MARAWI CITY, PHILIPPINES // More than 200 civilians walked out of the besieged Philippines city of Marawi in a daring escape from their Islamist captors, concealing dozens of Christians and saving them from almost certain murder.
Braving a terrifying gauntlet of military air strikes and extremist gunmen, they rmade a dash for freedom after almost two weeks trapped in their homes while Islamist fanatics battled for control of their city.
They included one of Marawi city’s most respected politicians, who hid 71 Christians in his home and led 144 people through downtown streets held by self-styled ISIL fighters and strewn with rotting corpses.
Norodin Alonto Lucman, the former vice governor of a Muslim self-ruled area that includes the now embattled city, said he twice turned away gunmen — some of them neighbours and distant relatives — at his Marawi home asking for food and weapons.
But supplies eventually ran out and they fled through bombed out downtown streets, dodging snipers. “ [The city] is strewn with debris, dead bodies of chickens, rats, dogs, even the smell of rotting flesh,” said Mr Lucman of their two-kilometre trek. “As we walked many people saw us on the street and they joined us.”
The audacious exodus came on Saturday morning after people started receiving text messages warning of an imminent major assault by Philippines aircraft and ground troops in the centre of Marawi, a town of more than 200,000 people on the southern island of Mindanao. Though the Philippines is overwhelmingly Catholic, the population in Mindanao and particularly Marawi is mostly Muslim.
“We had a tip from the general commander that we should go out,” said Leny Paccon who gave refuge to 54 people in her home, including 44 Christians. “When I got the text, immediately we go out ... about 7 o’clock.”
By then, Mr Lucman and his guests had begun their escape march from another area, holding white flags and moving briskly. “As we walked, others joined us,” he said. “We had to pass through a lot of snipers. We saved ourselves.”
He described a scene of devastation in the town centre, where the streets were strewn with rotting bodies and debris. He estimated he had seen more than 1,000 dead.
Official government estimates recorded 120 militants, 38 government forces and 20 civilians as dead on Saturday.
Some of the civilians were stopped and asked if there were any Christians among them, said Jaime Daligdig, a Christian construction worker. But after shouting “Allahu Akbar” they were allowed to pass.
Arnold Balo, 28, an ice cream factory worker, said he cradled a boy in one hand and carried a half-metre long machete in the other, their only protection from the gunmen as he escaped.
At one point, a gunman perched near the top of a building aimed a rifle at him and ordered him to put his weapon on the ground, Mr Balo said.
“I told him, ‘I will do as you order sir. Please don’t kill us’,” he said. Mr Balo dropped the machete, and was allowed to pass.
Twenty-three Christian teachers and 15 other companions also ran to safety on Saturday from another area of Marawi.
“We laid on the floor in the dark each night whenever we heard gunshots or explosions. We barricaded the doors with furniture and a refrigerator,” said high schoolteacher Jerona Sedrome, 27.
But after two attempts, the militants forced their way in and the teachers hid in a tunnel beneath the house.
They survived on steamed rice and rainwater over nearly two weeks of air strikes, fires, and gunfire that destroyed many of the surrounding houses.
“If it didn’t rain we had no water and we didn’t eat,” said Sedrome’s younger sister and fellow teacher, Jane Rose Sedrome, 25.
As they walked through the streets they saw gruesome results of the battle which erupted in Marawi on May 23.
“We passed through three corpses being eaten by maggots,” said fellow teacher Regene Apao, 23. “We knew they were ISIL because they wore black clothing and black head masks.”
Marawi has been transformed into a war zone since hundreds of gunmen rampaged through the city on May 23.
The onslaught was part of a grand plan to establish a Southeast Asian caliphate, defence secretary Delfin Lorenzana said on Saturday during a brief visit with troops.
He added there were about 250 gunmen — nearly five times the military’s original estimate — holding strategic buildings in downtown Marawi and there was no indication they would surrender or flee. Nor could he say how long the military operation to flush them out would last because of mounting fears of civilian casualties. About 2,000 civilians remain trapped in Marawi.
“We believe this is ISIL because normally in this kind of conflict the local fighters will just scamper away and maybe hide in the mountains,” he said. “But surprisingly this group has just holed up there and are just waiting to fight it out maybe to the last.”
Of the 120 militants killed, eight were from Chechnya, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Saudi Arabia and Yemen, Mr Lorenzana said. As well as those countries, officials also say there are militants from Pakistan and Morocco among the remaining diehards, who last week kidnapped 15 people — including, it is believed, a Catholic priest — to use as human shields.
* Associated Press and * Agence France-Presse