Dispatches from the warzone: a university student’s firsthand account of what happened in Marawi

Art by Gian Nicdao


You’ve heard the stories. Of classrooms ridden with bullet holes, of children dismissing the sound of explosions the same way you’d ignore the sound of an airplane flying by. For the Maranaos of Marawi, Lanao del Sur, this was the reality from May to October 2017, when armed terrorists launched attacks on the city. The Marawi siege left the lakeside town in ruins, with more than 400,000 residents displaced from their homes.  


[READ: Saved You A Google: #PrayForMarawi and martial law in Mindanao]


A warzone is the last place a student, or child should be brought up, and admittedly, it can be difficult for people living in Manila (or anywhere miles away) to grasp just how difficult a situation it really is. This is why we partnered with Teach Peace Build Peace Movement (TPBPM) — an organization that aims to make the youth peace builders through peace education — to gather stories from young people living in conflict areas. Our first installment is a harrowing account of the Marawi Siege, in the words of a graduating student from Mindanao State University.


Walida Azis is a 21-year-old BS Psychology student, and she is also a part of TPBPM’s Lanao Circle. Here, she shares a first-hand account of what went down the night the Marawi siege broke out, and gives us a glimpse of what the situation is like for IDPs (internally displaced persons) two years later.


I was raised in a small barrio, in a community that lives harmoniously. On a typical day, as you walked down the street, everyone you’d meet would smile and greet you “salaam!’ You would see children chasing each other, playing biko, patintero, and Chinese garter. Their parents, meanwhile, would be busy gardening their front yards, raising vegetables and colorful flowers. Among families, a routine bonding activity was to make palapa, a common side dish in Meranao cuisine that most of us can’t do without in our every meal, even when we were far away from home.

In my community, we treated each other like family. It was normal for us to offer food to our neighbors, especially when we’d make food on special occasions. We watched over their homes when they were away, even taking care of their kids and grandparents left at home.

See, we truly lived in peace. Perhaps the only thing in our community that occasionally marred that peace is the so-called rido, or family feud, a social custom that either strengthens or destroys our families. So accustomed are we to it that the gunshots we hear as a consequence of rido have already become normal for us. We would think “Ah! It’s [just] rido. Better not butt in, because it’s their feud.” We would rather not interfere, because our family wouldn’t want to get involved in it. Instead, we put our faith in Allah and our local Datus to settle clan conflict. Other than that, though, it was a peaceful community.  No thieves, murderers, gangs, or rapists.

We Meranaos are also known to be brave and protective of our kin. Mess with one of us, and you would find trouble with our entire clans. Befriend us, and you’d find that we can be the most loving people you’d ever meet. That’s how we lived as Meranaos — in tranquility. It was in May 2017, just a few days before Ramadan, the Holiest Month for us Muslims, when all that changed.

Walida with her classmates after learning that they passed a major subject after the siege broke out.

I was living in a cottage in Mindanao State University, where I was on my second year of BS Psychology. At the time, I was stressed over my final exam for the most difficult major subject I ever had. Then I began to receive messages with reports of an exchange of gunfire in downtown Marawi, warning that we should stay within the university campus to be safe. We didn’t take it seriously because we were accustomed to hearing gunshots because of rido. It was only later when we found out that the threat was beyond what we expected — that black flags had been raised in conquered buildings, establishments were burnt, as a battle raged between local terrorists and the government troops that tried to stop them.

By 7:00 p.m., I was still studying for my exam. My family, who at the time lived 30 minutes away in Balindong, was so worried about me. They tirelessly searched for ways to get me out of the vicinity of the war zone. Still preoccupied with my studies, I said no. I said I couldn’t go home because I had an exam the next morning.

A while later I received messages saying that the local terrorist group was already planning to enter the university and behead all the Christians they met, and that they already took Father Chito, a local Christian priest, hostage. Hearing this, I took a break from my studies and observed my surroundings. I saw my cottagemates over the phone talking to their parents. Some were crying out of fear, some had already packed their things, planning to leave the next morning. It was then that it finally sunk in for me, that this thing was not just a rido, that the war nobody ever expected or wanted to happen here had begun.


I thought of my non-Muslim friends, knowing thay they must be terrified of the news. I immediately sent each of them the kalima shahada, which read “there is no God but Allah, and the Prophet Muhammad is the last messenger of Allah.” I told them to recite it so they would be prepared to answer and pass as Muslims if they ever met any of the terrorists.


I thought of my non-Muslim friends, knowing thay they must be terrified of the news. I immediately sent each of them the kalima shahada, which read “there is no God but Allah, and the Prophet Muhammad is the last messenger of Allah.” I told them to recite it so they would be prepared to answer and pass as Muslims if they ever met any of the terrorists. I composed stories they could tell, should the terrorists still suspect them because of their accent, such as pretending that they were reverts to Islam, were half Meranaos, or they grew up in a non-Muslim area. My roommates and I also packed our own things, and slept wearing our veils and shoes, prepared to run if there ever was an attack. The next morning, and on my way to my aunt’s home, I dropped by my friends’ cottages to distribute my extra veils, so they could cover their hair on their way home.

I was trapped inside the university for five days after the battle broke out. We watched the students evacuate, with only a number of families opting to stay on campus. Power was cut shortly after the beginning of the battle, and there was a food shortage. During our free time while inside, we watched the airstrikes on Marawi from a distance, counting the number of missiles dropped in the war zone.

“We had our Structured Learning Experiences, parang a Mental Health and Psychosocial Support (MHPSS) After that, we had to provide MHPSS to student IDPs of MSU Senior High and other schools in Marawi.”

When I was safely out, I volunteered in various organizations conducting humanitarian aid for the IDPs of Marawi. Over the course of our operations, I witnessed firsthand how devastating it was for people who were survivors of war. I watched from a distance as our home, once so peaceful and harmonious, was burnt to ashes. Many of us lost hope even when the battle was over, as we saw our home in ruins.

Rehabilitation of the most affected areas has still been delayed. In terms of infrastructure, there is much to be done. The IDPs are recovering, but the consequences of the siege make it hard for them. Their day-to-day problems include the lack of food, having to live in worn-out tents, the need for their children to be sent to school, and the lack of financial support for their daily needs. Living in a cramped environment with these kinds of problems has even affected their health — many experience constant headaches and vomiting.

Yet, in our hopelessness, there were people who reached out to us, and made us feel that we were not alone in our struggle to regain our homes, our peace. Through their efforts, we began to hope again. To dream. They taught us the importance of fostering peace, especially within ourselves, during those times of hardship. Through these selfless individuals, we were able to heal, and renew our resolve to do the same for our fellow strugglers. Now, we are on the forefront of providing peace, through education, to our own people.



Learn more about the Teach Peace Build Peace Movement here.

#politics #religion #self

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