(Formerly IRIN News) Journalism from the heart of crises

  • Congo, chemical weapons, and sex work in crisis settings: The Cheat Sheet

    Every week, IRIN’s team of specialist editors scans the humanitarian horizon to curate a reading list on important and unfolding trends and events around the globe:


    The worst kind of club


    The Democratic Republic of Congo has joined a club no country wants to join: It has been named a "Level 3" emergency by the international relief community. The "L3" designation is meant to galvanise a more ambitious and urgent response from the UN, NGOs, and donors. An OCHA spokesperson confirmed the decision to IRIN, saying the measure will last for an initial six months and is focused on the situation in the greater Kasai region, as well as Tanganyika and South Kivu, where conflict and displacement have soared this year. OCHA says only 30 percent of this year's humanitarian appeal was funded – a 10-year low. Informed sources say a new UN humanitarian coordinator, Canadian Kim Bolduc, will be deployed. Decisions to declare an L3 come from the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC), which includes the major UN agencies and international NGO groups. Congo is the fourth current L3 response. The others are for operations in Iraq, Syria, and Yemen. Previous L3s have at one time been declared for Central African Republic, the Philippines and South Sudan. 


    How to negotiate with armed groups


    Staying in similar territory, what do members of armed groups really think of humanitarian workers? It’s an important question when it comes to safety and operational effectiveness, so the International NGO Safety Organisation asked groups in the eastern Democratic Republic of Congo. They concluded that the gunmen generally wanted to appear respectful of International Humanitarian Law. But while the presence of aid workers was generally welcomed, there were some sharp criticisms of the humanitarian response. These were based on the supposed incompetence of the NGOs, a perception of skewed recruitment practices, corruption, and the failure to consult with local people leading to poor programming. There was also suspicion of “political behaviour” by some NGOs, including spying. Recommendations by INSO based on the study included: keep talking to the armed groups; keep that messaging consistent; avoid establishing too-personal links that could be misconstrued as bias; don’t ignore the rank-and-file; and be transparent by managing breeches of humanitarian and operational principles rather than ignoring them. The study was conducted in 2014, but only released this week.


    Last act for UN chemical weapons probe?


    The results are in: A UN investigative panel announced Thursday that the Syrian government’s air force was responsible for an April sarin gas attack that killed dozens in the village of Khan Sheikhoun. This should not come as a surprise – evidence, including a declassified US intelligence report, pointed in that direction early on, although Syrian President Bashar al-Assad called the whole thing a “fabrication” and Russia said it was caused by a bomb on the ground. The US responded with a cruise missile strike on a Syrian military base, in what appeared to be a return of the chemical weapons “red line”. But this investigation may be the last for the panel (full name: Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons-United Nations Joint Investigative Mechanism), at least in its current form. Just days before the results were announced, Russia, saying it was waiting to see the panel’s Khan Sheikhoun findings, used its Security Council veto to stop a one-year extension of the body’s mandate. The council has until 17 November to renew the JIM, and Russia’s ambassador to the UN has said: “we will return to [the issue].” What that means for independent investigations of a conflict rife with wrongdoing remains to be seen.


    No “end to radicalisation”


    After five months of fierce clashes demolished parts of the city and raised questions over a new breed of Islamist insurgency, officials in the Philippines this week declared an end to fighting in Marawi. Authorities say the first of an estimated 360,000 evacuated residents will begin returning to their homes in the coming days. But the humanitarian needs are still daunting and will last well into the future. The siege on Marawi wiped out livelihoods as the city emptied; the impacts spread to the rest of Lanao del Sur province, where Marawi is the capital and was the economic hub. Food and water supplies in official evacuation centres were erratic throughout the siege; aid groups say it will be essential to monitor signs of severe acute malnutrition for the next six to 12 months. Observers say the instability caused by the clashes will likely lead to clan feuds and/or new retaliations from those aligned with so-called Islamic State. As IRIN reported earlier, radicalised militants are already using the Marawi siege as propaganda. Many in the Muslim-majority city were already distrustful of the Philippine government. Observers say this makes it even more imperative that the rebuilding process is both transparent and inclusive. “Whatever happens,” conflict analyst Sidney Jones wrote in The Interpreter this month, “the 'liberation' of Marawi does not mean an end to radicalisation.”


    Burundi off the hook?


    The International Criminal Court reached an unwanted and unprecedented milestone today: the withdrawal of a member state. The state in question is Burundi, where senior officials stand accused by a UN commission of crimes against humanity, including “extrajudicial executions, arbitrary arrests and detention, torture, sexual violence, cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment, and enforced disappearances.” In April last year, the ICC’s prosecutor opened a “preliminary examination” of events in Burundi, a process aimed at determining whether there are grounds to mount a full investigation and eventually prosecute suspects. Despite an appeal to do so by the UN commission, the court did not step up its engagement. One advocacy group said the withdrawal “could set a potentially very dangerous precedent” by encouraging other countries to follow suit simply to avoid criminal investigations. Whether Burundi’s perpetrators are now really off the ICC hook is not entirely clear and depends on how one interprets Article 127 of its founding statute. While Burundi, which denied UN investigators entry into the country, may still have a notional obligation to cooperate with the court, “there is no possibility for the ICC to take further action,” international law expert Benjamin Dürr told IRIN. Human Rights Watch, meanwhile, suggested there might be some wriggle room in the Rome Statute, and urged the court to “take a progressive approach in interpreting its jurisdiction so that victims maintain a viable path to justice.”


    Did you miss it?


    Sweden’s child migrant mystery


    This fascinating BBC World Service investigation looks into a mysterious coma-like state that only seems to afflict the children of asylum seekers in Sweden. So-called “Resignation Syndrome” has been baffling Swedish health professionals for years. Are they any closer to understanding why so many children are withdrawing from the world, refusing to speak, walk, and eat? Have a listen and find out.


    Is sex work always a case of sexual violence?


    Scholar Dorothea Hillhorst, responding to IRIN’s recent #MeToo column, argues that transactional sex, very common in crisis settings, can be a way to survive, a "livelihood", and humanitarian agencies need to rethink how they look at it. Sex work may be triggered by poverty and distress, and is often violent, exploitative, and risky, Hillhorst acknowledges – but it can also be "consensual yet transactional". For example, it could stem from "the desire to advance in education or careers", she writes in a blog posting, drawing on her research in Congo. Humanitarian agencies should start "respecting the agency of people engaging in transactional sex and [consider] offering protection and services", she concludes.

    (TOP PHOTO: ICRC weapon contamination experts conduct chemical decontamination trainings in health facilities. CREDIT: Ibrahim Sherkhan/ICRC)


    Congo, chemical weapons, and sex work
  • In Marawi, ending a siege is just the beginning

    Days after the Philippine military launched an assault on Islamist militants in the southern city of Marawi, the conflict came straight to Jamil Ampaso’s home.

    Soldiers burst into his family’s compound one evening in late May. He watched as they gouged a large hole into his backyard.
    “My family and I were so terrified, thinking they would massacre us and bury us in the hole,” Ampaso said.
    His home was overrun. Outside, his city was under siege: a few kilometres away, toward Marawi’s city centre, the Philippine military was tumbling into a drawn-out campaign to root out Islamist militants.
    Ampaso believes the soldiers were looking for weapons that night, that they suspected his family of supporting the militants.
    “They found nothing,” Ampaso said. “We are not supporters of the terrorists.”
    Now, more than three months into a siege that was supposed to be a lightning-quick operation, the city has emptied. Hundreds have died. Parts of the city’s core have been flattened.
    The battle, military commanders insist, is nearly over. But analysts say it has ripped open lasting wounds among a population that was already deeply distrustful of the government. Rebuilding the city will be crucial for stability in Mindanao, where a new breed of extremist groups is increasingly emboldened. But repairing the damage may prove just as difficult as ending the conflict.

    ‘A brutal siege’

    On 23 May, the Philippine army launched an operation aimed at capturing Isnilon Hapilon, a member of militant group Abu Sayyaf, believed to be affiliated with the so-called Islamic State. The clashes pulled in fighters from the Maute group, a radical faction that has also pledged allegiance to IS.
    Instead of a quick capture, the army found itself in a prolonged urban conflict. President Rodrigo Duterte quickly declared martial law throughout Mindanao, further enflaming tensions. Airstrikes rained down on insurgent positions in Marawi — in some cases, missing their targets.
    “It’s a brutal siege with indiscriminate tactics,” said Joshua Kurlantzick, a Southeast Asia analyst with the Council on Foreign Relations.
    The damages have been extensive.


    Map of damages in Marawi
    This map shows satellite-detected areas of damage in Marawi, Philippines, comparing images taken on July 26, 2017 with images collected a month before. The analysis identifies more than 45 hectares of destruction.
    According to an analysis of satellite imagery released in mid-August, the extent of destruction in Marawi more than doubled during a month of clashes. The analysis identified 217 “areas of destruction” covering 45.5 hectares, as of July 26.
    “The Philippine armed forces are just not particularly good at either counterinsurgency or fighting in a way that minimises civilian casualties or understanding the terrain,” Kurlantzick said.
    The conflict has deepened the mistrust between the government and the city’s predominantly Muslim residents, who find themselves caught between the army and the militants. Many community leaders condemned the insurgents but urged the military to reject airstrikes, according to Haironesah Domado, who works in development and conflict management in Mindanao.
    “Communities may have been blaming not only the Maute group, but also the security forces, for the loss of lives and civilians and the destruction of their communities,” she told IRIN.

    'We did not destroy Marawi'

    Marawi – officially known as the Islamic City of Marawi – is an overwhelmingly Muslim city in an overwhelmingly Catholic country. Long before the current siege, many Muslims in Mindanao already held a deep distrust of the government, fostered by bloody military operations against various iterations of Moro Muslim rebel groups and peace agreements that have fluttered then collapsed.
    The current conflict has divided the community, said Domado, whose family has roots in Lanao del Sur province, where Marawi is the capital. She believes there is considerable risk for further violence even after the siege is over. Clan feuding, or rido, could erupt in surrounding communities as suspicions and accusations over loyalties bubble over.
    And the instability in Marawi raises the possibility of radicalisation among already disaffected youth. Online messages sent from Marawi suggest militants are already using the military siege as propaganda.
    “We did not destroy Marawi City. We did not bomb it to ashes,” read one message, according to research from the Jakarta-based Institute for Policy Analysis of Conflict. “We conquered the city for the purpose of implementing the laws of Allah… but the response of the crusader army was brutal.”
    In this context, rebuilding a shattered city isn’t simply a matter of piecing together bricks and mortar. The government must take steps to calm tensions, build trust, and give the most vulnerable a say in how the city is rebuilt, Domado said.
    “They have to at least consider that they are generally dealing with a local population that is distrustful of them,” she said.

    When the war is over

    Publicly, at least, authorities say they are aware of the sensitivities at play. 
    Duterte has said armed forces will not target mosques, even if combatants are inside, while the military has taken steps to publicise images of Muslim soldiers praying at a reclaimed mosque.
    In a recent briefing, military officials told reporters they will work with local sultanates and Islamic scholars to counter the spread of extremist ideology.
    “When the war in Marawi is over, we’ll be facing another battle,” said Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez Jr, who is in charge of military operations in Marawi. “We will be fighting the Islamic State ideology.”
    Related stories:


    What matters now, however, is what the estimated 360,000 people displaced by the conflict think. And that’s where efforts may already be falling short.
    Aid groups say emergency supplies are running low. Evacuees have complained of squalid conditions in some official evacuation centres, where food and water distribution has grown increasingly erratic. The vast majority of evacuees – more than 90 percent – are staying with relatives, where they have far less access to the same supplies that are delivered to evacuation centres, according to the aid groups and interviews with displaced people.
    And, when IRIN recently visited, there were no finished houses at a resettlement site, although they have been promised to evacuees whose homes have been destroyed.


    Residents of Marawi, Philippines wait outside a government building.
    Bong S. Sarmiento/IRIN
    Marawi residents displaced by the conflict line up outside the provincial capitol building to apply for passes allowing them to return to the city without being detained for questioning.
    The longer the conflict drags on, the deeper the damage.
    The wounds are still fresh for Jamil Ampaso, the man whose home was raided by soldiers at the start of the siege.
    On a recent Monday, he stood in line outside a government building, waiting for an official pass that would let him return to his home outside the main conflict zone.
    “I’m really angry about what happened to our city,” Ampaso said.
    On the verge of tears, he told IRIN of his empty pockets, and how he no longer has the money to send his 12 children to school.
    Ampaso said he has no sympathy for the militants.
    But he’s also mad at Duterte for declaring martial law.
    And he’s angry with both the militants and the military for destroying his city.
    (Additional reporting by Irwin Loy in Bangkok)
    (TOP PHOTO: A baby girl endures the heat in a cramped warehouse in Balo-i, Lanao del Norte, in the Philippines. Separated by sheets or clothing, roughly 40 families from Marawi have sought refuge in the warehouse. Bong S. Sarmiento/IRIN)
    In Marawi, ending a siege is just the beginning
  • New relief chief, Harvey deportations, and Trump M.I.A. on Africa: The Cheat Sheet

    We’ve scanned the humanitarian horizon and curated a reading list for the week ahead on the hot topics below:


    Clock starts for Relief Chief Lowcock


    He's done his homework and now it's show-time: After “listening sessions” with 200 staff, comparing notes with five predecessors, getting advice from dozens more, Mark Lowcock is taking over the UN's emergency aid coordination body, OCHA, today. In an email, Lowcock said he would lay out his vision to an all-staff meeting on 5 September, after which he would make some initial visits to field operations. Lowcock's email, obtained by IRIN, indicated that he would not significantly alter the internal changes currently underway. “I do not envisage re-opening them,” he wrote. But OCHA staff don't yet know exactly what those changes are. They do know there will be spending cuts of about $20 million, but how that will be achieved is yet to be announced. Lowcock confirmed the budget for 2018 would be $240 million, down from a request of $260 million in 2017. However, “many details” still have to be worked out, he wrote. He said he and his deputy would aim to provide “greater clarity”, and to “move faster” on key reform decisions. In his farewell letter to staff, Lowcock's predecessor Stephen O'Brien wrote: “the humanitarian eco-system is more challenged and in demand than ever”. He noted that humanitarian needs were a third larger than when he started in 2015, with 142 million people now in need. O'Brien's letter also said: “OCHA will now need to implement its own changes and fast.” Lowcock's clock has started. 


    Migrant stat is bittersweet


    The International Organization for Migration announced this week that no migrants have drowned in the past 20 days while attempting to cross from Libya to Europe. That’s a good thing, right? Not so fast. The news comes hot on the heels of a report that Italy is paying militias involved in human trafficking to stop migrants from making it to the Mediterranean, potentially enriching and empowering traffickers and armed groups (often one and the same). The Italian Foreign Ministry has since denied the claims, saying: “Italy does not deal with traffickers”. But Libyan forces, including some on the coast, are keeping migrants in overcrowded detention centres in conditions Médecins Sans Frontières on Friday described as “neither humane nor dignified”. The EU’s Operation Sophia has been knocked for failing to get a handle on Libya’s migrant crisis. So what is the best policy solution? Stay tuned for a closer look from IRIN at what might, in all honesty, be a bunch of bad options.


    Where is Trump on Africa?


    Eight months into his administration, President Donald Trump still doesn’t have an assistant secretary for African affairs. To be fair, the administration had planned to nominate J. Peter Pham, an academic. But that got nobbled by Republican Senator James Inhofe over his pet issue: Western Sahara. Even if the senator backed off today, Pham could only be in place by Thanksgiving, at the earliest. The point this podcast from Foreign Policy makes is that, the issue of counter-terrorism aside, the continent gets no consideration by this White House. That means Trump is ceding decades of bi-partisan engagement, ignoring the strategic (including mercantile) importance of Africa’s youth bulge, and throwing away its soft power – eagerly picked up by China. There has been no articulation of a US policy by Trump. But in deeds we’re seeing an administration quibbling over peacekeeping, opposed to the Paris climate change treaty, and spouting a boorish mantra of America First that downplays issues of human rights and justice – music to the ears of Africa’s more repressive leaders. Another way to look at it is that Washington’s neglect is benign – or at least fortunate. After all, according to the reports, it was only the realisation of Afghanistan’s mining potential that got Trump to focus and make his long-awaited decision to stay. That’s the kind of engagement Africa does not need.


    Are Islamist militants in the Philippines recruiting children?


    As clashes between the Philippine army and Islamist militants in the city of Marawi stretch into a fourth consecutive month, aid groups fear the conflict could make children more vulnerable to becoming radicalised. Some 57 percent of the roughly 360,000 people displaced from Marawi are children or teenagers, according to UNICEF. “Children – especially adolescents – who suffer from profound stress may become more susceptible to recruitment and radicalisation by non-state armed groups,” the organisation stated in a recent report on the conflict. Lotta Sylwander, UNICEF’s representative in the Philippines, earlier expressed “deep concern” about the possible involvement of children in the conflict, “either as combatants, camp accessories, informants or as human shields against government forces”. The army claims that half of the remaining combatants in Marawi are children, according to media in the Philippines, while former militants have told reporters they were recruited as children. The army has said it will try to avoid harming child combatants. “But in the event that they are armed and are involved in the fighting, there’s nothing much that we can do,” an army spokesman told reporters in July. The siege began 23 May when Philippine armed forces launched a strike aimed at capturing Isnilon Hapilon, a member of the militant group Abu Sayyaf who the government believes is affiliated with the so-called Islamic State. During reporting for an upcoming article, Philippine army officials told IRIN they expect the city to return to normal in “September or October”; however, previous target dates have come and gone.


    Harvey’s hidden deportation risk


    “In terms of immediate life-saving, no individual human being should worry about their immigration status unless they've committed a crime.” So said the US Homeland Security advisor after several media outlets stated that immigration checkpoints would remain open during Hurricane Harvey evacuations and that shelters and recovery centres would be monitored by immigration agents, leaving undocumented immigrants to weigh safety from the floods against possible deportation. Such reassurances may have fallen on deaf ears, coming as they do as the Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency reportedly seeks permission to destroy records of its human rights abuses. That said, there have been some promising legal signs for those fighting to protect the right of immigrants in the United States. The federal court has just struck down measures to punish so-called sanctuary cities with law SB4, while those banned from entry early on in the Trump administration will now be allowed to reapply after a landmark legal settlement on Thursday. Keep an eye out next week for our look at the unprecedented mobilisation of pro bono immigration lawyers since that first executive order, as the battle against “Muslim ban 2.0” intensifies.


    New relief chief, Harvey deportations, and Trump M.I.A. on Africa
    Our weekly round-up of hot humanitarian topics
  • Muslim “profiling” under martial law in the Philippines

    The black-clad police toting semi-automatic rifles barely get a glance from children glued to the TV as officers search their home in Iligan City, near besieged Marawi, where Philippine security forces have been battling Islamist militants for almost three months in clashes that have killed 562 insurgents, 168 government troops, as well as 45 civilians, according to the latest official figures.

    Martial law in Mindanao Philippines

    President Duterte extends martial law in the Philippines

    Scenes like this have become commonplace since President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law on 23 May throughout Mindanao, the southern island home to most of the country’s minority Muslims.

    Mindanao is also home to an increasing number of Islamist militants, including the Maute group, which pledged allegiance to the so-called Islamic State in 2015 and took over parts of Marawi prior to the martial law declaration. Security forces say they have since wrested back control of all but two pockets of the city and are now trying to track down Islamist fighters who may be trying to blend in with the local population.

    “We have to profile the Muslim areas,” said Iligan City police superintendent Roy Ga. “This conflict in Marawi – unfortunately, it is being committed by Muslims, so we have to make sure there are no sympathisers with the terrorists in this area.” 


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    A Philippine Marine pokes his head out of his battered armored personnel carrier that has been reinforced with wood and other raw materials to blunt the blow of enemy fire in Marawi City, Philippines.
    The fighting 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 IS. The operation was foiled when Maute militants came to Hapilon’s aid, attacked security forces, and took control of the city centre.

    Philippine security forces have still not managed to dislodge Maute fighters, despite airstrikes that have levelled entire neighbourhoods. The ongoing fighting has driven 360,000 people from their homes, according to a 7 August report by the UN emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. The report cited government estimates that Maute is holding as many as 100 civilians hostage.

    ‘Surrounded by people with guns’

    Most of those who fled Marawi are staying with host families in nearby communities. The OCHA report said that about 23,000 people are sheltering in “evacuation centres”, which have been set up in places like the Santa Elena Education Center, a school in Iligan City, which is 40 kilometres from Marawi.


    Wes Bruer/IRIN
    A father, his son, and young baby sit idly outside one of Lanao del Sur’s newest evacuation centers just miles from the heart of the fighting in Marawi City, Philippines. Many of these centers lack basic necessities.

    “Even before the fighting, many people in Marawi City were armed with guns and it made my mother nervous,” said Isabel, a 14-year-old who fled with her family to take shelter at Santa Elena. “Now, we have escaped the fighting and we are still surrounded by people with guns.”

    Mindanao has been in a state of conflict for decades, but there have been brief periods of hope while the government negotiated with the main insurgent groups. A peace deal with the largest Muslim insurgent organisation, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front, has been in limbo since the previous Congress failed to pass legislation that would have provided a legal foundation to establish a semi-autonomous region.

    Duterte’s government, which has been in power just over a year, has so far failed to revive the deal. Negotiators from both the government and MILF told IRIN just before last year’s election, which brought Duterte to power, that young insurgents who are disillusioned with the peace process were breaking away to form smaller groups. Those factions tend to take a more extremist approach and identify with IS, while Maute has also adopted the IS banner after years of operating as more of a criminal organisation.


    Duterte’s declaration of martial law gives his security forces greater powers to search out Islamist fighters, but rights groups and others fear it could exacerbate the conflict if he keeps extending it or if it is abused. They point to Duterte’s blood-drenched first year in power as evidence of his autocratic tendencies and disregard for human rights. In a 20 July report, Human Rights Watch said at least 7,000 people have been killed in Duterte’s self-proclaimed war on drugs, which has overwhelmingly targeted poor people rather than criminal kingpins.

    On 22 July, Congress approved Duterte’s extension of martial law until the end of the year. Risa Hontiveros, a high-profile senator who voted against the extension, voiced her opposition on Twitter, making reference to the casualties of Duterte’s violent year-long crackdown: “I do not trust a government that has played God with the lives of 8-12 thousand Filipinos to wield martial law judiciously.”


    A Philippine National Police Scout patrols the streets of a predominantly Muslim neighborhood in Iligan City, Philippines, while other officers search the inside of homes and question the people living there about any ties to radical Islamists.
    When martial law was first declared, Human Rights Watch warned that it should not be “a free pass for abuse”, as that would cause the strategy to backfire by alienating those affected by the conflict.

    For now, many people in Iligan City seem supportive of the security forces’ efforts to track down militants, despite the disruptions to their daily lives. A 9pm curfew is in place and walls are plastered with posters that say, “Wanted: Local Terrorists”, and show the mug shots of 30 men. Police check those mug shots against drivers’ licenses at checkpoints throughout the city.

    “If you talk to the people out here helping the authorities, you will see it is Christians and Muslims out here together,” said Mary Ann, who brought tea and snacks to officers searching her neighbourhood. “It is the only way we will all get through this mess." 

    Residents have also been asked to cooperate with security forces and report any suspects, even though this can lead to false alarms.

    On a recent Monday night, police responded to a call from a neighbourhood watch group that reported a man stockpiling weapons. They pried open the man’s door and he awoke to find them inside his house inspecting only a homemade spear gun, which he said he made for his own protection.


    (TOP PHOTO: Philippines security forces search a house in Iligan City. CREDIT: Wes Bauer/IRIN)

    Muslim “profiling” under martial law in the Philippines
  • 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)


    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”.


    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


    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.


    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.”


    (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
  • Islamic State ramps up recruitment in Pakistan

    Obaid Khan was planning to join Pakistan’s public school system as a teacher after finishing his undergraduate degree in May this year. Instead, he dropped out of university to join the so-called Islamic State, and he’s now fighting in Afghanistan.
    Obaid’s life-plan began to change when a man identifying himself as Qari Abid contacted him via Facebook last August. As their correspondence deepened, Khan became more and more convinced that he needed to join the “jihad against infidels”, according to his elder brother, Hanifullah, whom Abid attempted to recruit as well.
    “He used to get promotional Islamic State material and sermons about jihad every second day in his Facebook inbox,” said Hanifullah about his brother. 
    Then, at the end of October, Obaid suddenly left the family home in Bajaur Agency in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas on the frontier with Afghanistan. Last month, he called Hanifullah and told him he had finished training with IS and was now fighting in Afghanistan’s Nangarhar Province, where Afghan government and US forces have been battling the militants.
    “He was a religious-minded person, but we never thought he would one day join a militant group like the IS,” said Hanifullah in a telephone interview.
    Military assaults have squeezed IS out of some of the territory it took control of in Iraq and Syria, and the group has recently expanded its presence in South Asia. 
    In January 2015, IS declared its intention to establish “Khorasan”, in reference to a historical region that once covered much of modern day Afghanistan as well as parts of Iran and Central Asia. Nangarhar remains its main base of operations, but its tentacles extend across the border into Pakistan too.
    Officially, Pakistan’s government says that IS, or Daesh as it is referred to here, is not active in the country. But a senior security official has told IRIN that the group represents a serious threat to the country as it coordinates with other militant groups, and ramps up recruitment using social media. The official and Pakistani relatives of IS fighters have shared information on how the recruitment process works.

    Government denials

    “There is no organised presence, I repeat, no organised presence of Daesh in Pakistan,” Mohammed Nafees Zakaria, a foreign ministry spokesman, told reporters on 15 December. “The pronouncement of one or two random individuals of having affiliation to Daesh does not form the basis for claiming organised presence for this entity in Pakistan.”
    However, a senior counter-terrorism official told IRIN that 14 Pakistanis joined IS in October alone, while hundreds more are also believed to be in touch with the recruiters through social media.
    “The IS recruiters contact young, educated Pakistani men and women through Facebook, telegram, and other social media platforms and convince them to join the IS in Syria and Afghanistan,” said the official, who requested his name be withheld due to the sensitive nature of the subject.
    He said he believed the presence of IS could pose a more dangerous threat to Pakistan than the Taliban and other militants, because “it has penetrated in urban educated youth through social media and has enough resources too to lure them to Syria and Afghanistan in the name of jihad”.
    The resources include cash payments to families of new recruits, according to the official as well as the brother of another young Pakistani man who has joined IS and is now in Afghanistan for training.
    The man told IRIN that his family is receiving a monthly stipend of 30,000 rupees ($286) and that leading IS figures in the region had also promised to sponsor the education of his brother’s three children.
    “My brother was inducted into the IS force through multiple interviews on Facebook,” said the man on condition of anonymity. “We don’t know exact identity of the recruiters.”
    Khurram Mehran, a spokesman for the Pakistan Telecommunication Authority, said his organisation has no clear-cut policy to counter the presence of IS on internet and its recruitment of Pakistanis through social media.
    “The government has been continuously denying the presence of IS in Pakistan,” he said. “We start monitoring activities of any militant group on the internet only after we receive instructions from relevant government departments."

    Asia expansion?

    As recently as 21 December, Pakistan Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif said during a visit to Bosnia that IS is not active in Pakistan, and that the country has destroyed sanctuaries and safe havens of al-Qaeda and Taliban.
    Despite such public statements, the militant group has carried out attacks in Pakistan, according to the counter-terrorism official, and IS itself. 
    The IS claimed responsibility for a May 2015 attack on a bus in Karachi that killed 47 people. It also claimed responsibility for the attack on a hospital in Quetta last August that killed 72 people, as well as an attack on the Quetta Police College in October, which killed 59 officers.
    The counter-terrorism official said IS has linked up with other militant groups that have a more established presence in Pakistan and have better capabilities on the ground.
    “The Islamic Movement of Uzbekistan and Lashkar-e-Jhangvi carried out these attacks in Pakistan under the banner of the Islamic State,” said the official. “IS has effectively infused its ideology in these groups through its promotional material of jihad.”
    He said Pakistan military operations have forced many Islamist fighters across the border into Afghanistan, particularly those with IMU and the Tehreek-e-Taliban militant group, but the porous border allows them to cross back into Pakistan to plan and carry out operations.
    “The IMU fighters have also had their presence in Pakistan's Balochistan province and some tribal areas of the country as they have married local girls and developed relationship with local warlords,” the counter-terrorism official added.
    For now, the IS presence in Asia is focused mainly on the frontier between Pakistan and Afghanistan, but there are signs that the groups has plans to expand throughout the region. 
    The group took responsibility for an attack on a café in Dhaka, Bangladesh, in July where 20 hostages were killed. Indonesian police said an IS militant believed to be in Syria ordered an attack in the capital, Jakarta, one year ago that killed two people. Militant groups in the southern Philippines island of Mindanao have also publicly pledged allegiance to IS.
    (TOP PHOTO: Philippines soldiers with bomb-making material and IS propaganda captured from a militant group in Mindanao. CREDIT: Jared Ferrie/IRIN)
    Islamic State ramps up recruitment in Pakistan
  • Why do peace deals fall at the final hurdle?

    In the lead-up to the Colombian peace referendum on 2 October, Colombian president and Nobel laureate Manuel Santos said, “I don’t have a Plan B because Plan B is going back to war.” Colombian voters rejected the 297-page peace deal put to them barely 40 days after it was signed. Why?


    Conflicts don’t really end after a peace accord has been reached – they just change venues.


    A peace accord should transform a violent engagement into a political engagement, which very often means the parties commit to contending with one another in the scrappy arena of national politics. This transition is the Achilles heel of peace negotiations, sometimes ignored, often avoided.


    The lesson from Colombia, after more than 30 years of start-stop negotiations between the government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), is that peace processes too often face harsh political realities after a deal is signed. Another process on another continent could have shown the pitfalls to avoid.


    Throughout my 10 years working with rebels – however not with the FARC nor the Colombian peace process – I have learned how armed groups’ political calculus is all too often the same. Alienation, disaffection, suspicion, in-fighting, arrogance, and sheer bloody-mindedness usually overwhelm their intellectual appetite for political engagement. It is hard to overstate how repulsed rebel leaders are by anyone suggesting that their planned pathways to victory are affected by real-world constraints. Mediators, experts, and advisors in peace negotiations have to persistently confront non-state armed groups with realism – anything less is a disservice to the peace process.

    "Now the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, like his Colombian counterpart, will have to pick up the pieces."

    In the endgame of a peace deal, rebels suddenly find themselves drawn into a political world of tight timeframes and brinksmanship and aren’t prepared for it. Moreover, unlike their government counterparts, they simply don’t have the chops to operate in specific settings like caucuses, parliament, or on the campaign trail – these skills need preparation and time to cultivate. These political skills cannot and should not be held over until after the final peace deal is signed – which is what happened in Colombia and the Philippines.




    The upset in Colombia has parallels to the outcome of peace talks between the Filipino government and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF). After 15 years of formal and informal negotiations, the two sides finally inked a framework agreement in 2012 and a comprehensive peace agreement in March 2014. But between 2012 and 2015 the MILF put off establishing a political party, or rolling out a party structure, or preparing candidates for the senate, or raising campaign finance. And yet they explicitly agreed to a form of autonomy falling well short of statehood, meaning they would have to take part in the national political arena.


    The plan was for the deal to culminate in legislation that would glide through the national legislature, paving the way for a new autonomous region in Mindanao and a transitional regional government led by the MILF. Just as in Colombia, the parties refused to countenance a plan B.


    In the Philippines, the passage of the bill was quickly derailed. In January 2015, a botched counter-terrorism operation led to 44 police troopers, 17 MILF combatants, and three civilians being killed. The incident energised a hostile parliament that ultimately denied then-president Benigno Aquino the political capital he needed to push the bill through. Now the Philippines’ new president, Rodrigo Duterte, like his Colombian counterpart, will have to pick up the pieces.


    The final hurdle


    The Colombia-FARC and Philippines-MILF deals are, in terms of words on the page, some of the longest peace accords in modern history. Also, neither process could be described as having taken shape in any great haste. It is therefore somewhat curious, if not altogether surprising, that local politicians eviscerate the process at the 11th hour.


    What next for Colombia?

    Could Colombia's faltering reintegration programme doom the peace process?

    Amid a bloody drug war, hopes for peace in the Philippines

    Rebels need to be politically active during negotiations, but typically the state makes political participation conditional on the final peace accord. It should have been apparent in 2012 when the Philippines government and the MILF signed a framework agreement – just as Colombia and the FARC did in same year – that the rebels would eventually be engaging in national politics and would therefore need more political clout. Neither the FARC nor the MILF could afford to simply rely on the good offices of the president to shepherd the peace process along, let alone the broader political transition that would follow. In both cases the rebels should have known that they needed a functional, strong political platform through which to legitimately reach out to their constituents.


    The result in Colombia was clear-cut: a minority of Colombians – half of the 38 percent who turned out (only 19 percent of registered voters) – scuttled what seemed to be a viable resolution to South America’s longest-running war. The result tells us two things; that the government alone couldn’t persuade its constituents, and that the final peace accord in its current form isn’t politically viable. If the rebels had the capacity to campaign for the “Sí” vote, and were willing and able to do so, would the result have been different? I strongly believe that it is entirely possible that the “Sí” vote could have carried the day, in which case President Santos’ Nobel Peace Prize might make a bit more sense.




    To learn from the Colombia-FARC and Philippines-MILF peace processes, it is important to firstly understand that one side (usually both) is unequipped to politically engage their adversary, having only ever faced them on the battlefield.

    "We should be much clearer about the costs of denying rebels earlier political access and recognition."

    Secondly, exposure to the ‘outside world’, and showing rebels why blanket amnesty, perceptions of justice by everyone, inclusivity, and respect human for human rights are so important, are absolutely necessary.


    Diplomats and ‘experts’ have an equally important duty to make the parties see that their objectives do not exist in a political vacuum, but are a moving part of a much more complex system (whether they like it or not). Whatever the parties agree to in terms of substance, they have to be willing and able to sell it to their constituents before the ink has dried on the peace deal.


    We should be much clearer about the costs of denying rebels earlier political access and recognition. Armed groups like the FARC and the MILF should be encouraged to form political entities and pull their own political weight during negotiations, instead of turning political participation into a concession. Rebels are denied access because the state doesn’t want to "recognise" them. Recognition is, after all, valuable political currency. By doing this, however, we also deny everyone the possibility of resolving the conflict. In Colombia’s case, the parties risk slipping into brinksmanship.


    In the referendum aftermath President Santos initially appeared to reaffirm the permanent end to hostilities through the standing ceasefire. However, he then changed tack by declaring the ceasefire would end on 31 October. To which the FARC leader Rodrigo Londoño replied by Twitter, “And after that, the war continues?” A bilateral ceasefire has now been extended until 31 December, but to what end?

    (TOP PHOTO: Voters line up before polls opened for Colombia's plebiscite on the peace deal in Necoclí, Antioquía. CREDIT: Erika Piñeros/IRIN)


    Opinion: Colombia rebels need to pull their weight
  • Will Duterte's offensive against Islamist militants in the Philippines backfire?

    At dusk, the blue-grey peaks of Basilan look serene, rising out of the tranquil sea that separates them from the Philippine city of Zamboanga on the southernmost tip of the large main island of Mindanao.
    But the peaceful scene is a mirage. In reality, Basilan and the remote islands of Sulu, further south but still part of the Mindanao group, are home to Abu Sayyaf. 
    The Islamist militant group has been active since 1991 and had early ties to al-Qaeda. More recently, Abu Sayyaf members have pledged allegiance to so-called Islamic State. But mostly, the group is feared for its beheadings and frequent kidnap for ransom operations, which occur mainly in the maritime junction between the Philippines, Malaysia, and Indonesia.
    Rodrigo Duterte, the recently elected strongman president of the Philippines, has ordered the army to “destroy” Abu Sayyaf. During a 17 September speech to soldiers, he said the group is “hungry to establish a caliphate”. 
    The first three months of Duterte’s presidency have been characterised by a toxic mix of blood and bluster. In his latest gaffe, responding to criticisms of his war on drugs, which has seen more than 3,000 people killed by police and vigilantes, he likened himself to Hitler and said he’d be happy to “slaughter” three million drug addicts.
    Some of Duterte’s remarks about the ramped-up war against Abu Sayyaf have been similarly off-colour. In an angry outburst during a recent regional summit in Laos, Duterte warned Abu Sayyaf: “I will open your body – just pass me the vinegar and salt and I will eat you.” 
    Strong words have been followed by strong actions: 10,000 troops were deployed to Sulu and Basilan along with the country’s newest and biggest warship, the BRP Tarlac.
    But will the new offensive succeed in defeating Abu Sayyaf or might it actually help foster more militancy?
    Critics accuse the campaign, which has largely consisted of shelling Abu Sayyaf locations, of having limited impact on militants, who flee into the jungle, whilst displacing tens of thousands of civilians. 


    David Doyle/IRIN
    Basilan island looms in the distance from the seawall in Zamboanga
    If the military continues to use such tactics, it could actually drive young men to join the group, said Sheikh Loderson Gustham, a religious leader from Sulu.
    “Most of the people in the province work in either fishing or agriculture,” he said in an interview in Zamboanga. “People are not being allowed back onto their land, because military operations are there.
    “It will even contribute to the violence, because if people are without jobs and Abu Sayyaf has its own money, they can just recruit,” said Gustham.
    As of 19 September, the campaign against Abu Sayyaf had displaced 18,783 people on Basilan and 23,920 people on Sulu, according to the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

    Cycle of displacement

    The Philippines is an overwhelmingly Catholic country, but Muslims make up the majority population in some parts of Mindanao, which has been wracked by conflict since the late 1960s. The government is still battling communist insurgents, as well as an array of Islamist groups. It is all too common throughout Mindanao that civilians have to flee their homes. 
    Three years ago, fighting broke out in Zamboanga between the Armed Forces of the Philippines and a splinter group of the Moro National Liberation Force rebel group: 100,000 people were displaced and several civilians killed. Thousands of civilians remain in camps like the Mampang Transitory Site on the outskirts of the city.
    “We don’t want it to happen again. The conflict is there in Sulu, and we just want it to stay in Sulu,” said Alfonso Hassan, a 30-year-old pedicab driver who lives in Mampang. “People here are already in trauma.”


    David Doyle/IRIN
    The Mampang camp on the outskirts of Zamboanga for people displaced by 2013 fighting between government troops and Islamist rebels
    The Mampang camp is run by a local NGO, Integrated Resource Development for Tri-People, which has partnered up with international NGOs including Action Against Hunger.
    Kalma Isnain, executive director at IRDT, says the continual cycle of violence in Mindanao, and particularly on Sulu and Basilan, means recruitment by Abu Sayyaf has become normalised.
    “The tension is already there and the children are the ones most affected,” she said. “These children, they have nothing to do with their lives, so they will join.”

    Peace on the rocks

    The government is in the process of negotiating an end to the conflict with the MNLF, and is in similar discussions with another rebel group, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. But there appears to be little chance that peace will be negotiated with Abu Sayyaf.
    After the MNLF asked the government to include the group in the current talks, President Duterte responded unequivocally: “I will not, I will never.”
    "There will be no amnesty for so much killing,” he added, speaking to Marines on Tuesday.
    There may be little public support among residents of Mindanao for Abu Sayyaf, which is notorious for beheading prisoners and carrying out bombings like the 2004 SuperFerry 14 attack, which killed 116 people. But there is also a lot of distrust towards the military, especially in places like Basilan and Sulu.

    Zamboanga, Philippines - Black smoke from burning houses rises in the background as a military cargo plane bearing relief goods arrives in the besieged city of Zamboanga in Mindanao, where troops are locked in a battle with Muslim rebels opposed to peace

    Zamboanga, Philippines - Black smoke from burning houses rises in the background as a military cargo plane bearing relief goods arrives in the besieged city of Zamboanga in Mindanao, where troops are locked in a battle with Muslim rebels opposed to peace
    Smoke from burning houses in Zamboanga rises behind a military aircraft delivering supplies during fighting between government troops and Islamist rebels in 2013
    Sheikh Gustham said some young people see the military operation as “Christian soldiers coming to Muslim lands – a kind of crusade”.
    That plays into a narrative that favours Islamist militant groups like Abu Sayyaf.
    Underdevelopment and widespread poverty in Mindanao may also be factors in radicalising youth.
    “One thing that does concern us generally is what could be a trend towards increasing extremism,” said Mark Bidder, head of office in the Philippines for the UN emergency aid coordination body, OCHA. 
    “Perhaps it is driven in part by the expectations of the youth not being met,” he said. “There are communities that have been frustrated by the lack of progress over the years – particularly in terms of dealing with age-old issues: challenges of underdevelopment, lack of jobs, lack of opportunities.” 
    The Armed Forces of the Philippines did not respond to repeated requests for comment.
    (TOP PHOTO: Government troops patrol Zamboanga in 2014, one year after Islamist rebels beseiged the city. CREDIT: Jason Gutierrez/IRIN​)
    Will Duterte's offensive against Islamist militants in the Philippines backfire?
  • Philippines has built only 1% of homes promised after Typhoon Haiyan

    When Typhoon Haiyan smashed into this city in the central Philippines almost three years ago, Arsenio was one of the lucky ones – he survived by swimming a kilometre to safety.
    “Every time there is a storm, I get scared, even after three years,” he said. “I don’t want to go through the same thing again.”
    And yet, there is a good chance he will. The archipelago nation is regularly rocked by storms that are predicted to get stronger and more frequent due to climate change. And the 67-year-old shopkeeper is still living in the same place: the Seawall barangay (neighbourhood), which is strung along the coast of the city of Tacloban. 
    “I am pissed off,” said Arsenio, who declined to give his last name. “I have not been offered any sort of relocation by the government, even in a transitional centre.”
    After Haiyan – one of the strongest tropical cyclones ever recorded, and one that destroyed more than a million homes and killed more than 6,000 people – the government promised to “build back better”. The strategy included relocating people away from coastal areas that are almost sure to be hit again.
    The plan has so far been a failure, at least in terms of numbers.
    In the aftermath of one of the worst natural disasters ever to hit the Philippines, the government of then president Bignino Aquino III committed to building 205,000 homes to accommodate around one million people living in coastal danger zones.
    Last week, Vice President Leni Robredo, newly installed as head of the Housing and Urban Development Coordinating Council – an umbrella organisation overseeing various government housing agencies – admitted that only around one percent of the target had been achieved.
    “The report reaching us is that only 25,000 were completed,” she said at a press conference. “From the 25,000 that were completed, 2,500 were occupied.”


    David Doyle/IRIN
    Arsenio sits outside his shop in the Seawall neighbourhood

    Life in danger

    As the third anniversary of the Haiyan disaster approaches on 8 November, hundreds of thousands of people in the Philippines, including tens of thousands in Tacloban, continue to live in areas the government has designated as “no dwelling zones”. 
    They include residents of Seawall who, like Arsenio, rebuilt their homes after the storm. They are shacks made from what could be found in the wreckage or was donated by charities – plywood, sacking, and corrugated iron. Some jut out into the sea, supported on stilts, and are connected to the land by single wooden boards.
    Joyce Sierra, advocacy officer at Social Watch Philippines, said many survivors of Typhoon Haiyan – known locally as Yolanda – had to rebuild their lives with little or no assistance, which pushed them deeper into poverty. “They are even poorer and even more vulnerable now, even three years after Yolanda,” she told IRIN.


    Devastation in the city of Tacloban after typhoon Haiyan
    Jason Gutierrez/IRIN
    Devastation in the city of Tacloban after typhoon Haiyan
    Robredo blamed the lack of progress on “red tape”, particularly the processing of documents and land titles for sites where homes were to be built. She has said she will coordinate with the Commission on Audit and the National Economic Development Agency to see if the bureaucracy can be reduced.
    The slow grind is frustrating for people like Glenda Nibasa, a housewife living in Tacloban’s flood-prone Picas barangay. As she waits for the government to provide her with a proper home, she’s living in a temporary shelter provided by the NGO World Vision.
    "If the government wants to help us, why are there so many processes? Why won’t they just help us?” she asked. 

    Relocation concerns

    But constructing new homes is not the end of the problem. 
    Even survivors who are offered the chance to relocate sometimes decide against it, because the inland safe zones are far from their where they work – usually in the fishing industry. They also fear the new homes are a step down in terms of quality of life.
    “We declined because the area is far from our livelihood and we heard the water was not good,” said Marissa Trebajo, who sells fish at the Seawall market to support her four children.


    David Doyle/IRIN
    Marissa Trebajo stands with one of her children outside her home in the Seawall neighbourhood
    Ildebrando Bernadas, head of the Tacloban city government’s disaster risk reduction and management office, acknowledged that there is a problem with water supply and said it was because no national agency had been assigned to the problem. 
    Plans are now being drawn up to provide a water supply to Tacloban’s relocation “township” in the north of the city.
    Bernadas also said Haiyan survivors’ concerns about their livelihoods were being addressed, and employment and training provided – though it could not be guaranteed that those being relocated, mostly fishermen, would be able to continue with the same job.
    “Actually, those that are now resettled permanently, that was also their sentiment: ‘We don’t want to move because our lives here, we are fishermen, etc’. But now they are there, they feel happy about it,” he said.
    (TOP PHOTO: The Seawall neighbourhood in Tacloban was rebuilt after Typhoon Haiyan. CREDIT: David Doyle)


    Philippines has built only 1% of homes promised after Typhoon Haiyan

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