When Marawi Becomes a Frontline

“What better way to convey the complexity to us than through stories?”

This is the first of several columns on the book Marawi Siege: Stories from the Front Lines by Carmela S. Fonbuena. It is a riveting and comprehensive account of the siege of Marawi in May 2017. I encourage my readers to get the book and read it. Indeed, when I got mine, I could not put it down and finished a first reading on the same day.

The Marawi siege evokes images of armed black-clad Maute and Abu Sayyaf fighters, who have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State, descending upon the Islamic city with the aim of establishing an Islamic State wilayat; visions of displaced civilians running away from the armed confrontations between state forces and the Islamic linked fighters; images of hapless hostages who were killed and who survived; the carnage of hundreds of casualties from among the combatants and non-combatants alike; and the destruction of the once scenic city of Marawi.

The book gives us an on the ground view of the historic battle from the perspective of those involved and those affected. It also attempts to find some answers to many questions about the siege although many of these questions may not have straightforward answers. What caused the failure of intelligence that enabled the Islamists to occupy the city undetected? Why did the President declare martial law immediately? How many militants were involved? What happened to the residents who didn’t escape the battle area? What will happen now to the civilians whose homes and means of livelihood have been destroyed? How can Islamist groups and other similar terror groups be prevented from rising again in the future? What are the underlying causes that led to the outbreak of the siege?

In her book, Carmela S. Fonbuena, a journalist for 17 years, and who has followed the defense and security establishment, takes us to the ground, from the beginning until the end of the painful war that exacted a high human cost and resulted in massive destruction. Then a senior reporter for Rappler, she was among the first journalists on the scene, leading the news website’s coverage of the historic battle. Recently, Fonbuena was selected executive director of the prestigious Philippine Center for Investigative Journalism.

In her introduction to the book, Marites Vitug writes about how Fonbuena dispels the fog of war, making us see clearly not only through the soldiers’ lens but also those of the hostages, displaced civilians, local government officials, extremists who left the fold, and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) which was then on the brink of a political settlement with the national government after years of protracted negotiations.

Marawi Siege provides the context to this war, showing us that what happened in Marawi is a symptom of a deeper malaise. It was not an isolated case. Change Marawi to Basilan, Sulu, or Zamboanga. The terrorist groups were militarily defeated, but the intractable problems that they have capitalized on continue to plague not only Marawi but other parts of Mindanao: poverty, inequity, discrimination against Muslims, and intolerance.

What better way to convey this complexity to us than through stories, Carmela’s eyewitness accounts as well as her vivid reconstruction of events?

The book starts with a prologue, followed by 23 chapters divided into seven parts, each one looking at critical events or issues raised during the siege. In the prologue, the book narrates clashes in Bohol Island a month before the siege of Marawi to establish an overview of police and military operations against pro-Islamic State groups in the Philippines. Part One tells the story behind the raid on Hapilon on May 23, 2017, and how the siege began. Part Two shows the valor of troops, who pushed on despite challenges they faced in the unfamiliar urban terrain. Part Three details what the government knew before the siege and the military’s admission of its failure to appreciate available information. Part Four goes back in time to show the rise of Islamic-linked groups in the country. Part Five focuses on the suffering of civilians while they waited for battles to end. Part Six shows the military gaining momentum in the battlefield in the final months towards the “Liberation” of the city.

The narratives in the book mainly followed the military, but civilian perspectives were added as much as possible to show the impact of military decisions on the lives of the people. To understand what drove the conflict, this book relied on interviews with four Maute Group fighters, a teacher who rejected an overture from the group, and the rich literature on the growth of the Islamic State influence in the Philippines.

I have known Fonbuena for more than a decade. In 2007, I was a member of the panel of judges when she won first prize in the Jaime Ongpin Awards for Excellence in Journalism. Subsequently, we worked together on environmental issues and even edited a mining book together. In writing this book, she is motivated to share the lessons of the Marawi siege, so we – as a society – can respond better to the challenges that led to the siege and most likely result in its repeat in the future.

Visit this website to access the article.

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