Following an outbreak of violence on May 23rd, the population of the city of Marawi and its surrounding areas was subjected to displacement, limited access to essential resources, and in many cases injury and death. Occurring sporadically across Mindanao, the southernmost island of the Philippines, Marawi, has been the epicentre of a jihadist insurgency for over seven weeks. Although the Philippines is no stranger to internal conflict, in its recent history involving groups, such as the Maoist rebels and Muslim separatists, the sudden nature of this attack comes as a surprise to the Filipino establishment and the people of Marawi.
The conflict erupted after armed Filipino forces attempted to capture Isnilon Hapilon, a senior radical Islamist and one of the United States’ most wanted, in Marawi. Hapilon, who has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State, intended to unite the various extremist groups of the Muslim-majority Mindanao island that have splintered from the more moderate Muslim separatist groups in the region in recent years. Seeking to take advantage of the socio-economic and cultural disparities that exist between the southern region and the Catholic-majority northern islands of the Philippines, jihadists have identified Mindanao as a potential outpost for extremism in the region. The result has been weeks of urban warfare as the jihadist groups, Maute and Abu Sayaff, moved to capture Marawi under the leadership of Hapilon and publicized their use of child soldiers in online videos in the process. The Filipino military has responded firmly, with President Rodrigo Duterte enforcing martial law across Mindanao and embarking on a helicopter bombing campaign with assistance from American surveillance aircraft.
Many of the 200,000 residents of Marawi have fled the city, and the conflict has resulted in around 39 civilian deaths, which were sustained largely in the crossfire of urban conflict and through militants’ use of civilians as human shields. Furthermore, an unknown number of civilians remain trapped in the city, either in hiding or because they were taken as hostages by Maute. A number of brief ceasefires have been negotiated to varying degrees of success. For instance, one such incident on June 4th allowed only 130, of an anticipated 1,000 trapped civilians, to escape the city before violence flared again. Military spokesman Jo-Ar Herrera attributed such difficulties to the fluid nature of the battlefield, which makes the differentiation between conflict zones and possible civilian hideouts near impossible, thereby heightening the risk of further civilian casualties. Local politicians, Norodin Lucman and Zia Adiong, have described the situation of those still trapped in the city as desperate, with food and water in short supply, while the mass torching of buildings by jihadists has decimated a large proportion of homes and businesses in the city.
Such indiscriminate destruction of Marawi has served to worsen the plight of the estimated 300,000 internally displaced individuals from the city and its surrounding areas. With many facing no prospect of returning to intact homes and neighbourhoods, the temporary evacuation camps are likely to become permanent places of precarious residence for thousands long after the conflict ends.
Conditions in such evacuation camps, the majority of which are located in the neighbouring city of Iligan, are generally poor and subject to overcrowding. Cramped conditions and a lack of essential resources have led to a dangerous spread of disease, while the impact of the conflict on the mental well-being of the displaced population can only be speculated.
Though only around 80 jihadists remain holed up in a small province of the city, the army is struggling to bring the conflict to a close. Meanwhile, as a result of the belligerent ideology of the insurgents, the likelihood of a non-violent resolution being negotiated appears small, with militants rejecting numerous invitations to surrender in favour of a fanatically religious intent to fight until extermination. However, the authorities can take steps to de-escalate the levels of violence in the city by diversifying their approach, such as by suppressing supply lines of resources and weapons to the militants, which would reduce the intensity of conflict and strangulate the remaining belligerents. This would not only decrease the human cost of the conflict, but would also go help to protect the structural integrity of the city that has been so damaged by bombing campaigns. With that said, the volumes of displaced individuals must be a humanitarian priority, and a concerted effort must be made to ensure that temporary evacuation camps do not evolve into dangerously rudimentary long-term homes for thousands.
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