The Marawi Saga’s Last Days

Jeff Canoy recounts the night that sparked the end of the five-month-long battle to reclaim the Islamic City of Marawi from the clutches of terrorism

by Jeff Canoy

Chapter I: The Beginning of the End

 

“Sino ’yan? Parang may babae.”

It was three o’clock in the morning, October 16. Flashes of volley fire from enemies hiding in the shadows disrupted the darkness surrounding First Lieutenant Ronilo Vender and six of his men. It was the third day of being cramped together inside their armored personnel carrier. The smell of stale sweat hung in the air. The taste of gunpowder and dread lingered in their mouths.

Vender, a 33-year-old platoon commander, looked closely at the thermal imaging screen in front of him. A few minutes ago, the live surveillance footage only had shades of green. Outside was a quiet, empty street. Now, there was a woman.

“’Yon o, kumakaway o!”

“Babae ’yan! May babae!”

They weren’t quite sure what they were seeing. The norm was to see heavily armed men, clad in black, firing away at them. Vender blinked rapidly once, and then twice, wondering if the lack of sleep was taking its toll. The last three days had been tough. Hell, the last five months had not been kind either.

They were inside a war zone after all.

At this point, they had lost count of how many missions they’d completed in pursuit of a local terror group that had attacked and taken control of the city.

Dangerous, death-defying missions—ones they would never tell their mothers—were seared into their minds.

Their latest assignment was to guard an alleyway spanning at least 300 meters. Another military vehicle was stationed at the other end, doing the same. According to military intelligence reports, the remaining members of the terror group—the same people they’d been hunting down for months—had sought shelter in rundown structures along the stretch of the road. Airstrikes and ground assaults decimated most of the enemy, but pockets of resistance remained. Vender and his team just weren’t quite sure how many were left. But the numbers didn’t matter.

Theirs was a mission to finish the job at hand, and theirs were the boots on the ground. That was all they needed to know. Everything else was classified information, reserved only for their superiors. It had been a long wait. And on the third day, there was movement.

Hostage ba ’yan?”

“Nakasuot ng pambabae. May bata na hawak, sir.”

“Tingnan mo ’yong likod! Baka may diversionary attack ’yan!”

“Babae, sir! May bata na hawak do’n!”

The voices of the soldiers echoed inside the cramped vehicle, growing louder and louder until silence broke it. There was a woman and a child. Vender yelled. “Huwag ka na lumabas, Ate! Magpa-umaga ka na diyan!”

Then came another woman, crawling from the shadows. And another child. Then another. The children came, one after the other. Vender called his commander on the phone to ask for further directions. His voice grew louder so he could be heard over his men as they yelled, describing what they were seeing on the monitor.

“Left side! Left side!”

 “Ang daming lumabas, sir!”

 “Susuko ba ang mga ito? Titira?”

“Ayaw sumuko niyan, maniwala kayo!” 

“Hindi kami tumitira sir, mahirap na. Ang dami sir, ang dami.”

Each dispatch was followed by quick, sharp flicks from the outside—bullets bouncing off the APC’s metal exterior. Vender was waiting for the inevitable: rocket-propelled grenades. It had been their enemy’s greatest weapon against military vehicles who dared approach their strongholds and hideouts within the city. It would blast through the wooden panels they put up around their APCs as a second coating, a makeshift defense to prevent it from piercing through the vehicle’s body. Yet the RPGs never came. It felt like a last-ditch, desperate defense. But Vender couldn’t see where the shots were coming from.

 

“May tao dito nag i-snipe. Papasukin yung tropa, magcover kayo sa tangke sa unahan.“

Then he spotted a young girl through the monitor. She was on the ground, scooping water from a puddle and into her mouth. She could barely move her body.

“Yung iba nakasuot ng babae, tapos may karga na bata. Mga nasa 10, nakalusot.”

The woman they first saw kept her in hands in the air, frantically waving at them. Vender wondered if she was signaling for rescue or if she was warning against an ambush. There had been earlier incidents of the terrorists using hostages as their own fighters.

“Tinuturo niya, o. Bakit may bata sila?

This could have been a trap, the enemy’s final stand. The last stretch in a five-month-long war. He knew their next move would be critical. This could be the beginning of the end. Or simply, just their end.

 

Chapter II: A Parade of Black Flags

 

Marawi was a city that brimmed with life and energy.

Rows of houses painted in bright hues, swirling in a splendid mismatch of pink, neon green, yellow, and gold. It was—is—the home of the Maranao tribe, with a population of over 200,000.

Ramadan was about to begin in a few days, and in the predominantly Muslim city, the streets bustled with people doing last-minute shopping, stocking supplies for the evenings when they would break their day-long fast.

On May 23, the military was just as busy, conducting an operation to capture Abu Sayyaf leader Isnilon Hapilon. The stakes were high. The Abu Sayyaf, notorious for kidnapping both foreigners and locals, had recently pledged loyalty to Islamic State leader Abu-Bakr al-Baghdadi. Hapilon also had the backing of the Maute Group, a local terror group with beginnings in the nearby Butig town. They were led by brothers Abdullah and Omar Maute.

While the Maute was small, it boasted of cells planted in the country’s capital, Metro Manila. But what the soldiers did not know then was that Hapilon and the Maute had been planning an attack on the city for over a year. They were more than ready to fire back.

Past noon, armed men clad in black were spotted in the city. Dozens, at first. Then they came in the hundreds, toting heavy firearms, hustling towards the city’s business district. Then a bevy of gunshots sounded off. People were killed on-site. Christians and Muslims who did not share the radical belief of the Islamic State.

Locals were used to violence from rido or clan wars. Shoot-outs weren’t out of the ordinary. It was common to look the other way and walk away from the crossfire. But the sound of bullets on May 23 was different because they never stopped. Nobody was safe. All of them were in the crosshairs of a terror group.

The Maute fighters started taking buildings, fortifying them like castles under threat. They took dozens of hostages—men, women, and children—and moved them inside mosques. They were the fail-safe, a break-glass-in-case-of-emergency protocol. If the military retaliated, the civilians would be their shields.

The military played catch-up as Maute fighters moved stealthily from one point to another through a network of underground tunnels they had built. What started as a military operation had now turned into something else. What it was, nobody was really sure of at that time. But they were sure of one thing: Marawi had now become a battleground between government security forces and Maute fighters.

By May 24, the city was a ghost town. Those who could fled on foot and poured into evacuation centers in neighboring towns. Those who couldn’t, or simply didn’t want to, hid in the city, hoping that the fighting would end soon. The troops on the ground called for back-up.

Vender had been stationed at the 2nd Mechanized Unit brigade in Lanao del Norte since 2015. He was one of the commanders for the military’s armored vehicles in the area. He was no stranger to the city. “Maganda ang Marawi. Malamig ang klima. Parang tourist spot siya. Maganda ’yong lake. May gulo minsan. Pero hindi halata.”

All of a sudden, the city he described as a tourist spot became ground zero for the military’s biggest challenge in decades. They were outnumbered and outgunned in the first few days of combat. “Yong pangyayari na ’yon ang nag-trigger sakin na mag-volunteer na pumasok o umakyat para rumesponde. Nag-volunteer po ako kasi may mga tao po ako ’dun na trapped.”

 

 

Vender was called in by his superiors to provide reinforcement for incoming troops from various parts of the country. He first became the convoy commander for armored vehicles entering the city. Then he was assigned as the platoon leader for Combat Team Charlie. “Naisip ko, mahirap siguro. Marami siguro na kalaban, kaya ganoon. Mas malakas yung kalaban. ’Yon ang unang pumasok sa isip ko.”

In the first week, Vender lost four men. The attack was a surprise and at the same time, it wasn’t. The Armed Forces of the Philippines knew it was coming, but they were caught off-guard by the sheer number of enemy combatants. In the days leading up to the attack, the military already saw red flags. But the moment the first trigger was pulled, it was too late.

There was already a parade of black flags in Marawi.

Chapter III: Call Sign Icarus

 

Vender first heard the name “Icarus” from a movie. He remembers that it starred Liam Neeson as an expert tactician and a great marksman, a good man chasing after the bad guys. He killed many, but only for the greater good.

Vender says he doesn’t remember what the movie was called, and it isn’t important. What matters, he says, is the impression the film made on him. “Mabuting hitman at sa katapusan no’ng movie, parang may nailigtas siya at parang naging hero siya doon sa taong iniligtas niya.”

Vender wanted to be like Liam Neeson. So when he joined the military, he took the call sign “Icarus.” He was reminded every day that this was no movie, and that the war was all too real. There were no second takes, no cue to stop a scene. There was no room for error. A single mistake could spell the difference between how he would be going home to his family—alive or in a casket with a flag draped over it.

Over the course of five months, Vender and his team went on missions aboard their APC and into the battle zone. There, they were deployed to buildings where Maute fighters were holed up. If their ammunition failed to pierce through the solid walls, they had to at least force their enemies out of hiding. And unlike the movies, Vender knows there is no sad, tinkling piano score that comes when the hero dies. In war, nobody saw each other as heroes. They were men on a mission, with only the loud thud of bodies falling to the ground and the deafening echo of bullets as their musical score.

“Hindi ko mailarawan, sir, sa sobrang hirap.’Yong walang tulog, makarinig ka ng putok, talagang nagigising ka bigla. Mahirap, mahirap ilarawan ’yong dinanas nating mga operating units, lalo na do’n sa ground. Parang kumbaga sa kanta e, sounds. ’Pag naririnig namin ’yong putok, kanta sa pandinig namin.”

There were multiple times, too, when Vender’s team had to rescue fellow soldiers trapped in areas controlled by Maute fighters. On September 3, they had to rescue members of the 51st Infantry Battalion who had valiantly raided an enemy stronghold. They were surrounded by hostiles, flashes of fire flickering like stars in a constellation.

Vender and his men threw a rope at their injured comrades so they could tie themselves to it and be dragged toward salvation.

All this, amid a flurry of bullets. It was admittedly a weird state to be in, sort of like being dragged and hanging upside down for a long time. You survive, but feel like shit after. But the important part was that you were alive. After all, no man was to be left behind.

Vender considers himself lucky. He had cheated death multiples times in the past. More than a hundred of his comrades weren’t as fortunate. As the war dragged on, more and more soldiers fell. But there was no time to grieve. There was only the mission. “Simula’t sapul, hindi ako nag-isip ng galit o gumanti sa kanila. Pinagpapasa-Diyos ko lahat ’yong mga ginagawang desisyon, lalo pag ’asa harap kami. Hindi ako nagpapadala ng emosyon.” Yet in the early hours of October 16, when Vender and his team spotted people gathering in the alleyway they were tasked to watch over, a familiar feeling crept back: anger.

So no’ng makita ko na—makikita mo kasi sa camera, na kumukuha siya ng tubig gamit ’yong kamay niya sa lupa. Tubig-ulan siguro. Iniinom niya then kuha siya, ipainom niya sa anak niya. Kaya para pong ang bigat ba sa damdamin na makita mo ang gano’ng bata na sa sobrang uhaw. ’Yon po ang naging epekto ng mga ginawa nitong mga MauteISIS na ito.”

It started with the image of a woman in their thermal imaging monitor. Now, there was a crowd in front of their APC. His men’s voices grew as the number of people increased. Sure hit lang sa mga lalaki, bok. Sure hit lang sa mga lalaki.”

Thermal images of men, women, and children flashed on their monitor. Vender and his team were not sure if they were the hostages or the enemies. But time was running out and they had to make a call. “’Yung iba nakasuot ng babae tapos may karga na bata. Mga nasa 10 nakalusot. Clear ’yong instruction ni BatCom [Battalion Commander], ha? Tinuturo niya, o. Bakit may bata sila?”

Then they saw guns. Men carrying heavy firearms, 30 meters away from the APC and about half a kilometer away from the wharf on the other side. The picture then became clear for Vender’s team: their enemies were using around 30 hostages as human shields.

This was Icarus’s moment. He could save many lives that night with the right call. Vender was either going to be Liam Neeson’s version of Icarus, or the Icarus from the cautionary tale in Greek mythology. The boy whose hubris got the better of him.

 

Chapter IV: The Emir

 

I.H. The letters are as benign and non-threatening as letters go, but in Marawi, they took on a dark, almost sinister meaning. I.H. stood for Isnilon Hapilon, the apparent emir of the caliphate the Islamic State wanted in Southeast Asia.

The story of his beginnings teeter from fact and fiction, a tale of one of the most wanted terrorists in the world. Trying to understand what’s real and what’s not is a chase unto itself. According to the United States’ Federal Bureau of Investigation, Isnilon Totoni Hapilon was born on March 18, 1966 in Basilan, part of what is now the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao. Elementary school records, however, claim he was born two years later.

Hapilon was supposedly a graduate of the prestigious University of the Philippines College of Engineering. The school denies he’s an alumnus or that he ever studied there. What’s clear from the truths, lies, and half-truths, however, is Hapilon’s reign of terror. He first joined the Moro National Liberation Front (MNLF), an Islamic separatist rebel group that eventually forged a peace deal with the Philippine government. Hapilon didn’t see that peace deal unfold, since he had bolted the MNLF to join the Abu Sayyaf around the time Fidel Ramos was president. In the Abu Sayyaf, Hapilon rose from the ranks until he became second-in-command of a group notorious for kidnappings, bombings, beheadings, and attacks.

After the group kidnapped 20 civilians from a Palawan resort in 2001, Hapilon became among the United States’ most wanted, with a $5 million bounty on his head. Three of those kidnapped were Americans. One of them was eventually beheaded. And just as Hapilon’s backstory was hard to trace, he proved elusive to authorities through the years. He escaped one military operation after another.

Hapilon was considered a high-value target. In military code, his identity was simplified to “I.H. = H.V.T.” Isnilon Hapilon, native of Basilan, High-Value Target.

While he kept mostly to the shadows, he again took the spotlight in 2015, when the group released a video of Hapilon pledging allegiance to the Islamic State. From a lowly MNLF fighter, Hapilon made clear his new agenda, organizing an alliance between local terror groups.

They called themselves Dawlatul Islam Wilayatul Mashriq, an alliance that would plot and execute the Marawi siege. As it went on, soldiers uncovered and made public another video—this one, showing Hapilon and his cohorts methodically planning an attack on Marawi City. Hapilon was with the Maute brothers—Abdullah, Omar, and Madie. They surrounded a table with a map of the area sprawled on the surface. It showed details of where they would strike and where their fighters would hold fort. Like a king and his council plotting an invasion of a kingdom.

Omar was sure of the chaos they would ignite. Every baril ko, apat mapapatay ko. Bratatatat!” 

Hapilon, ever the strategist, anticipated the military’s possible defense once they attempt to raid the 103rd brigade in Marawi. “Ilan ang tangke rito?”

“Apat, minimum dalawa. Palitan sila. Maliit ’yong dalawa.”

For Abdullah, who had brainwashed and trained child fighters into their radical beliefs, all bets were off. “Kukuha tayo ng, halimbawa, mga paaralan.”

“Pag nagsimula na ito, pwede na itong makapasok. Free na tayo kahit anong gawin natin sa kanila.”

 “Pwede tayong mag-jailbreak. Pwede tayong mag-ghanimah (looting). Pwede tayong pumasok sa mga paaralan. Pwede tayong mang-hostage.”

“Kaya ngayon, ang tanong dito, ang bilang natin? Ano ang uunahin natin dito? Paano ang style ng attack natin?”

The video, apparently taken at least a year before the attack, showed the emir and his men planning an invasion Vender and the rest of the military would have to stop.

***

It is October 16, 2017, a few minutes past 3 o’clock in the morning. After five months of military pushback, time was running out. Vender didn’t know it then, but the emir, the high-value target—I.H.—was there that night too. From their thermal imaging monitor, Vender and his team saw men carrying heavy firearms. They surrounded themselves with hostages as they tried to reach a nearby wharf in hopes of staging an escape.

Vender looked at their APC’s remote control weapon system. His commander’s instructions were clear: selective targets. Aim only for the armed men that had concealed themselves with civilians. Hurt no civilians. “Kung ’yong may dalang baril, kilos lalaki, ’yon lang po ang titirahin namin. ’Yon lang po.”

Vender fired.

 

Chapter V: Procession

 

Boom. 

The voices of Vender’s men continued to fill the small confines of the APC. This time, it was punctuated by blasts from outside. They were firing relentlessly at the armed men.

Boom. Boom. 

“Baka si Hapilon itong natamaan ba. Paika-ika ba. Sir, putukan ko lang ito sir, para hindi makatawid.”

Boom. 

“Huwag ka nang tumawid, matanda ka.”

Boom.

The hostages couldn’t hear them, but Vender’s men continued yelling.

“Flashlight. flashlight. Ilawan mo lang, sir. Senyasan niyo.”

“Tayo ka na, ’nay. Kumakaway lang.”

“Tingin sa likod. Baka mamaya mag-attack.”

Boom.

Hostages began running as the ground troops moved in. Vender watched from the monitor as military assault teams snatched away hostages from their enemy’s clutches. Military snipers, positioned in a nearby building, also fired. An armed militant fell to the ground but still attempted to grab a child from a female hostage, using the child as a shield. Vender watched as the man kept firing and fighting back. The shoot-out would last for hours.

As dawn broke, there was silence—an unfamiliar sound for troops who had gotten used to the rattling of gunfire. Around 13 hostages—mostly women and children—had already been rescued by the military and were now out of the main battle area. “Masaya ako dun sa nakitang na-rescue naming mga bata. ’Yong 13 buhay na ’yon. Masayang masaya.

Vender, exhausted after a long night, stepped out of the APC that had been their sanctuary. Slowly, he walked into the alleyway that they had guarded for days. He approached a group of soldiers that had gathered around the bodies of their enemies. He could hear the murmurings from a distance, but wasn’t quite sure if what he was hearing was true. As he walked closer, the words became clearer. There was no mistake.

Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute were dead.

His commanders confirmed that Maute died instantly from a chest wound sustained during the firefight. Hapilon was the man who had fallen to the ground, the one Vender saw was injured yet continued to fire shots amid the relentless military assault.

Hapilon was shot in the head.

“Unang-unang sumagi sa isip ko, ito, hudyat ito na matatapos na ang giyera. Kasi nawalan na sila ng mga lider.”

Another military vehicle rolled into the alleyway. This one wasn’t there to fight. It was there to pick up the bodies of the two men who had sparked a months-long war that left a city in shambles. From the ruins of buildings that lined the street, soldiers, one by one, slowly came out of the shadows and into the light. From the second and third floors, they watched over the bodies as they were laid inside the vehicle.

Silence had once again descended over the main battle area. Boots on the ground surrounded the tail-end of the vehicle as it started to move. Several soldiers took out their mobile phones to take a photo of the bodies. Others took one last look.

As the vehicle made its way out of the main battle area, the soldiers stayed in their positions. Not one of them moved. They stood and kept their eyes on the convoy as it drove off into the distance. It was a funeral procession. It was emotional and, in some ways, ceremonial. But there were no tears, only relief. Isnilon Hapilon was dead.

 

Chapter VI: The End of the Beginning

 

 

The soldiers were rain-soaked, but they didn’t mind.

Gunfire and blasts still rang out sporadically in several pockets of the city. Operations continued against surviving terrorists who continued to hide and fight, even in the absence of leadership. A day had passed since the death of Isnilon Hapilon. After months of battling it out against the enemy, the soldiers had finally finished the job. Today’s mission was different: return to the main battle area and wait for their commander-in-chief.

This certainly wasn’t President Rodrigo Duterte’s first visit to Marawi since the siege began. The former Davao mayor had made it a point to visit Marawi several times during the siege, even paying a visit to the main battle area, in no less than military garb.

Several times, local terror groups tried to start backdoor negotiations, but Duterte refused the idea. The President, who once threatened to make ceviche out of Abu Sayyaf fighters’ livers after they beheaded Vietnamese sailors, wanted no part in negotiations. At that point, blood had already been shed, hundreds of thousands had been forced out of their homes, and the Islamic City was left in ruins. Wearing a camouflage cap and aviator glasses, Duterte faced his battle-weary men.

“Ladies and gentlemen, I hereby declare Marawi City liberated from terrorist influence. That marks the beginning of rehabilitation.”

The soldiers erupted in cheers. “Mabuhay!”

The Philippine flag was raised—its three stars and sun shining brightly over a city that had only seen darkness in the last few months. After 148 days of fighting, President Rodrigo Duterte declared the city free.

Vender wasn’t there during the President’s much-awaited speech. He was still in the midst of battle, fighting what was left of the terror group at the time. But he did allow himself a few minutes to call his parents. “Siguro sa loob ng five months, mabibilang ko lang ’yung tawag nila sa akin o text nila. Dalawang beses lang ata tumawag ’yong magulang ko. Then ayaw ko rin sabihin sa kanila na ito ’yung mga nangyayari sa loob para maiwasan din po na hindi sila kabahan.

With the sound of sporadic firefights as his background, Vender carefully told his father what happened during those early hours of October 16, the day Isnilon Hapilon died. And for the first time since the Battle of Marawi began, Vender’s father said he was scared for his son. He also said he was proud of him, of what his Icarus had done. “Pa, malapit na. Uuwi na ako.”

It is November 2017, a little over a month since Marawi’s liberation. Fighting continues inside the main battle area. Roughly a dozen members of the Maute group are believed to still be inside. Troops continue to hunt them down as they dodge and dismantle improvised explosive devices left behind by their enemies.

By this time, most of the soldiers deployed to Marawi are safely back home, in the arms of their families. The few that were left behind would be leaving any time now, their bags packed and ready for transport back to base. It’s only a matter of time, says the military. From the large-scale operations of the months past, soldiers shift to “clearing operations.” And although the sound of sporadic clashes still pierced through the calm, for all intents and purposes, the war was over.

But the end of the battle against Hapilon and his crew also meant the beginning of an even bigger battle for the residents of Marawi. How do you pick up the pieces of a war that shattered everything in sight? The battle may be over, but the longer and decidedly less visual journey of a city and the people’s rehabilitation and rebuilding is only beginning. Locals with houses in the main battle area aren’t sure when they can return to their homes. Presuming, of course, that there are still homes to return to.

Government units, both local and national, rush to put up temporary shelters. By December, the city government wants to start bringing families out of evacuation centers and back into Marawi. And while everyone scrambles to bring the city back to its feet, local officials worry if Maute fighters who managed to escape have possibly begun recruiting again. The military says it is stepping up counter-radicalization efforts, making sure that local communities in the province help out.

It’s a team effort, officials say, to prevent another Hapilon or Maute from wreaking the same kind of havoc.

They can’t have another Marawi.

 

 

This article was originally published in the December 2017 – January 2018 issue of Rogue.