Children of the Lake: Rebirth

Children of the Lake: Rebirth

Traditional Post-Conflict Grant

Martin San Diego, 2022 Finalist

A long-term project about the lives of Moro youth in the aftermath of the devastating five-month, ISIS-led siege in 2017 of the lakeside city of Marawi in southern Philippines. The project also considers the aftermath of over 400 years of loss brought by resistance to foreign rule and the Moros’ quest for self-determination and peace.

The people of Marawi City trace their heritage to Lake Ranao. It is one of the few ancient lakes on Earth.

 

Ranao has been a microcosm of the plight of the Moros. Through its rivers, the lake powers 70% of southern Philippines, yet the people closest to it benefit nothing. Similarly, southern Philippines, which began the 1900s with over a 90% Moro population, now houses a majority of migrant settlers which has taken over vast stretches of what was formerly Moro land.

Families participate in Eid'l Fitr prayers in Marawi City on June 5, 2019. Marawi, officially named the Islamic City of Marawi, is the only one of its kind in the Philippines.

 

According to oral genealogies, one of the clans in the city can be traced as far back as 6,000 years ago. The Philippine nation itself is less than 150 years old.

 

Spanish and American occupiers were not able to get a foothold in Marawi due to fierce resistance in battle, despite their lengthy occupation of the Philippine islands.

Artwork made by war-traumatized children are displayed at a festival in Basilan Island in southern Philippines on October 4, 2019.

 

The first Islamic State 'Emir' in Southeast Asia, Isnilon Hapilon, grew in Basilan before leading the siege in Marawi City in 2017.

 

Conflicts in southern Philippines have been dragging on for decades. Civilians, soldiers, and rebels have lost comrades and family. As more government forces were deployed, many fatherless youths from the hinterlands fought for rebel groups.

 

The lack of jobs and basic services in many parts of the region made certain this cycle would go on. Peace deals were signed, but the violence remained.

Marawi City is still inaccessible to most of its residents five years after the siege ended. In this image taken September 25, 2018, eeriness swallows the once-bustling city.

 

On May 23, 2017, hundreds of fighters backed by ISIS claimed the city theirs to establish the first Islamic State caliphate outside the Middle East. The subsequent fighting led by government forces lasting five months led to the destruction of most of Marawi.

 

Many of the fighters that joined ISIS then were Moro youth.

 

Dr. Acram Latiph, a Moro conflict expert, said it can be relatively easy for Moro youth to relate with the stories of their grandfathers because little has changed since their time. “That oral narrative is transferred from children to children, over generations. So that feeling of persecution dating back to the Spanish (occupation) was actually preserved.”

My heart and mind still can’t digest why they had to resort to such.” Two of Miriam's closest female friends joined ISIS fighters in the siege of Marawi City in southern Philippines in 2017.

 

They never returned.

 

We had so many dreams together. Their hearts were so kind. We had plans to publish magazines for Muslim women.” She described them as well-off and intelligent advocates of women empowerment. But she noticed their conversations started to revolve around two topics in 2016: their growing frustration for the plight of many Islamic nations, and their assertion that Shariah Law must be imposed in Marawi.

 

Miriam's friends were some of the hundreds of well-educated Moro youth that joined ISIS then. Their backgrounds contradict much of the Philippine military's claims saying that the fighters were lured by huge monetary promises.

A young man who had wanted to join his closest friends in the siege of 2017, but who not able to enter the city as security became tighter. He was frustrated because of the discrimination he experienced growing up in the capital city of Manila, where he took primary and secondary schooling. “Whenever I introduced myself as a Muslim, people would distance themselves. It is like you are not trusted if you are a Muslim," he said.

A mother and her child sleep in a temporary shelter built for displaced Marawi residents on April 6, 2018.

 

The conflict that lasted for five months displaced over 200,000 Marawi residents. The devastation left them nowhere to return to.

 

Five years after the last bullet was shot, the majority of the population still is not allowed to go back. The government has been prioritizing the repair of existing infrastructure before allowing residents to return.

'Clear' and 'ISIS' markings made by government soldiers are painted outside all houses in Marawi City and in nearby communities. These then served as the military's basis for how far they have eliminated the ISIS fighters. But to residents, these are lasting reminders for how their city was destroyed and how their properties were stolen.

In Lanao del Sur, where Marawi City is located, 74.3 percent of the population lived under the poverty threshold in 2015, according to the Family Income and Expenditure Survey (FIES) released by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), making it the poorest province in the Philippines.

 

The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) itself is the poorest region in the country with at least 59 percent of the population living below the poverty level, according to the same report.

 

Lack of development and poor education has left many with little to no economic opportunities aside from farming and working in government offices. Not everyone is given the opportunity to be a productive member of society, and as a result may become marginalized. This is where extremists come in as well.

Veteran combatants from the Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF), a former rebel group, in their camp in Pagayawan, near Marawi City, on June 8, 2019.

 

The MILF signed a series of peace agreements with the Philippine government starting in 2014, with the aim of ending hostilities and paving way for peace and development in the region.

 

In 2019, the Bangsamoro Organic Law (BOL) was ratified. It established the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). This new body created by the national government lets Moros exercise their right to self- determination and decide a development course fit for their people.

 

Under the same law, fighters of the past rebellions will be given formal education and means of livelihood in exchange for surrendering weapons they have held for decades.

Schoolchildren take a break between classes in the town of Butig south of Marawi City, on August 23, 2018.

 

Two of the main leaders of the Marawi Siege, brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute hail from Butig.

 

Prior to the Marawi Siege of 2017, skirmishes between government forces and Maute men had been erupting in Butig as early as 2015.

 

In Lanao del Sur, where Butig and Marawi City are located, 74.3 percent of the population lived under the poverty threshold in 2015, according to the Family Income and Expenditure Survey (FIES) released by the Philippine Statistics Authority (PSA), making it the poorest province in the Philippines.

 

The Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM) itself is the poorest region in the country with at least 59 percent of the population living below the poverty level, according to the same report.

A student rests between class lectures in an Islamic school in Marawi City, on October 26, 2018.

 

In the years leading to the Marawi siege of 2017, ISIS followers influenced Islamic schools to parrot their skewed interpretation of Islam.

 

Islamic leaders who sympathize with ISIS use out of context verses from the Qur’an to reinforce their messaging.

 

For some living in poverty, nothing can be more rewarding than taking part in a version of Jihad backed by verses from the Qur’an. Coupled with a promise of sustained financial support, it became a truly potent recruitment tool.

 

Whether he lives or dies, he still wins. Then, you’ll be rewarded financially as a bonus. How do you fight this kind of threat?” asks Dr. Acram Latiph, a conflict resolution expert.

A young man who fought with ISIS forces shows a scar he obtained from a firefight he had with government forces in 2019. He signed up to join the remnants of ISIS after the Marawi siege.

 

The snail-paced rehabilitation of Marawi City has been a concern for peace advocates. Government soldier Ronald Villarosa acknowledged the risks if the rehabilitation is stalled further. “The resentment and anger of the people can be turned against the government,” he said.

Ayeesha Dicali protests on a bridge leading to the destroyed downtown Marawi City, on October 26, 2018.

 

To date, hundreds of thousands remain displaced due to government ineffiency in the city's rebuilding.

 

The longer people remain displaced, the more they are becoming vulnerable, not only to violent extremism but to other crimes (as well),” said Tirmizzy Abdullah of the Mindanao State University Institute of Peace and Development, warning of negative consequences as the rehabilitation drags on.

Women queue at a voting center on January 21, 2019. The voting was for the ratification of the new Bangsamoro Organic Law which sought to establish a more autonomous body of government for the Moros. A majority of the population voted for its implementation.

 

The law created the Bangsamoro Autonomous Region in Muslim Mindanao (BARMM). This new body formed by the national government lets Moros exercise their right to self- determination and decide a development course fit for their people.

A displaced mother and child from Marawi City join their family vacation at a nearby town, on June 9, 2019.

Children play outside a mosque in Maguindanao, about 200 kilometers south of Marawi City, in southern Philippines.

Hanaan Abdulwahab takes a break with friends at a town near Marawi City, on November 25, 2018. Abdulwahab works as a cultural mapper for the National Commission for Culture and the Arts, where they preserve remaining tangible pieces of Moro heritage.

 

Abdulwahab lost many of her dearest friends to the Marawi Siege in 2017.

A local youth leader, Absanie Taurac (rear), 20, takes a boat ride with his friends around Lake Ranao, on December 20, 2020.

Jalilah Sapiin and her brother Farouk, prepare for the wedding of their brother Faisal in Marawi City, on December 19, 2020.

 

Sapiin lost many friends and relatives to the siege of 2017.

Faisal Sapiin, is congratulated by his friends on his wedding in Marawi City, on December 19, 2020.

 

Sapiin lost many friends and relatives in the siege of 2017.

Habiba Al Cabib, a 24-year-old development worker, photographs the ruins of her hometown Marawi City, on August 25, 2018.

 

She looks up to professionals who ‘fight’ for Islam without the use violence. These are doctors, lawyers, and social workers, many of whom she personally knows.

The people of Marawi City trace their heritage to Lake Ranao. It is one of the few ancient lakes on Earth.

 

On the lake is the island of Nusa, where commanding officers of past Moro rebellions converged and evaded government forces. The island is off-limits to the Philippine military in accordance to the peace deals signed with the former rebel group Moro Islamic Liberation Front (MILF).

Absanie Taurac, 20, a youth advocate, bathes in Lake Ranao near Nusa Island, on December 20, 2020. Taurac was born on the Lake in 2000, when her mother was on a boat heading for a hospital in Marawi City to give birth.

Photographer's Statement: 

In this land, grave injustices of the past remain haunting narratives that continue to influence the future.

 

Children of the Lake: Rebirth” documents the lives of Moro youth following the devastating five-month ISIS-led siege in the lakeside city of Marawi in southern Philippines in 2017. The siege itself is an aftermath of countless flashpoints in the bloodied history of the Moros’ struggle against colonizers and fellow countrymen.

 

This project investigates not merely the aftermath of the siege, but the aftermath as well of over 400 years of loss brought by resistance to foreign rule, the Moros’ fight for the right to self-determination, and their endless quest for elusive peace in their own land. Today, I am in conversation with many of the region’s youth, some of whom displaced due to the recent conflict, to explore how their aspirations and grievances have been changing, to understand how the government’s inefficient rebuilding of Marawi is fueling silent unrest, and to see how the young are responding to the new autonomy their region has gained.

 

Hundreds of thousands of Moros have died since the first colonizers arrived over four centuries ago, defending ancestral lands they had ruled for millennia. Hostilities worsened when the entire Moro homeland was forcibly included to the Philippine polity when the United States granted us independence in 1946. Spaniards, Japanese, Americans, and eventually Filipinos pillaged Moro land for its untapped resources, and massacred villages that stood in the way.

 

Moros have been antagonized for resisting occupation, for wanting pieces of what was lost, and for fighting to keep what remains. The Moros’ history mirrors the plight of migrant settler-torn Muslim territories around the world. A shared struggle from southern Philippines, to Kashmir, Xinjiang, and Palestine.

 

To the oppressed, every story of oppression fortifies the resolve to resist. Defiant oral histories sprung in this environment, handed down transcending generations of disadvantaged Moros. Across centuries, this slowly morphed into a deeply shared patriotism for their identity and homeland, both called the Bangsamoro or Nation of Moros.

This patriotism manifests itself in different ways, and in 2017, it also became their greatest vulnerability. The aspirations of some Moros, coupled with their shared grievances on injustices, was capitalized on by extremists in an attempt to widen their foothold in the region. Hundreds of young Moros sided with ISIS to establish a caliphate in Marawi which led to the most devastating conflict in the country’s modern history.

 

Months after it ended, in 2018, I would meet Moro youth working tirelessly to help the victims of the war despite being firsthand witnesses to the conflict and its horrors. Each knew someone: a best friend, a cousin, a classmate, a fellow Moro, who took up arms and never came back.

The once-distant words “Muslim”, “terrorist”, and “Islamist” suddenly had many faces, faces of people whose lives contradicted the definitions I then held. From peace advocates to aspiring fighters, conversations with them led me to one striking constant: everything they do is “para sa Bangsamoro (for the Nation of Moros).”

 

How can the same seed eventually lead to vastly differing paths? Rebirth is one chapter in my longer-term personal initiative in southern Philippines, ‘Youth of the Nation Within’. Since 2018, I have been photographing across the region to understand how a vibrant and valiant people became synonymous with fear and terrorism. The project delves into distinct Moro ethnic groups to make sense of their place in an intertwined past, and to understand what led to varying dispositions in the present-day.

 

Primarily, this body of work aims to question and be a catalyst in changing the histories and narratives written by colonizers – something that I believe is necessary to reconcile this people’s proud past and realize its stalled future. This work also challenges the westernized view of extremism and radicalization. A view that gravely ignores roots, effectively normalizes misleading stereotypes of Islamic communities, and systematically perpetuates a cycle of violence within and well beyond the Philippines. My work aims to be a catalyst in changing this, through dialogues and eventually in written policies.

 

One does not need to belong to acknowledge, listen, and empathize. This long-term work is my way of making amends for the injustices committed by my ancestors from the north to the beautiful people of this region.

 

Liberation is to break free from what binds and what hinders. True justice is to correct flawed systems and skewed ways of thought. Lasting reconciliation, healing, and peace demands both. I believe the Moro youth should be freed from the burden of centuries of injustices. Choosing between taking up arms and living their dreams should be a distant memory.

 

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Martin
San Diego

Martin San Diego is an independent documentary photographer from the Philippines. He is a multiple grantee of the National Geographic Society, a Diversify Photo member, an alumnus of the Angkor Photo Festival Workshops, a Visual Journalism graduate of the Ateneo de Manila University, and a fellow of the Konrad Adanauer Stiftung Media Programme Asia. His work gravitates towards questioning the histories written by colonizers and victors. This is most evident in his ongoing long-term project on Filipino-Muslim youth and their relationship with militancy in Mindanao, southern Philippines.

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