(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Starvation threatens hundreds trapped by fighting in Philippine city

    Hundreds of people trapped in the southern Philippines city of Marawi are on the verge of starvation after four weeks of fighting between the army and Islamist militants.

    “They have been saying that they are already starting to eat cardboard boxes just to stop hunger,” said Maurico Civiles of the National Disaster Risk Reduction and Management Council. “They may die of starvation and lack of drinkable water.”

    Cresanto Tagab told IRIN by phone that he and four colleagues are hiding in a rice mill where they work. He said they have food supplies and are charging their phones using a generator, which they turn on only for short periods in order avoid detection by militants who they’ve seen passing by on the street outside.

    “We cannot get out of the compound, because the fighting is very near to us,” he said. “We cannot venture out on the street, but we can smell the overpowering stench of dead bodies.”

    Civiles told IRIN that people trapped in the centre of the city, which is still held by militants, have been calling a government hotline to plead for rescue.

    “There are scores of decomposing bodies littered everywhere,” he said. “Survivors who managed to escape reported seeing more than 200 dead bodies.”

    If confirmed, that would increase the official civilian death toll to more than 226 since fighting began after a failed attempt by security forces to capture Isnilon Hapilon, a member of the militant group Abu Sayyaf who the government says is affiliated with the so-called Islamic State. The operation was foiled when security forces were confronted by militants, mainly members of the Maute group, another Islamist faction that has pledged allegiance to IS.

    The International Committee of the Red Cross said between 300 and 500 civilians remain trapped inside Marawi.

    Displacement, death and disease

    More than 320,000 people have fled the ruined city – 21,800 of whom are in evacuation centres, while the rest are with host families, according to a 17 June “flash report” from the European Commission’s humanitarian arm, ECHO.

    At least 59 people have died at evacuation centres, most of them from dehydration, said the report, citing Department of Health figures.

    "Even if they are fighting, they cannot harm the civilians. They have to spare them."

    Emmalyn Macababayao told IRIN that her one-year-old son died from dehydration three days after her family managed to reach a relative’s home.

    “The doctors explained that his organs collapsed from the six days we went hungry while being unable to flee the city,” she said.

    Tomoko Matsuzawa, of the ICRC, said the aid group is appealing to both the Armed Forces of the Philippines and the militants to allow civilians to leave the conflict zone.

    “We are continuously emphasising the need to respect international humanitarian law,” she said. “Even if they are fighting, they cannot harm the civilians. They have to spare them.”

    SEE: Inside Marawi, where Philippines security forces battle Islamist militants

    Mass destruction

    Military officials say they have regained control over 90 percent of Marawi, but soldiers have thus far been unable to dislodge militants from the remaining 10 percent.

    Soldiers attempting to flush out militants have been targeted by sniper fire from buildings including mosques. Drone footage collected by local media shows parts of the city decimated by airstrikes.

    The military said in a 16 June statement statement that it “will not bomb mosques” that militants “have converted into machine gun and snipers' nests, defensive positions, and arsenals of their war wherewithals."

    In the same statement, the military promised to “retake the remaining portion of Marawi” and then “begin the reconstruction and rehabilitation of the city”.

    (TOP PHOTO: A camp for those displaced by the fighting in Marawi. Dennis Jay Santos/IRIN)

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    FOR MORE: Forgotten Conflicts – the Philippines

    Hundreds face starvation in besieged Philippine city
  • Inside Marawi: Death toll nears 100 as Philippines security forces battle Islamist militants

    Two women in a white pick-up were sobbing as they inched forward in a crush of vehicles leaving the besieged southern Philippines city of Marawi. In the back lay the lifeless body of their father, caught in the crossfire between government soldiers and Islamist militants.

    A young man waved a white sheet to signal they were in an emergency, hoping soldiers would hurry them through gridlocked traffic. It was futile. Vehicles were forced to slowly wind their way through a series of barriers as soldiers painstakingly checked for militants.

    "Our father was killed yesterday,” said one of the women, who did not give her name. “He was hit by an airstrike. "

    The family was part of a steady exodus out of Marawi that began when fighting erupted a week ago. It quickly escalated into intense urban warfare, including helicopter rocket attacks on buildings where Islamist fighters were thought to be holed up.

    The conflict began with a failed attempt by security forces to capture Isnilon Hapilon, a member of the militant group Abu Sayyaf who the government says is affiliated with the so-called Islamic State. The operation was foiled when dozens of members of the Maute, another Islamist group that has pledged allegiance to IS, drove back security forces.

    The gunmen then abducted a Catholic priest and civilians who had taken shelter in a church, and their fate is still unknown. Maute also took over government buildings including a school and a hospital, and freed prisoners from two jails.

    IRIN accompanied soldiers past hundreds of residents who were fleeing in the opposite direction, many on foot, pushing carts full of possessions. A convoy of armoured vehicles pushed into the heart of the city, which now resembles an apocalyptic ghost town. Soldiers took positions against walls pockmarked by bullets; smoke rose in the distance.

    Many of Marawi’s 200,000 residents have left by now and humanitarian agencies like the Red Cross are supporting them, while people in neighbouring towns are posting signs offering them “Free Food”.

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    Residents of towns near Marawi offered food to residents fleeing the city
    Dennis Jay Santos/IRIN
    Residents of towns near Marawi offered food to residents fleeing the city

    Officials said at least 61 militants have been killed, along with 18 security forces and 19 civilians. The bodies of eight people were discovered in a ravine on Sunday after being shot with their hands tied behind their backs, and a sign attached to one of them read “munafik”, or “traitor”.

    "All civilians executed were perpetrated by this group," a local military spokesman, Captain Michael Malacat, told IRIN, referring to the Maute group.

    He said the military was still trying to verify if people were trapped in some parts of the city, after they called a government hotline.

    General Restituto Padilla Jr., spokesman for the Armed Forces of the Philippines, told reporters in the capital, Manila, on Monday that security forces were close to taking back the city from Maute.

    “Our forces are in complete control of the city, except for certain areas of the city where they continue to hold,” he said.

    Martial law

    The Philippines' tough-talking president, Rodrigo Duterte, has declared martial law not only in Marawi, but throughout Mindanao. The southernmost region of the country, Mindanao includes a large island as well as smaller ones, and it is home to most Muslims in the Philippines, an overwhelmingly Catholic country.

    Mindanao is also home to armed groups that have fought decades-long communist and Muslim insurgencies. Several Islamist groups have broken away from the main Muslim rebel armies, most significantly Abu Sayyaf, which formed in 1991 and had early links to al-Qaeda. The fragmentation has increased in recent years as a peace process faltered, and some of these smaller groups have declared their allegiance to IS.

    SEE: Forgotten Conflicts – the Philippines

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    Residents fleeing Marawi were caught in gridlock as soldiers searched vehicles
    Dennis Jay Santos/IRIN
    Residents fleeing Marawi were caught in gridlock as soldiers searched vehicles

    Duterte’s declaration was quickly followed by questions about why he needed to impose martial law in stable areas of Mindanao. Some warned that it could ignite conflicts with other armed groups that have settled into an uneasy peace with the government, such as the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, and that it could derail peace talks with communist insurgents.

    “The imposition of martial law throughout Mindanao for at least 60 days could also affect the Philippine armed forces’ handling of other armed conflicts on the island, including with the communist New People’s Army (NPA) and various Moro insurgent groups,” said Human Rights Watch in a statement on 25 May.

    The statement was prescient.

    Two days later, the NPA accused the government of using martial law as an excuse to step up attacks against them and said it had “little option but to undertake more and more tactical offensives.”

    The government responded by announcing that it was withdrawing from the next round of peace talks.

    Rights groups also worried that martial law could further strengthen Duterte’s heavy-handed approach to his war on drugs, which has killed about 7,000 people in the past year. The main casualties have been members of poor communities rather than drug kingpins.

    Speaking to troops on Sunday on the island of Sulu, an Abu Sayyaf stronghold, Duterte said Islamist militants were financing themselves through the drug trade.

    “The root cause of the present crisis is illegal drugs... Marawi is the hotbed of meth manufacturing and trade in Mindanao,” Duterte said, according to a statement released by the president’s office. 

    HRW and others also heard dark echoes of Ferdinand Marcos, who ruled as a brutal dictator from 1972 to 1981 after declaring martial law – especially since Duterte promised that his version would “not be any different from what the president, Marcos, did. I'd be harsh.”

    Duterte has threatened to extend martial law across the entire country.

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    Soldiers searched vehicles of residents fleeing Marawi
    Dennis Jay Santos/IRIN
    Soldiers searched vehicles of residents fleeing Marawi

    Abuses from both sides

    Not all residents of Marawi oppose martial law.

    Sittie Ayeesha Dicali, a former journalist from Marawi who abandoned her career after repeated death threats, noted that Maute had carried out similar attacks before.

    The government blamed Maute for the September 2016 bombing of a night market – which killed 15 people – in Davao, Duterte’s home city and where he served as mayor for two decades. In November last year, the group occupied the centre of Butig, flying the IS flag from the town hall before being driven out by a week-long military offensive that included airstrikes.

    “In the past incidents, they were able to escape and continue to grow,” said Dicali. “We want the government to be able to crush the group, because we cannot afford to have another siege.”

    The Department of National Defense issued a statement saying that “the rule of law and human rights should prevail” in areas under martial law.

    But such reassurances are tempered by past experience.

    Jalal Bilao, a Marawi resident and former vice-mayor of nearby Tubaran, ventured out into the deserted streets in his neighbourhood. He echoed a longstanding complaint – that civilians are caught between government forces and militant groups, and suffer at the hands of both.

    “We want the president to protect the people,” he said. “We are mad at these ISIS (fighters), but at the same time scared of the military, because of what is happening.”

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    (TOP PHOTO: Philippines soldiers, accompanied by journalists, patrol Marawi, which is under siege by Islamist militants. CREDIT: Dennis Jay Santos/IRIN)

    Inside Marawi: Death toll nears 100 as Philippines security forces battle Islamist militants
  • El Niño hits Philippines farmers with drought, rats

    Abogantao Saiduna looked across his parched field. Littered by the brittle remains of his corn crop, it has succumbed to the worst drought to hit the southern Philippines in years.

    “Normally you would see this field so green,” Saiduna told IRIN. “We have experienced drought before, but nothing quite like this.”

    The Philippines has been badly affected by El Niño, the weather phenomenon that is disrupting temperature and rainfall patterns around the world. The UN World Meteorological Organization said yesterday that it is too early to tell if the current El Niño is the strongest on record, but it is comparable to the extreme events in 1997/98 and 1982/83.

    For the Philippines, El Niño has meant a prolonged period of unusually dry weather. As of 31 January, almost a quarter of the country was experiencing drought, and the Philippine Atmospheric, Geophysical and Astronomical Services Administration predicts that figure to rise to 85 percent of the country by April.

    El Niño has been especially destructive on the southern island of Mindanao, which is the Philippines’ breadbasket, supplying more than 40 percent of the nation’s food, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization.

    The UNs emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, says about 27,300 farmers in Mindanao are affected by drought and a rat infestation. The province of Maguindanao declared a “state of calamity” on 29 January, a move intended to hasten national and international relief.

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    Abogantao Saiduna points to his drought-stricken corn field in North Upi, the Philippines, in February 2016
    Dennis Jay Santos/IRIN
    Abogantao Saiduna points to his drought-stricken corn field

    The World Food Progamme’s Mei Nebreja Santos said her agency is ready to assist if invited to do so by the government.  

    Mujiv Hataman, governor of the Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, which includes Maguindanao, said his administration is conducting an assessment to determine how many farmers have been affected. It has already been distributing food, water, seedlings and farm tools to remote villages.

    “What we need now is primarily food, and later on they will be needing farm implements to jumpstart farming again as soon as the dry spell ends,” he said.

    Alexander Alonto, regional secretary for the Department of Agriculture, said the national government is rolling out a cloud seeding programme, which will include Mindanao. 

    Cloud seeding involves firing flares into clouds that are filled with substances including salt, which attracts water molecules and forms raindrops.

    Alonto added that his department has started to distribute pesticides to kill rats, as well as special “heat-resistant seedlings”.

    So far, help has yet to arrive in North Upi, the remote municipality where Vice-Mayor Remy Sioson says 95 percent of the community’s 13,000 households rely on agriculture for their livelihoods.

    Since he’s unable to farm, Saiduna said he has been trying to earn money by collecting stacks of firewood to sell in the market. But that only brings in about $1 a day: not nearly enough to feed his family, which includes eight children.

    “We are not doing anything on the farm right now, he said. "I hope that the government will help us with at least our food needs."

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    El Niño hits Philippines farmers with drought, rats
    Drought is expected to spread across 85 percent of the country by April

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