Hell Breaks Loose in Marawi

“Here are excerpts from a most engaging book on the 2017 siege.”

The following are excerpts from the book by Carmela S. Fonbuena “Marawi Siege: Stories from the Frontlines” chronicling the battle for the City of Marawi that involved the largest military operation of the Philippine Armed Forces in recent memory. The book weaves the events before, during, and after the battle, and gives an account of the heroism of the soldiers on the ground, interviews with some jihadists who survived, and hostages and residents who had to run for their lives.

The siege begins at 2:18 pm 23 May 2017.

“At the corner of the street, a group of elite soldiers in full battle gear dismounted from three vans. Two boys on the narrow strip stopped dribbling their basketball, frozen as they stared at the troops. Soldiers were a common sight in Marawi City, which hosts Kampo Ranao . . . But it was likely the children’s first time to see troops from the Light Reaction Regiment (LRR). Each one, from the commander to the lowest-ranking soldier, wore a helmet and tactical vest. Each one carried a special rifle and other equipment they would rather not divulge. The company commander went by the name ‘Azalea.’ Azalea’s team had been in Marawi for more than a month. As Lanao del Sur was increasingly becoming a concern, they were deployed to hunt down followers of the international jihadist organization Islamic State. They raided in April a Maute Group training camp in Piagapo, a town neighboring Marawi City, killing two militant leaders and at least three foreign fighters they coddled.

“The raid involved around a hundred soldiers. If this was like previous raids Azalea’s team had led, the soldiers estimated they would be back in Kampo Ranao in two hours. Azalea scanned the narrow street to search for the safe house that matched the description he was provided. He was told it was a blue apartment-type house with a black gate. But there was no blue house and there was no black gate. The house in the middle of the street looked like a safe house. The snipers took their positions and assaulters prepared to barge in. On Azalea’s signal, a small explosion forced the gate wide open. Soldiers rushed into the house, parting laundry hanging on overlapping clothes lines, as they made their way to the first floor. The guns were on the floor, but there was no living soul in the room. They moved towards the second floor, a kitchen and that’s when heavy exchange of gunfire ensued.

“Bodies crashed to the floor. The enemies threw an improvised grenade; shrapnel ricocheted off the walls and ceiling.

“The military had been hunting down Hapilon for decades in his lairs in the island of Basilan, far away from Marawi City. He was an original member of the country’s most violent and most enduring terrorist armed group, the Abu Sayyaf Group. It was formed in the 1990’s by Middle East trained scholar Abdujarak Janjalani, a former member of the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), once leading separatist organization in Mindanao that signed in 1996 a landmark final peace agreement that would thrust founder Nur Misuari to become governor of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (ARMM).”

Fonbuena describes the first battle in a way that the reader can visualize and hear what happened that day:

“One, two, three, four, five more assaulters rushed into the safe house. The exchange of gunfire grew louder. Two soldiers lay dead on the floor. A soldier rushed out of the safe house, carrying a colleague on his shoulder. Many were wounded. It was clear that the enemies were prepared for the raid. While one group of soldiers exchanged gunfire with the occupants of the safe house, another moved to gather their casualties at a designated collection point in an adjacent house.

“The situation escalated around 4 p.m., when the neighbors started sniping at troops. Watching the enemies exchange gunfire with the armored vehicles, Azalea was stunned by their grit. ‘They were very daring,’ he said. Troops couldn’t pull out the bodies of two dead soldiers from the safe house because of the heavy volume of gunfire.

“They couldn’t move the armored vehicle anymore. Azalea requested for another one to evacuate the casualties. When the request seemed to be taking long, he snapped over the radio. He couldn’t understand why the armored vehicle had not arrived. Was there a mission more important than theirs?

“Buddy, it’s not just us. Other troops are also engaged,” he was told on the radio. From the safe house, Azalea and his men had been hearing gunshots and explosions erupting elsewhere in the city.

“‘We weren’t the priority mission anymore. Something bigger was going on,’ said Azalea.

“Hell has come to Marawi, a city as iconic and beautiful as our most important cities. The siege has begun.”

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