Celebrating life

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Begging the pardon of one Catholic priest widely quoted in the press, the rejoicing is not really over the death of terrorists. It’s over what they represent, which is terrorism - and every victory over terrorism should be celebrated.

But first, I must state that I, too, have a problem with the publication of gory photographs of Isnilon Hapilon and Omar Maute in death, in all sorts of media. The photos, to me, had the unmistakable quality of encouraging gratuitous voyeurism, or at least clickbait. 

But that doesn’t mean that I did not rejoice upon learning of the death of the terrorist leaders, or with the subsequent pronouncement by President Rodrigo Duterte that Marawi City had been liberated from the clutches of the Islamic State-inspired group that they led. If the stock market can soar to record highs upon the announcement of the city’s liberation, why can’t the spirits of a citizenry beset with fear and worry in the past four months of the siege not do the same?

I rejoice because the most brazen terrorist attack in contemporary times in this country has been defeated. I rejoice because the terrorists who showed no respect of the law, the lives of their fellowmen and civilized behavior have gotten their comeuppance.

I am happy that the attempt to establish an IS-style caliphate in Marawi with Hapilon as its emir -  the first in Southeast Asia - has been smashed. I am glad that the violence never spread outside of Marawi, because of the determined campaign by the military to prevent its spread.

The celebration, as the priest should know, is not about death, any more than Catholicism teaches us that the high point of Christ’s victory is his dying on the cross. It is over the people’s victory over the terrorists and the anticipation of Marawi’s rising from the ashes of war - or the city’s resurrection, if you will.

Finally, I celebrate the men and women of the armed forces who took back Marawi from the terrorists. I rejoice that their heroism in Marawi, at the cost of the lives of hundreds of our men in uniform, resulted in the defeat of Hapilon, Maute and their small but well-armed and well-entrenched foes.

This is what I celebrate: That our government and armed forces did not back down in the face of terrorism.

I am aware that in some circles, it is not “cool” to celebrate any achievement of this government. And I do not ask that they join the rest of us, because their toxic politics prevents them from joining in the celebration, for fear that it may somehow lead to putting in a good word for Duterte’s administration.

But the silence of partisans is one thing. Accusing a relieved and thankful citizenry of celebrating death (when it is actually celebrating a new lease on life) is quite another.

* * *

Yes, Marawi City has been liberated. Now comes the hard part of rebuilding the warn-torn city.

Some estimates have placed the cost of bringing Marawi back on its feet at a staggering $8 billion, a figure close to half a trillion pesos. A government like the present one, which is already scrounging for funds to bankroll the many infrastructure projects it has in the proverbial pipeline, will be hard put to find that kind of money for just one locality.

At best, the administration of President Rodrigo Duterte can only start the process. Succeeding governments will have to continue the rebuilding that will take many years to complete.

But it’s not as if Duterte has a choice as far as the reconstruction of Marawi is concerned. If the city is not brought back to life, the danger of its residents becoming victims of terrorism will continue.

The current government must not allow a repeat of the siege of Zamboanga City in 2013, which resulted in the destruction of a large part of that once-bustling regional capital that was sadly not rehabilitated quickly enough by the government of Noynoy Aquino. The Zamboanga crisis, while it lasted for less than a month, left lasting scars on the populace that up to now have not been completely healed.

Aquino’s government has been correctly criticized for apparently being concerned only with repelling a small band of Moro National Liberation Front rebels who declared the “independence” of Zamboanga from the rest of the country in early August of that year. After the uprising was put down by the military and the police, the administration seemed to lose interest in the admittedly difficult job of rehabilitating the city, which resulted in what international aid agencies called the “humanitarian crisis” that followed quickly afterward.

Thousands of Zamboanga City residents who lost their homes and livelihoods due to intense aerial bombardment and deadly house-to-house battles that foreshadowed the Marawi counter-offensive were left to live in makeshift shelters for years after the incident. There is simply no excuse for Duterte’s government to abandon Marawi after it has won the war, like Aquino did in Zamboanga.

Let’s hope that change has truly come in the area of rebuilding a city destroyed by war. Now that the armed conflict has ended, it is time to win the peace.