“We were happy. We didn’t have a lot. We weren’t rich. But we were satisfied with our normal, peaceful lives.”
This is how 54-year-old Nora (not her real name) reminisced about her family’s way of life in Marawi City before the conflict broke out two months ago. Now staying at a relative’s house in another town, far from the fighting, she clings to the hope that everything would go back to the way it was.
Nora has only two children, but she has many grandchildren – 12 from her first child and nine from her second. She and her husband helped in raising each of them.
Life was not exactly easy for them before the siege begun on May 23, 2017. Her son-in-law was a struggling farmer. They had a little corn farm north of their house. She also started a small store by the highway so she could help support the family.
“It wasn’t making a lot of money”, she admits, “so we converted it to a stockpile for hollow blocks instead. This was our main source if income.” They didn’t live in abundance, but they had enough.
“I first heard about the ISIS terrorists when there was a clash in Butig,” recalls Nora, referring to the conflict between the Maute group and the Philippine Army last February 2016.
“After that, they had peace talks with the president and we thought that was the end of it. We didn’t expect at all that they would attack Marawi City. We don’t even understand why they would want to go there. There were no enemies in Marawi — no soldiers– just us,” she says.
“When we first learned of the Maute group’s presence around Baryo Naga in Marawi, we hurried to the center of the city to check on our grandchildren. But the military blocked our way,” she explains.
Disheartened, Nora and her husband turned around to head home, only to find more heartbreak when they saw their house reduced to rubble. “Our house, our parent’s house, other houses, they’re all gone!” she exclaims, mustering a little smile while her eyes show otherwise.
“Everything happened so suddenly. Had we known that this would happen, our whole family would have fled long before the bombing and the firing had begun. The terrorists used the people as human shields. If we only knew, we would have left the city sooner,’’ she laments.
Nora was able to get out of the city just on June 24, almost a month after the war broke out. Together with her family and her 19 grandchildren they fled to Taraka, several towns south of Marawi, although she admits that they didn’t feel safe.
“There were rumors of the Maute’s presence in Taraka, so I reached out to our relatives in Wao and asked them if we could find shelter there.” Her in-laws helped her get to Wao, and found temporary shelter in Barangay Western.
Other family members from Marawi City fled to different places around Lanao del Sur. “It’s only me and my family here in Wao. My brother is in Iligan City and my sister is in Sapiaga. I haven’t seen the rest of my relatives – cousins, nephews and nieces, since the war.”
But she has been keeping in touch with them through phone calls – a source of comfort. “Thankfully all of us are safe and alive.”
“Wao is a beautiful place – peaceful. But we don’t know how to live here.”
Nora echoes a common cry among the refugees from Marawi City. They don’t have any means to buy their own food, and have to rely on whatever help comes from the government and other organizations, as well as on whatever friends and relatives could spare.
“Our businesses, our livelihoods were all left in Marawi City. We don’t have any means of earning here. We’re not used to this place,” she says.
Food is hard to come by and is just one of the problems. “We have no money. Sometimes my grandchildren would get sick and need medicine. Thankfully we can bring them to our health centers. Four of my grandchildren are still newborns. They have special needs like milk. How can we provide that? It’s a very difficult situation for us,” she cries.
“We’re already close to giving up, but because there are people out there willing to help us— praise, Allah— we keep on surviving,” she says.
ADRA Philippines is distributing food packs to more than 300 refugees in Wao, Lanao del Sur. A food pack will feed a family for one week.
“The food packs we are receiving will be a very big help to us, especially during these times. I’m very thankful because there are people out there who have compassion for us. Thank you very much for helping us,” she says, her face beaming with excitement.
Nora has this message to share, “We’re reaching out to everyone, Muslims or Christians, anyone who feels compassion for us, to assist us in our times of need. To the terrorists in Marawi, please get out of the city now. It’s already ruined. You can’t destroy it any further. So please, have mercy and leave us in peace.”
Two months ago Nora and her family lived a peaceful and happy life. It remains uncertain when the conflict in Marawi would end, but she is full of hope.
“Once we hear that it’s safe to go back, we would like to go back home immediately,” she says, longingly, seemingly weary of all the struggles she’s already faced.
For now, she makes the most of everyday that she spends with her family, remaining hopeful that everything will go back to the way it was, and praying that she could feel at home again.