This needs to be proclaimed: before the Marawi Siege, the Meranaw people lived in peace. Yes, there were clan feuds that lasted for years, sporadic gunshots heard in the middle of the day, and a few illegal drugs sold in popular hideaways. But those were few and familiar. We did not live in fear.

The image that Marawi is more violent than other cities in the country is a product of the series of rebellion in the past. But to the Meranaw, a Moro rebel was heroic, not violent; their battle was to correct a historical injustice. For the people of Marawi, this terrifying image worked to our advantage; it created a veil of protection, discouraging people to come and exploit our land and our lake. We heard of course of incidents of drug trafficking and illegal arm dealing. But we thought those were isolated cases.

Inside that veil of mystery, Marawi communities exemplified our cultural values: katatabanga (supporting each other), kapamagogopa (helping each other), kaseselai (cheering each other), and kambangsa (building a nation together).

The young people of Marawi, comprising at least 45% of the population, are aware of all these – we learned these at home, in Madrasahs and Toril, and in our interaction with our elders, who could consume up to two hours talking about how great and how brave our families are.

A typical Meranaw wedding can last up to four hours or even longer: three hours for the speeches of our elders telling guests of the storied ancestors of the bride and groom, half an hour of eating, twenty minutes of picture taking, and ten minutes of actual wedding rites, where the bride is absent and is represented by her father. In our culture, the bridal march happens at the end, and she only goes up the stage for the picture taking. Strange, but this is who we are.

Like typical millennials, the Marawi youth are fascinated with social media, online games, and pop hits. Unlike many of their generation, they have to balance those with their duty to their family and their commitment to preserve their Meranaw culture and promote the Islam faith.

Thus, one could see, for example, a niqabi – we call her a ninja because of her black veil that covers the face except the eyes – taking a selfie or listening to her iPhone. It is a difficult balance, but the

future of Marawi depended on how the young could master this balancing act.

To the youth of Marawi, this motto is a legacy rather than a cliché: “The youth are the hope of the Bangsamoro”. They are aware of that. But they allowed their parents to direct their lives – what courses to take, who to marry, and what business to engage in. Every Meranaw parent had a carefully designed plot for their sons and daughters. The Meranaw youth’s idea of responsibility was to finish college and continue the legacy of the family.

It was only after the siege when               the role of creating the future of Marawi became real to them. And out of nowhere, they are all over the place.

“It is inspiring to see the youth of Marawi taking over its recovery and rehabilitation,” said Marawi Bishop Edwin dela Pena, D.D. They are the field volunteers, project implementors, camp managers, protest leaders, spokespersons, and elected barangay officials. “It’s their chance to create their own future now. We the elders will be here to guide them. But it’s their time,” CSO leader Samira Gutoc Tomawis said in one of her speeches.

And the youth, still recovering from loss and post-traumatic stress syndrome, have risen to the occasion. We heard them talking to one another – on the street, in the cafeteria, in seminars and workshops, in group chats. We hear them.

“You need to be firm, you need to be patient, and brave because you are the model. People will look at you…as the will of the youth.”

“If we care less about the happening around us, in our community, what will our future be like?”

“Even though you are young, you bring a different kind of hope because your presence alone can empower and improve the mood of many around you.”

“We are the youth. We will be the one to deliver – goods, services, governance…”

“You have something to help your community, and you can begin with yourself with self-discipline.”

These are voices of the Meranaw youth after the siege. This is their side of the story.

After a year, Jaffar Hadji Basher still remembers his encounter with an ISIS terrorist who wanted to enter their house. He was home after field work. His sister informed him about the ongoing fight between the armed forces and the ISIS-inspired group. They heard gunshots. Normal. He thought it would end soon. Just like the gunshots he became accustomed to. This is Marawi, he said. But the gunshots were getting louder and louder, closer to their house where he thought they would be safe. For three days, the sounds of gunshots filled them with fear, until the dreaded knock on their door. “Get out!” A member of the Maute Group was standing outside their house.

“Can we pack our bags first?” Jaffar bravely but foolishly pleaded to the man in black mask. There was no mercy on those eyes. Only hatred. The request was denied. His whole family evacuated with nothing. Everything they owned – concrete house, a pharmacy, cash savings, jewelries, the soon-to-open new business, and even his dowry for his marriage. All were left behind. All were gone now. His family became separated as each one tried to look for means to live.

Away from his family, Jaffar was lost and confused but remained steadfast. At the height of the siege, he continued his humanitarian work with Maradeca, one of the biggest local civil society organizations.

Even while his family was struggling in different evacuation sites, he decided to help other families by engaging in early recover projects for his fellow Meranaw, like providing shelter assistance and livelihoods.

Today, he serves as a project organizer doing education intervention in Lanao del Sur areas. He sees education as means to help children believe in a brighter future for them.

“Study and think of how you can be of help to your community, especially your family, not just your community, it is the basic foundation. Your family.” He told the kids with a voice that longed for his own family.

Isniharah Macalangcom, a young volunteer of United Youth for Peace and Development, an NGO that work for “peace, equality, justice, and economic prosperity especially among marginalized Bangsamoro Maranao in Lanao del Sur” believes that the Marawi youth must not despair after what happened.

Macalangcom was among the 1900 graduates of MSU Marawi last July 13, 2017, who marched for their graduation rites even while the fighting was going on.

“We need to stand on our own feet. Let’s move, let’s begin to coordinate and suggest… we also need a bigger network perhaps,” said Macalangcom.

Macalangcom’s hopes is bigger than her sense of loss. Losing a house is not easy, but what was important is that their family is together and complete. As an aspiring diplomat doing community works at the age of 24, she believes in the responsibility of the Meranaw youth to help in rehabilitating Marawi.

“If we care less about the happenings around us in our community, what will our future be like?” she emphasized.

Getting involved in societal issues and engaging people is what Khayriyyah Faykha Alonto Ala believes and does. Ala is an 18-year-old freshman student in MSU Main studying Public Administration. Like Jaffar and Macalangcom, she comes from Ground Zero. She has been in the forefront of the struggle for the right to return to their property and rebuild Marawi according to our pace, our culture, and our faith.

A newly-elected Barangay Chairperson, she dreams to raise the voice of the IDPs and fight for their rights.

“Even though you’re ‘just a youth’, and you are limited when it comes to influence, but there is a different vibe or aura coming from the youth that influences others regardless of your affiliation.

Ala concluded, “whether in your small ways or big ways, move all the time, move as a youth of Marawi, and, In Shaa Allah, your small ways or big ways will always be acknowledged because believe me, you are making changes in your own way.”

Believing on the youth’s participation for an inclusive change is shared by many other young people who have become the workforce of the government and the NGOs.

“We are the next generation… We are the youth. We will be the one to deliver good services, good governance… We can contribute largely because we are the ones left to initiate, aren’t we?” said Juhaira Saidali, Program Manager for Duyog Marawi – Catholic Relief Services Livelihood Restoration Project.

Saidali was among the registered social workers who passed the board while the siege was ongoing.

“The siege awakened the Meranaw youth. They have taken in bigger responsibilities: breadwinners, aid workers, human rights advocates, elected officials. They had to grow up fast as all their family businesses are gone and their parents are too old to be employable.”

Now, they have to add a new balancing act in their lives – to be young and energetic but at the same time to be the responsible adult in rebuilding Marawi.

Balancing act is what the Meranaw youth have learned to deal with. And like the best singkil dancers of our villages, we would do it with grace, with elegance, and yes, with pride.

Are you still there? Shame on those who say everything is back to normal. Shame on those who say we have moved on. Shame on those who say we are settling with what we have today.

I am at home but still far away from home. I am lying in a bed looking up, realizing that my house doesn’t have a roof nor a window. I am walking in the middle of the street not knowing where to go I am walking with shame shaking me because I can only do so little. Why does it feel like I am walking headless? Why my heart does feels so broken that even my direction seems so lost.

I am lost

I am missing

I am not happy

I am incomplete

Beyond those barricades is not just hectares of land and tons of debris that needs to be cleared.

Beyond those barricade is a part of who I am, inside there is my identity and the land of my forefathers.

That was once a land of joy and happiness. It was not a place full of world class establishments, it was not much but it was enough.

No one is asking for anything grand. We do not dream to be a hub of great structures because that is not who we are. Our questions are often left unanswered, and that scares us. How far is near? How close is soon?

If only they would listen to our plea. Our Marawi, are you still there? We are sorry if it is taking us so long. Do you know how much we miss you? They say we already have you but they don’t understand how much we love you. We love you so much that we want the whole of you. We are not settling with having just your arms and feet. You hold our hearts and that is what keeps us going.

We won’t stay lost forever, because now it is better to be a dead man than to continually walk around lost and headless. We will fight harder. We will speak louder. We will try our best. We will not give up until those barricades are lifted, until those roads be filled with life again. We will not give up until we hear laughter and see smiles in those ghostly walls. WE WILL NOT GIVE UP UNTIL JUSTICE IS SERVED.

Hold on our Marawi, soon we will be together. Soon we will finally be truly HOME.

Faykha Khayriyyah Alonto Ala

(Written by: AM Acmad)