The drive alongside lake Lanao is idyllic. Surrounded on one side by the lush greenery of the southern Philippine island of Mindanao and on the other by the vast ocean-like expanse that forms the largest lake on the island.
But the horror of what took place alongside the lake’s northern shores hits you when you enter the devastated centre of Marawi city. Street after street of destruction. Hollowed out buildings, strewn with bullet-holes, remnants of the intense urban warfare that took place here in 2017.
Apart from the sound of ongoing demolition in the background, the streets are eerily quiet. In one home, a motorcycle helmet lies abandoned on the floor, a radio in another, the signs of everyday life that came to a sudden and horrific end on the 23rd of May 2017.
The city was taken over by non-state armed groups and intense urban warfare followed as the Philippine armed forces fought to retake the city.
The United Nations verified 56 attacks on schools, education personnel and health-care facilities during the siege, a result of the fighting
A race for survival
“It was noon time and I heard helicopters and then noises,” Jalaisa tells me. The 12-year old is talking to me on a bench outside a tent – now her home – in an evacuation site on the outskirts of Marawi city. “Someone knocked at our house and said we should leave otherwise no one would be left [alive],” she adds.
Jalaisa got out of the city in her uncle’s car who happened to be visiting her family at the time. “We thought we would come back after a few days, but the conflict continued,” she explains.
The fighting lasted five months and more than 350,000 people were displaced, with some 179,000 schoolchildren affected. The United Nations verified 56 attacks on schools, education personnel and health-care facilities during the siege, a result of the fighting.
“I was sad, I cried because I could no longer go to school,” says Jalaisa. “I thought I wouldn’t be able to help my family anymore because I could no longer get an education,” she adds.
Jalaisa missed one year of school but is now back attending classes in a tiny school set up in the evacuation site. However, two years since the siege was declared over, Jalaisa and her family are still waiting to be resettled and the recovery process for children and rehabilitation of the city continues.
Young people key to a brighter future
On a hill overlooking Marawi’s now-devastated old city, is Mindanao State University where I meet 17-year old Fatima. The serene college gardens are a stark contrast to the concrete rubble that lies below.
But despite the horror of that time and its impact, Fatima is determined to play her role in helping to build a better tomorrow. She is part of a youth leadership training scheme, supported by UNICEF, which helps young people to take a proactive lead in advocating for their rights and needs to ultimately shape a more stable and prosperous future.
“I can be a role model for young people to engage them and to be their voice and highlight their concerns,” says Fatima with strong conviction in her voice. “Children need to be at the centre of decisions taken by authorities,” she adds.
For Fatima and the youth of Mindanao, playing their role in the peace building process and development of Mindanao is more important than ever.
A childhood renewed
A nearly four-hour drive south, close to Cotabato City, we wind our way towards the bottom of a valley and to a camp run by the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).
After years of conflict, the MILF signed a peace deal with the Philippine Government in 2014, paving the way for the creation of the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) in February 2019. This agreement provides political and fiscal autonomy to five provinces on Mindanao island, an area in which 2.2 million children live – some of the poorest in the Philippines.
UNICEF worked with the MILF for eight years to discontinue the recruitment and use of children as soldiers in the armed conflict, which ultimately led to the disengagement of 1,869 children in 2017.
Adil* is one of those children who I meet in the camp, made up of a series of villages that resemble community life, only the presence of MILF armed fighters reminds you of a more violent past.
Adil* joined the MILF military when he was 13. “I felt very envious of other children because I had to focus on military activities,” he says. “I was thinking I may have to fight, I was trained for that but happy I didn’t have to go. To be at peace and to be with my friends is much more important for me,” he adds.
Adil* was officially disengaged from the military arm of the MILF two years ago. Today, he focuses on his real interests, such as going back to school and playing basketball with his friends. “I want to be a social worker, to help out of school youth,” he says, referring to his experiences of missing years of education.
Breaking the cycle of violence
Back in Marawi, the future is still uncertain for Jalaisa and many other children displaced by the violence. They lost their homes and childhood how they knew it, but they haven’t given up on their dreams.
While sporadic conflict linked to non-state armed groups is ongoing in parts of Mindanao, UNICEF works with children and young people to improve access to essential services, such as education, protection, health, water and sanitation, as well as promoting social cohesion and empowering communities and authorities to work together. Achieving this will go some way to reducing inequalities and providing the opportunities that children and young people need to thrive again.
The sun begins to set in Marawi’s demolished old city and we need to leave, but the memories of what happened here will live on for years to come. Two soldiers run by on an early evening jog, at least some resemblance of a return to normality.
* name changed
UNICEF reiterates its call for all countries to endorse and operationalize the Safe Schools Declaration, to better protect education from attack. UNICEF also calls for Member States to develop concrete political commitments to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas with wide area effects, to limit their direct and long-term devastating effects on children, civilians and vital infrastructure.
Toby Fricker is ‘Children Under Attack’ Campaign Lead, Humanitarian Advocacy and Communication, UNICEF.