By Karen Lema
MARAWI CITY, Philippines, April 20 (Reuters) - Surrounded by the ruins of homes they fled nearly a year ago, many residents of war-torn Marawi City in the Philippines were in tears when they briefly returned this week and sifted through rubble to salvage any possessions they could find.
The Muslim-majority city of 200,000 was over-run by militants loyal to Islamic State last May, who fought the military for five months before they were ousted. After almost daily aerial bombardments and artillery fire, large parts of the picturesque, lakeside city have been devastated.
Hundreds of residents who had fled to refugee camps or to relatives' homes in nearby towns were briefly allowed back by authorities to the ruins of the central business district on Thursday.
Calim Ali, 50, stepped out of her vehicle to find a ruined, empty plot where her home had stood in the bustling heart of the city. The only possession she could recover was a charred weighing scale that she said her family used in their fruit and rice business.
"I brought empty sacks. I thought we would still find something, like pots, and our money box," Ali said, while her husband searched through the thick vegetation growing in the rubble.
Ali's family is among about 27,000 others that lived in the main battle area, straddling over 24 barangays, or municipal districts. The area has remained off limits until this month, when the military said it had cleared it of hazards like booby traps and unexploded ordnance.
No civilian was permitted to stay in the area after 3 p.m. on Thursday, and the rule will remain in place on other days when visits are permitted, officials said.
There are 20 other barangays in the city which were not affected, and 50 others which were spared heavy shelling. Families have moved back to these areas.
There seems no chance of any early return for the residents of the city centre.
Most buildings are in ruins and there is no food, electricity or any sewage facilities. Authorities say the area will take years to rebuild.
Meanwhile, posters showing residents how to recognise live mortar shells, grenades, aircraft rockets and improvised explosive devices were put up on every street, to remind the people to be careful as they sifted through the ruins.
Soldiers manning the area on Thursday ordered a group of residents scouring debris to quickly leave one of the streets after they found an unexploded bomb, which they detonated.
"HURTS SO MUCH"
"I'm at a loss for words," Aisah Riga, 54, told Reuters, wiping away tears as she and her family rummaged through debris to find anything of use from what used to be their glass and aluminium supply store.
"This is our only source of livelihood and now it's gone. I don't know how we will survive. I have nine children", she said.
Sobaidah Moner, 43, was waiting for the military to let the long line of vehicles into the main battle area as she recounted the day she and her family hurriedly left the city a day after fighting broke out on May 23.
"We were not able to bring anything except for the clothes we were wearing that day. All the clothes we are wearing right now were given to us by relatives," she said, her voice breaking with emotion.
Like Moner, several residents who spoke to Reuters said they abandoned their belongings and only brought clothes for a few days when they sought safety in nearby towns, thinking that the gunbattle, which was not uncommon in Marawi, would soon be over.
"I thought the fighting would be over in three days. We didn't expect this. It hurts so much", Moner said.
Residents said they are pinning their hopes on the government's promise to rehabilitate and rebuild the city. But the extent of damage, estimated at 11 billion pesos ($211 million) means it would take years of work to reconstruct Marawi.
"The most affected area has its own development plan which is expected to be finished by 2021," said Felix Castro, housing assistant secretary, and field office manager of an inter-agency government task force named "Bangon Marawi (Rise Marawi)".
A Chinese-led consortium, also called Bangon Marawi, has been chosen for the reconstruction, but other bidders would be asked to compete and it will be allowed to match the best proposal, Castro said.
Rehabilitation work is scheduled to start in June, he said.
For now however, the once-bustling centre of the city is lifeless.
"Before you could hear the sound of cars, and anything you wanted to buy was available. But now that we are here, there's only silence," said Jalil Solaiman, a 39-year-old resident. (Reporting by Karen Lema Additional reporting by Erik De Castro Editing by Raju Gopalakrishnan)
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