Marawi terrorists 'looked like Arabs, handsome, fair-skinned'

Amalia (left) and Elias Kasim.
PHOTO: Philippine Daily Inquirer

COTABATO CITY - A Maranao housewife said she had "eye-to-eye" contact with at least three of the terrorists who attacked Marawi City as she and her children fled on foot to the next town in Lanao del Sur.

"They were not from Marawi. They looked like Arabs, handsome, fair-skinned, pointed nose. But they did not talk. They just gave us a sharp look and signaled us to move on," said Amalia Kasim, 45, a housewife and resident of Luksadatu, Barangay Basak Malutlut, in Marawi City.

Kasim said she was returning home from the market at about 2:30 pm on Tuesday and was nearing her house when fighting broke out between government forces and the terrorists.

Fear, confusion in Marawi city

  • Four hungry chickens clawed at rubbish in a deserted street that smelt of corpses as military helicopters skimmed the rooftops firing rockets while the Philippines' most beautiful Muslim city burned. 
  • Marawi, a lakeshore city of minarets that is the centre of culture for the mainly Catholic Philippines' Muslim minority, is nearly empty after gunmen wielding black flags of the Islamic State (IS) group went on a rampage last week. 
  • Despite a relentless military campaign, an unknown number of gunmen remain held up in pockets of the city and holding hostages, while up to 2,000 residents are trapped. 
  • "These guys know how to fight. It looks like they have had some training," Marawi city police chief Parson Asadil told AFP on Monday in grudging acknowledgement as he manned a checkpoint. 
  • At least one of his men had been killed and five are missing, he said. 
  • The official death toll is 19 civilians, 17 soldiers, three police and 65 militants.  It is almost certain to rise. 
  • A police commando told reporters in Marawi he suspected the still off-limits public market was full of dead bodies. 
  • Those trapped are in danger of being hit by rockets or getting caught in the crossfire of the battles, while a lack of electricity, water, food and medical care could be just as deadly, according to the International Committee of the Red Cross. 
  • "Sick people have already died because they couldn't get out. There are elderly in there." 
  • The military campaign involves dangerous house-to-house combat with the gunmen using sniper fire to deadly effect from key structures and buildings. 
  • At multiple military and police checkpoints outside of the city there were long lines while security forces cross-checked residents' faces against the mug shots of known terror suspects printed on large posters. 
  • Helicopters also fly regularly over the areas being held by the militants and fire rockets, even with civilians known to be in nearby buildings. 
  • At a key city crossing, where local police chief Asadil's unit took shelter from the sun on the side of buildings while manning a checkpoint on Monday, the streets were empty except for the four scrawny chickens. 
  • Shops nearby were boarded up, with glass facades riddled with bullet holes. A truck with a smashed windshield and blown-out tyres blocked the road a block away. 
  • Before the fighting, Marawi had a population of 200,000 people, more than 90 per cent of whom were Muslim. 
  • Since the fighting began neighbouring towns and cities have been swamped with fleeing Marawi residents, some having walked two days from mountain villages to skirt the fighting. 
  • At multiple military and police checkpoints outside of the city there were long lines while security forces cross-checked residents' faces against the mug shots of known terror suspects printed on large posters. 
  • "This would not have happened to us if the gunmen had not come to our village." 
  • Another Muslim resident expressed bewilderment at the reported goals of the gunmen: imposing a brutal form of rule such as that seen by IS in Iraq and Syria, with anyone not sharing their ideology regarded as the enemy.
  • "They are supposed to be part of our tribe, they are supposed to be our kin, but even we don't understand what their cause is," the man said. 

She said her husband, Elias, was not home when the fighting started.

As her neighbours were fleeing, she decided to leave, too.

Flight to Saguiaran

Carrying valuables and her three children, aged 5, 10 and 12, she headed for Saguiaran town, just outside the city.

"I could not find my husband, his cell phone was out of reach. We proceeded anyway together with our neighbours," she said, adding she had experienced evacuation in the past but "this is the most horrifying."

"I cried; my children cried, too, looking for their father. I thought he was already dead but I saw him on Thursday morning in Saguiaran driving our old car," she said.

Elias, in a separate interview, said he went to a police outpost at 4 p.m. on Tuesday to report that his family was missing.

"When I was in the detachment, gunfire erupted anew so I ducked and took cover. The police told me to stay put," he said.

"I witnessed the firefight near the police outpost. The police kept firing their guns as I was on the ground but I heard the Maute yelling 'Allahu akbar (God is great),'" Elias recalled.

Like New Year's Eve

Overnight on Tuesday and the whole day on Wednesday, "I was in the police outpost, most of the time flat on the ground as the fighting continued … It was like New Year's Eve, nonstop firing of guns," he said.

When soldiers entered the city, he said he braved the streets and drove toward Saguiaran and was reunited with his family.

The couple and their children are now in a relative's home in Cotabato City. They receive food assistance from the government of the Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao.

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