In the Philippines, rebuilding hope amidst the rubble of urban warfare

Five months of urban warfare devastated the city of Marawi. More than two years later, children are still trying to pick up the pieces.

By Toby Fricker
Philippines. A boy stands in the remains of a building.

01 October 2019

MARAWI, Philippines  –  “When I first heard explosions, we all ran. We didn’t take anything.” That’s how 17-year-old Jason remembers the day in May 2017 that changed his life forever.

Today, Jason stands amidst the rubble of what was once his home in Marawi, on the southern Philippine island of Mindanao. Five months of intense urban warfare devastated Marawi when Philippine armed forces fought to retake the city after it had been taken over by non-state armed groups. 

“It was noon and I heard helicopters and other noise,” says 12-year-old Jalaisa, who lived in another part of the city. “Someone knocked on our door and said we should leave. They said if we didn’t, no one would be left [alive].”

Philippines. The remains of a street in Mindanao.
A street that was badly damaged during five months of fighting in 2017 in Marawi in the southern Philippines.
The scars of war

Jason and Jalaisa managed to escape the carnage, initially fleeing to relatives’ homes a safe distance from the fighting. But, as the siege dragged on, they moved with their families to a tented evacuation site on the outskirts of Marawi, where they still live today.

The United Nations verified 56 attacks on schools, education personnel and health-care facilities during the siege, a result of the fighting and bombardments. Now, Marawi is left confronting a complicated mix of both short- and long-term harm.

For Jason and Jalaisa – and many others – the question has gradually shifted from when they will be able to return home, to whether they can go back at all.

“We thought it would only last a few days,” Jason says. “It was hard for me seeing the place where I was born being destroyed.”

Futures on hold

The use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas like Marawi is devastating, especially for children, who are likely to be found in places – like markets, playgrounds and schools – that are often hit. 

Not only are children globally disproportionately likely to be killed by explosive remnants of war, but those surviving frequently face lifelong disability and emotional distress. They lose loved ones, their homes, access to health care and clean water. In short, they are robbed of their childhood.

The disruption to education can be particularly damaging.

Jalaisa says she missed a year of school. “I cried because I couldn’t go,” she says. “I kept thinking that I couldn’t help my family anymore because I wouldn’t have an education.”

Philippines. A girl stands in a camp.
Jalaisa stands next to her temporary home at a tented evacuation site on the outskirts of Marawi city in Mindanao, in the southern Philippines.

But while Jalaisa is now attending a temporary school at the evacuation site, Jason hasn’t been back in class since he fled the fighting. The money his parents earn goes towards sending his two younger siblings to school, but Jason has to stay at the evacuation site to look after the family tent. 

“It’s hard for me to be out of school because it hurts when people tell you that you aren’t educated,” Jason says.

For Jason and Jalaisa, losing their old schools isn’t just about the destruction of the actual buildings, but everything else that came with them. “I miss my classmates and friends most,” Jalaisa says. “I don’t know where they are now.”

Jason is still in contact with some of his friends, who live in nearby towns. But living at the evacuation site makes it hard to visit anyone. “We were like siblings since we were little, but now I don’t really see them,” he says.

Protecting civilians in urban warfare

The impact of the devastation of the battle will be felt for years to come, especially as Marawi is located in what was already one of the poorest provinces in the Philippines. Helping the area recover is a priority, but so is preventing urban warfare from ravaging towns and cities in the first place.

This week, representatives of government, the United Nations and  civil society organizations active in this field  are meeting in Vienna, Austria, to discuss ways to better protect civilians like Jason and Jalaisa who are caught up in urban conflicts. The Vienna Conference on Protecting Civilians in Urban Warfare will include discussions over a draft political declaration that would ultimately commit the states that endorse it to avoid the use of explosive weapons with wide area effects in populated areas.

But for Jason and Jalaisa, such a commitment comes too late. Their lives have already been upended and they have lost not only their chance for a regular education, but also the day-to-day mementos and objects that are sometimes taken for granted.

“I miss my [basketball] jerseys and the trophy I got for being the most valuable player in the basketball tournament,” says Jason, wistfully.

Jalaisa misses her cat, Orange. “When the guns started, the cat was afraid and ran away. I couldn’t find her,” Jalaisa says. “I cried because I missed her.”


UNICEF joins the call in urging Member States to develop concrete political commitments to avoid the use of explosive weapons in populated areas with wide area effects, to limit their direct and long-term devastating effects on children, civilians and vital infrastructure. At the same time, UNICEF reiterates its call for all countries to endorse and operationalize the Safe Schools Declaration, to better protect education from attack.