Gunshots. She could have sworn she heard gunshots. People were screaming and running. Panic settled over the market like a hurricane on a July day, except it wasn't July. It was May, and as much as she hopes she was wrong, she was pretty sure they were under attack.
It was supposed to be another typical day in Padian (market) for Sorayda Sultan when distant gunshots caught her attention. People were in hysteria, screaming warnings about "ISIS" and how they had to get away while they still could. As real as the danger was - evident by the mass chaos that was heading their way - many were still in denial, Sorayda included.
Surely they weren’t talking about “The” Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, right?
“Sabi namin ‘hindi naman ‘yan. Basta ‘wag ka lang lalabas (we just thought everything would be fine as long as we stayed indoors)," she confessed.
Many still refused to believe that they were actually terrorists and simply thought they were armed citizens.
“Nakapag-overnight pa kami actually sa mga bahay namin kasi hindi namin in-expect na talagang mag-evacuate kaming lahat (we even got to stay one more night in our homes because none of us expected that we’d be forced to evacuate)," she said.
Later that night, however, the power went out and they watched in horror as Marawi’s City Jail suddenly caught fire and went up in flames. It was then that they finally realized that maybe this wasn’t as “light” of a situation as they initially thought.
“Natakot kami para sa mga babies (we were scared for the babies). May mga babies kasi na bagong kapapanganak palang talaga (there were babies who were just born then)," Sorayda said.
The sound of gunfire surrounded them, and the family went and sought refuge in their neighbor’s concrete house because it offered more protection compared to their wooden one.
“Yung sister-in-law ko kapapanganak lang niya noon, three days ago lang. Dala-dala niya yung baby niya dun (my sister-in-law had just given birth three days ago and she carried her three-day-old baby with her to their neighbor’s house)," she further said.
They returned to their homes the following day despite the ensuing firefight. Some of their neighbors were already starting to pack and the Sultan family followed suit. Still, there was a little part of them that believed that things would be settled over negotiations between the government and the terrorist group within two weeks tops.
The family planned to evacuate to Patani village on their Russi motorcycle but only five of their eight children could fit in it. Thinking of what would best benefit their children, Sorayda and her husband agreed that he should go ahead and secure their youngest children’s safety and come back for them later. He also arranged for someone to get his mother, Sorayda’s mother-in-law, who couldn’t walk. His mother was retrieved not too long after he left, but little did they know that the terrorists were beginning to block all entrances and exits to the area and once her husband got out, he couldn’t get back in.
While they were waiting for her husband to come back for them, Sorayda couldn’t shake the sinking feeling in her chest. A few of her neighbors who were also waiting for their families to come back and get them apparently also had the same feeling because they began suggesting that they begin walking because who knew how long they would be waiting if they didn’t make a move now. Dead bodies littered the streets and canals. No one dared to stare at them for too long for fear that it might turn out to be someone they knew.
They were finally reunited with her husband at Patani’s border and he explained how he tried to go back for them but was blocked by the terrorists.
“So natakot din siya kasi baka kunin siya o kunin yung motor kasi that time, nang-aagaw sila ng mga vehicles (he was worried that they might take either him or the motorcycle because they were known for taking vehicles at that time)," Sorayda said.
They stayed in Patani for about two to three days with nothing but the clothes on their back and their important documents before they decided to return to their hometown in Masiu. Even then, when they were already evacuating, they still believed that they could still return for their things in Marawi after a few weeks. But they didn’t even get to stay in Masiu for a week before they had to evacuate again because some terrorists had allegedly made their way there as well.
So the family made their way to Iligan City where they stayed with a relative for a year. During that time, they enrolled their children in a nearby school but most refugees in Iligan also had children going there and Sorayda could see that the school had not anticipated the sudden surge of students. As a public teacher herself, she volunteered her services both to help the children and to get her mind off of her own problems. They moved back to Masiu the year after Marawi was officially liberated from the terrorist’s control where Sorayda continued to work as a teacher, making daily committees from Masiu to Marawi.
One faithful day though, one of her coworkers called to tell her that her name was on the list for some sort of housing program and that she had to get to city hall right away. Once she got there she was introduced to UN-Habitat, an international non-governmental organization, and their program, Rebuilding Marawi through Community-driven Shelters and Livelihood where they coordinated with local government agencies like the National Housing Authority (NHA) and the Technical Education and Skills Development Agency (TESDA) to give internally displaced persons (IDPs) permanent shelters and develop their skills for their livelihood program.
Sorayda and her fellow beneficiaries formed a Home Owner’s Association (HOA) within their community, each with around 46 to 48 members. Unfortunately, because of land complications, a good portion of the construction was delayed and not everyone could receive their homes at the same time. She was one of the last 25 members of their HOA to receive permanent shelter.
"Sabi ng asawa ko nung nanggaling siya sa NHA, 'Wow! Ang ganda!" (All my husband could say when he came back from the NHA was "wow! It's beautiful!)
Before it was even officially turned over, the family already started living in their new home. With one living room, one kitchen, and three bedrooms - one for her and her husband and two separate rooms for her sons and daughters), Sorayda described it as a mini-mansion compared to their old wooden house by the lake.
The community they built within their village is a testament to how far they have come since the siege. The people of Pamayandeg sa Ranaw Residence of Dansalan are slowly adjusting to their new lives and putting the trauma of the siege behind them. Progress may be slow, but it is evident - with each day that passes that the children of their village can run around and play, hope latches on stronger, and stability is restored in their lives. Five long years after the siege, they still have a long way to go before they can fully heal, and maybe it will take a lifetime before they can continue as if the siege never happened. But they have come so far.
“Although maliit pero wala namang maliit sa isang bahay kung magkakasundo ang mga nakatira doon (it might be small but what matters is that we get along). So I can call our house not just a house, but a home," Sorayda shared.