MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) - Mahid Radia’s last glimpse of his parents was when he and his children were fleeing their home amid gunfire, explosions and the howl of airplanes bombing the dens of extremists who had taken over Marawi, the Philippines’ only Islamic city.
The military prevailed over Islamic State-inspired rebels in the country’s biggest and longest battle since World War Two. One year since the fighting began, there is peace in Marawi, but little else.
Radia’s lakeside home is a pile of rubble, like scores of others in the former war zone. His mother and father are still missing, and he yearns for closure.
“Our parents decided to stay home in the belief the fighting would end in days,” said Radia, 31, the eldest of 11 siblings.
“We pray that if they died, their remains were retrieved.”
Hundreds of families are missing relatives since the start of a war that few saw coming, and which could happen again, the government has warned, if Islamic State’s radical ideology spreads among the Muslim minority in the mainly Catholic nation.
About 165 security forces and 47 residents were confirmed killed in the battle for Marawi. But people from Marawi believe the number of civilians killed was far higher.
The official death toll in the five-month war is 1,109, mostly members of a shadowy militant alliance that drew fighters from radical factions of domestic Islamist groups.
It has taken six months to clear hundreds of unexploded bombs and booby traps and for volunteers to sift the debris.
Samples of DNA have been taken from 244 retrieved bodies, prior to their burial in numbered graves. Radia hopes to find his mother and father, but tracing matches is difficult. Relatives have claimed just 11 bodies so far.
The task becomes tougher because the bodies of residents trapped or held captive in the war zone cannot be distinguished from those of slain militants.
“We had instances when we identified the deceased and we coordinated with the relatives, but they did not claim the cadaver,” said Norhanie Marohombsar, the head of the interior ministry in Marawi.
“The relatives fear being tagged as part of the insurgency.”
Authorities and aid workers have different estimates of the number of residents still missing since the fighting ended in October.
Marawi Mayor Majul Gandamra put the number at 50, while the provincial disaster agency says it is 78. International Committee of the Red Cross workers in Marawi estimate 100 families are missing relatives.
Marawi evacuee Malik Manguda struggles to move on with his life because he does not know what happened to his 20-year-old son, Ramos. He has seen a photograph of a dead body that resembles his son, but it’s not enough.
“Many times I am not myself,” said Manguda. “I thought parents are supposed to die ahead of their children.”
About 28,000 families remain displaced and many fear they will have no home to return to. With no money or insurance, some must also tackle issues of proving land ownership.
Residents have taken every opportunity to stake their claims during visits the military has recently begun to allow to the battle zone, lasting just a few hours each.
Names and contact details are spraypainted or etched in charcoal on the blackened skeletons of former homes. Others came prepared with tarpaulins and painted banners.
The military is bent on preventing a repeat of Marawi, but intelligence reports suggest an effort by extremists to start recruiting again. The government has warned against potential attacks on other cities.
The army has held meetings and seminars to warn people to resist radical groups and help the government to stop them.
“Not all local terrorist groups died. There still are remnants,” said Major Jeoffrey Braganza of Joint Task Group Tabang, which is helping Marawi’s recovery effort.
“For the remnants, we are in hot pursuit with the help of reports from the ground,” he added.
Editing by Martin Petty and Clarence Fernandez