Filipino Muslims mark Eid in ruins of war-torn Marawi

MARAWI, Philippines — Muslim residents of a southern Philippine city devastated by last year's bloody militant siege celebrated the Islamic holiday of Eid al-Fitr Friday in gunfire-riddled mosques while many whose homes were leveled by the fighting prayed in tent shelters.

A few thousand people walked past burned homes to Marawi city's landmark, the pockmarked Golden Mosque, to celebrate the three-day feasts marking the end of the holy month of Ramadan. In an evacuation center elsewhere in the lakeside city, the homeless prayed in the open for an end to their misery.

"What happened to us is very painful because not only our livelihood was destroyed, even our faith in Islam was destroyed, the future of our children was destroyed, everything was destroyed," Soawair Saripada told The Associated Press.

The holiday is a poignant reminder of how life has crept back to normalcy for thousands who have returned home, but also of uncertainties for many others eight months after troops, backed by airstrikes and artillery fire, quelled the five-month insurrection by Islamic State group-aligned fighters.

"We hope peace will return here in Marawi and the government will help us with the damage," said Salek Omar, 76, who lives near the Golden Mosque in the Saduc neighborhood.

While a few small stores have opened and pedestrians and cars once again ply the streets outside the huge, decades-old mosque, the scars of last year's violence were still evident everywhere: the carcasses of burned homes, damaged minarets, walls and loudspeaker stand and shattered glass.

A Saduc village hall stands eerily empty with parts of its facade blasted off. A small house carries a spray-painted message, "I love ISIS."

Omar, a former government employee, brought his wife and some of his children and grandchildren to the sprawling mosque compound, where he has religiously celebrated Eid since he was a child, except for last year, when hundreds of militants with Islamic State-style black flags occupied buildings and communities a few days before Ramadan. More than 300,000 residents, including Omar, fled the mosque-studded city and outlying towns as gunbattles erupted.

"We're now OK here," he said, appearing wary of speaking to outsiders.

In an evacuation center not far from Saduc, a few thousand people who lost their homes to the intense fighting prayed in the open then later lined up, bowls and pitchers in hand, for food and water rations. Some broke down and cried while recalling their ordeal and pondering the future.

Esnitaya Macapundag wept while recalling the Ramadan periods and other milestones she grew up with in Marawi. "In a blink of an eye, we lost everything," she said.

The temporary tent homes of Macapundag and others like her are located in a hilly community by Lake Lanao, which remains off-limits to the public as troops continue to clear every house of unexploded ordnance, booby traps and homemade bombs and dangerous debris. The government is finalizing a plan to rebuild the hard-hit area, where troops routed the last batches of militants in a final battle.

Many residents have been allowed in to briefly check their homes, or whatever was left of them. Some broke down after finding their homes have been blasted off by artillery or airstrikes.

The city's journey back to normalcy may take years at a huge cost, said officials, some of whom have warned that if the rehabilitation falters, the restiveness it would generate could be exploited by Muslim militants.

The May 23 siege that was crushed in October killed more than 1,100 mostly militants, left the mosque city's heartland in rubbles, prompted President Rodrigo Duterte to place the southern third of the largely Roman Catholic country under martial law and reinforced fears that the Islamic State group was gaining a foothold in the Asian region. Sporadic offensives continue against militants in other southern provinces.

"We collectively observe this event to praise Allah in thanksgiving for providing our nation the strength to endure the challenges of misguided ideologies, terrorism and violent extremism," Duterte said Friday in his Eid message.

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Associated Press writer Jim Gomez in Manila, Philippines, contributed to this report.

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