ISLAMIC CITY OF MARAWI – Khaliluddin Ismail returned home Sunday after staying away for five months of war, to find his house ransacked. But he’s still smiling.
“At least we have something left,” he said, standing in a room with clothes, toys, ornaments and damaged pictures strewn across the floor.
“Others have nothing. They lost their homes, they lost their lives.”
Ismail, 44, the Imam of a nearby mosque, considers himself one of the luckiest people in Marawi.
Ismail fled with his family on May 24 during a fierce three-day firefight that erupted just 50 meters away, when security forces tried to raid the hideout of notorious militant leader Isnilon Hapilon, Islamic State’s anointed “emir” in Southeast Asia.
Hapilon escaped, then issued a call to arms to hundreds of insurgents to initiate their planned takeover of Marawi. It sparked the country’s biggest urban battle in recent history, and fears that Islamic State’s extremist agenda had gained a foothold in the south of the mainly Catholic country.
The city was devastated by more than 150 days of battles between government forces and pro-Islamic State militants that killed more than 1,100 people and displaced some 350,000.
Ismail’s house is in Marawi’s safe zone, an area long abandoned by residents but untouched by unrelenting shelling and military air strikes that have all but flattened the city’s commercial heart, destroying thousands of homes, shops and vehicles.
Six days after troops killed the last remaining rebels, Ismail was among about 4,000 people allowed to return to their homes on Sunday in Marawi’s Basak Malutlot area.
Many like him have discovered their houses were looted and left in disarray.
“I opened the door and I was shocked, but I‘m still happy to be home,” he said.
There were scenes of joy and chaos as a convoy of returning residents poured in to Marawi to a cacophony of horns and whistles, jamming what only a few hours earlier were deserted streets.
Armed police at checkpoints cross-checked documents and pictures of each passengers from the 712 families, to guard against possible infiltration by militants.