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Residents who returned from evacuation centers walk past a bullet-ridden house believed to have been rented by pro-Islamic State militant group leaders Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute before their attack on the region, in Basak, Malutlut district in Marawi city, Philippines October 29, 2017. REUTERS/Romeo Ranoco(reuters_tickers)
By Martin Petty
MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) - Khaliluddin Ismail returned home on Sunday after five months of war in the southern Philippines to find his house ransacked. But he's still smiling.
"At least we have something left," he said, standing in a room with clothes, toys, ornaments and damaged pictures strewn across the floor.
"Others have nothing. They lost their homes, they lost their lives."
Ismail, 44, the Imam of a nearby mosque, considers himself one of the luckiest people in Marawi. The city was devastated by more than 150 days of battles between government forces and pro-Islamic State militants that killed more than 1,100 people and displaced some 350,000.
His house is in Marawi's safe zone, an area long abandoned by residents but untouched by unrelenting shelling and military air strikes that have all but flattened the city's commercial heart, destroying thousands of homes, shops and vehicles.
Six days after troops killed the last remaining rebels, Ismail was among about 4,000 people allowed to return to their homes on Sunday in Marawi's Basak Malutlot area.
Many like him have discovered their houses were looted and left in disarray.
"I opened the door and I was shocked, but I'm still happy to be home," he said.
Ismail fled with his family on May 24 during a fierce three-day firefight that erupted just 50 metres away, when security forces tried to raid the hideout of notorious militant leader Isnilon Hapilon, Islamic State's anointed "emir" in Southeast Asia.
Hapilon escaped, then issued a call to arms to hundreds of insurgents to initiate their planned takeover of Marawi. It sparked the Philippines' biggest urban battle in recent history, and fears that Islamic State's extremist agenda had gained a foothold in the south of the mainly Catholic country.
There were scenes of joy and chaos as a convoy of returning residents poured in to Marawi to a cacophony of horns and whistles, jamming what only a few hours earlier were deserted streets.
Armed police at checkpoints cross-checked documents and pictures of each passengers from the 712 families, to guard against possible infiltration by militants.
Babies cried as officials at a public hall shouted on megaphones to try to establish order as hundreds jostled to register for the sack of rice and 5,000 pesos ($97) allocated to each household.
With a stern face, the district's elderly chairwoman, Jamellah Indol Saro, yelled in the local Maranao dialect at anxious residents to calm down.
"I told them we have to thank Allah we're still alive," she said, smiling.
Some 6,500 families are due to return this week in a phased repatriation, a fraction of the 77,000 that fled to evacuation camps or nearby towns. Many face a lengthy wait for vast swathes of Marawi to be rebuilt.
Retired government employee Mitormar Goling, 72, came home to find jewellery, money, furniture and antiques had been stolen. He said he feared he would have starved or been killed had he stayed behind.
"We felt the ground trembling from the air strikes. We didn't know if the army could protect us," said Goling, wearing sunglasses and a white skull cap.
"If you don't believe in their ideology, ISIS sees you as the enemy," he said, referring to Islamic State.
DESTROY CITY TO SAVE IT
He was among many people who said they understood that the military had to destroy the city to save it.
Norida Manna's three-storey house was levelled by an air strike, but she's thankful she's alive.
The office clerk and single mother of six will now live at her sister's home, from which she fled in May as troops outside battled hooded, black-clad gunmen who helped the escape of Hapilon.
The rebel commander was subsequently killed in a military operation 13 days ago. [
"My home was destroyed, but I don't blame the military. They had a job to do," she said.
"I have nothing left, but to us, every day is a happy one now."
For a graphic on Islamic militant strongholds in Mindanao, click - http://fingfx.thomsonreuters.com/gfx/rngs/PHILIPPINES-MILITANTS/010041BW2VW/PHILIPPINEs-MILITANTS3.jpg