Another update on the situation in Mindanao

On May 31, 2017 Columban Fr Vincent Busch wrote:

I’m writing this memo on and updating it as necessary as the violent situation evolves or devolves in Mindanao. This ongoing account will try to provide some context to what is happening and how it touches the Church people I know and the Subanens whom I work with. 

Some geographic context:  

As the crow flies Marawi City is only 50kms or 30 miles away from my residence in Ozamiz City but to get there I would need to ferry across a bay and then travel a circuitous route first on a coastline road to Iligan City and then inland up a winding road to the highlands where Marawi City lies next to lake Lanao. Lake Lanao is the source of hydroelectric power for much of Mindanao. Marawi is populated primarily by Maranao Muslims. 

Subanen Crafters make christmas cards despite the living in fear for their families - Photo: Fr Vincent BuschMay 23, 2017:
The violence began early afternoon on Tuesday, May 23, when a joint operation of the Armed Forces of the Philippines and Philippine National Police was launched in Marawi City to capture terrorist leader Isnilon Hapilon.  Hapilon is believed to be an Islamic State’s (ISIS) leader in Southeast Asia. As the Philippine forces were closing in on the place where they thought Hapilon was hiding a firefight between government troops and the “Maute” group erupted. 

The "Maute" is a terrorist gang of ISIS sympathizers which has a distorted mentality about Islam that is similar to the distorted mentality the Ku Klux Klan has about Christianity.  Later that same afternoon (May 23), while Fr. Teresito (Chito) Suganob of St Mary’s Cathedral and few parishioners were celebrating mass on the eve of their fiesta day, Maute fighters occupied the parish buildings and kidnapped them. 

Later that night the cathedral was burnt to the ground. Meanwhile nearby buildings belonging to Dansalan College, run by the United Church of Christ, were burnt and some of its teachers were abducted.  

May 24, 2017:
The Subanen Crafters, whom I work with, have family members working in Marawi. They kept in cell-phone contact with their family members as the fighting continued. About 30 Subanens including their cousins and siblings were in hiding in a building owned by a former mayor of Marawi. 

May 25, 2017:
To keep informed I contacted Columban Fr Paul Glynn in Manila. He is the Regional Director of the Columbans in the Philippines and has worked for many, many years with the Catholic Bishop, the priests and the lay people of Marawi, and with the Muslim community of Marawi and its leaders (called, Imams). Fr Paul, who knows the languages and cultures of both the Christian and the Muslim communities, has been closely monitoring the situation through his contacts. In an email dated May 25 Fr Paul wrote:

“I feel the profound heartbreak of knowing that St Mary's Cathedral has been burned by ISIS-inspired terrorists. This occurred on the eve of their Fiesta Day -"Our Lady Help of Christians". The Vicar General of Marawi, Fr Chito Suganob and other Catholics were abducted. 

It is also worrisome that President Duterte has declared Martial Law in Mindanao. Those of us involved in Muslim-Christian Dialogue are tempted to feel as if all our efforts to the present have been razed to the ground in the attack. It is truly heart-breaking.

However, little signs of hope are happening. On Facebook and by SMS texts, Christian and Muslim friends are expressing real concern for one another, for Marawi, and for the future of PEACE in Mindanao. We are offering messages of solidarity and support to one another. It is a time of deep grief but, at least, Muslims and Christians of goodwill are grieving together.”

May 26, 2017:
The Catholic Bishops of Mindanao, in a joint statement dated May 26, 2017, said:

“We condemn the terrorist acts that have caused the loss of many innocent lives, the burning of homes, public buildings, including a Protestant school dormitory and a Catholic Cathedral.

We condemn the unconscionable kidnapping of teachers and church personnel.  We pray for the safety of all the kidnapped, of Fr Teresito Suganob and his companions. We appeal to the hostage takers to release all of them unharmed.”

“In the strongest terms we condemn terrorism in its various forms. It is an ideology that is totally against the tenets of any religion of peace. Especially so when terrorism is perpetrated while our Muslim brothers and sisters are preparing for the holy month of Ramadhan. Terrorism distorts and falsifies the true meaning of any religion. It destroys harmonious relationships among peoples of different faiths. It creates a world of suspicion and prejudice, of hatred and hostility.”

May 26, 2017:
On May 26th we got news that members of the Maute gang discovered the hiding place of the Subanens and destroyed the sim cards from their cell phones. Jay Gawason - the cousin of Subanen crafters Mercy and Vangie Gawason - hid his cell phone before the Maute fighters could get it.

Later, when they were not being watched, Marie Gawason Libutlibut - a cousin of Jay - opened Jay's hidden phone and in a hushed voice called her cousin Vangie here with us in Ozamiz. This call happened around at 1:55pm on Friday, May 26. It was through that phone call that we learned that the Maute gang had discovered their hiding place and had disabled their cell phones. That hushed message from Marie was the last contact we have had with the now captured Subanens. We know also from that phone call that they had no food and water and are very afraid.  The fighting could be heard all around them. 

May 26, 2017:
Meanwhile, also on Friday May 26, President Rodrigo Duterte addressed the troops of the 2nd Mechanized Brigade of the Philippine Army Friday on the outskirts of the Iligan City.  Iligan city is one hour’s travel by road from Marawi City.  In his address President Rodrigo Duterte made a sick joke about “rape” as he urged soldiers to use the powers of martial law to take control of Marawi.   Duterte said he will pay the consequences if any soldiers are accused of abuses. He said: "I will go to jail for you. If you happen to have raped three women, I will own up to it.” 

May 27, 2017:
In response to criticism of President Duterte’s “rape” comment spoke-persons for the President said that he was merely "exaggerating" the possible situations now that Mindanao has been placed under Martial law.  Presidential Spokesperson Ernesto Abella said Duterte only wanted to emphasize his full support to government troops who have been tasked to fight terrorists in the beleaguered region. His rape comment has been condemned in the media both locally and internationally. The critics state that “rape” is never something to joke about, and, in the context of the present conflict, such a comment becomes a recruiting tool for ISIS groups like Maute.  

May 28, 2017:
The fighting continued in Marawi as refugees streamed out of the area. Thousands fled the city leaving their homes and belongings behind. Still no more word about the captured Subanens.

May 29, 2017:
Columban Fr Paul Glynn received a text message from Bishop Edwin de la Pena who is the Catholic Bishop of Marawi. Bishop de la Pena is working diligently with government officials and others to free Fr Chito and the other captives. Bishop de la Pena has also been in contact by cell phone with people still trapped in their homes in Marawi. The Bishop told Fr Paul:

“The City of Marawi is ruined. Buildings were destroyed by the bombings and airstrikes. And the air smells awful presumably from burnt objects and decomposing human bodies. Cadavers are sighted in many parts of the city. This day alone, the provincial government rescue team recovered 14 unknown and decomposing bodies. As to the condition and location of the hostages, nobody seemed to know anything. The silence is total regarding the hostages!”

May 29, 2017:
Columban Fr Enrique Escobar reported from Cagayan de Oro City (a large city about 100kms or 60 miles from Marawi) that thousands of Muslim refugees have sought refuge in his barrio, Barra. Fr Enrique is working with the people of his small barrio parish and with the interfaith group of the Archdiocese of Cagayan de Oro to help resettle the refugees.

May 30, 2017:
I received this disturbing email from Fr. Paul Glynn.

“A video was posted on Facebook today at 12:00pm of Fr Chito Suganob pleading with President Duterte to pull back the troops from pursuing their Maute captors. It is heartbreaking to see him being used as a mouthpiece of the terrorists. Pray for him and the other 240 captives (according to Chito in the video). Pray that they will be released and not killed. If you are not faint-hearted, you can watch the video which I posted on Facebook."

I watched this disturbing video together with the Subanens crafters. Obviously under duress, Fr Chito pleaded with President Duterte to stop the assault on Marawi.  But what concerned us most was when Father Chito mentioned that he was one of 240 other hostages who included workers, teachers, church personnel, and Subanens. We now believe that the family members of the Subanen crafters are part of the group being held captive with Fr. Chito. 

May 31, 2017:
The fighting continues and still there is no word about the hostages.  Meanwhile we are carrying on as best we can.  It is sadly appropriate that the Christmas cards we are crafting depict Mary and Joseph quickly packing their belongings so that they can escape the danger of Herod's soldiers.

The people of Marawi are also  in danger and are fleeing the City. It is a poignant scene here as the Subanens craft cards that show the frightened parents of Jesus fleeing armed men while they listen to radio reports about Marawi and worry about their family members held hostage there.

The Subanen Crafters are worried about their family members being held captive in Marawi. As they await news about their endangered relativesthey continue to craft Christmas cards which depict Mary and Joseph who had to quickly flee from Bethlehem to escape Herod’s soldiers. 

Subanen crafter, Rosalyn Patihan, is shown here coloring a card of the Holy Family fleeing the danger of Herod's soldiers.  Rosalyn's brother, Renante, is one of the 240 people being held hostage in Marawi.  Her cell phone, seen next to the cards, is kept close as she awaits news about her brother. Photo: Fr Vincent BuschSubanen crafter, Rosalyn Patihan, is shown here coloring a card of the Holy Family fleeing the danger of Herod's soldiers. Rosalyn's brother, Renante, is one of the 240 people being held hostage in Marawi.  Her cell phone, seen next to the cards, is kept close as she awaits news about her brother.     

June 1, 2017:
Reports from a TV station in Manila say that The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) has appealed to Muslim extremists to release the Catholic priest and other civilians held hostage in Mindanao. MILF Vice Chairman Ghazali Jaafar, addressing their Muslim brothers in Marawi fighting the government, said Islam teaches that in war, religious leaders, women, and children who are not combatants must not be harmed.

 "We appeal to those holding Fr. Chito (Suganob) on humanitarian reasons and because this is what our religion Islam tells us, please, release him now, immediately," he said in an exclusive interview with ABS-CBN News' Christian Esguerra.   “We hope and pray that people who are holding him will listen to our appeal and that this would find a place in their hearts.” “Father Chito was really helping and he is a man of peace. Peace is important to him as proven by his assistance in ending this war in Mindanao through peaceful ways”, added Jaafar. The Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF) represent Muslims who are seeking autonomy for parts of Mindanao and are in talks with the government to finalize a comprehensive agreement that would address the aspirations of peaceful Muslims and Christians. We here at Subanen Crafts hope that the MILF can persuade the Maute gang not to harm the hostages.

June 2, 2017:
Still no word about the fate of the hostages in Marawi.

June 3, 2017:
Fr. Paul Glynn flew from Manila to Cagayan de Oro City to see how the Columbans there are coping with the situation and to see how the Columban Society can help ease the tension and aid the refugees. At 8:00pm, Fr. Paul Glynn forwarded a text to me which he received at 6:00pm from one of his sources. The text contained the following encouraging news:  During a 2-hour ceasefire today more than 100 captured civilians were let go by their captors. Included in this group were 33 personnel affiliated with Dansalan College which is run by the United Church of Christ in the Philippines. Fr Chito was not among those released. It is not yet clear whether any of the Subanens were among those released. The military now have some idea where those still being held hostage are located.  

Earlier today Fr Paul attended an interfaith prayer gathering in Cagayan de Oro City which was attended by many Muslims and Christians. At this gathering a learned Imam asserted that the actions of the Maute gang are not being true to the beliefs of Islam.

Fr Paul reports that there are military check points stopping all vehicles coming into Cagayan de Oro City.  They are looking for Maute gang members that might be among those evacuating from Marawi.

June 4, 2017:
More evacuees are leaving marawi but still no word from about the captured Subanens. 

June 5, 2017:
I have received the following update from Paul Glynn who is now in Cagayan de Oro (see below).  He gives you an idea of the scale of this sad situation but also how hope can exist within it.   He mentions other Columbans (priests, students, and lay missionaries) who are involved in the Columban effort to aid the evacuees.  Paul speaks Maranao (the language of the people of Marawi) and has worked for years with Muslim leaders in interfaith dialogue.  As you read Paul's commentary it becomes clear how important it is to have established a trustful relationship with the Muslim community before this crisis happened.  

The Subanens here in Ozamiz have not yet heard from their captured relatives and family members whom we pray that they are still alive with Fr. Chito.

Email from Paul Glynn dated June 5, 2017:

“Peace, I am here in Mindanao at the moment coordinating what little help we can give, as Columbans, to the over-whelming number of people evacuating from the war in Marawi. 

June 3, 2:00pm
Overwhelmed by the stories of horror in the Marawi War and overwhelmed also by the huge influx of evacuees to Cagayan de Oro, the Interfaith Forum Cagayan de Oro held an Interfaith Gathering to pray for Peace in Marawi. About 40 Muslim clerics (many of whom had fled the war in Marawi) and about 40 priests, sisters, pastors and lay people attended. One imam was overwhelmed by tears as he expressed his gratitude for the number of Christians present to support the Meranaos (Muslims) in their time of grief. Archbishop Ledesma (Cagayan de Oro) shared about trying to organize as much relief as possible for the 200,000 or so evacuees.

Columban, Enrique Escobar was asked to give an update of the 3,000 or so Meranaos who have evacuated to his parish and Paul Glynn was asked to pray for the Christians who were abducted, including Fr Chito Suganob and about 150 others who have not been released. He prayed that their lives will be spared and that Allah will change the hearts of the terrorists from stone to flesh.

A Muslim mufti evacuee from Marawi shared that when his relatives tried to help Christians escape they were executed first, as 'traitors' before the Christians were also killed. This mufti said that no Islamic theologian could ever justify such terrorism. "They are definitely not Muslims", he emphasised. After the event he shared with me (Paul Glynn) his fear. "If any member of this terrorist group hears that I called them non-Muslims maybe they will hunt me down and kill me". Sensing my worry at hearing me he added: "at least if they kill me I will die proclaiming the truth". This touched me deeply.

The Columbans were well represented at this gathering. As well as Enrique Escobar and Paul Glynn, lay missionaries, Ana Flores, Va Ratu, Lili Maafu and Heidi Muller were there, along with Louie Ybanez.

June 5, morning:
As the war in Marawi continues and the helicoptors keep flying overhead there is still no word of Fr Chito and the other hostages. We continue to pray that they are alive. As the battle between the armed forces and the terrorists moves out of Marawi City to the neighboring town of Ramain, more evacuees are arriving in Cagayan de Oro. Many are taking refuge in the city mosques.

This morning, Ana Flores, Louie Ybanez, Enrique Escobar and I (Paul Glynn) brought sacks of rice and canned goods to three of the city mosques with the most evacuees. The imams (whom we know) and the evacuees themselves were, indeed, very appreciative of our help, but, most importantly, our show of solidarity. They hugged us profusely. One man said: "you brought us a lot of food; but even if it was only one kilo of rice, we will never forget your kindness as Christians to us Muslims, when so many people hate us because of what is happening in Marawi". 

Tomorrow, Louie, Heidi, Va, Lili and Ana will pack 1,000 packs of relief goods to be sent to the evacuation centres in Balo i and Iligan, much closer to to war zone and to refugees who are most desperate. They have no homes to return to. Marawi City has been flattened to the ground.


June 6 - June 9, 2017

Fighting continues in Marawi.  The Maute gang still controls a portion of the city where they hold captives as well.  The Subanens with me watch the media to see if any hostages are freed or released.  We have not heard any news yet about their missing relatives and family members.  There are reports of many civilians being killed in the conflict. The Islamic leadership of the Autonomous Region on Mindanao issued a statement (which we received on June 8, 2017) condemning the actions of the Maute gang as un-Islamic acts, saying that the killing of defenseless men, women, and children, and the destruction of places of worship and property is forbidden to Islam. 

June 9, 2017

The Association of the Major Religious Superiors of the Philippines issued a statement in support of all who are working for a peaceful resolution to the present conflict and who are and have been seeking answers to the root causes of such conflicts. They state, “We extend assistance to the civilians caught in the crossfire, innocent victims who do not deserve to be simply dismissed as “collateral damage” in an armed conflict.”  Many religious groups are sending assistance through the Columbans because of our long established relationship with Christian and Muslim communities in and around Marawi.

June 16, 2017

One week has passed since the last update. The conflict in Marawi has become a stalemate recently. The government forces are dropping bombs on that part of the city occupied by the Maute gang while the Maute have kept government ground forces at bay with snipers and explosive booby traps.  

This morning one of the Crafters, Vangie Gawason, got word that her cousin, Jay Gawason, was able to make a very short call to another cousin Eugene Gawason on a cell phone he borrowed from a Muslim who is also one of the captives. Jay only had time to say that he and many others are still being held captive. At least we know that they are still alive.

June 20, 2017

The Columbans of Mindanao met in CdO for our usual area meeting. We discussed the situation in Marawi and the consequent influx of refugees in CdO. The Columban parish of Barra includes the area called Vamenta which already had a Muslim population before the conflict broke out in Marawi. The Muslim homes in Vamenta now house many families of refugees.

Paul Glynn continues to distributed donations for the needs of the refugees through his contacts in the Archdiocesan Interreligious Dialogue Forum, He was the founding member of the Interreligious Dialogue Forum in 2004. After our meeting Paul and all the Columbans attended the 6:00pm Ramadan service at the Mosque, Oro Jamaah in CdO. This time marked the end of the fast for that day.  Many refugees from Marawi were also in attendance. We agreed at our meeting that it would be a gesture of solidarity with the refugees if we joined them at the Mosque service.  We brought water melons and bananas with us as gifts to be eaten.  Water melon is a traditional fruit consumed at the end of each day’s fast because it rehydrates so well.  The President of the Mosque, Hadji Mohamad Gondarangin (who is also a founding member of the Interreligious Dialogue Forum), introduced Paul to the gathering and Paul gave a short talk in Marano. Other members of the IRDF also attended. 

After the fast ended we stayed for a few minutes during the evening prayer at the Mosque.

June 22, 2017

Rachel Patihan, one of the Subanen Crafters, informed me that her mother, Edinita, had gathered as many photos as she could of the 30 captured Subanens to bring to the Military in Marawi so that they can identify the Subanens. She and others fear that, in the confusion of that conflict, the captured Subanens might be incorrectly accused by the military as being members of the Maute gang.   Rachel’s brother, Renante, is one of the 30 captured Subanens. The Subanen crafters managed to find photos of 15 of the hostages on our computer files and on social media. Rachel’s sister Rosalyn took these photos to her mother. This morning, June 22, two of Rachel’s uncles went to the conflict area to bring the photos to the military.  

June 30, 2017

The photos gathered by the Subanen crafters of their captured family members and relatives were emailed to Paul Glynn who then forwarded them to his contacts in Mindanao who have access to military officials in the conflict area. It is hoped that these photos will help the army distinguish the captured Subanen from their Isis/Maute abductors especially when the conflict becomes heated. 

The Isis/Maute gang allowed selected hostages use a cell phone to make very short messages to their relatives to tell them that they are alive. In one such message the hostage was able to add that the hostages are now being forced to forage and steal food for their abductors. They will be shot if they do not comply. If the army sees them taking food they will shot them as well. They also said that the some hostages are being forced to learn how to shoot soldiers. Again, if a hostage does not comply he will be shot.

Columban Fr Vincent Busch has been a missionary in the Philippines since 1974. He currently works with the Subanen people of Mindanao, Philippines.