Marawi City, Lanao del Sur—The main battle zone was eerily quiet. Multi-storey buildings lay in crumpled heaps like a toppled house of cards. Buildings and homes that remained standing were pockmarked with bullet holes. Domes and minarets of mosques bore a polka dot pattern of holes.
About a third of the City of Marawi had been bombed, shelled or burned. Everything was covered with the dust of pulverized concrete and soot.
Smoke rises after an FA/50Ph Fighter Plane dropped a bomb into enemy position.
For five months, the business district of Marawi, the city that sits on the tip of Lake Lanao in southern Philippines, was bombarded by the sound of staccato gunfire and circling planes dropping a bombs during almost-daily air strikes.
The fight for Marawi broke out from what was supposed to be a straightforward arrest. Isnilon Hapilon, the self-appointed emir of ISIS in Southeast Asia and the leader of the Abu Sayyaf terrorist group was said to be hiding in a safe house in Basak Malutlut. A counter-terrorism special forces unit closed in but were taken by surprise when enemy fighters swarmed out from seemingly nowhere and went on a rampage. Dressed in black, with faces covered in black masks, enemy fighters took sniper positions on rooftops. They hoisted black ISIS flags around the city as they torched buildings, the city jail and schools like the Dansalan College. Armed with high powered weapons and grenades, they took hostages and used them as human shields.
The simple arrest turned out to be longest and bloodiest battle for Philippine military forces since World War II.
Electricity was cut off and the entire city was plunged into darkness. Marawi City was on lockdown.
At the onset, government troops were outnumbered, outpowered and outmaneuvered by this coalition of rebels comprised of the Abu Sayyaf, the Maute group led by brothers Omar and Abdullah, foreign fighters and other bandit groups that had all pledged allegiance to ISIS.
The simple arrest turned out to be longest and bloodiest battle for Philippine military forces since World War II.
On October 17, the military declared that they had neutralized terrorist leaders Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute. President Rodrigo Duterte declared the City of Marawi liberated but combat operations continued to flush out the estimated 30-40 stragglers and rescue the remaining hostages.
On October 23—exactly five months after the siege broke out—Defense Secretary Delfin Lorenzana officially declared the end of combat operations at an ASEAN Defense Ministers Meeting in Clark, Pampanga. The war was over.
Scout Rangers from Class 200-16 make it out of the killzone after engaging terrorist for six hours in Mapandi District in Marawi City on May 25, 2017. The Scout Rangers from Class 200-16 have the most combat engagement in any other Rangers class in a Combat survival course. Six rangers would not return home after five months of combat in Marawi City.
Government troops could finally go home and about 300 soldier trainees of the Army's special operations units, made up of several units of Special Forces, Scout Rangers, and Light Reaction Company, could finally graduate after passing their test mission. A part of regular training courses is being sent to test missions, and for these men and women, their test mission was the Marawi crisis. The end of the siege also signaled the completion of their test mission.
The battle for Marawi unraveled to be the longest combat survival course in history of the military.
On the day Lorenzana officially declared the cessation of combat operations, military allowed journalists entry to the main battle area and were escorted to the Jamiatul Philippines Islamiya School—the same venue where President Rodrigo Duterte declared the liberation of Marawi City the week before—to witness the graduation rites of the Special Forces units.
On the second day of the siege, 95 students from Scout Ranger Class 200-16 Dracunarius were flown in to Marawi City from Sulu. They were the first to provide reinforcements to the troops on the ground.
The next day, the scout ranger students, under the command of their class director Padre Pio, made their way into the battlefield.
In two single files, the troops made their way from the headquarters of the 103rd Infantry Brigade to the Baloi Bridge in the Mapandi district. Unfamiliar with the city’s terrain, the rangers navigated the streets slowly, on alert to clear enemy fighters along the way. Covering a mere two blocks took hours.
It was at the corner of Sultan Omar Dianalan Boulevard where they first encountered the terrorists. Unseen snipers showered them with gunfire and the scout rangers spread out across eight houses to take offensive positions. Three men died on that first assault. Three more would go missing on the night that Hapilon and Maute were killed; their bodies later recovered on October 22.
Scout Rangers from Class 200-16 take position inside an unfinished house as they engage terrorists snipers for six hours on their first day of combat operations in Marawi City. The military acknowledged that the heavy use of snipers and Improvised Explosive Device (IEDs) slowed down troops advance.
Photojournalist Bobby Lagsa embedded with the student scout rangers during the early days of the siege and remained in contact with Commander Padre Pio throughout the five months of combat operations.
The SR twin classes 200-16 and 201-16 served as the tip of the spear of the different Joint Task Groups operating with other Special Forces such as the Light Reaction Regiment, the Special Forces battalion, and the PNP-Special Action Force. They set the record of the most combat engagements in a test mission.
“We have lost count of the combat engagement, there were too many,” Padre Pio said.
At the graduation rites, Lagsa looked for two rangers in particular, Biohazard and Spectre, the two rangers who were featured on the cover of Time magazine in May.
“We are still alive, man! We made it, we got it!” the men said upon seeing Lagsa, pointing to their hard-earned insignia—the Scout Ranger Tabak badge, which shows a silver sword set against a black background with the word “We Strike” at the bottom.
On that day, standing in the basketball court in the middle of the Jamiatul Philippines Islamiya School pockmarked with with bullet holes and broken windows, the troops were in high spirits, they were grateful to be alive and eager to go home. The weight of the 154 days of battle was evident only in their hair, which had grown to wavy, disheveled locks.
Marines from the 10th Battalion Landing Team fire mortar into enemy territory at their mobile fire base near Mapandi district.
The military won back the city of Marawi, but lost a total of 165 soldiers and counted more than 1,700 more as wounded. Colonel Romeo Brawner, deputy commander of the Joint Task Force Ranao confirmed that of the bodies recovered, one had been burned and another beheaded. Government figures count about 900 enemy fighters and 47 civilians killed.
Half a year on the battlefield
A soldier who asked to be called only by his call sign, Black Knight, was on the battlefield since the second week of the siege. He told Esquire that he had mixed emotions about the end of the war. While he is looking forward to finally going home to his wife and two kids, he is saddened by how many soldiers won’t be able to do the same.
The 32-year-old Black Knight who has the rank of captain lost two men in his company. “In my 10 years of service, my men have suffered injuries, but this is my first time to lose men in battle.”
It was the fiercest battle of his life. The Philippine Armed Forces are mostly trained in jungle warfare and had to recalibrate their tactics for urban warfare to take back the city of more than 2,000 buildings. Flushing out the enemy meant closing in our their positions, building by building. Inch by inch.
A Marine sniper took position inside one of the tall houses on the edge of Agus River in Mapandi District. This sniper has five confirmed hits on this day but has no kill confirmation.
Buildings were both traps and shields. “The enemy bore holes into the walls of buildings. They could see us moving but we couldn’t see them or see from where they were shooting. Even after building had been cleared, we had to watch for booby traps and improvised explosive devices. I almost died five times here,” Black Knight explained.
Homes in Marawi are fortified with underground tunnels as a way to adapt to skirmishes due to clan wars. The rebels used this to their advantage and scurried through tunnels and burrowed in ratholes.
Information shared by the military showed that more than 1,700 troops were wounded, mostly from improvised explosive devices.
“We have spent almost half a year fighting every day. I hope there will be no more ‘next’ for a long time,” Black Knight said, shaking his head.
A sense of duty kept the troops strong but what kept their spirits high was the massive show of public support. Airlines gave free baggage allowance to military personnel, the big guns of the corporate sector sent crates of food and millions worth of cellphone credits, private citizens cobbled together simple care packages and penned letters. In a rare moment of unity, the country came together to show their support and their gratitude to the troops on the ground.
"Sometimes I would be hunched in a corner, in the dark, I’d take out one of the letters and use my lighter to read them again and again”
“That was so nice,” Black Knight said, breaking into a smile for the first time. “I really appreciated the black socks I got because there was a time I couldn’t shower for two weeks. I could only change my socks and underwear.”
But the most heartwarming were the letters from citizens, especially the children. “I think that was the first time for us to receive letters like that. It really made us feel good, that we were valued and appreciated,” added Black Knight.
Scout Rangers from Class 200-16 once again taking position.
Staff Sergeant Gregorio from the Light Reaction Regiment said that his commanding officer placed a pile of letters in the middle to give each soldier a chance to read through them. “I got a pile, read them, returned them and picked up another pile,” said the 41-year-old officer who has been in active service since 1994.
He took pictures of his favorite letters with his phone and was allowed to keep a few. “My favorites are the doodles made by children showing soldiers rescuing civilians. Sometimes I would be hunched in a corner, in the dark, I’d take out one of the letters and use my lighter to read them again and again,” said Gregorio.
Armed Forces of the Philippines spokesperson Major General Restituto Padilla said that the outpouring of public support was unprecedented and was a crucial source of inspiration.
“Out of those wounded—1,700 plus soldiers—more than a third volunteered to go back again as soon as their wounds healed. Among those who volunteered to go back, some were wounded again and went back again. Some were wounded three times, four times only to eventually succumb to enemy violence,” said Padilla who confessed that he at times gets emotional thinking about the gallantry and sacrifice demanded by war.
Padre Pio himself was wounded by an IED and was airlifted to Camp Edilberto Evangelista in Cagayan de Oro. But he refused to leave his men behind and flew back to Marawi the next day on a chopper.
It was quiet on the battlefield that day of October 23, exactly five months after the battle for Marawi broke out. But for the first time in almost half a year, the air was filled with triumphant relief and another emotion that was previously a dangerous indulgence in the battlefield—hope and determination.
Damaged sustained by structures after months of hostilties between government forces and ISIS-linked terrorists Maute and Abu Sayyaf Group. The Minarets of the Grand Mosque serve as a landmark for advancing troops as the terrorists use the Mosque as their operations base.
“The siege of Marawi may end when the last shot has been fired but the problem of ensuring that the claws of terror will not rise up to hurt again is something that we will all have to work on,” said Padilla.
According to Padilla, the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) who has been in peace talks with the government, was instrumental in supporting military efforts during the siege. They were also vital in preventing other uprisings from insurgency groups in Maguindanao and Cotabato that would have aggravated the Marawi crisis.
As they did during the siege, Muslim community and religious leaders are working together with the military and local government to counter the narrative of violent extremism. There is much work to be done and much introspection needed.
“There are a lot of congratulatory messages to be given...until one realizes that almost all killed in the battle just so happen to be Filipinos. Then you start to think what is wrong with this country we all call the Republic of the Philippines? Why have Filipinos been killing fellow Filipinos for matters of ideology, secession—and the latest reason is alleged involvement in drugs?” lamented security analyst and military historian Jose Antonio Custodio. “Our country is at war with itself. Nothing can be sadder and more tragic than that for a nation state.”
Bobby Lagsa contributed to this report.