The Southern Philippines city of Marawi has been under siege for the last 5 months.
Islamic State -or IS- backed fighters have battled against Filipino forces for control of the area, which would give the terrorist group a foothold in Asia.
The fighting has decimated the city, and displaced 90% of its residents. But last Tuesday, the battle was finally declared over.
Madonna Virola has this report from Iligan City in The Philippines.
In May this year, militant fighters, back by Islamic State waged a highly planned and bloody attack in the Philippines city of Marawi.
After 5 months, and more than 1000 casualties, Philippines forces last week killed 2 leading militants, Isinilon Hapilon and Omar Maute, along with about 50 other militants and their hostages.
President Duterte declared the liberation of Marawi.
Almost 400,000 residents, or 90 percent of the population have been displaced by the fighting.
The people of Marawi have fled to neighbouring cities.
There they live in gloomy, cramped, improvised rooms. Cement floors are covered in collapsed cardboard boxes. Roofs and walls are made from donated plastic sheets.
In Saguiran, the closest municipality to Marawi, there are lines for food and basic supplies.
Mothers take cans of sardines and sell them on at low prices so they can buy milk and diapers for their babies.
These women fled their homes carrying nothing.
Thirty-two-year-old Sahara is in tears as she tells me about the strain of living on the run, in temporary shelters.
”My husband abuses me. He hits me physically and shouts degrading insults at me,” she told me. “I’ve reported this to the police but they only warned him. I want to leave him but I don’t have money and my 3 children are still small.”
Humanitarian organisations helped to provide immediate needs like water, food, shelter and sanitation. But after 5 months, more complex problems have emerged.
Thousands spent the Islamic fasting month of Ramadan on the run. And since then, many women have given birth in the evacuation centres.
Aid worker Anefel Granada says they’ve done their best to accommodate evacuees.
“We had to give items that were not in the approved proposal, like plywood for flooring, especially for pregnant women and mothers who say their children are feeling cold. We also gave newborn kits because there are several pregnant women with small children at the evacuation center,” she said.
Marawi-based women’s NGO, Al-Mujadilah Development Foundation or AMDF set up a temporary office in Iligan city.
Staff fled their own homes, found shelter for their families, and then threw themselves into helping others.
But AMDF Project officer, Noraisa Sani says the community faces big challenges ahead.
“We need to make sure that the youth in Arabic schools are taught the right principles of Islam and are not being recruited into terrorism,” she stated.
Ahmed Harris Pangcoga is from the United Nations Refugee Agency office in Iligan.
He explains Islamic State and its local ally, Maute group, targeted the Muslim-majority city of Marawi in a strategic attack, as they looked to expand their influence in Asia.
“Marawi was targeted by the extremist group because if you look at precedents in the Middle East, in Africa, it’s always a strategy to control the urban center that is predominantly Muslim in the hope of getting the sympathy of the Muslim population there.”
Fighters were joined by jihadists travelling from Indonesia, Malaysia and as far afield as Chechnya.
Ahmed argues that deradicalisation must be on the agenda in Marawi, even after fighting ends.
“From the non government perspective, although it is necessary to respond to violent act, terroristic act, more focus should be given on the prevention side because Marawi City is the only existing Muslim city, Lamitan, I think is the other.”
When the battle broke out in Marawi City, President Rodrigo Duterte declared Martial Law, over the entire Mindanao region, and then threatened to apply it to the whole country.
The battle is now over, but martial law is still in place, with no sign that it will be lifted.
Back at Saguiran evacuation center, women and girls tell me they just want to go back to school, their jobs, and normal life.
But with Marawi lying in ruins, the massive task of rebuilding lies ahead, and normal life will be a while away yet.