SHAFAQNA – Three Christian civilians said they had cowered in a basement for weeks while militants inspired by the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS) went from door to door killing non-Muslims in the southern Philippine city of Marawi, before fleeing for their lives at dawn last Tuesday.
It was their Muslim employer who hid them in his basement.
“We heard them (militants) shouting ‘Allahu akbar’ and asking neighbours about religion,” said house painter Ian Torres, 25, who had come to Marawi for a job. “We could only hear them. If they could not answer questions about Quran verses, gunfire immediately followed.”
Their account, and others from people who have fled the battle zone in Marawi, starkly illustrate the brutal religious calculus of the militants as well as the heroic efforts of local Muslims who risked their lives to protect their Christian friends and workers.
The militants, a coalition of local insurgent groups loyal to ISIS, began their assault on the city on May 23, announcing their intent to create an Islamist caliphate in the Philippines’ only predominantly Muslim city. Since then, more than 300 people have been killed, the Philippine military says.
There have been previous reports of militants threatening or killing Christians, but it is not known how many have died. The military says 26 civilians have been killed, but the militants still control about a fifth of the city, and there may be other areas that the military has not reached.
The three Christians who escaped were part of a group of five labourers from Iligan, about 40km to the north, who had been hired to refurbish the house of a prominent Muslim trader in Marawi.
But what was supposed to be a routine job turned into a nightmare when they were trapped in hostile territory .
One of the men, Mr Nick Andilig, 26, said about 50 militants suddenly appeared in the neighbourhood where they were working, shouting “Allahu akbar” and displaying a black flag.
“They claimed to be ISIS out on a mission to cleanse the city,” he said. He said he thought that meant they would kill all non-Muslims in the area.
The fighters appeared to be in their 20s, wore face masks and head gear, and carried long firearms, Mr Andilig said. He said their employer hid the workers in his basement. When the militants reached his door, the workers overheard him arguing with them.
“He told the gunmen that there were no Christians in the house,” Mr Andilig said. The militants eventually moved on to the next house. Then they heard shooting.
When Mr Andilig and his group eventually emerged from hiding, they saw several bodies with what appeared to be gunshot wounds.
“Our employer escaped earlier with another household staff,” he said. “He said he would come back for us but never made it. He was a good Muslim.”
That left the five workers, four men and a pregnant woman in the house.
For days they subsisted on food the owner had left behind, mostly canned goods and rice, but eventually that ran out. “All of us decided to escape,” Mr Andilig said. “But our companion, who is seven months pregnant, could not run along with us. She and her husband decided to stay.” As dawn broke on Tuesday, Mr Andilig, Mr Torres and Mr Arman Langilan, 22, fled.
“We told each other, whatever happens, happens,” Mr Torres said. “If we get hit and die, that’s our fate. But we had to escape. Or at least die trying.”
They alternated between running and hiding in thick shrubs, eventually reaching the Agos River, which divides the city and separates the area controlled by the militants from that controlled by the Philippine military.
They were found by the police wandering, tired and hungry, among the ruins of the city.