Manila – Camalia Baunto cries softly as she recalls her last phone conversation with her husband. He has now been trapped in the fighting zone in besieged Marawi City in the southern Philippines for a month.
The 43-year-old mother of six young children says her husband, Nixon, and other trapped civilians tried to flee to safety on June 14, but failed when explosions and gunfire broke out.
“He was weak and couldn’t make a run for it so he went back to our house,” she says. “That was the last time I spoke to him. His phone probably ran out of battery. I don’t know how long he can still survive.”
Baunto’s husband is one of hundreds of civilians trapped in districts still controlled by the militants in Marawi City, 800 kilometres south of Manila, more than four weeks since the fighting started.
Every day they face the threat of sniper fire from the militants and airstrikes from the military, aside from hunger and a lack of medical services.
“Some have reported eating blankets, with water they get from the rain,” says Samira Gutoc, head of a civic organization calling for a ceasefire to let the trapped civilians out of Marawi City. “They eat cardboard boxes, they have leaves for meals.”
While authorities say the end to the conflict is near, they have stopped setting deadlines after government forces missed two target dates to clear the city of the militants.
“We don’t set timelines any more because of the complexity of the urban environment,” military spokesman Brigadier General Restituto Padilla said, reiterating how the military offensive was being hampered by gunmen hiding in high-rise buildings and mosques using civilians as shields.
The conflict broke out on May 23 when hundreds of militants went on a rampage in Marawi City after government forces attempted to arrest a local leader of the Islamic State terrorist movement.
The military say the militants had planned the attack months ahead, and intended to burn down Marawi City and set up an Islamic State caliphate in the southern region of Mindanao.
President Rodrigo Duterte declared martial law in Mindanao to boost the fight against the rebels, giving the military control of the affected areas and allowing soldiers to arrest suspects without court warrants.
The fighting has left Marawi City in ruins, with houses and buildings torched by the militants or destroyed by the military’s airstrikes. Streets are littered with crushed cement, twisted steel, abandoned vehicles and decomposing bodies, according to fleeing civilians.
More than 350 people have been killed in the fighting, including at least 257 militants, eight of whom were foreign jihadists. More than 300,000 residents have also been displaced from Marawi City and nearby towns.
Amid reports that more foreign fighters were trying to reach Marawi City to reinforce the militants, Padilla stressed the need for the public to be vigilant and support the fight against the terrorists.
“The enemy we face right now is a different breed,” he said. “They are practising ultra-violent intimidations and are doing recruitment remotely through the internet and social media and what have you.”
“If we do not work as a nation and band together to fight it, the threat might increase,” he added.
Analysts warned that the southern Philippines could become a hub for foreign terrorist fighters, making it extremely important for the military to neutralize the militants in Marawi City and their leader, Isnilon Hapilon.
“The geographical location of Mindanao and the porous borders with other South-East Asian neighbours make the country vulnerable to being a conduit of terrorist networks in the region,” says Yasmira Moner, professor of political science at Mindanao State University.
“If Hapilon is not captured, the possibility of growing recruitment (by the Islamic State) will increase,” she explains. “Mindanao could become a haven for terrorists in the region.”
Such risk is lost on Camalia Baunto as she waits for her husband’s return, holding vigil at a government building where rescued civilians are brought.
“All I know is, I hate these people who started the fighting, and I need my husband to return to us safely,” she says.
“It breaks my heart every time people are rescued from the fighting zone and my husband is not among them,” she adds. “When will this end? When will he be back?”