MARAWI, PHILIPPINES—After she heard the first few shots ring out a week ago in Marawi, the centre of Islamic faith in this predominantly Christian nation, Jemaliah Batingulo said she locked all the doors to keep her five children safe inside.
But when young masked men with long rifles barged into nearby homes and began shooting non-Muslims, she said, she grabbed her children and quickly escaped. Minutes later, she saw her wooden house burst into flames.
“There was gunfire everywhere,” Batingulo, 36, a widow, said Tuesday. “We all started running and running until the edge of town. We didn’t have any food, just water we grabbed before fleeing.”
Batingulo was one of thousands of people forced to flee the onslaught of militants loyal to Daesh, also known as ISIS and ISIL, that has convulsed this city of 200,000, prompting President Rodrigo Duterte to impose martial law on the southern Philippines and posing a major challenge to his young government.
Batingulo, who is Muslim, said that three months ago, her husband was fatally shot by several men she described as “young fighters” after an argument, the first of several violent episodes that she said underlined the militants’ infiltration of the city.
She said her husband had become increasingly concerned about the extreme beliefs espoused by the young men, who flocked to the local mosque, where this month religious leaders held a series of meetings with foreigners whom officials here described as militants.
At a gymnasium in Marawi set up as a makeshift shelter for those who had fled the fighting, Batingulo and others described days of sheer terror in a once relatively peaceful city known more for producing Islamic scholars than violence.
“We were trapped inside our family home in the first two days,” he said. “But they didn’t harm us when we told them we were Muslims. Perhaps they saw my baby when they knocked.”
“They asked me to recite some verses in the Quran and left when they were satisfied,” he said.
He added that 10 of his relatives were in his house during the siege, where they were determined to stay for the long haul. But then some fighters took over an abandoned home next door, and used it to launch attacks against the military and police commandos struggling to retake the city.
When there was a lull in the fighting, he said, he and his relatives walked out, tying white strips of cloth on sticks — to signify they were non-combatants — as they stepped over piles of debris.
“On the streets were bodies,” he said. “I saw a dog chewing on a cadaver. The stench was overpowering.”
He recalled telling his shocked mother-in-law to ignore what she saw and just walk quickly.
“My wife cried when she saw our community,” he said. “Many homes were pockmarked. Some were still smouldering.”
When they reached the relative safety of another part of town, he saw a military helicopter swoop in and fire a rocket in the direction of their house.
“There was smoke rising from what used to be our home,” he said. Of the militants, he asked, “They claim they are holy warriors — what is holy with killing people?”
But the government forces faced surprisingly strong resistance from heavily armed young fighters from the Maute group, radical Islamist fighters blamed for a recent spate of bombings. The government said foreign fighters believed to be from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia aided the group.
Intense clashes followed as the insurgents spread out across the city, which is halved by the Agus river, a crucial trading and transport route in the region.
As the fighting entered its second week Tuesday, the death toll stood at 65 fighters, 24 civilians and 20 government troops, authorities said. The government said it had retaken about 85 per cent of the city, but the militants had positioned snipers in buildings who were aiming at soldiers.
Fighting had lessened somewhat from the day before, with government air attacks taking place in the morning. One storefront had been vandalized with the words “I love ISIS.”
The International Committee of the Red Cross said about 3,000 people were still believed to be trapped inside their homes, many of them older or sick people who were left behind in the first few waves of evacuees.
Zia Alonto Adiong, a spokesman for the Lanao del Sur provincial government, urged civilians who were able to move to “make their way to the holding units of the Marines” to get out of harm’s way.
The Red Cross said it was trying to create a humanitarian corridor to bring out the civilians.
“It’s very difficult to go into the fighting zones to do anything,” said Martin Thalmann, a Red Cross official who was in the area Friday trying to negotiate a temporary halt to the violence. “We understand that there are also the elderly and the sick people who need transport because they cannot walk.”
At the moment, neither side appeared willing to take the first step toward a ceasefire, he said.
As Batingulo looked at one of her children, silently playing with a broken toy truck on the packed gymnasium floor, she recalled how she had to carry the child most of the way to safety.
Still, she said, she counted herself lucky that they all survived.
“But I do not know about the future,” she said, crying.