MARAWI • After fleeing for their lives nearly a year ago, residents of the battle-scarred southern Philippine city of Marawi were allowed back yesterday for the first time - to dig through the rubble that was once their homes.
Swathes of the city were destroyed in five months of house-to-house fighting between troops and militants loyal to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) group that killed nearly 1,200.
The military said that even as displaced residents were being allowed to return home, soldiers were continuing to retrieve skeletal remains and unexploded bombs from the 24 villages where the heaviest fighting took place for five months from May 23.
Tearful residents yesterday dug charred furniture and broken toys from the ruins, which still conceal unexploded bombs dropped during the battles.
"I cried in anger, pain," Ms Samsida Mangcol, 44, told Agence France-Presse of the moment she saw what was left of her bridal boutique, which now has "I love ISIS" spray-painted across one its walls.
"I used to rent out clothes but now I have become a beggar asking my relatives for things to eat and wear," said the mother-of-three as she caressed a ruined wedding gown on a mannequin.
Marawi on Mindanao island, the principal Islamic city in the mainly Catholic Philippines, was besieged last year by hundreds of local and foreign gunmen waving black ISIS flags who attacked it in what authorities said was an attempt to establish a South-east Asian base.
Over the coming month, groups of residents will be allowed to return for up to three days each, to view their old homes and salvage what belongings they can before the rebuilding process starts, the authorities said.
Yesterday, some 7,000 people walked forlornly through streets littered with rubble, twisted metal, the skeletons of bullet-riddled cars and other debris.
"Our house was still new when we left it. We had prepared everything for Ramadan (the Islamic fasting month)," said Ms Maimona Ambola, a 44-year-old mother of seven. "A bomb has destroyed it all. Our bed has turned into ashes."
The battle, which ended last October, was the biggest security crisis under firebrand President Rodrigo Duterte. The fighting caused destruction similar to Aleppo in Syria and Mosul in Iraq, military and local officials say.
Many of the city's 200,000 residents fled their homes in a rush for safety, including more than 10,000 people from the so-called "ground zero". They have since been living in evacuation centres or with relatives in other towns.
Months after the fighting ended, residents still visit at their own risk. The conflict zone has 53 unexploded bombs from military airstrikes weighing as much as 226kg as well as explosives left behind by the militants, according to Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of the military task force in Marawi.
"We lack the equipment to excavate the bombs. One bomb we recovered, for example, took us five days because we had to dig 10m deep and 10m wide," Col Brawner said, adding that the military aimed to finish the effort by June.
Meanwhile, a Filipino senator has called on the government to allow the displaced Marawi City residents to rebuild their homes on the same site they were situated prior to the bloody siege.
Senator Francis "Kiko" Pangilinan backed the call of most Marawi residents urging President Duterte to stop the planned construction of an "economic zone" and a 10ha military camp in the area as part of the plan to rebuild the city.
"We support the call of the Marawi residents to be allowed to return to their homeland and repair or make new homes on the same site where they are situated before the siege," he said last Friday.