Four weeks since fierce fighting broke out in Marawi City, Lanao del Sur, some people who fled the battle are dying in overcrowded and unsanitary evacuation centers, health officials say.
At least 19 people have died in the centers since fighting between government security forces and the Islamic State-linked Maute Group erupted in Marawi City, said Alinader Minalang, the health director for Lanao del Sur.
Three hundred cases of diarrhea have been recorded among the nearly 40,000 people huddled in emergency shelters set up in community halls, gymnasiums, and Islamic schools, he said.
Many of those who died were elderly and had pre-existing conditions, but at least two of the fatalities were due to diarrhea.
“The cause of the increase in diarrhea cases is sanitation issues and a lack of sources of potable water,” Minalang said.
In the centers, families of up to a dozen people sleep together on hard concrete floors, and in some places hundreds are sharing a single toilet.
“My children are getting sick. One has diarrhea and another has an allergic reaction on his skin – the water we have to use here is not good,” said Tarhata Mostare, who was staying with more than 800 other people in a high school hall in Iligan City, 40 km from Marawi.
She walked out of Marawi City, along with thousands of others, just hours after delivering her fifth child, and trekked for hours with the infant swaddled in cloth and her own traditional malong, or long skirt, drenched in blood.
“We call him Martial Law,” she said, looking at her baby boy Sahir, his head now crowned with fine hair.
On the date of Sahir’s birth, May 23, President Duterte declared martial law across the southern island of Mindanao, vowing to drive out the militants – an alliance of groups that have pledged allegiance to the Islamic State group.
The army says nearly 350 people have been killed in the fighting, including 257 militants, 62 soldiers and 26 civilians. Hundreds of people are still unaccounted for, believed to be hiding in the basements of a city that has been pummeled by government air strikes. Residents have said they have seen 100 bodies in the debris of ruined homes in the battle zone.
WANT TO GO HOME
The mostly Muslim evacuees are eager to return home by the weekend for Eid al-Fitr, the biggest festival of the year that marks the end of the holy month of Ramadan. But for many, their homes have been devastated by weeks of continuous artillery and aerial bombardment.
The army says it is nearing victory, but hostilities will have to be followed by a lengthy cleanup operation – unearthing and disarming unexplored ordnance, and scouring for possible booby traps – before residents can go home.
“I will be the happiest woman in the world if I am allowed to return,” said Salema Ampasong, a 28-year-old woman who was among about 1,000 evacuees given shelter in a gymnasium in the town of Balo-i, several miles outside Marawi.
A fruit vendor, she said she had lost all her possessions, “but I would still want to come home.”
In Balo-i, there’s just one working toilet for the center’s 1,025 current residents. On the wall a poster produced by the Philippine Red Cross instructs evacuees how to wash their hands. There are no basins with taps, and evacuees wash – and even defecate – in a nearby river.
Malnutrition is another worry in the centers.
Melia Sarap, the provincial nutritionist for Lanao del Sur, said initial surveys of more than 600 evacuees had found six cases of severe malnutrition and a further 20 cases of moderate malnutrition.
“The evacuation centers are very congested and the infection you can catch could result in malnutrition,” Sarap said. “If we just depend on rations alone (the malnutrition rate) can rise up.”
Particularly of concern were lactating mothers, she said, for whom a nutritious diet is vital for both the mother’s health and the development of the child.
“It’s not good to feed children just on canned goods like this,” said Tarhata, breastfeeding her baby. “But it’s the only way we can survive.”
As this developed, at least 11 kilos of suspected methamphetamine hydrochloride or shabu were seized Sunday by government forces in an area formerly occupied by the Maute Group in Marawi City.
The drug haul, with an approximate market value between P110 million and P250 million, is considered one of the largest shabu haul recently.
The task force said the illegal substance was seized by the troops from the Alpha Company, led by First Lieutenant Emerson Tapang of the Philippine Army’s 49th Infantry Battalion, following an exchange fire with local terrorists. Four high-powered firearms were also taken from the terrorists.
Presidential spokesman Ernesto Abella acknowledged that the large shabu haul has bolstered President Duterte’s statement that illegal drug money was fueling the rebellion in Marawi. “We assume that is so. It came from Marawi, except we cannot reveal the exact location,” he said.
The illegal drug seizure was the latest progress reported by Abella about the government operations in flushing out the rebels from the besieged city of Marawi.
Other “significant developments” were the arrest of Maute members by Coast Guard personnel in Iloilo, recovery of strategic vantage points by advancing troops, and dwindling enemy resistance.
“Enemy resistance continues to wane and enemy held areas continue to diminish as government security forces press its advance,” Abella said.
Lt. Gen. Carlito Galvez, commander of the Armed Force of the Philippines’ Western Mindanao Command, said the Maute Group members’ alleged drug use runs counter to the teachings of Islam.
Aside from using and peddling illegal drugs, the local terrorists are also using mosques as sniper nests, logistics hub and safe havens for the command and control of their core group.
Galvez said this strengthens the military findings that these terrorists are using illegal drugs, which is “haram” or forbidden in Islam. “These Maute and [Abu Sayyaf Group] terrorists are not Muslims. They have violated every [tenet] of the teachings in the Holy Quran,” Galvez said.
Meanwhile, Southeast Asia’s jihadis who fought by the hundreds for the Islamic State group in Iraq and Syria now have a different battle closer to home in Mindanao.
It’s a scenario raising significant alarm in Washington.
Defense Secretary Jim Mattis told Congress last week that a long-running US military operation to help Philippine forces contain extremist fighters was canceled prematurely three years ago. Small numbers of US special forces remain in an “advise and assist” role, and the US is providing aerial surveillance to help the Philippines retake Marawi, an inland city of more than 200,000 people. (With reports from Genalyn D. Kabiling, Camcer Ordoñez Imam, Francis T. Wakefield, and AP)