The Islamic City of Marawi has been through a lot in the past three weeks. The city that was once home to thriving businesses is now reduced to rubbles after intensive clashes between the government forces and the local terrorist group. The picture-perfect landscape dominated by mosques, mountains and Lake Lanao is changed to the images of smoke billowing from the fire-hit homes. The sound of loudspeakers of mosques calling for prayer is now switched to the sound of mortar bombs and wailing sirens.
As of today, 58 soldiers/police and 21 civilians have been killed in the fire fight. More than a hundred from the side of the enemy have been neutralized. But there is no indication that the war is going to end soon.
More than the ruined buildings and flattened homes, the real tragedy in Marawi is the people fleeing their homes, carrying the slightest hope in their hearts that they could be allowed to live another day.
The stories we are getting from the conflict zone are disheartening. A teenager was killed after being hit by stray bullets while he was praying inside a mosque. Brave soldiers were killed in a friendly fire during a government-led air strike. A kid in an evacuation center had replaced the memories of the place he once called home with fears for bombs and armed people.
And this is far from the Marawi that I remember.
In 2013, I traveled solo to this city while I was completing my challenge to visit the 80 provinces of the Philippines before I turned 30 years old. It turned out to be one of my most daunting and enriching trips ever.
My itinerary led me to the sprawling campus of Mindanao State University, a few minutes away from the city proper and residing on a high altitude overlooking Lake Lanao. This beautiful campus is surrounded by shady trees and green hills. Here, students dwell peacefully and in commune with nature. Here, I realized that regardless of your religious affiliation, people can live together in peace. Here, war and divide is not in the equation.
At MSU, I had the chance to visit Aga Khan Museum where the Maranaos rich culture is displayed. I was introduced to the iconic "torogan," a traditional wooden house with intricate carvings. A few of these torogans can still be seen in the city.
Around downtown, I thought that Marawi, just like any other place, is far from perfect. It has issues with poverty, drugs and security. But the place has a way of telling unique stories of its people. I remember the fascinating boutique shop that displays fashionable and pretty dresses for local women. I also noticed the excessive number of tarpaulins put up by relatives to celebrate the victories of their kins -- graduations, passing board exams, bagging third place in an essay contest. These tarpaulins are everywhere and speak volume of the pride of its people.
As I sleep in the comforts of my bed at night, I think of the struggles of the people of Marawi, the soldiers determined to save the city, and the families of the government troops killed in the war. I can only hope and pray that peace will soon be restored, and that the people of Marawi would be able to regain the city they call home.
Note: Thanks to the two students I met in MSU, Melchor and Lorenzo! They helped me explore their campus and Marawi with ease and depth.