MANILA – While the rains come and go, the flow of wounded into a military hospital in the north of the island does not. Just as two ambulances pull into the hospital at Camp Evangelista in Cagayan de Oro, the skies once again open up, muddying the dirt courtyard. They discharge yet another 10 soldiers, wounded in what is becoming a bloody, protracted insurgency by ISIS-affiliated militants.
Lt. Col. Jonna Dalaguit, the facility’s chief medical officer, looks exhausted from the constant stream of broken men who are ferried into her hospital, brought in displaying the wounds of war — “bullet wounds, blast wounds, fractures,” she tells CNN.
“We have (admitted around) 330 casualties since day two of this crisis.” It’s the worst count she’s ever seen.
It’s been like this for a month, since ISIS-aligned fighters stormed the northern Mindanao city of Marawi, capturing key government buildings and setting fire to churches and schools.
In the weeks that followed, the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP) have slowly clawed back territory in the city, but a stubborn remnant of around 100 fighters clings to a handful of inner city neighborhoods, despite a sustained — and some argue indiscriminate — campaign of government airstrikes reducing much of the city to rubble.
The siege, which appears to have taken authorities by surprise, has come at a high human cost — ISIS has killed at least 66 Philippines soldiers and wounded hundreds more since the conflict began. It’s the highest military death toll in recent Philippines history.
It’s so overcrowded at Camp Evangelista that around 30 soldiers, who aren’t in critical condition, lie in camp beds in an open-air hallway. From here they watch their comrades, bloodied and broken, rushed in from the battle.
The troops occupying the beds here, and throughout the wards, bring back stories from the front.
One, who cannot be named for military reasons, painfully levers himself up, to prop himself against the side of his hospital bed. The militants this time are much more organized and “wiser” than in previous encounters, he says — they’ve learned urban combat tactics honed in ISIS-held territory in the Middle East, he says.
“They’re using tactics from Iraq and Syria now — IEDs, RPGs.”
The minarets of the city’s mosques, not too long ago used by imams to call the faithful to prayer, now serve as deadly ISIS sniper nests.
Filipinos are used to the torrential summer rains, but they do not hold out much hope that this vicious insurgency, which has erupted with a ferocity unseen here before, will end as quickly.
Mindanao is under martial law and the closer to the epicenter of the violence, the stricter the controls are. At a checkpoint on a road into Iligan City, around 40 kilometers from Marawi, civilians on foot and on public transport line up to pass into the city cordon.
Troops and police officers are on the hunt for suspected militants and escaped convicts from the jailbreak that the terrorists conducted at the beginning of their bloody campaign. Posters featuring mugshots of suspected militants and escaped convicts hang under the awnings.
The crisis in Marawi has forced almost 350,000 to flee city and surrounding areas, creating a humanitarian crisis the government is struggling to contain.
Many have sought shelter with relatives and friends outside the city, but thousands of others have crammed into makeshift camps for internally displaced people (IDP).
Local councilor Henry Cabilin tells CNN there are over a thousand IDPs in his “barangay” — the Tagalog word for neighborhood — alone. The number of men and women are about equal, but 80 per cent are Muslim and 20 per cent Christian.