When Islamic State-allied militants laid siege to the southern Philippine city of Marawi, Maute Group fighters used over 120 hostages as shields to keep military forces at bay during a five-month battle that devastated the once picturesque town.
Filipino Catholic priest Teresito Soganub was one of the few captives to escape the militants’ confinement while the fighting was ongoing. He was held hostage for a harrowing 116 days and then placed in the military’s protective custody for another two months to protect against reprisals and for rehabilitation.
After nearly four months in captivity, the 57-year-old priest escaped along with another male hostage, running blindly into the night when their captors’ momentarily let down their guard. They ran the risk of being shot by military or militant snipers but by blind faith emerged on the battlefield’s other side unscathed.
Soganub recently returned to his hometown in Norala township, South Cotabato province, a month after security forces liberated Marawi from the terrorist group’s occupation. This is his story:
The bearded clergyman said he recalls the first shots of the siege ringing out on May 23, an early afternoon burst of gunfire that jolted the central district of Marawi, a lakeside city straddling almost 100 villages.
At the time, he was with five other church workers inside his Catholic church’s compound and assumed it was just another outburst between battling clans in the city that typically died down after a few hours.
By 5:30 pm, in the dusk before sunset, public vehicles had stopped plying the nearly empty streets as gunfire continued to rat-a-tat-tat across the city.
Soganub said he and his church associates climbed onto the rooftop of the convent and saw for the first time that the city’s police station, jail and Christian college were all ablaze. This outburst of violence was no normal family feud.
Soon thereafter, a van approached the compound’s locked and barricaded gate and repeatedly bumped it trying to break in. “Priests and nuns, go out peacefully. Don’t make any wrong moves, otherwise something bad will happen to you,” a male voice commanded over a megaphone, Soganub recounted.
The priest says he was confronted by more than a dozen long-haired, heavily-armed young men clad in flowing robes when he reluctantly stepped out of the compound. They looked “ready to kill”, the priest said.
Instead, the Islamic militants herded him and the other five church workers into a van with six other petrified captives from the Christian school the militants had earlier set on fire.
Inside the van, one of the armed men twice threateningly cocked his firearm and announced to his captives that they now belonged to ISIS, the acronym for the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant terror group.
He later instructed the hostages to place calls to Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, military and police officials and local government leaders to request that they withdrawal all troops from Marawi and refrain from launching airstrikes.
While speaking to his bishop, one of the armed men grabbed Soganub’s mobile phone and said, “If they will not follow our demand, tell them we will kill our hostages one-by-one and scatter their dead bodies on the streets.”
Soganub said the militants fired their guns in jubilation that night as it became clear they controlled all key entry and exit points to the city. The priest said it was clear the militants had prepared well for their occupation, including the strategic use of hostages to fortify their staying power.
A week after the siege began, the bearded priest appeared in a video posted online by the militants that showed him appealing to Duterte to stop the military’s offensive. The priest’s coerced call, however, fell on deaf government ears.
A battle the government initially thought would be finished in a few days morphed into a full-blown urban war that lasted for five months, displacing some 400,000 civilians and killing over 1,100, mostly militants.
Duterte placed all of Mindanao island under martial law just hours after the Maute Group laid siege to Marawi, a rights-curbing order that is scheduled to remain in place until the end of the year.
On the second day of fighting, Soganub said he could see from his confinement the massive exodus of city dwellers who took with them only what they could carry in their hands or fit in their vehicles.
“It had turned into a ghost city,” the priest said. “Only the Islamic State fighters and hostages were left.”
Days later, militant gunmen combined hostages held around the city into one group of around 120, including women, children and the elderly, Soganub said. He said the house where they were initially held captive was on at least one occasion nearly hit by government airstrikes.
The militants later ordered able-bodied males to dig tunnels towards a large mosque that could more easily accommodate all the hostages.
The tunnels were designed not only to protect the militants and hostages from government fire, but also prevent security forces from tracking their movements and supply lines.
He said the militants ordered them to run and drop to the ground to avoid sniper fire when emerging above ground from one tunnel, indication to him that their captors considered them more valuable alive than dead. They also made sure elderly hostages were safely brought to the mosque, he said.
The militants cynically leveraged into Duterte’s order to spare the city’s mosques during aerial bombardments and artillery strikes to avoid escalating the conflict into a full-blown religious war that could attract more foreign fighters.
The decision was also apparently influenced by government concern for the millions of Filipinos who work overseas in Islamic countries, including Gulf states, that would be angered by state destruction of holy Muslim shrines.
Once in the mosque, Soganub said the militants, some of whom were accompanied by their families, separated the male from the female hostages as practiced in Islam. They also made all hostages, regardless of their faith, pray with them three times a day, he said.
Soganub, himself a man of the cloth, said he was taken aback by their strong adherence to the Muslim faith. Muslims usually pray five times a day, but because they were at war, or jihad, the militants prayed only three times a day, he said.
“They always pray when it’s time to pray, holding and kissing the Koran reverently,” the priest observed, noting most of the militants held small Korans in their pockets. “They don’t rush to fight when it’s their prayer time.”
Eventually the militants took half of the hostages to another distant location, a tactic aimed at diverting the military’s attention from one main target. Despite the government’s attempts to cut the militants’ supply chains, he said the mosque where he was held always had enough food.
The priest said he is now also well-practiced in making bombs, as several of the hostages were directed to help the militants make improvised explosives that were used in the fighting and to fortify their positions.
The government terminated military operations in Marawi on October 23, exactly five months after the Islamic State-allied militants first occupied the city. It’s not clear yet the siege of Marawi will be Islamic State’s last assault on the Philippines, or Soganub the last to be taken hostage and live to tell about it.
“I was a captive for 116 days – it was a horrible ordeal,” said the priest, who among other tasks was assigned to the kitchen to wash utensils. “[But] while death stared us in the face many times because of the fierce fighting … we were treated well by our captors.”