For five months in 2017, Islamist militants took over the city of Marawi in the south of the Philippines. One of their prisoners was a Catholic priest, Father Chito, who was forced to make bombs under threat of torture. The experience shook him deeply, but he continues to hope Christians and Muslims will be able to live in peace.
It was dinner time at the Bato Mosque, and 20 people were gathered around the long table in the basement, ready to eat. On one side of the table, 15 jihadists. On the other, Father Chito, a Catholic priest, and and handful of other Christians.
Suddenly, the sound of gunfire startled them and they jumped into action. Father Chito reached for the AK47 at his feet and threw it across the table to one of the jihadists, who caught it and crouched at the entrance of the mosque, ready.
After a few minutes, the gunfire passed into the distance and they settled back around the table.
It had become a familiar routine. Father Chito had been held hostage for more than two months. He couldn’t say he liked his captors, but he had developed what he describes as a “human closeness” with them. They were a little community, eating together, working together. And when he heard that one of the jihadists had died fighting the Philippine Army, he would grieve.
Father Chito was taken hostage on 23 May 2017, the day the city of Marawi was besieged by militants affiliated to Islamic State.
Before this, Marawi was a beautiful city, with tall, densely packed houses and ornate mosques. Located on the Philippines’ southern island of Mindanao, it is a majority-Muslim city in an overwhelmingly Catholic country.
Islam first arrived in the south of the Philippines in the 13th Century via traders from the Middle East and the Malay and Indonesian archipelagos. Missionaries and mosques followed and those who converted became known as the Moro people. When the Spanish colonised the Philippines in the 16th Century, bringing with them Catholicism, they failed to conquer the Moro in the south of the country.
Since then, many Muslims in the south have felt marginalised. The region is among the poorest in the country and there have been calls for autonomy from what is widely seen as the Catholic powerbase of Manila.
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Listen to The Story of the Philippines’ Lost City on Crossing Continents, on BBC Radio 4 at 11:00 on 5 September
When Father Chito was sent to Marawi 23 years ago, with the aim of building an inter-religious dialogue between Christians and Muslims, the vast majority of people in the city welcomed him and his colleagues. But in the months before the siege, he started to feel increasingly uneasy.
In early 2016, two brothers from the Maute tribe returned from studying in the Middle East to their hometown, Butig, south of Marawi. They started preaching a militant version of Islam and assembled a group of around 200 followers, who began attacking government forces in the area.
In 2017, the attacks drew closer and closer to Marawi. Fighters from Indonesia and Malaysia had already swelled the militants’ ranks when, in late May, another IS-allied group, Abu Sayyaf, or “bearer of the sword”, was spotted in the city.
The stage was set for the siege of Marawi.
In the middle of the day, Father Chito was woken up from a nap by the sound of gunfire. Then his tablet, computer and mobile phone all started beeping, as he was bombarded with messages from Muslim and Catholic friends, all saying same thing: “Get out of Marawi!”
Instead, he prayed. “I told myself, ‘I trust everything to God’s hands so I will not get out,'” he says.
At 5.30pm, the city fell silent, the streets emptied, windows were closed and lights turned off. The militants raised the black flag of Islamic State over the hospital. On the horizon the police station burned.
And then the jihadists arrived at the gate of the cathedral. As Father Chito approached the gate, two men raised their guns. Behind them, he saw over a 100 more armed fighters.
Along with five of his colleagues, he was forced into the back of a van and held inside all night, as the militants preached their version of Islam.
“During the whole evening, they are indoctrinating us: ‘We are here because we would like to clean Marawi. This is called an Islamic city but there are drugs here, there is corruption here, there is wine and music here. We are here to establish the caliphate.'”
But there were thousands of civilians trapped in the city, who didn’t want to be governed by allies of Islamic State. In the first days of the siege, there was chaos. People were stranded in their houses, desperate to escape but terrified of being caught in the crossfire.
Tong Pacasum was working in the town hall at the time, his job was to respond to floods and natural disasters. So when the conflict began, his phone began to ring.
“When we got the first call for the rescue operation, I was thinking twice about going out the gate because I know if I go out I’m not sure if I’ll be making it back,” he says. “But then you get overwhelmed with the situation, so you’re left with no other option than to go, even if it means risking your life.”
Tong brought together a team of volunteers from Marawi’s Muslim community and together they went on death-defying rescue missions into the conflict zone. Their vehicles were shot at as they wound their way through piles of rubble and burning buildings. Tong decided that they needed a way to identify themselves as neutral. He remembered a pile of white construction helmets in his office, and he cut up a white table cloth to make arm bands. The team was soon branded the “Suicide Squad” by the local media.
But Father Chito and 100 other hostages, were far beyond the reach of the Suicide Squad. They were being kept in the basement of Bato Mosque, the militants’ command centre.
They were told they would face “disciplinary action” if they didn’t co-operate. Father Chita knew this meant torture, and feared it would cause him to lose his mind. So he worked for the militants, cooking and cleaning, and even – with a heavy heart – making bombs.
Urban guerrilla tactics – including punching holes through walls to create “rat runs” between buildings – helped the fighters evade capture. But aided by US and Australian intelligence the Philippine army carried out relentless aerial bombing.
The pattern of the airstrikes grew familiar to Father Chito. There were always two planes, each carrying four bombs, each explosion closer than the last.
He experienced more than 100 airstrikes in his four months in captivity, both wanting and not wanting to be hit. “I prayed and asked God for the next bomb to hit me,” he says. But then he’d quickly change his mind. “No Lord, don’t hit me. I don’t want to be hit.”
“There are moments when I didn’t know how to pray,” he says. “I complained to the Lord, ‘If I sinned and you are punishing me, this is too much, this is not commensurate.’ My faith in God was really challenged, to the point of blaming God.”
On 16 September the Philippine army was so close to the mosque that Father Chito could hear their commands. Once darkness fell, he and one of the other hostages decided that this was their chance: they sneaked out the back of the mosque and ran. Two streets away they were greeted by a group of men brandishing guns – and whisked away to safety.
A month later, the Philippine defence secretary declared the country’s longest siege over. The Maute brothers, Omar and Abdullah, and Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon had been killed, and their remaining fighters routed.
Over 1,000 people lost their lives in the five-month siege.
Nearly two years on, the city remains in ruins. The reconstruction has been painfully slow, with 100,000 people still displaced, living in camps or with relatives.
A square mile of streets in the centre of the city is now referred to as Ground Zero or the Most Affected Area. The scale of the devastation is akin to Raqqa, Aleppo or Mosul. Every single building has been damaged; many are leaning at awkward-looking angles or entirely reduced to rubble. We drive into the area with Father Chito, towards the cathedral that he was taken from.
As we pull up he excitedly points out the window. “That’s our church!” he shouts. But as we enter, the mood changes. The cathedral has been reduced to a ruin. Bullet holes cover the walls, the tiles on the floor crack under foot and the roof has been blown apart leaving only the metal structure, which creeks eerily in the wind. The church is scheduled to be demolished and so this may be the last time he sees it.
Approaching the altar, my attention is grabbed by a statue of Jesus. There’s a bullet hole in his stomach, his hands have been cut off and a crown of feathers is perched on his head. Father Chito leaves us for a moment to pray, he stands silently with his hand on a crumbling figure of the Virgin Mary, picking the plaster off it and crying.
Tong is one of those who lost his house during the siege and he has now been given a portable building. But instead of living in it, he stays with relatives and uses it as a base for a new organisation he’s set up, called the Early Response Network.
Its aim is to stop radical Islam gaining a foothold in the community. A man hunches over a radio in the corner, doing the daily roll call to the network’s 40 volunteers around the region. They report early signs of radicalisation and pass information to authorities, in the hope of preventing anything like the siege happening again.
Marawi is a clan-based society, and family feuds are common here. Tong says that in the years before the siege, extremist groups exploited grudges between families to recruit. Now, he and his colleagues try to mediate quarrels between households before they escalate.
In the immediate aftermath of the siege, all was quiet. The command structure of the militant groups had been decimated and the war had caused so much destruction that there was an overwhelming desire for peace and reconciliation.
But in the last few months, they have started picking up on some worrying incidents: sightings of armed militants, reports of young women attending radical training camps and recruiters targeting families bereaved during the siege.
“There’s a small group trying to regroup,” says Tong. “The root cause of this is what happened to Marawi. People’s lives have been damaged. If the rehabilitation takes longer, more people will definitely be attracted to join.”
Father Chito doesn’t live in Marawi any more, he says it’s too dangerous. But he sometimes visits to lead mass at the university, in a makeshift church set up in the gymnasium. He says that this is the only place in the city where Catholics can gather in large numbers and feel safe.
He’s a local celebrity now and after the service, students queue up to take selfies with him. He is upbeat and excitable and recounts even the most distressing experiences with irony. It’s a coping mechanism, he tells me.
“The sense of humour is an instrument that can make life lighter, that can balance so that you do not go to the extreme trauma, extreme stress. It can neutralise the worry and the painful experiences.”
He’s still undergoing therapy,
“I already lost my psychiatric balance, I was devastated. So although I’m happy I survived physically, my feeling of happiness is not on its full blast. Time heals and so we wait for the time.”
But he is optimistic about the prospects for inter-religious peace in Marawi.
“After the war, people learned a lot of lessons. Because Muslim people and Christian people, they know that through violence, no-one will be victorious, everybody is a loser.”
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