Marawi’s displaced find purpose and community in tent city

Marawi’s displaced find purpose and community in tent city

Evacuees from Marawi City are striving to rebuild their lives in tent cities, more than four months after the conflict began. But not everyone is being given that chance.

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Marawi evacuees are being moved into tent cities like this one at Pantaran. (Photo: Jack Board)

ILIGAN, Philippines: For the first time since fleeing her home back in May, Rebisalam Dido Dirindigun has found some purpose for her days.

The 52-year-old now has a flourishing business, being run directly from her disaster relief tent. It is an unexpected tale of enterprise during a period of prolonged crisis.

The Dirindigun family has built an impressive extension out of wood which encloses the tent, forming a new room dedicated to Rebisalam’s sewing machine and supplies. As she sits and works through a large piece of fabric, her husband is painting the words Dress Shop in green paint on their shelter’s bamboo walls.

“I’m a dress maker. I sew uniforms – anything,” she said. “We have a source of income. It’s not that much but at least we have it.”

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Rebisalam Dido Dirindigun works her sewing machine. (Photo: Jack Board)

Hundreds of thousands of Marawi residents just like them were forced to escape a deadly wave of violence that erupted as Islamic State-inspired militants overran the city in late May.

“I cried over what happened. We lost our jobs. We lost our livelihoods. It’s very difficult we couldn’t even keep any of our belongings. The only things we were able to bring we the clothes we were wearing,” Dirindigun said.

“I’m ok here now because I have my own way of making money.”

The ability to run a business and live in relative safety is the product of being relocated to a better environment than most.

Pantaran Camp is organised, neat and managed with the needs of the 503 occupants highly prioritised. Many families tend to small gardens outside their tents, men keep busy together constructing a multi-purpose building and children learn dance moves in a dedicated space full of colourful drawings.

There is an ample supply of electricity and water and each family has privacy.

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Rebisalam's husband paints on the outside of their makeshift business. (Photo: Jack Board)

These evacuees did not know one another before their displacement, but have grown to live and work together. That social cohesion has come with the help of a group of young and cheery government workers at the Department of Social Welfare and Development.

“They will live here more than one year I think because there is still a war inside Marawi City and we don’t have any control and any idea when it will stop,” said camp manager Rohan Omar.

“We are trying to best to make them feel they’re in their own community. They live in one family here,” she added.

Omar herself is an internally displaced person and says she understands the struggle people are experiencing.

“It’s so devastating for me, me as an Maranao and seeing my fellow Maranao,” she said.

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Pataran Camp is designed to uphold a basic standard of comfort and protection for evacuees. (Photo: Jack Board)

“At first they were very traumatised, of course we expect that, and now we’re trying to ease them. We’re trying to improve their community participation to enhance their capability to stand again and to build their own lives again.

“These people deserve this, deserve to be more comfortable.”

But there are mixed fortunes in the many camps dotted between Marawi and Iligan City. Not everyone is getting what they might need.


The gymnasium at Gomampong has been long strained by this human calamity. From the very early days of fighting, hundreds of people desperate for sanctuary and survival essentials were ushered into the crammed space.

In contrast to the almost manicured condition of Pantaran Camp, grime and noise still abound in a space that continues to shelter more than 700 people.

The evacuees here are just kilometres from their houses, but feel they have never been further from home.

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Norjannah Begul and her two-month-old nicknamed "Baby Digong". (Photo: Jack Board)

Norjannah Begul’s baby was born two months ago. The bubbly youngster nicknamed Baby Digong for his likeness to President Duterte has known nothing but this.

“Well it’s really all about sacrifice. You can’t really do anything. We don’t want what happened,” Begul said.

She says her children are getting used to their surroundings but a lack of privacy and food options are testing their resilience - evacuees here have been living on canned food for four months now, causing rashes.

Children and adults alike lie fatigued and sweating on the straw mats placed on the concrete floor, partitioned into small grids to divide families. The smell of the communal toilets hovers and in the heavy air, electric fans are the only source of a breeze.

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Children are struggling on a daily basis in the evacuation centre. (Photo: Jack Board)

Begul has a strong desire to get out, but it is unclear when that might be, or what could be waiting for them. She has seen video of her house, riddled with bullet holes from the fighting.

“We will only leave once the government says we can go home but some of us don’t have houses to return to,” she said.

“They haven’t given us any temporary shelter but we’ve heard of it. But we’re not sure if we’re going to be selected because it’s really for those who need it the most.”

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Gomampong Evacuation Centre is still packed with hundreds of people (Photo: Jack Board)

It highlights the steep challenge authorities have in ensuring civilians are given a chance to rehabilitate their lives, as painlessly as possible.

Marawi City officials are preparing more than 1,000 semi-permanent shelters with communal kitchens and wash spaces on an 11-hectare piece of land at Sagonsongan, on the outskirts of the city. But the construction is not expected to be completed until the end of the year.

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Most people inside Gomampong survive on tinned salmon and corned beef. (Photo: Jack Board)

The local government said its aim is to eventually provide temporary housing for 50,000 families. There are budget constraints, land issues and security concerns delaying the roll out.

City mayor Majul Usman Gandamra admits it may take three years for Marawi to recover fully.

While many residents are finding new roots to grip onto, the time will surely go slowest for those unlucky ones who still have nothing. 

Source: CNA/jb