Like a scene lifted out of a combat film, perilous civilian exodus out of war-torn city.
- Civilians warned of imminent military assault
- Starvation and devastation, with rotting bodies and debris
- Foreign militants aiding local fighters
Islamist terror attacks and hostility to Christianity by Islamic extremists are reported almost daily, which is why the news of how some Muslims shielded Christians in a bold exodus from the Philippines city of Marawi is all the more remarkable.
More than 160 civilians walked out of besieged Marawi just after dawn on Saturday, deceiving Islamist fighters they encountered by hiding the identity of the many Christians among them.
The risky exodus took place in the wake of text message warnings that a major assault by Philippines aircraft and ground troops was imminent in the centre of the southern city, where some 250 militants and more than 2,000 civilians were trapped.
“There’s this plan to bomb the whole city if ISIS don’t agree to the demands of the government,” Norodin Alonto Lucman told Reuters, referring to local and foreign fighters who have sworn allegiance to the ultra-radical Islamic State.
Lucman is a prominent former politician and traditional clan leader who gave refuge to 71 people, including more than 50 Christians, in his home during the battle that flared up on May 23 in the town of more than 200,000 on the southern island of Mindanao.
“We had a tip from the general commander that we should go out,” said Leny Paccon, who sheltered 54 people in her home, including 44 Christians. “When I got the text, immediately we go out…about 7 o’clock.”
By then, Lucman and his group had begun their escape march from another area, holding white flags and moving briskly.
“As we walked, others joined us,” he told reporters. “We had to pass through a lot of snipers.”
Some of the civilians were stopped and asked if there were any Christians among them, said Jaime Daligdig, a Christian construction worker.
“We shouted ‘Allahu akbar’,” he told Reuters, adding that thanks to that Muslim rallying cry they were allowed to pass.
Those who fled included teachers from Dansalan College, a Protestant school torched on the first day of the battle.
Lucman said that many of those trapped were on the brink of starvation, which also gave them the impetus to leave.
He described a scene of devastation in the town centre, where the streets were strewn with rotting bodies and debris. “I almost puked as we were walking,” he said, estimating that there were more than 1,000 dead.
Official government estimates recorded 120 militants, 38 government forces and 20 civilians as dead on Saturday.
Lucman and Paccon said militants had knocked on their doors while they sheltered the terrified Christians. They shooed them away saying there were women and children inside.
Adding to the perilous situation, both said they were within 100 metres of militant command posts.
Resident Asnaira Asis said militants knocked on her door too, offering money or food if she handed over her 11-year-old son. “They wanted him to be a fighter,” she told Reuters after joining the morning exodus. “I said no.”
Christians have been killed and taken hostage by the militants, a mix of local fighters from the Maute Group and other Islamist organisations, as well as foreigners who joined the cause under the Islamic State banner.
The vast majority of Filipinos are Christian, but Mindanao has a larger proportion of Muslims and Islam is the religion of most Marawi residents.
After an impromptu ceasefire as the civilians evacuated, ground clashes continued on Saturday and FA50 fighter jets dropped bombs on the town centre.
Philippines Defence Secretary Delfin Lorenzana said the conflict would end soon but he gave no operational plans. He said there were 250 militants still in the town, far more than the 20-30 cited by the military on Friday.
He added that there was still a big cohort of foreign fighters in Marawi.
Officials have said militants from as far away as Pakistan, Chechnya, Morocco and Saudi Arabia joined the fighting, raising concerns that Islamic State is seeking to establish a regional foothold there.
“They can still put up a good fight. That’s why it’s giving us difficulty in clearing the area,” Lorenzana told a news conference.