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In war-shaken Philippine city, civilians struggle to escape

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    Rohaina Salic, center, sits with family and relatives as they wait their ride at the provincial government headquarters in Marawi city, southern Philippines.

MARAWI, Philippines >> In a lull in the fighting, Rohaina Salic first heard a distant voice telling civilians trapped in the war-shaken city of Marawi they could finally emerge from their homes.

She didn’t know whether the plea, projected from a megaphone many blocks away, had come from the Philippine army, or from black-clad militants linked to the Islamic State group who seized this mosque-studded southern town last month.

She had not set foot outside since the clashes — the worst to hit the Southeast Asian nation in years — began. But on this day, at least for this one precious moment, the guns had fallen silent.

And it was time to go.

“We didn’t really know whether it was safe to come out,” said the 38-year-old Salic, who walked out of the rubble of Marawi on Thursday with six members of her family. “We put all our faith in God.”

More than two weeks after Islamic militants plunged the lakeside town into chaos with an unprecedented attack that has killed close to 200 people and triggered fears that extremists are trying to gain a foothold in the country’s restive south, hundreds of militants remain stubbornly lodged in Marawi’s city center.

And every day, civilians like Salic trickle out with harrowing tales of survival, and escape.

On Thursday, the lucky ones numbered 45.

Some had managed to walk — or run — out on their own. Others were plucked by the army or civilian rescue teams that are launching risky missions near the front lines with white flags wrapped around their vehicles’ antennae.

The evacuees who end up at the provincial government’s headquarters are met by doctors and nurses who check their vital signs and offer first aid and emergency care before sending them on to safer areas further inland.

Sittie Johaynee D. Sampaco, a Health Department volunteer, said the new arrivals appear deeply traumatized, having spent days on end without food and water in a city crawling with insurgents that has been without electricity for weeks.

“We’re getting a lot of people with severe dehydration, fevers and coughs, hypertension,” Sampaco said.

The fighting has also taken a mental toll.

“Some of the patients can’t even speak. Some just cry and won’t interact with other people,” Sampaco said. “This isn’t over. We’re expecting to get much more.”

It’s unclear how many people remain trapped in Marawi. Authorities have put the figure this week at anywhere from 100 to 2,000. They include at least a dozen hostages, among them a Catholic priest and parishioners who were seized when gunmen stormed therir church shortly after clashes began May 23. Their status is unknown.

Lt. Col. Jo-Ar Herrera said the military’s main priority is to rescue trapped civilians, many of whom are in the same part of the city center where the army estimates 240 Islamic fighters who have stockpiled food and ammunition for a protracted fight are also contained.

Despite days of punishing airstrikes, Herrera said the military is treading lightly so it will not endanger the lives of those it’s trying to save.

He said the army is in cellphone contact with some of the trapped civilians and has helped direct them out of danger zones by telling them which directions they can safely move.

Herrera confirmed the army has also employed megaphones to implore people to leave parts of the city it has secured.

Thursday was largely quiet, but several firefights were reported.

Salic said her family was able to survive for two weeks because part of their residence is also a grocery, stocked with biscuits, instant noodles and soft drinks. They also had a large stock of drinking water, but used rain water to wash their hands and the dishes. The family, she said, had not had electricity since May 24; they lit candles each night as the crackle of gunfire echoed outside.

When they finally made a move Thursday to escape, it was the absence of gunfire that drove them out the door.

What they saw outside was astonishing: destruction, in every direction.

Salic, who was hauling two pink pieces of luggage, said her family — three children and four adults — crawled over mountains of multistory homes and under downed electricity polls. Rubble from the fighting blocked many streets.

There was not a soul in sight.

“We were the only people walking,” Salic said. “I kept waiting for us to be hit by the guns.”

The hours-long journey was toughest on her husband, who has had difficulty walking since a work-related accident. Limping, he was helped along the way by their oldest son.

Salic’s 7-year-old daughter, Aljannah, played another vital role. She carried a makeshift white flag, fashioned from a T-shirt and a pole they broke off of a household cleaning tool.

As they neared an army checkpoint in the afternoon, a single gunshot rang out. Aljannah made a move to run.

It wasn’t clear whether the army or insurgents had fired. But Salic quickly grabbed her daughter’s hand and yanked her close.

“Don’t run,” she whispered. “Trust in Allah.”

Shortly afterward, the troops helped the family onto a truck and drove them to the city’s western edge. Within minutes, they were being treated at an emergency health clinic inside the relative safety of the provincial government headquarters.

By Friday morning, explosions and bursts of gunfire downtown could be heard again, and smoke rose from city as helicopter gunships circled overhead.

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