While Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte appeared Tuesday at a northern Mindanao evacuation center for displaced residents of Marawi to tell refugees that he was “very sorry” for the damage caused to the civilian population by the Armed Forces of the Philippines' ongoing operations against the Islamist Maute group, the Kalinaw Mindanao National Interfaith Humanitarian Mission released a report shedding light on the extent of trauma experienced by residents of the island who have been caught in the crossfire.
The report was a result of a painstaking fact-finding and relief mission in Marawi, Maguindanao, and Davao del Sur by Kalinaw Mindanao, a group describing itself as “children, youth and citizen for peace action.” Its findings cast doubt on the effectiveness of AFP tactics in combating the Islamist group through bombardments and shelling, as well as the Philippine government's reliance on draconian martial law measures and U.S. Armed Forces advisers and military aid.
“The Mission notes that as the government stepped up aerial strikes leading to the destruction of swathes of homes and infrastructure, the number of (Islamic State group)-affiliated terrorists have actually increased rather than decreased,” the report states. “Martial Law has also reinforced, justified, and empowered the military mentality of treating massive internal displacement as a collateral of war.”
Due to the use of forcible evacuations and the indiscriminate bombing that constitutes the favored “counter-insurgency” method of the Philippine military, Kalinaw Mindanao found that 325,294 internally displaced people have been scattered across the southern island due to their homes, farms and livelihood being reduced to rubble amid the fighting.
"I'm afraid our homes and properties have been turned to ashes and nothing can be retrieved or reused," 70-year-old evacuee Gute Umpa told CNN. "It's appalling that they would strike during Ramadan. Because of what happened, we cannot celebrate Eid."
While many have witnessed their homes being bombed by passing fighter planes and helicopters, others often learn of the demise of their houses via social media or online news reports. Homes in the Maranao regions can range in cost from US$4,000 to US$120,000, or 200,000 pesos to six million pesos, a high cost by the standard of local earning power. In some cases, relatives who stay behind to look after their families' homes are never heard from again.
By many estimates, hundreds remain buried in the rubble of Marawi City and surrounding areas, still uncounted as casualties of the counter-insurgency campaign of the against allegedly Islamic State group-aligned Maute forces.
"You're not going to get sympathy to fight terror when you're raining bombs on their houses,” former Bangsamoro Transition Commission member and peace advocate Samira Gutoc told ABS-CBN News Channel, addressing the AFP military leadership and Duterte administration. “But you're not going to get their hearts and get sympathy against terror when you bomb a house, much more a mosque."
Across Mindanao, hundreds of families are facing forced evacuations by AFP personnel, with 1,248 families in the Autonomous Muslim Mindanao Region of Maguindanao alone reporting that they were driven from their homes and subject to threats, harassment and intimidation. A farmer from the province named Bambai attempted to return to his home following a June 4 evacuation to retrieve his family's belongings, but found that the home had been emptied of nearly everything, from kitchenware to electrical cables. In Marawi, homeowners have witnessed their bed frames, jewelry, motorbikes and refrigerators being hauled off in military trucks.
Meanwhile, humanitarian aid provided by nongovernmental organizations and the private sector often fails to reach families sheltering in evacuation centers or in the homes of loved ones, in some cases simply due to the massive demand for such aid. Last Thursday in Lanao del Sur the Kalinaw relief convoy, led by progressive Representatives Carlos Isagani Zarate of Bayan Muna and Arlene Brosas of Gabriela, along with former Congressman Teddy Casiño, attempted to provide aid to Marawi City residents in need, but were need, but were turned back at a military checkpoint.
The mission also found that evacuees and internally displaced persons often suffer from chronic diseases that have only been exacerbated by the crisis in Mindanao, with poor-quality health care and a lack of medical supplies further aggravating the grave humanitarian situation in Mindanao. Likewise, civilians have exhibited clear signs of Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder and anxiety disorders, with children especially bearing the brunt of the wartime mental stress.
The children in the region have been hit hardest, in many ways. While their school plans have been disrupted with no plan in place to fill the education gap, toddlers, adolescents and teens have been traumatized by the sight of Maute group combatants, whom they call “ISIS,” fighting street-to-street with equally frightening government soldiers as helicopters bombed their neighborhoods from above.
The humanitarian group noted that the martial law declaration signed by the president that applied to the entire island, far be it from being solely aimed at the Maute extremists, has a general anti-people and anti-insurgency motive that has entailed “massive human rights violations” for locals and Indigenous peoples in the region. An overwhelming majority of locals, incensed by the reckless tactics and disregard for locals displayed by the military, strongly disagreed with the imposition of martial rule and saw the bombings as an AFP attempt to raze Marawi to the ground rather than combat the Maute group.
The government's counter-insurgency campaign has frustrated and infuriated locals who resent both the Maute group and affiliated extremists, but also the heavy-handed AFP sacking of their communities.
The report concluded with a condemnation of the U.S. violation of Philippine sovereignty in the form of its direct aid to the AFP and U.S. covert operations in Mindanao, calling for the Philippine Congress to fully investigate the U.S. Armed Forces' role in the Marawi crisis.
“U.S. involvement in purported counter-terrorism efforts in other parts of the world have pointed to their complicity with terror groups like ISIS themselves through funding and direction,” the interfaith group noted. “Countries with U.S. involvement in these matters have also seen prolonged and unresolved conflicts such as in the case of Syria, Iraq, Libya and other countries with U.S. personnel, equipment, and war materiel on the ground.”