HOW does it feel to be trapped amid dropping bombs and heavy gunfire and the threat of being stalked by terrorists who are quick to kill those who do not believe like them for 12 days? The terror is unimaginable. But hopefully, the thousands of civilians still trapped will soon be led out to safety.
On the 12th day since members of Maute group decided to take over Marawi City after a botched military attempt to grab veteran terrorist Isnilon Hapilon, the latest news that came from the field introduced a relatively unfamiliar concept: a peace corridor between Malabang in Lanao del Sur and the beleaguered Marawi City.
This came after President Rodrigo Duterte met with leaders of the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) chair Al Haj Murad Ebrahim and other MILF officials including Implementing Panel Chairman Mohair Iqbal, Bangsamoro Transition Commission Chairman Ghazali Jaafar, Bangsamoro Islamic Armed Forces Chief of Staff Sammy Al-Mansoor, and Bangsamoro Supreme Court Chief Khalifa Nando during a meeting in Davao City on May 29.
Duterte engaged in a discussion with the MILF leaders along with Presidential Adviser on Peace Process Under Seceretary Nabil Tan, Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) chief of staff General Eduardo Año, Brigadier General Earl Baliao of the AFP, Captain Nichols Driz of the Philippine Navy, Philippine Government Implementing Panel Chairperson Irene Santiago, and Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Assistanr Seceretary Ma. Cecilia Papa.
The top agenda is how to get the trapped civilians. On Saturday, June 3, Santiago announced through the peace.gov.ph website that last May 29, President Duterte has approved the creation of a Peace Corridor, a safe and secure corridor for women, men and children fleeing the crisis in Marawi as well as a reliable space for humanitarian assistance to pass through.
"The Peace Corridor is being jointly implemented by the Implementing Panels of the Government of the Philippines and the Moro Islamic Liberation Front. It is a testament to how far the Bangsamoro peace process has come and the partnership that has been established between the government and the MILF," Santiago said.
Santiago was designated by President Duterte to oversee the humanitarian efforts.
In a Facebook post by Office of the Presidential Adviser on the Peace Process Secretary Jesus Dureza, he said that Santiago and her team are already in the area plotting out next attempts to bring out the trapped civilians.
"Hoping negativities from those bystanders and kibitzers do not dominate the small efforts done by unnamed volunteers who take all efforts one step at a time to save lives," Dureza said in the post, apparently acknowledging and being bothered by the continuous attacks by naysayers against moves to solve the Marawi conflict by government.
Quoting his Assistant Secretary Dickson Hermoso, Dureza posted yesterday: "The recovery and retrieval of trapped civs (civilians) depends on the humanitarian space we negotiated with the Maute (through a credible emissary) and bridging this to the highest military comdr (commander). Today, we were able to secure a 4 hours (8 a.m. to 12 noon) respite of the fighting and recovered 140 trapped civilians who were wounded, sick, undernourished, children, women and elderly. Tomorrow and the days after tomorrow will be full of challenges for the JCMAC in the peace corridor."
Earlier, the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) estimated that there are still around 2,000 civilians trapped inside Marawi City.
"We are extremely concerned about the residents who could not leave their homes because of the fighting, and also those who are reportedly being held against their will. We are also deeply worried about reports of civilians being killed," said Pascal Porchet, Head of Delegation of the ICRC, in a press release last June 2.
The ICRC has been engaged in constant dialogues as it negotiates for safe access of the trapped civilians.
While the situation on the ground still does not allow the safe passage of all trapped, the ICRC reported that it has already transported nearly 600 people from Marawi City to the Saguiaran evacuation center or even as far as Iligan.
Working with the Philippine Red Cross, ICRC distributed relief items to more than 10,000 displaced persons, provided access to clean water to the same number of persons, and enhanced the capacity of six local health facilities to provide basic health care to thousands of people through the donation of medical supplies.
"We have started conducting full assessment of the conditions of displaced people in hard-to-reach evacuation centers, to give us a better picture of the humanitarian needs. We hope to also assess the western and eastern parts of Lanao Lake once the security situation allows us to do so," Porchet said.
Being a neutral, impartial and independent humanitarian organization it can only coordinate their movements with but cannot work as part of government forces.
The peace corridor is what the government and the MILF has to offer as solution to this. As explained by Santiago last Saturday, two Joint Coordinating, Monitoring and Assistance Centers (JCMAC) will be set up, one in Marawi and one in Malabang, Lanao del Sur, and a mobile center plying between the two.
"More than 300 trained members of the Joint Peace and Security Teams are being deployed throughout the length of the corridor and will be augmented as the need arises," Santiago said.
The peace corridor is under the supervision of the joint Government of the Republic of the Philippines (GRP) and MILF peace panels.
Hermoso has been designated as the supervisor for the GRP panel considering his experience as a retired colonel of the Philippine Army and the one who has pioneered setting up this ceasefire mechanism in the army for more than 12 years now.
Santiago said that the ceasefire agreement between the GRP and MILF still holds, and thus such operation is possible. She pointed out that this ceasefire agreement holds MILF from condoning terroristic acts such as kidnapping, hijacking, piracy, sabotage, arson, bombings, grenade throwing, robberies, liquidations/assassinations, unjustified arrest, torture, unreasonable search and seizure, summary execution, as well as burning of houses, places of worship and educational institutions, destruction of properties, and abuse of civilians.
Other prohibited acts under the ceasefire agreement are: attacks, raids, ambuscades, land mining, and offensive military actions, including "providing sanctuary or assistance to criminal or lawless elements." With such mechanism in place, the peace corridor concept becomes possible. Not that it can be challenged by the Maute group, but at least the government can just focus on the Maute Group and will not be fighting against MILF as well.
This is not how it is with the communist group who has called on its forces to fight the government because of the Mindanao-wide martial law that was implemented to quell the terrorist takeover of Marawi and prevent its spillover to other areas.
"The Peace Corridor is a manifestation of the shared vision of government and MILF of what our society should look like, one that is open, inclusive, compassionate, just, and cooperative. This is the complete opposite of the kind of society the terrorists want in Marawi — a closed, isolationist, violent, ruthless society ruled by fear with total disregard for human life and the integrity of our government and our diverse Philippine society," Santiago said.
"The Peace Corridor is more than a safe passage way for people and goods. In working jointly to deal with this humanitarian crisis, the government and the MILF are also building a major corridor to peace."