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Some trapped residents eat cardboards to survive


MARAWI – Camalia Baunto keeps a desperate vigil for news of her husband, trapped just a short walk away in brutal fighting between Islamist militants and government forces that has ruined this city.

He is among hundreds of civilians pinned down in pockets of this city that are controlled by the militants, and they are facing an onslaught of deadly threats including bombs, sniper fire, hunger, and a lack of medical care.

Some have made a two kilometer sprint to safety during the three weeks of conflict, risking being shot at by the militants, and Camalia waits every day at a secured government building nearby hoping her husband will run into her arms.

”It’s really painful for me. I’m always scared he’ll be hit,” Camalia, 43, told AFP on Wednesday in a soft voice as she held back tears and anxiously fixed her hijab.

”He is too traumatized to escape. Even we on the outside are afraid because you don’t know which direction the bullets are coming from.”

The fighting began on May 23 when hundreds of militants rampaged here, the most important Muslim city in the mainly Catholic Philippines, waving the black flags of the Islamic State group.

They have since withstood a relentless, US-backed bombing campaign, and intense ground battles with Filipino troops that have left large parts here resembling devastated cities in war-torn Syria and Iraq.

One of the keys to their survival has been the trapped civilians, who are acting as human shields in stopping the military from completely destroying the small areas controlled by the gunmen.

Even so, entire streets are now just full of rubble and the military’s bombs have not always hit their targets – with one strike going astray and killing 10 soldiers.

Most of the city’s 200,000 residents fled during the early stages of the fighting. Authorities say anywhere between 300 and 1,700 civilians remain trapped in the militant-held areas.

Twenty-six civilians have been confirmed killed in the fighting.

But local officials and aid workers believe dozens more have likely died, with their corpses rotting in the militant-held areas, and that conditions are growing increasingly dire as food runs out.

”Some residents are eating (cardboard) boxes. They just dip it in water to soften the material and eat it,”
provincial crisis management committee spokesman Zia Alonto Adiong told AFP, recounting testimonies from people who escaped. ”It’s heartbreaking. It’s almost unbelievable to think that people are living this way.”

The military has also reported that the militants are using some civilians as slaves, making them cook and carry munitions.