Philippine civilians caught in crossfire between ISIS-backed rebels and government

(Credit: ICRC / R. Ang)

As the fourth week of conflict rages on between Islamic State-affiliated militants and the Philippine military for the southern city of Marawi, humanitarian agencies are scrambling to care for the flood of evacuees who have fled the devastation.

According to authorities, an estimated 300 to 500 civilians remain trapped in the city, which the military believes are being held hostage as ‘human shields’ for the rebels. Another nearly 325,000 residents of Marawi have fled the city since fighting began. Many are sheltering in overcrowded temporary evacuation centers, where there is limited access to food, clean water and sanitation.

With rainy season about to set in, their needs are “immense and growing by the day,” aid workers warned. But evacuees are likely to face prolonged displacement, as it appears both sides have dug in for a protracted battle over the largest Muslim-majority city in a country that is 90 percent Christian.

After the fighting began on May 23, President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law for 60 days on the entire island of Mindanao.

According to reports, the military’s daily air raids have destroyed much of the city’s infrastructure. But Maute group, which has sworn allegiance to the Islamic State (IS), and the Abu Sayyaf faction led by Isnilon Hapilon – IS’s emir in the Philippines – have retained control of a piece of the city center. There, hundreds of civilians remain, according to the military.

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Trapped in the conflict zone, these civilians are beyond the reach of aid organizations that have been attempting to secure a humanitarian corridor. Regional authorities have been able to only evacuate trapped residents from areas cleared by the military.

“The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) has unfortunately not been able to secure a humanitarian corridor (or) ceasefire,” Tomoko Matzusawa, head of ICRC’s Marawi operations and response, wrote in an email to Humanosphere. Matsusawa said ICRC had been requesting such a safe zone since fighting broke out. “We were not able to secure the necessary green light from all parties to the conflict to proceed as neutral intermediary.”

However, ICRC and other humanitarian groups are coordinating with authorities from the provincial capitol, providing essential supplies like water and helping transport residents out of the city. According to the government, 95 percent of the evacuees have sought refuge with family and friends. However, the rest – more than 16,000 internally displaced persons (IDPs) – are staying in evacuation centers.

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Matzusawa noted that although this is not the first time Marawi has experienced hostilities of this nature, “the places that serve as evacuation centers for people displaced by the fighting in Marawi were not prepared to host such a large number of people.”

The centers are struggling to provide sufficient access to clean water and sanitation for all the evacuees, increasing the risk of water-borne and communicable diseases, particularly among children and the elderly. Overcrowding and rainy season only worsens these conditions.

“Now that people have been displaced for nearly one month, it is important to closely monitor the health situation in evacuation centers,” Matzusawa added.

Authorities also suspect that some militants that have escaped the city may be among the evacuees, posing as civilians. However, Matzusawa said they “have not encountered serious security concerns in evacuation centers.”

To alleviate some of the overcrowding, the governor of Mindanao, Mujiv Hataman, announced yesterday that his government is looking into setting up “tent cities” for evacuees, who will likely remain displaced even after the fighting ceases.

“They may not have homes to return to,” he said.

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About Author

Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.

  • Brian Stump

    Unfortunately, the civilians are right where ISIS wants them.