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'Crazy hope' for missing kin in Philippines' Marawi

Ayee Macaraig
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A year after jihadists invaded the Philippine city of Marawi, Alma Tome, Evelyn Powao, and Melgie Powao, still pray for the return of their missing husbands

Ten men from the same family vanished after jihadists invaded the Philippine city of Marawi a year ago -- each day since, their wives have prayed their bones do not lie in its devastated landscape.

The women have been told to accept their husbands were likely among the 1,200 killed in the five-month battle that flattened swathes of the city, but they refuse to move on until they know for sure.

"I am hoping he will come home. All of us are hoping they will return. Even if my family says I am crazy, I told them my husband will come back," Melgie Powao said of her spouse Victor.

One year after the battle, reconstruction work is due to begin and the authorities say jihadists are far from mounting another such attack.

Yet, the families of the scores still missing are the overlooked victims of the Philippines' deadliest confrontation with Islamists.

The fighting left behind hundreds of corpses, with more likely to be found in the conflict area which has yet to be completely cleared of unexploded bombs.

The Powao men -- fathers and brothers, cousins and uncles -- from neighbouring Iligan city were in Marawi for construction jobs when clashes with Islamic State-aligned fighters broke out on May 23 last year.

In the fighting that ensued, government airstrikes on Marawi and house-to-house fighting left neighbourhoods in ruins that have been compared to battlegrounds in Syria or Iraq.

Only one of the Powao group -- the eleventh man -- escaped and it was from him the wives learned that an airstrike may have killed some of them, while jihadists herded others into a van.

"Until I see their bodies, I won't believe they are dead," 31-year-old Alma Tome said of her husband Rowel and the others.

The Powaos are among 78 people officially listed as missing, though possibly hundreds more disappeared.

Some families were hesitant to file reports out of fear they could be targeted by authorities hunting for anyone with links to jihadists.

- 'Bury them and grieve' -

Many of Marawi's 200,000 residents fled their homes, including more than 10,000 people from the so-called "ground zero".

However so many explosives were left behind after the shooting stopped that even a year later thousands of residents have been allowed to visit -- but not return to -- their shattered homes.

The Powaos' ordeal began on the first day of the siege, which was the last time they heard from their men. In a shaking voice, Melgie's husband told her over the phone not to worry.

But after months of waiting the women made a search trip to Marawi. They even visited funeral homes but could not bear looking at the corpses' faces.

"We were running out of pictures as we gave them to authorities to try to get help, but we went home without any news," said Melgie, 24.

The women gave DNA samples to police in October to check against recovered corpses, but have heard nothing yet.

Allan Tabell, who heads the group identifying the remains, told AFP that authorities are doing their best.

"We're not expecting it to be done overnight. It's a long process but we have to respect that it's a process... we cannot afford any mistakes," he said.

The testing will go on as the rebuilding of the city creaks into action. Philippine authorities estimate it will cost $987 million to put Marawi right again. The work is expected to start in June.

Four Chinese companies and one Malaysian firm put in bids to handle the project that will involve the huge task of carting away hundreds of tonnes of debris, and which is expected to take years.

In the meantime the Powao women will continue to seek answers, struggling with the gaping absence in their lives.

Alma, with her two-year-old son in her arms, said the boy sometimes picks up her ringing phone thinking his dad is on the other end. He calls out "papa" when a car stops in front of their house.

"The pain is double," said Alma, who also has a one-year-old toddler.

Melgie says the Powao women don't need aid, just answers.

"All we want is to see the DNA results. Even if they are just bones, at least we can bury them properly and grieve," she said.