MARAWI CITY, Philippines: As dark clouds form and then slowly release thick bullets of rain, a group of Marawi officials are trying to exhume a body from its grave.
A body previously buried with no name, no farewell, has been identified as a Philippine marine; Private Alejandro Balean was killed during an intense gun battle in June.
Each body recovered from the scarred interior of the war-torn city is having its DNA collected to help family members find their loved ones. Most of the cadavers extracted from the conflict zone are badly decomposed – some are just skeletons.
But as the body bag is brought back up to light, a cruel mistake is also uncovered. An error means the bag’s identity tag does not match the grave.
This is not the body of Private Balean, which could be buried anywhere in this swelling Muslim cemetery within sight of the swirling black smoke from fresh air strikes and mortar launches in Marawi. It is evidence of the difficult process unfolding in the fog of war involving the mounting casualties.
Most of these bodies are believed to be militants – those who have waged a bloody offensive in pursuit of forming an Islamic caliphate in the southern Philippines.
That ambition has been beaten back and deteriorated into a grinding test of attrition, still without end after more than four months.
Still, the officials tasked with this unenviable task, cannot be really sure whether they are extremists or civilians.
“Most of them we believe to be members of the Maute-ISIS group. Maybe around 80 to 90 per cent are fighters,” said Amee Mindalano, the chief of operations for Marawi’s City Disaster Risk Reduction Management Office.
But Hanifi Sani, the head of Rescue Operations says the figure may be actually about 60 per cent.
“We’re not really sure. Some of them were found inside the battle zone. We know that that area is being occupied by militants,” he said.
“We say that most of them allegedly were fighters because most of them have battle wounds, have gunshot wounds on different parts of their body.”
In fact, the private is one of just a handful of conflict casualties to be identified. Of the more than 100 bodies recovered, all but ten are still unknown.
At Maqbara Mass Grave, the vast majority of the cadavers have been placed in close proximity, buried six feet below the surface in gritty dirt. There is no ceremony, just procedure.
Families have not been swift to come forward in search for the missing, according to authorities. Without that step, the dead may never be given a farewell, regardless of their role in this war.
“Even if we have DNA generated on these samples if there is no person who comes out to say their relatives are missing, then we only have generated DNA and no match,” said Police Senior Superintendent Mary Leocy Mag-abo from Scene of Crime Operatives.
The DNA procedure is being performed at a morgue at a local funeral parlour. Daily, more bodies are being brought in and dozens lay in black bags in a non-refrigerated room. The smell of death lingers aggressively.
As darkness falls, a fresh salvage is delivered. Two staff members get to work, draining the fluids from a corpse in bad shape. It is likely that it has been exposed on the battlefield for weeks.
‘EVERYONE IS MISSING’
Hedjarah Decampong is one of many Marawi residents deeply anxious about the fate of some of her relatives. Two of her cousins remain missing despite what feels like endless searching for them.
“Their place was bombed in their own barangay. They’ve been missing ever since. Maybe they have died already, but for now we are still looking for them,” she said.
“They were very kind. One of them lived in my house. They were just in their 20s.”
She added: “It is very hard if you lose a family member especially now that you’re an evacuee. You don’t know where your parents are. You don’t know where your cousins are. Everyone is missing.”
The official death toll is just shy of 1,000 people, according to the military. That includes 749 alleged militants, 155 service personnel but just 47 civilians.
Authorities admit they have no clear picture of how many people are unaccounted for, with the residents of Marawi displaced across tent cities, evacuation shelters and sheltered within communities.
Amid the confusion though it seems clear that the death toll will be much higher than reported now. The streets of the city’s business centre are still gripped by dogged fighting, with the last remaining militants holding onto a small piece of territory.
“They're becoming desperate already,” said Romeo Brawner Jr, deputy commander of the Joint Task Group Ranao. “Some of them want to escape. Some of them want to surrender. Others want to stay and fight.
“They are running out of food, water, medicine and ammunition.”
A key task for the troops embroiled in the final push is to bring back bodies, some of which have been placed in shallow graves. They also bear witness to atrocities carried out in this struggle.
“We treat the main battle area not only as an area of actual military operation, but also as a crime scene,” said local political spokesman Zia Adiong.
Accountability will come later, after liberation. And maybe some closure too will eventually then arrive for this city and its many dead.