Life doubly harder in Marawi shelters as coronavirus grounds aid groups

Marawi residents find it hard to follow precautions against the novel coronavirus disease when relief goods are limited and water trucks are reducing trips. Local authorities say they do not have enough resources to feed the people for an extended period. They need outside help.


RESIDENTS trooped to the small mosque at Area 1 Temporary Shelter in Marawi City’s Sagonsongan village for the Friday prayers on March 27. They were aware they were violating instructions from the barangay chairman to observe physical distancing, a precaution against the highly contagious novel coronavirus disease that has killed at least three fellow Maranaos.

“They prayed side by side, but they were all wearing masks,” said Saipoding Mariga Mangotara, one of about 17,000 Marawi residents still living in shelters three years after the siege that flattened the city center and destroyed their homes.

The mosque-goers had a plea to Allah. They prayed for the virus to go away so that quarantine measures, which had made life even more difficult, would end.

The disease has killed over 50,000 and infected more than a million people around the world by the first week of April. The Philippines confirmed more than a hundred deaths and over 3,000 infections during the same period, but experts said the country’s poor testing rate means there are thousands more undetected cases.

Marawi City Mayor Majul Gandamra ordered all village chiefs to strictly impose “enhanced community quarantine” measures on March 19, grounding Mangotara and his neighbors inside their 24-square-meter homes.

Quarantine measures such as military and police checkpoints have hurt people’s livelihoods, including those of about 1,500 tricycle drivers and an undetermined number of “pedicab traders” who earned their living going around barangays to sell fish and vegetables.

They’re no longer allowed to go outside the shelters to earn money to buy food. Those who do have money have found it difficult to pass through checkpoints to reach the markets. There are sari-sari stores, but residents are afraid the owners will soon shut them down to keep the supply for their own families.

“We’re like chickens in a coop. We can’t get out. It’s hard because we’re running out of food. We don’t have income. We can’t buy,” said Mangotara.

Residents at the shelter got food packs from the local government, but a few kilos of rice and canned goods would last only a few days. Private donations, which have helped them get by since their displacement in 2017, have arrived in trickles since the quarantine. Even feeding programs have stopped because of crowding.

Saipoding Mariga Mangotara and wife Geraldine inside their home at Area 1 temporary shelter in Marawi City’s Sagonsongan village. File photo: Carmela Fonbuena

No more fieldwork

The quarantine has grounded most, if not all, aid and development groups operating in Marawi City, even if they’re exempted from the lockdown measures along with health workers and other emergency front liners. Task Force Bangon Marawi field office manager Felix Castro Jr., who oversees activities in the shelters, said there were no requests from the usual groups and foundations to visit the shelters lately.

Marawi residents have been asking for assistance but it’s hard for everyone to move, said Charlito Manlupig, chairman of Balay Mindanaw Foundation, an organization helping communities in Marawi and other parts of Mindanao.

“There’s zero movement among the different aid groups, as far as I know. Almost all partner international agencies have pulled out. No one is allowed to do field work,” Manlupig said.  

It’s a challenge for many temporary shelters, evacuation sites, and vulnerable communities throughout the Philippines that rely on aid groups and foundations.

“I can confirm that though not ended, most of our field activities have been significantly reduced due to the pandemic,” said Allison Lopez, spokesperson for the local chapter of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

Lopez said the ICRC felt it was important to take precautionary measures to make sure its staff would not inadvertently bring the virus to vulnerable communities.

That meant postponing projects such as cash-for-work programs in Lanao del Sur and Zamboanga del Sur, as well as the distribution of food and household items to displaced people in Agusan del Sur. “These three projects alone cover 1,000 people,” said Lopez.

It’s the same at Oxfam Philippines. Humanitarian manager Rhoda Avila said they, too, have suspended field work for two weeks since the lockdown.

Oxfam was able to install handwashing facilities in some areas before the lockdown, but was forced to postpone a project to install water pump facilities in a conflict community in Maguindanao.

Families in transitory shelters in Marawi City put up sari-sari stores to augment their income.
File photo: Carmela Fonbuena

Scared of disease and hunger

Authorities have vowed to protect the Marawi shelters in case of a wider outbreak. Asnin Pendatun, cabinet secretary of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region for Muslim Mindanao, said they were closely watching Lanao del Sur, where Marawi City is located, because it had the most number of COVID-19 infections.

All six cases in the region as of March 31 were residents of Marawi City and Lanao del Sur. Three elderly cases have died, two were admitted to the Amai Pakpak Medical Center in Marawi, and one was quarantined at home.

This graphics is posted the Facebook page of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao Interagency Task Force on COVID-19.

But authorities were still tracking attendees of a religious gathering in Malaysia from Feb. 27 to March 1, which was linked to clusters of coronavirus cases in Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei, Pendatun said. There were at least 10 attendees from Lanao del Sur.

Zia Alonto Adiong, Bangsamoro parliament member and spokesperson for the Lanao del Sur COVID-19 task force, said they were wary of undetected cases in the province. “The scarcity of test kits is a problem. We don’t know the exact number of cases, who they are, and where they are. We don’t have the data. It definitely affects the degree of response of the local government units,” he said.

Adiong was worried about asymptomatic cases, too. “They might look healthy but they are carriers of the disease. There has to be mass testing,” he said.

Displaced residents are equally scared.

In March, occupants of Bahay Pag-asa shelters in Buadi Itowa village became agitated. A resident had just returned from Metro Manila – the epicenter of coronavirus outbreak in the country – and developed a fever.

People knew she had been to Greenhills Shopping Center in San Juan, the site of the first known cases of local transmission, and feared she had brought the virus to their community. Panicked residents sent her to Amai Pakpak Medical Center. She later tested negative.

“We were really scared. We thought she caught the disease. There was a misunderstanding. We were all relieved to learn she had tested negative,” said Johanna Abdelfattah, a resident who also serves as community organizer for Balay Mindanaw Foundation.

Hunger is a force much stronger than the virus, however. Two weeks into the quarantine, fears of getting infected were overshadowed by a problem literally closer to the gut – how to get food on the table.

Some have turned fatalistic. “People here say we will die when Allah says it’s our time to die,” said Mangotara.

LGU’s burden

To make the quarantine work, it’s important to guarantee residents they will get food, water, medicines and other necessities, Balay Mindanaw area manager Charmaine Mae Dagapioso Baconga said.

“The people are scared. The people are bored. It’s hard to control their movements. Some people are complaining because it’s really been hard. They’re afraid to get the disease, but they also worry about their livelihood,” said Baconga.

Mayor Gandamra said the city would not be able to feed its people for an extended period without outside help.

“Definitely, we cannot sustain the distribution of food packs if coronavirus drags on and the quarantine measures are extended. We are not the same as the cities in Metro Manila. We are not like Quezon City that has billions of pesos in income,” he said.

Transitional Shelter Sites, as of April 2, 2020

For a population of about 200,000 people, Marawi City only has P2.5 million in its calamity fund each month, which translates to about P870,000 in emergency funds it can spend for coronavirus response. “We’ve been spending way beyond [our budget]. Fortunately, we still have savings,” Gandamra said.

The Bangsamoro regional government has sent food packs to indigents and persons under investigation (PUIs) and persons under monitoring (PUMs) for the disease, hoping to keep them in their homes. “We are coordinating with the province to be able to deliver food packs in batches,” said Pendatun.

As for the national government, the Department of Budget and Management said on April 2 that P100 billion had been released for the distribution of cash aid to poor families all over the country.

Gandamra said city officials were still checking the guidelines to see if residents in the shelters were qualified, as not all of them were beneficiaries of cash transfers under the Pantawid Pamilyang Pilipino Program.

Gandamra and Adiong were counting on private aid groups to find a way to continue assistance to displaced residents of Marawi.

Rice, water supply, medicines

The mayor hopes donors prioritize rice, as fears of a shortage have made it difficult to stockpile on the staple.

“There are provinces that do not want other local government units to buy from them. They are keeping their supply for their own people. We understand they’re protecting themselves, but there will be areas that will not have rice if the situation gets worse,” Gandamra said.

Water supply was always a problem, but coronavirus has made it worse. Water trucks that used to fill up their tanks were reducing trips lately, making it harder for residents to follow hygiene rules and handwashing instructions, Mangotara and Abdelfattah said.

Castro said there was a temporary disruption because the Marawi task force had to issue clearances to let truck drivers pass through checkpoints in Iligan, where many of them lived. He said water distribution would continue, but admitted that supply was not always enough.

There are water pumps in Sagonsongan and Bahay Pag-asa, but Abdelfattah said the queues were often long and supply was unreliable. The pumps broke down frequently because of overuse, she said.

While rains have allowed residents to collect water, they are also a cause of illnesses. “The sun is out one minute, then it rains the next. It’s hot, then cold. People have asked for medicines at the first sign of colds or fever because they’re afraid it might be coronavirus. The barangay has run out of supply,” said Abdelfattah.

Now that dry season has arrived, water pumps are badly needed as there are no rains to augment water supply. Balay Mindanao was unable to transport water pump facilities for communal gardens at Bahay Pag-asa because of the suspension of domestic air travel, Abdelfattah said.

Abdelfattah knew her neighbors envied her because she had a job at the foundation. “I tell them I will not hesitate if it’s in my power to make their lives better. But I also have to be careful with what I say to them because I cannot give them false hopes. I can only do so much right now,” she said.

Three years since the siege, displaced Marawi residents were still struggling to rise again. Coronavirus is poised to set back gains they have made.

“Coronavirus has made our lives doubly harder… I hope none of us will get it. I cannot imagine what’s going to happen to us.”

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Carmela Fonbuena is a freelance journalist based in Manila. Follow her on Twitter (@carmelafonbuena) or email her at [email protected] for comments.

NUJP condemns Army’s attempt to bar reporter from covering Marawi protest

Indeed, it is for those in authority, particularly the armed services, to observe proper decorum as any misstep could result in grievous harm not only to journalists but to all other citizens of this land.

March 31, 2018

We have long been under the impression that Colonel Romeo Brawner was one of those who fit the definition of an “officer and gentleman.”

Regretfully, he has just disabused us with his non-sequitur on the attempted eviction of journalist and National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) member Kath Cortez from covering the March 30 protest of Marawi residents seeking to return to their homes inside the shattered city’s main battle area by an Army officer who also sought to have our colleague’s identification documents and equipment confiscated.

In a statement, Brawner, the deputy commander of Joint Task Force Marawi, tried to justify the officer’s action as having been “influenced by the fact that leftist and non-Muslim organizations attempted to infiltrate the ranks of the legitimate Maranao internally displaced persons (IDPs) reportedly to agitate the peace-loving rallyists to become aggressive and even violent.”

We are sure our Meranaw brethren who participated in the protest can and will respond to Brawner’s claims.

But even if the good colonel’s allegation of “infiltration” were true, how does it explain the officer’s clear reaction to seeing Cortez’s ID?

“Uy, taga-Davao. Kumpiskahin ang ID! Kumpiskahin ang camera! Palabasin ‘yan ng Marawi!”

(Hey, she’s from Davao! Confiscate her ID! Confiscate her camera! Get her out of Marawi!)

This, to our mind, had nothing to do with any imagined infiltration or instigation and everything to do with a deliberate effort to prevent Cortez from covering a public event of national significance, even to the point of physically booting her out of Marawi.

That Brawner links this incident to his theory of infiltration is misguided at best and, worse, could actually endanger our colleagues by implying that security forces’ suspicions are enough reason for them to suppress journalists from coverage and/or subject them to clearly unconstitutional acts like confiscation of their property and arbitrary eviction, which not even martial law justifies.

Nevertheless, we welcome Brawner’s assurance that the 103rd Brigade “is now investigating this incident and will remind all army personnel in Marawi, of the proper decorum during events such as this.”

Indeed, it is for those in authority, particularly the armed services, to observe proper decorum as any misstep could result in grievous harm not only to journalists but to all other citizens of this land.

Lift martial law in Mindanao now, Moro groups urge Duterte

Moro groups called for the immediate lifting of martial law in Mindanao and the pull-out of both Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and United States troops following President Rodrigo Duterte’s declaration of the liberation of Marawi City after five months of fighting.

In a statement Thursday, Tindeg Ranao and Suara Bangsamoro said they find it ironic that Duterte has already declared the city’s liberation from the Isis-inspired Maute group earlier this week

“Their (AFP and US military) continued presence, legitimized by the imposition of martial law in Mindanao and their so-called role as architects of Marawi’s rehabilitation, conveniently glosses over the myriad of violations that the military itself has perpetrated,” the groups said.

Duterte announced Marawi’s liberation on his seventh visit to the besieged city October 17, three days shy of five months of brutal fighting and aerial bombing.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from the terrorist influence that marks the beginning of rehabilitation,” Duterte told AFP troops Wednesday.

The AFP however said Marawi has yet to be completely cleared of Maute fighters centered on an area less than a hectare in size near Lake Lanao.

National Defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana also preempted Duterte Monday, saying there is still no decision on the lifting of martial law.

“We are going to assess the entire situation in Mindanao, and we will make our recommendation to the President in due time,” Lorenzana told reporters.

Tindeg Ranao and Suara Bangsamoro urged for the establishment of an independent body to probe reports of human rights violations in line with the conduct of military operations in Marawi.

The groups said the government should be held responsible for the death and displacement of Marawi residents and the destruction of their communities due to the intensive aerial bombardment.

They added that the rampant divestment and destruction of properties in Marawi, alongside the grave humanitarian situation in evacuation centers should not be dismissed following Duterte’s announcement.

“Tindeg Ranao and Suara Bangsamoro stressed the Duterte regime’s accountability in the destruction of Marawi and the displacement of thousands of its residents,” they said.

The groups said that the policies and actions undertaken by the government have undermined efforts to resolve conflict in Moro areas, and have instead aggravated abuses.

They also warned about further resistance from the Moro people amid Marawi’s destruction and prevailing humanitarian crisis in evacuation centers around the city and in neighboring provinces.

“The Moro people are further pushed to fight against [Duterte’s] fascist policies,” the groups said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

Journalists slam bill wanting jail time for generic use of the word ‘Lanao’

The National Union of Journalists of the Philippines (NUJP) slammed a bill at the House of Representatives wanting to jail journalists who generically use the word “Lanao” to refer to both Lanao del Norte and Lanao del Sur Provinces.

In a position paper, the group “strongly urge[d] the House Committee on Public Information to reject Lanao del Norte 1st District Rep. Mohamad Khalid Q. Dimaporo’s House Bill 4780 proposing jail time of up to six years and fines of up to P100,000 for journalists if they fail to distinguish between the Lanao provinces in their reports.

“If passed, the bill would violate Article III, Section 4 of the 1987 Philippine Constitution, to wit: ‘No law shall be passed abridging the freedom of speech, of expression, or of the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and petition the government for redress of grievances,’” NUJP said.

At a House hearing last last week, Dimaporo said Iligan City and Lanao del Norte suffer whenever reports use the generic name “Lanao” when these refer to Lanao del Sur because of the ongoing conflict in Marawi City.

“We lose potential investors because they think that Lanao del Norte is also involved in the ongoing war in our southern neighbor,” Dimaporo explained.

The Kapisanan ng mga Brodkaster ng Pilipinas (KBP) in the same hearing also opposed the measure.

“Such practice is only probably due to space and time limitations and not malice,” the KBP representative said.

Dimaporo admitted during the hearing he failed to consider talking first to journalists and media outfits before filing his bill.

The NUJP said Congress should not readily craft laws punishing journalists, adding good journalism could not be legislated.

“Because journalism, while a profession, is also an extension of the right to free expression in the service of the people’s right to know, we believe it is the duty of the state to encourage and support good journalism instead of seeking to craft laws that would only serve to stifle or force into conformity the freedom of the press and of expression,” the NUJP said.

The Union also took exception to Iloilo Rep. Sharon Garin’s recommendation for a review of laws that may protect “bad journalists.”

“We maintain that no such laws exist, only laws that are invariably used to suppress good journalism, such as the criminal libel law,” the NUJP said.

“We reiterate our long-standing demand to decriminalize libel,” it added.

Citing other bills before the committee saying the Philippines is among the countries with the most number of media killings, NUJP said journalists need more laws to protect and promote – not suppress – good journalism and free expression. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)

NDFP offers help to fight terrorists anew

The National Democratic Front of the Philippines (NDFP) reiterated its previous declaration that it stands firmly with the Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) in opposing and fighting terrorism in the country.

In a statement, NDFP Negotiating Panel chairperson Fidel Agcaoil said it is willing to fight terrorist groups as well as acts of terrorism by the Maute, Abu Sayyaf and Ansar Al Khalifah Philippines (AKP) in parts of Mindanao, particularly in and around Marawi City where fighting has been raging for nearly four weeks already.

“As a matter of fundamental principle and constant policy, we condemn and combat terrorism. By terrorism, we mean actions that intimidate, terrorize, harm and murder civilians solely or mainly and in violation of human rights and international humanitarian law,” the NDFP said.

The NDFP said the three bands are “terrorist groups linked to local reactionary forces, affiliated with ISIS and supported by US-CIA and other foreign entities.”

The NDFP also said it has already instructed its allied organization, the Moro Resistance and Liberation Organization (MRLO), inside Marawi City to assume home defense tasks against the Maute, Abu Sayyaf and AKP groups.

It added the Communist Party of the Philippines (CPP) has also directed units of the New People’s Army (NPA) close to Marawi City to redeploy for the purpose of mopping up, holding and blocking operations, if necessary.

“The NDFP is ready to discuss and agree in detail with the GRP on how ceasefire, coordination and cooperation can be achieved in Marawi City by both forces unilaterally keeping safe distances between each other,” it said.

The NDFP said it has recommended to the CPP to order all other NPA units in Mindanao to refrain from carrying out offensive operations against the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) and Philippine National Police (PNP) to enable all forces to concentrate against the three terror groups.

It added that the GRP must also order the AFP and PNP to refrain from carrying out offensive operations against the NPA and its adjunct people’s militia to give chance for the coordination and cooperation to work against the terror groups.

The NDFP panel first offered help in fighting the Maute and Abu Sayyaf in Marawi last June 1,  a week after fighting broke out in the besieged city.

President Rodrigo Duterte said the NDFP’s proposal was a sign of goodwill but turned down the offer.

In offering to help fight the terror groups, the NDFP said it wants to allow the affected communities to return to normalcy as soon as possible.

“The rights and interests of the masses and communities must be respected and promoted,” it said, urging the GRP to ensure that the level of counteraction against terrorism, as well as the nature, scope and duration must be appropriate and proportional to the degree of danger, threat and/or harm and mayhem being committed by the terrorist groups in Marawi City.

“Upon the success of the counter-terrorist measures, these must cease in order to allow normalcy and full respect for human rights as soon as possible,” the NDFP said.

Yesterday, Lt. Col. Emmanuel Garcia, commander of the 4th Civil Relations Group told reporters the number of deaths has risen to 310, including government troops, terrorists and civilians.

GRP Department of Health secretary Paulyn Jean Ubial for her part said there are 218,551 people displaced by the fighting but only about 20,000 of them are staying in evacuation centers. # (Raymund B. Villanueva/Featured Image by Jaja Necosia-The Breakaway Media)


Duterte’s Mindanao-wide martial law is unjustified–Joma

PRESIDENT Rodrigo Duterte has no or little justification to declare martial law in the whole of Mindanao, National Democratic Front of the Philippines Chief Political Consultant Jose Maria Sison said.

After the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) announced the ongoing clash in Marawi City is a mere diversionary tactic by the Maute Group, Sison questioned if the invasion or rebellion is large enough to justify Duterte’s declaration.

“There is even an allegation the AFP made a ‘false flag operation’ to justify martial law,” Sison said.

Duterte reportedly declared martial law at five o’clock in the afternoon yesterday (10 pm, PH time) in Moscow to cover the entire Mindanao which will run for 60 days.

Warrantless arrests, imposition of curfew hours and other stringent security measures are to be implemented in connection to the declaration, reports said.

The reports said Duterte decided to cut short his state visit to Russia and is expected to fly back to the Philippines today.

National Defense secretary Delfin Lorenzana for his part also reportedly justified the inclusion of the entire region due to (security) problems in Zamboanga, Sulu and Tawi tawi, as well as in Central Mindanao with the Bangsamoro Islamic Freedom Fighters and the New People’s Army.

Sison warned Duterte not to be another Ferdinand Marcos and use the Marawi clashes as justification to declare martial law in the entire Philippines.

“Ganyan din ang ginawa noong 1971-1972 nang sinubukang disarmahan ang Kamorohan sa Marawi rin,” Sison said.

Sison said Marcos’ martial law left behind bitter memories of abhorrent abductions, torture, extrajudicial killings, incarceration of many civilians, evictions and forced evacuations as well as confiscation of land and property.

“Duterte is playing with fire if he thinks it is a solution to Philippine problems,” Sison said.

Earlier, Moro organization Suara Bangsamoro called on the AFP not to conduct aerial bombings in Marawi, fearing civilian lives and livelihood will become collateral damage.

“We have received reports that aerial and artillery bombing will be conducted by the state forces to eradicate the Maute Group in the city,” Suara Bangsamoro chairperson Jerome Succor Aba said.

Instead of putting the city under military siege, the leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), Moro National Liberation Front, and other religious leaders should talk to the Maute Group and come up with agreements to restore peace in the city, the group suggested.

“However, diplomatic talks between Moro leaders and the Maute Group will not prosper if the AFP will continue its military operations and bombings,” Aba said, adding that the Moro people in Mindanao is capable of solving this problem in a diplomatic way to avoid civilian casualties and human rights violations.

“We call on the Duterte Administration to address the peace instability through talks and diplomatic means,” Aba said.

Suara Bangsamoro said the Maute Group has ties with Islamic State (IS) militants and are frustrated with the direction the Moro’s struggles for self-determination are heading, forcing them towards IS.

“The establishment of a new caliphate and a global Islamic State has become an inspiring goal to the group because of the government’s insincerity and tokenism in resolving the core problems of the Moro people – inequity in the distribution of wealth and resources, government neglect to basic social services, lack of job opportunities, right to self-determination, among others,” Aba said.

Aba believes that the Maute Group is aware that the Philippine Government is not serious in implementing its agreements with the MILF and likened the situation with how The Tripoli Agreement with the MNLF has largely been ignored in the past.

Meanwhile, the Maute Group has taken over a hospital and burned a cathedral and a school since it derailed an AFP police operation at two o’clock yesterday afternoon, sources said.

The main building, science laboratories and library of the Protestant-owned Dansalan College were burned down while professors and students are trapped elsewhere in campus as exit points were blocked by both AFP and Maute troopers, United Church of Christ in the Philippines pastor Juliet Solis said.

Dr. Fedilinda Tawagon, Dansalan College president, asked for a helicopter rescue for the trapped victims, Solis added.

Marawi’s main road is also being controlled by black-clad men with high powered assault rifles, reports said. # (Raymund B. Villanueva)