In the middle of bombs and bullets

Riz P. Sunio

POPULAR stories about Marawi City refer to the city as dangerous place, that you’d just be risking your life to go there—more so to stay, especially with what happened with the Maute Group attacks.

But Marawi City isn’t always as dangerous as it sounds. In fact, Marawi City has been a haven for me for the past years. After graduation from college, I left the city, but then returned eventually and worked as a college instructor in downtown Marawi.

The cool weather, the view of Lake Lanao, the colorful Meranaw culture, these simply brought me back to the City.

For the past seven years that I’ve lived in Mindanao State University (MSU) Marawi, this is probably the scariest.

The sound of bombs and ricocheting M-16 bullets are not new to me. I’ve even experienced having the facade of my boarding house (we call cottages, in MSU) shot during the barangay elections in 2010.

But it was no longer just me and a few friends who were in danger last Tuesday. My students, my co-workers—and several other citizens of Marawi— we were all at risk. The whole city was in the middle of confusion.

I don’t know what force was at work that I had been sick for about three days and cannot come to work until the day of the siege. I was about to force myself to come go to work at least in the afternoon of May 23.

At 4:00 p.m., my boyfriend, Jerryk, came to visit in our cottage, looking worried. He said there had been an ISIS attack in Basak Malutlut—in front of our school.

He started sending text messages asking for news about the attacks and how our friends are. The sound of gunfire from Basak Malutlut had began to resound.

The faculty members, students, and staff who were left in our school closed the gates and locked themselves up in the school because the shooting were just in front of them.

The teachers in our school were forced out of their campus and stayed overnight in a student’s house in the middle of the city. They were forced to endure the loud sounds of gunfire and attempts of the bandits to get inside the house the whole night.

We prepared our bags in the hopes to be rescued and evacuated away from Marawi City in the morning. We encouraged the students in the cottage to do the same.

With much fear, we also brought our credentials with us, just in case the tension would last for weeks or months—in case we would not be able to go back in MSU Marawi anymore.

Jerryk was flustered after hearing the news: ISIS flags pitched in some parts of town, hospitals ransacked, schools burnt, people kidnapped, and lives lost.

Fake news such as reports of beheadings and airstrikes shook the students even further. Whether the news we received in our Facebook accounts and phones were real or not, we exchanged information among ourselves while trying to confirm whether we know people might be caught up in the events.

Still, the questions lingered, “Is danger very close to us?”

“Are we next?”

Those questions kept us up the whole night as the sounds of bombs and bullets echo in the night.

We kept as quiet as possible and turned off the lights in anticipation of the fighting reaching the campus. It was quiet, yet, we only got a wink’s worth of sleep.

Morning came and we fixed our bed, locker, plates, food supplies, and others. We were preparing to abandon the room for days, even months, if worse comes to worst. Our packed bags were on standby.

We were desperate yet careful in leaving Marawi. We sent mass texts, asking to hitch in a ride to Iligan or at least give us a tip on safe means to get out of Marawi. We had to calculate risks of possible ride sabotages or road ambushes. We had to be careful whom to trust our lives with while we were on the road.

At 10 AM, Jerryk’s office mate and co-faculty called us to ask us if we would like to leave Marawi. We immediately took the opportunity and we were endorsed to the newly wed Dr. Mohammad Ali and Janeirah Mamowalas who drove us away from the danger zone via the Municipality of Piagapo to their home in Saguiaran, Lanao del Sur. We had to take the long route since the main road was barricaded by the bandits, while the other free roads were congested.

Even though it was the long route, the roads were still congested of cars, motorcycles, and jeepneys trying to run away from the city. It rained in the afternoon.

Because of the congestion, some opted to walk even all the way from MSU to Iligan, or at least half way, despite the heavy rains. A lot of cars were also starting to lose gas in their vehicles. Some commuters were forced to get out of their cars and walk.

That night, we were given a warm bed and meals, despite having to meet me and Jerryk for the first time. Some evacuees were stuck in the middle of the road in Saguiaran, hungry and cold, yet, still very determined to get out of the city.

Dr. Mamowalas and his family gave out meals to citizens stuck on the road and also offered some to stay in the classrooms of their school in Saguiaran.

We woke up to a bright morning on Thursday. But we could see clouds of black smoke rising from the direction leading to Marawi City. Another building was being burned by the rebels.

Helicopters were flying overhead on their way to Marawi City.

We were then endorsed to ride with Engineer Cosain and Mrs. Norhaniza Abantas and their son, Abdulrazzaq, to Iligan City. They also took us in with kindheartedly.

The trip lasted for about seven hours, still because of the heavy traffic and the strict checkpoints.

While cars line down in Saguiaran, waiting for their turn to be inspected and get on with the trip, there were small boys handing out free water to commuters.

There were also homes that posted signs that offered commuters free use of their comfort rooms. The sight was quite heartwarming.

All that time on the road to Iligan, Jerryk felt a bit feverish from the information coming in about the attacks. He said, however, that I seem to be ‘too calm’.

My feelings were actually on a limbo, whether I should worry or to calm down. I was sometimes in denial of the whole crisis. I was also a bit apathetic, a tack taken by my subconscious as a coping mechanism.

Whatever it was, it was a blessing I was able to think properly. Retaining the ability to think probably ensured my survival.