Shattered lives: Marawi's refugees

"On the first day, we weren't too bothered because it was just gunshots. Marawi has always been very chaotic: family feuds or fights over women and money. They're called 'rido' (honour killings). When it's a rido, the police don't bother following up."

Mr Ali Nur, 25, a heavily tattooed, well-built pedicab driver, speaks in monosyllables. Glancing at his 30-year-old wife Orick, he rubs his forehead and eyes irritably as he talks about his experiences.

His wife, a fruit and vegetable seller, is less expressive. Bareheaded, she quietly nurses one of their five small children.

Mr Ali Nur continued: "But on the second day, when the bombing started, it was really scary. We knew we had to leave. There were brown-outs so we couldn't charge our cellphones. We had no food. Then, the Maute sent people out to look for men to fight. I hid. They even sent their women door to door to search for fighters.

"Finally, on the third day, we escaped. I couldn't fit them all (he gestures to his children) on my motorbike, so I had to leave it behind. We piled onto my brother-in-law's Hilux truck along with my wife's family. We could bring only the clothes we were wearing at the time.

"We didn't have much. But we've lost it all - at least 13,000 pesos (S$345). The house was right in the centre of town in the Barangay Marinaut and that's been burned down. I saw it on TV. I curse Marawi. I don't want to go back. I just want my children to go to school. I sell some of the canned food they give us every day at the shelter to pay for their schooling."

We are about 35km from the centre of the fighting in Marawi, Mindanao. Here, in what is dubbed as "Tent City", cheek by jowl with a fully functioning high school, there are 169 families: 752 people.

Mr Ali Nur has housed his family away from the crowded assembly hall, on a veranda immediately outside a classroom. The camp's location - just outside the industrial centre of Iligan, adds to a sense of incongruity. It is hard to imagine that there is a bloody conflict just up the road because Iligan (and the nearby Cagayan de Oro) is part of the booming Northern Mindanao business and logistics hub.

Tent City, about 35km from the centre of the fighting in Marawi, houses 169 families, comprising 752 people. When the fighting started in Marawi, most of its 200,000 residents fled to refugee centres like Tent City. Many subsequently moved in with fr
Tent City, about 35km from the centre of the fighting in Marawi, houses 169 families, comprising 752 people. When the fighting started in Marawi, most of its 200,000 residents fled to refugee centres like Tent City. Many subsequently moved in with friends and relatives, but around 40,000 are left in the centres. PHOTO: KARIM RASLAN

The region's 7.6 per cent gross domestic product growth surpasses the national rate of 6.9 per cent. A vast Robinsons Place shopping mall has opened close by, loaded with air-conditioned shops and fast-food outlets.

When the fighting started in Marawi, most of its 200,000 residents fled to places like Tent City, just one of the many refugee centres across Mindanao. Many subsequently moved in with friends and relatives, but around 40,000 are left in the centres.

The camp itself is spartan but adequate. The mood remains happy enough: Most families have been here only since late May. They can cook; there are toilets and washing facilities. There is even a compact administrative hub at the entrance of an open-sided community hall. The bulletin boards are packed with information: children's drawings, a record of donations and committees - including one for complaints. One enterprising refugee has even set up a temporary "sari-sari" (variety) stall.

When I ask Mr Ali Nur later about his elaborate tattoos and whether he was a gang member, he looks away before answering: "I wouldn't go home when I was a teenager. I was a bad boy. My father finally had to have me imprisoned for six months and that's when I got the tattoos. I cooled down only when I got married.

"My brothers are much more religious. I do attend Friday prayers, but back in Marawi I was generally working or looking after the kids. Maybe I'm just too lazy to pray any more than that. Still, my father is very proud of me, now that I have a family of my own."

Mindanao is a patchwork of local magnates: Former Davao mayor and now President Rodrigo Duterte is a classic example. For nearly two decades, he ruled his city firmly, creating a rare haven of peace and prosperity. As Manila's authority fluctuated, men (and women) such as Mr Duterte were literally the law in their respective bailiwicks.

However, if you were to drive just a few kilometres from Davao, the "Pax Duterte" totally evaporates.

On the one hand, there is an "alphabet soup" of Muslim groups - from the Moro National Liberation Front to the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). Indeed, the Maute were an MILF splinter group led by Abdullah Maute, founder of a so-called "Islamic State" in Lanao.

If that was not complicated enough, Mindanao is also a major theatre of operations for the communist fighters, the New People's Army. It is a confusing blur of religion, ideology, separatism and criminality.

The Marawi conflict erupted in May when the Philippine government launched a manhunt to capture Isnilon Hapilon, the "emir" of Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) affiliates in the republic. His forces retaliated by calling on their allies -including the Maute.

On May 23, over 500 fighters ambushed the Philippine Army at Camp Ranao, occupying several government buildings and taking civilian hostages. As hostilities raged, the city of Marawi quickly emptied. Despite this, government forces have been unable to completely expel the militants.

Marawi is an enigma for many in the Philippines. Besides it being predominantly Muslim, there are a number of urban legends that reinforce the city's exceptionalism. Its inhabitants are said to be fiercely independent and generally resistant to authority.

Talking to locals has led me to see the conflict not as some huge civilisational showdown - ISIS attacking the Catholic Philippines - but more as an ultra-violent gangland conflict that has assumed a religious agenda.

But for Mr Ali Nur, his wife and their children, the disruption is real enough. Their lives have been uprooted and the children's education has been incommoded - but thankfully not stopped entirely. "Winning" the battle of Marawi and peace in Mindanao will ultimately depend on rebuilding the lives of the tens of thousands of refugees like Mr Ali Nur and his family.

• The writer is a South-east Asia commentator and founder and chief executive of the KRA Group, a public affairs consulting firm with an Asean-wide focus.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 23, 2017, with the headline 'Shattered lives: Marawi's refugees'. Print Edition | Subscribe