could pass the “religious tests” used by jihadists to separate Christians from Muslims. Because of this, the man’s Christian employees were able to flee the city.

The 200,000 residents of the city of Marawi are 96.6% Muslim. Before the jihadists came, they followed a moderate form of Islamic law specific to their town. The sale of both alcohol and pork was banned, for example, as were gambling games. However, stoning, whippings and forced amputations — all corporal punishments included in Sharia law — were also forbidden. Christians — both Protestants and Catholics — only represent about 2.5% of the population. Yet under the previous system, they had complete freedom of worship.

"71 people sought shelter at my home"

Our Observer, Norodin Alonto Lucman, a traditional chief and former deputy governor of the province, was also trapped in the war zone. A Muslim, Lucman sheltered 71 people in his home, including 44 Christians, during the first 12 days of the occupation.

These photos, documenting the capture of Marawi by jihadist groups linked to the IS group, were shared on Twitter by FRANCE 24 journalist Wassim Nasr on May 25, 2017. The photos were taken by the jihadists themselves and then published in private discussion groups.

The day of the attack, people were really frightened. The IS militants were hunting down Christians to kill them. Christians started arriving at my doorstep because they trusted me. Word spread that I was sheltering people and a total of 71 people — Muslims, Christians, men, women and children — all found refuge in my home.

During the time they were hiding, there was hardly anything to eat. One of the Christians, a carpenter, was white-faced from fear and hunger. Just before they left to escape, I asked him, “Do you believe in Jesus Christ?”

“Yes, sir,” he responded.

So I spoke to everyone in the room and I said, “Jesus Christ will save you.”

A Islamic State group flag is visible hanging in a window in the Lilod Madaya neighbourhood in this photo taken on May 23, 2017. Photo taken by Maulana Macadato and published on Facebook.

A spectacular escape: 144 civilians safe and sound

Soon, we ran out of food and water and two infants became sick. The people who had sought shelter with me needed to leave, but that decision was the hardest one I have ever made. I was responsible for their lives. There were violent exchanges of gunfire going on in my neighbourhood. But, the next morning, I woke everyone up at 5:30am. 

A street in the neighbourhood of Bongolo. Photo posted on Facebook on June 7, 2017.

So we walked a death march for two kilometres, always surrounded by snipers or armed militants, in order to get out of the war zone. What I wasn't aware of at the time is that there were other civilians hiding in the buildings who saw us go past and came out to join us.

When we finally arrived in the zone controlled by the army, I counted that there were a total of 144 people with us. Not a single person died and no one was injured, thank God! I honestly could never have imagined that, one day, I’d save all these people, half of them Christians, right in the middle of a battle field.

People who escaped Marawi sleep in a gymnasium in Baloi, a town roughly 20 kilometres north of Marawi. Photo posted on Facebook on June 3, 2017. 

On June 21, rescue teams contacted by the FRANCE 24 Observers team estimated that at least a hundred civilians were still trapped by the militants from armed jihadist groups associated with the IS group.

According to the latest figures released by the government, 384 people have been killed in the fighting, including 268 jihadists, 63 soldiers, three police officers and 50 civilians. Among the civilians who died, 24 of them were people who were evacuated from Marawi, only to die of severe dehydration.