It is Ramadhan, a period of fasting and prayer for the Muslims. However, for the Muslims of Marawi City or the Maranaos, this year’s Ramadhan was different. Gunshots rang eerily close by on the afternoon of May 23, 2017. Armed Maute members were at clash with government troops. There was war in the streets, right at the doorsteps of the residents of Marawi City. Doors and windows were closed. The residents were in hiding.
lsmael, an Ustadz, chose to stay inside his house in Apanday. So did his neighbors. They were safe for now. The Armed Forces of the Philippines’ Camp Ranao was also a walking distance to their community giving them a false sense of security. In a town where rido or clan feuds recur, the residents are no strangers to skirmishes.
Ismael was revered in his community. Looked up as an adept scholar and teacher of Islam and the Holy Koran of the Muslims, he was respected and regarded with distinct status. But, he soon learned that when one is caught in crossfire, the bullets and bombs know no age, religion, or status. Bullets and bombs were indiscriminate. And when they rain, they aim to kill and destroy.
What Ismael and the residents of the barangay assumed was that their ordeal was a temporary one, one that would last at most three days. The scenario became apparent to him and his neighbors, however. He could sense the conflict intensifying at a pace and scale that they never anticipated. They were caught in between government forces in Camp Ranao and the Maute forces which advanced to a nearby community. They were trapped in a cross fire where escape is a mad dash for life and a thread strand away from death. There was looming disaster to happen if they stay.
And the imminent did happen. One the afternoon of May 25, 2017, bombs from Camp Ranao started to rain in their barangay. Ismael thought the air seemed to split at the sound of loud booms. The ground upon which he stood shook every time a bomb touches down followed immediately by the sound of crumbling structures. His neighbor’s house was destroyed. Fearing for his safety and that of his family’s, Ismael chose to bet on a slim chance to escape and flee. And so the long and difficult journey ensued.
When Ismael stepped out of his home, he knew he was starting a journey to uncertainty. But, when his neighbors saw Ismael and his family, they immediately had the courage to go out of their houses to escape the bombardments as if Ismael was their shield. Around three hundred of them, all Muslims, commenced into a parade outside where a death trap awaited to spring on unknowing victims. But, the community was steadfast, determined to overcome their ordeal.
Ismael led his community to the periphery of Apanday close to some of the hilly portions of Lanao and far from the center of the city—thinking the wide gap from the conflict would spare them any harm. And yet, they found themselves being bombarded with artillery five more times. Marawi City was no longer safe for them. And they were left with no choice but to bid their hometown a bitter farewell. Once again, the men, women and children in Ismael’s community found themselves fleeing.
Ismael sought help to procure transportations for his community so they could quickly leave the city. He also sought help to find shelter for around three hundred people who fled their homes. A Good Samaritan offered the Amatonding Building in Tubod, Iligan City to house the community without asking for payment in return of the use of the facilities. It was not their houses. But, it was safe.
The choice to lead hundreds of people during times of conflict and war is a heavy burden for a common man to undertake. It is common man’s downfall to think of oneself over others during dangerous and desperate times. For Ismael, securing his family and his community was no yoke he could not carry. It was an act of faith and his response towards the call of duty as a faithful follower of Allah.
For Ismael, it was his pilgrimage. And he has one prayer: that the hostilities in his home town will come to an end so that he and his community can go home.
[PHOTO above: Ustadz Ismael, in stripe shirt of white and blue, after the ‘Oikoumene for Marawi’ forum on June 13 held in Iligan City where he shared his ordeal]