Only the rat-a-tat of gunfire cuts through the thick smoke standing unafraid in the stillness. Then, dusty feet climb soundless on the ash-carpeted stairs onto a tiered stage nested amidst rubble and fallen stone pillars — and slowly the haze lifts like a curtain rising. High gothic arches loom as backdrop, and the light from a shattered stained-glass rose window shines upon a full symphonic orchestra and choir: it is Zubin Mehta conducting the Sarajevo Symphony and Choir, for Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart’s “Requiem in D-minor.”
It was at the saddest height of the infamous Siege of Sarajevo that Mozart’s “Requiem” was played in 1994. The charred remains of the National Library, once the Sarajevo City Hall, was a tragic monument to “some 10,000 people, the vast majority civilians and many of them children, (who) have died or disappeared during the Serbian nationalists’ bombardment of Sarajevo (April 5, 1992 to Feb. 29, 1996) (The New York Times, 06.20.1994).” The 10-minute video of the 35-minute full concert showed buildings burning from air strikes and bombings, juxtaposed with horrible vignettes of the wounded and killed. Children and babies wide-eyed with fear must have harkened, in their innocence, to the plaintive wailing of violins in the requiem and the magnified pounding of their hearts in the heavy bassoons and drums.
The persistent adagio of Mozart’s Requiem bears on the hearts of all in predominantly Muslim Marawi, as in the whole country today, like it did in Sarajevo two decades ago — still to evoke the rueful destruction from ethnic/religious conflicts and rebellions between and among citizens of one country.
“I weep for all the civilians who were mercilessly killed, I weep for the lost homes of my people and I weep for the loss of the true essence of Islam in the people who caused all these destructions to our lives and properties,” Marawi Mayor Majul Gandamra painfully shared (AP, 06.14.2017).
Nearly every day for weeks, the Philippine military has pounded Marawi with rockets and bombs, to ferret out militants believed to be linked to the terrorist Islamic State group. It is one of the fiercest urban combat this volatile region has seen in decades, the Mindanao Sunstar notes (06.12.2017).
On May 23, President Rodrigo Duterte issued Proclamation No. 216 declaring martial law and suspending the writ of habeas corpus in the whole of Mindanao (ABS-CBN News, 05.23.2017). Around 400,000 residents of Marawi City and neighboring towns in Lanao del Sur have been displaced in different parts of the country. Reports of death of civilians due to indiscriminate aerial bombardment have risen to 39 individuals by government reports, according to the Rural Missionaries of the Philippines or RMP, founded by the Association of Major Women Religious Superiors of the Philippines (AMWRSP), a religious civil activist group. The military confirms that around 507 people have died — of this number, 379 were terrorists; 89 were soldiers and rest were civilians (msn.com, 07.20.2017).
“Thousands of families have been staying in different evacuation centers since the fighting erupted before the start of Ramadan on May 23. Many people have died not because they were caught in the crossfire but because of the poor condition at evacuation centers, Sharjah resident and former MarCom (Maranao Community) president Roy Tamano said (Ibid.). “Many cadavers are not yet collected,” he said. “Only after the war has concluded and a thorough clearing operation is conducted can we ascertain the number of casualties,” he explained. Evacuees worried that they will have nothing left of their properties when they go back home (Ibid.)
Yet two months on, and the fighting is still going on in Marawi. Meanwhile, the declaration of martial law, which was effective for a maximum 60 days as prescribed in the Constitution, was to end on July 22. To the rescue, the Philippine Congress met for a marathon joint session of the Senate and House of Representatives to vote on President Duterte’s letter request for the extension of martial law for another 152 days, to expire on Dec. 31 (CNN Philippines live coverage, 07.22.2017).
The Senate House voted 16 Yes and 4 No to the motion of Sen. Gregorio Honasan to allow Duterte’s request for a 152-day extension of martial law. Sen. Franklin Drilon tried to submit an amended motion to limit the extension only for another 60 days, as also proposed by a few other legislators, and as it would be more in keeping with the original 60 days of initial declaration. His motion was denied, and Honasan’s motion was approved.
The House of Representatives voted 245 Yes and 14 No to the motion of Rep. Rodolfo Fariñas, which was identical to the Honasan motion. Rep. Edcel Lagman tried to object to Fariñas’s motion on the argument that there was no factual basis for martial law ab initio. All objections were put aside as a combined total vote of 261 Yes and 18 No from both Houses gave Duterte an overwhelming mandate to effectively proceed with the siege of Marawi, armed with legitimate martial law for the whole Mindanao, until Dec. 31.
“Please ask us how we feel. Please ask us how do we stand up and rise,” Samira Gutoc-Tomawis, Meranon civil rights leader pleaded in tears to the joint Congress at Saturday’s hearing on Duterte’s request. Tindeg Ranao, a group formed by Marawi City evacuees as “a response to the need to unite evacuees that call for justice to victims of human rights violations, calls for a stop to military air strikes that resulted in the destruction of their communities, and calls to lift martial law declaration that has resulted in military abuses (http://rmp-nmr.org).” Tindeg Ranao wants martial law lifted, to allow the 260,000 displaced Marawi residents to return to their homes (Philippine Daily Inquirer, 07.22.2017).
But the cymbals clashed a metallic death clang for Marawi as the final decision was made at the joint-Houses voting to extend President Duterte’s martial law powers over Mindanao. The air strikes and strafing will continue and collateral damage to people and property will continue. Search and destroy assaults by the military will capture Maute and supporters-accomplices, or more likely, kill rebels and innocents alike, in the facelessness of the foe in the very first extensive and long-playing open urban war of brother against brother in recent Philippine rebellion history.
Mozart’s “Requiem” is played for Marawi.
The destruction of the Islamic city of Marawi has tragically confounded the aspirations of President Rodrigo Duterte, the small-town mayor who became the Philippine President and has discovered that his ambitions outweighed his capabilities.
Based on his experience as the mayor of Davao City, where he had a friendly relationship with the region’s Muslims, Duterte promised during his presidential campaign to deliver an elusive peace in the southern Philippines in his term.
The fighting that raged throughout Ramadan to flush out terrorists pledging allegiance to the Islamic State has reached catastrophic proportions not seen in the recent cycle of violence on Mindanao island. The Islamists at the very epicenter of his polity say they want to establish a caliphate, with jihadis crossing onto Mindanao’s unguarded beaches from Yemen, Malaysia, Indonesia and other countries.
The president too has not been seen in public – raising serious questions over the 72-year-old’s health –for the most part of the crisis that has claimed more than 400 lives, displacing tens and thousands of Muslims, while the military battled in what was once a heritage city that has gone to ruins, the fighting now tapering off in its sixth week.
Suddenly appearing at the presidential palace for the late celebration of Eid al-Fitr, Duterte said he was saddened and angered and fell back to his default mood of cursing the tragedy of the Maranao tribe in Marawi – whom he had often boasted were among his blood families.
No longer the tough guy
And the tragedy for the president is that his pulse of Mindanao, of which he is a “proud son,” is no better than those of his predecessors who also had to face the rawness of the decades-long conflict. It has dismantled his armor of being the tough guy in the neighborhood.
The map of Mindanao has been scorched with far too many killings, battles, burnings – reaching major proportions seemingly every two years, the last of which was a botched police operation in early 2015, before that a rebel siege in a largely Christian city in 2013, and the killings of scores journalists by a warlord family in late 2009.
The battle for the city of Marawi in northwestern Mindanao, whose population once numbered 200,000 but which is now wrecked, has defied military logic, with the commanders forced to send in the armor and artillery and to pour down bombs in a series of air strikes, asking help from the Americans that Duterte had scorned, to bear the brutal challenge of the terrorists’ arsenal of high-powered weapons.
No longer fighting and running
It used to be that rebels would fight, withdraw, and fight another day. Not this one.
The president hadn’t realized that the Maute group that he had belittled would strike in such a spectacular show of force. He said himself that if it had been a war against the old guard of the Moro National Liberation Front and its breakaway Moro Islamic Liberation Front, he would have “endured it and pleaded peace with you.”
“What is painful to me is the entry of a fractured ideology and they don’t even know what they’re doing. All they want is to kill and destroy,” he said. “If they went to a forested area, claim a particular mountain and fight there I could have forgiven them.”
That was the specter of Marawi: radicalization choosing Mindanao to make its mark in Southeast Asia from orders in the Middle East. When the fighting broke out on May 23, the terrorists could have taken over, raised the black flag over the hills of the army brigade camp, to establish a wilayat, an Arab word for a dominion, that would have been of unimaginable consequences. They were stopped in the nick of time.
The president said it would not have worked anyway, because “we are a Malay race, we are not that brutal and we respect life.” Had he not known that terrorists who had first come to the shores sowing violent extremism in the minds of the local rebel groups were from Indonesia and Malaysia, and were ethnic Malays?
Mindanao is an open park for the terrorists crossing the waters from neighboring countries in the southern fringes; and without strict identification control and border patrols that are emblem of internal security. it’s a walk to the rebel enclaves.
The plains and the mountains around the borders of Lanao del Sur (of which Marawi is a part) and Maguindanao provinces have been training grounds since the 1990s for Al Qaeda and Jemaah Islamiya. It was then that an Indonesian named Ibrahim Ali was among the first batch of the so-called cadets.
It was Ali, according to one intelligence report, whom the IS had wanted to designate the emir for Southeast Asia but who was killed in a shootout in late 2015 in the Philippines’ Sultan Kudarat Province, that was intended to capture a leader of another rebel group. The military was to discover later that it was Ali the bomb maker who was among the casualties.
Consequently, it was a daring leap for Isnilon Hapilon to be named the emir for the Southeast Asian Caliphate from his Abu Sayyaf rebel base on Basilan island to the mainland’s northwest frontier to join forces with the Maute family – steeped in money and in clan wars – that held fort in a remote town called Butig, about an hour away by land from Marawi.
It was believed the Mautes had previously harbored radicals, one of whom was an Islamic teacher from Indonesia who was killed in late 2012.
Two of the Maute sons became the up-and-coming terror bloc generation, going by the deeds of the Islamic State that were evidently a departure from the main rebel groups negotiating peace with the government. The Maute group was responsible for the bomb attack last September in President Duterte’s hometown of Davao, a blow to what was supposed to be an impenetrable “alternate seat of power.”
Twice in the midst of the crisis in Marawi, the president withdrew from public view, sparking rumors of failing health. He had boldly announced that the siege would come to an end on the Philippines’ Independence Day, June 12, but that didn’t happen as the battle went on to take control of the city while he himself missed the celebration that was expected of a president. His spokesman said he needed to rest.
Meanwhile he had declared martial for the entire island of Mindanao, reminding his guests at the palace gathering for the Muslim festival, seated at ornate tables under bright chandeliers, that the Marawi crisis had forced his hand.
“I knew everything,” he said, “I knew the deployment of the snipers and where they hid the weapons. I already had a complete picture and I knew it would be a long fight.”
He had been in Moscow when the fighting struck in the afternoon of May 23, raising the question of how much he really knew, when on his Russian trip he had in his entourage about 50 police and military generals that included senior commanders and their deputies who took their wives along in what became evident as a junket.
Scattered information from the intelligence community had sensed that something was afoot a couple of weeks in advance, sources said, taking notice of a swelling of forces in the Maute stronghold. One intelligence group from the Navy, dubbing their project Target Pocket Bingo, had been following Hapilon for about three years, maybe more.
Eventually crumbs of information led them from the southern islands all the way up to Marawi, where special units of the army and the navy were called in for the hunt. Within half an hour gunfire erupted from the building in which Hapilon was believed to have been staying, triggering a battle that has changed dimensions in the conflict.
The military said Hapilon might have escaped the fighting and that they believe one of the principal Maute brothers has been killed. Weeks on, the president told his audience in the palace that a casualty among the Maute family was a cousin, “did you know that?” – putting himself in a perplexed state of having been deceived, making him a victim among the thousands of Maranaos who had lost what they had because of “this adventure.”
He promised, again, to rebuild Marawi from the rubble, to bring back its prosperity – if by that he meant its shadow economy thriving on guns and drugs and other illegal trades. The city may well be the denouement of things that can’t go back to the way they were before. It was one of those “ungoverned spaces” labeled by the navy’s special operations force that has caused radicalization to fester.
The military was one step behind in having tried averting it, but it wasn’t fast enough to douse the fire of violent extremism.
After it has been destroyed in order to save it, Marawi has to be resurrected with a symbol erasing the past. It will have to start on a clean slate, this crisis being a heartbreaking wake-up call for all of Mindanao. The president may have to stop harking back to his one-dimensional view of the Muslim narrative, because it has to move forward or risk greater failures.
He said he couldn’t bear watching the suffering on television, he would turn it off or change the channel to watching cartoons instead.
Madinnah, Saudi Arabia—The fighting in Marawi is nearing its fourth week, and the prospect is dim that it would end soon. Meanwhile, the Daesh-inspired Maute-Abu Sayyaf forces have achieved their mission of gaining international recognition and the imprimatur of self-proclaimed Islamic State caliph Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi.