When dozens of armed militants stormed Narayan M. Ampang’s home city in the Philippines this year, she was as shocked as her government. It was May 23, and hundreds of ISIS-affiliated fighters, known as the Maute Group, suddenly flooded the streets of Marawi, a small city on the southern island of Mindanao. They took police and the military completely by surprise, killing civilians and raising an ISIS flag in the city’s compact center.
Ampang’s home was not located in Marawi’s downtown, which became–and still is–the scene of intense fighting between the black-clad terrorists and Philippine armed forces. Her house, around three miles away, could be hit by stray bullets, and bomb blasts rocked it regularly. But it was also a perfect vantage point from which to chronicle a siege that is still predicted to last a fortnight, and which has cost hundreds of lives.
Thousands left Marawi. Ampang chose to stay. Today the local government planning coordinator is better known by local Maranaos for her role monitoring the conflict, as around 300,000 people have been forced from their homes to live in shelters and tent cities across the region. Social media–particularly Facebook–has become the only way to communicate what is going on.
“I am crying and bleeding for the city that i call home for 17 years,” she wrote the day after fighting broke out. “this are the scenes that i saw when i fetched a family member stranded in capitol.of families fleeing,young and old alike while gunshots could be heard at a distance.cars were all full to the brim of families fleeing the city from a war nobody could comprehend.”
“The first few days of the siege there was no electricity,” Ampang tells Red Herring, at a cafe in the nearby city of Iligan where she now commutes daily. “And what happened, there was total blackout. You could hear the bombing. And I have no contact with the outside world; I cannot talk with my relatives. They are telling me, ‘Why are you staying? Why don’t you leave? That place is no longer safe, why are you sacrificing the safety of your children?’…they would just bring me tension.
“My only lifeline was my Facebook at that time,” she adds. “I could vent out…I would switch it on in the car, and stay in the car at night.”
Dozens of roadblocks are dotted round Marawi’s periphery, and the city is heavily guarded from local and international media. Getting reliable information is difficult. For many, Ampang’s posts–many of them prefaced “ATM”, or “at the moment”–have become a vital link to a place from which they have been torn.
“She’s the only person doing that,” says Noroddin Maguindanao, a fellow Maranao displaced by the conflict. “We got information from here. Every day she’s hearing the bombs, how they fall, she’s looking at the planes, the jet fighters. Every day Marawi is burning.”
Facebook was an obvious conduit. The Philippines is home to the world’s most active social media population. Facebook in particular has played a key role in the transformation of the country’s social and political landscape, including the heavily social media-influenced election of populist president Rodrigo Duterte last summer.
Social media, and rapidly growing mobile penetration, have made the 100m-population nation a lucrative prize in the emerging Southeast Asian tech market. It has also helped people in areas like Marawi connect with news and events that may have remained unknown just a couple of years previous. NGOs and government agencies are also using social media platforms to coordinate relief efforts.
For Ampang, who is short with soft features and a disarming smile, Facebook has kept her spirits up in the darkest chapter of her home city’s history. She still posts each day–in English, Tagalog and the local Maranao language. “There are times i dont want to post ATM,” she wrote in June. “I felt i am the bearer of bad news.There are others who worry about my safety.But everytime i missed posting an ATM i would receive pms and texts asking the updates.”
Slowly but surely the Maute Group’s numbers are dwindling. Many have tried to escape, and some government sources predict the battle to continue for little more than a fortnight. That will be sweet relief for those living in limbo, with no source of income, on Marawi’s periphery.
For Ampang, who is one of only a handful of people left in her neighborhood, victory cannot come soon enough. Until then, she will continue to post. I could release what are my fears,” she says. “I could release my emotions. And, at the same time, I could keep abreast with the rest of my family.”