Editor's Pick

The Art of War


Amid the Marawi conflict, Chiara de Castro meets with the artisans and culture bearers of Lanao del Sur, seeking to understand how cultural identity endures war and displacement.

Photography by
Story by
Miguel Nacianceno
Read Time
Location Tag

The word “bakwit” is not new. The word itself dates back all the way to the end of World War II, asserted columnist Asuncion David Maramba in 1991, in which he recounted what it was like to run from one barrio to the next, what it was like “to be dragged into someone else’s war.”

The term has been resurrected in the vernacular of the Maranao people when the war broke out in Marawi City in May. From the word “evacuate,” it refers to evacuees, or, in the language of humanitarian aid, internally displaced persons (IDPs). The bakwit are regular civilians who are forced to flee their hometowns and escape the dangers of armed conflict and weather-related hazards, two things Filipinos are more than familiar with.

To understand what it means to be a bakwit means having to understand the sheer horror and heartbreak of having your home, your family, and your life as you know it, ripped away from you in the blink of an eye. When this happens, when you’ve lost everything, when the possibility of having anything to return to is bleak and murky, what do you hold on to? When you’ve lost the place, the tangible objects that have shaped your identity, what could you possibly turn to, to remind you of who you are and what you can still be?

“This is everything we own now. [When the fighting began,] we had to leave everything and escape with only the clothes we were wearing.” <callout-alt-author>Monawira Shiek Basmala<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

Bakwit, unfortunately, is a word that this country’s citizens have used far too often. The Global Report on Internal Displacement shows that the Philippines is among the countries with the highest absolute numbers, with 5.93 million people displaced by natural disasters, and another 280,000 people displaced due to armed conflict. The numbers for 2017 are certain to shoot up: Over 350,000 people were displaced by the war in Marawi, and though the hostilities have ended, thousands have no home to return to.

All this began on May 23, 2017, just after lunch, when Marawi fell under siege by militants affiliated with the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL), led by Isnilon Hapilon and the brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute, in their bid to establish an Islamic caliphate in Southeast Asia. The terrorists wreaked havoc throughout the city, spreading terror each minute: people were shot or taken as hostage, prisoners were freed from the city jail, schools were bombed and burned down. In a matter of hours, President Rodrigo Duterte declared Martial Law upon the entire region of Mindanao. The hostilities forced some 353,626 people to flee and seek refuge in neighboring towns such as Iligan City and Cagayan de Oro.

Bakwit (refugee) shelter behind the famous mosque

In a bakwit shelter along a busy road in Iligan City, Jardin Samad has been weaving. At 46 years old, his large, rough hands manifest the years spent on a vast array of jobs to get through life: some odd, some risky, some just downright dangerous. So the notion of crouching down on the floor facing a back-strap loom to weave okir patterns—colorful and intricate designs inherent to the Maranao textile—that would ultimately be worn as a traditional malong landap does not make Jardin flinch one bit.

But other people’s reactions were harsh. “Weaving is not a man’s job,” declared his wife Salika’s aunt, when she learned that Jardin was teaching himself the craft.

“The roles and customs are very distinct here. Under normal circumstances, women are forbidden to do the things that men do, and vice versa,” Jardin says. His loom, assembled from scraps of wood and metal that he had managed to scavenge, was just right above his sleeping area, next to his “printing shop”—a small desktop computer and ink jet printer—on the cold tiled floor of what was once a 24-hour convenience store. To his left, less than ten inches away, is the sleeping mat and loom of his wife’s grandmother. Across from him, is another family’s sleeping area where two infants, both barely a month old, were fast asleep. A small sign stencil hangs by the window, the words “Marawi City” outlined in all caps.

Maranao bakwit (refugee) weaving on the floor using a scavenged makeshift loom.
Maranao textile forming intricate okir patterns in panels of three

These were not normal circumstances and this was certainly not his home. His real home was in Marawi, about one hour away from the temporary shelter that he now shared with three other families. They were offered an empty convenience store to use and convert into a home; it had electricity, running water, and a bathroom.

When are we going home? Do we even have a home to return to? These are just some of the questions that had been gnawing at Jardin and his family, echoing the thoughts of everyone else who had been forced to flee since the war began.

“We are now bakwit,” Jardin’s mother in law, Monawira Shiek Basmala, says sadly. She is the widow of a sultan, thus the matriarch of the family. “This is everything we own now. [When the fighting began,] we had to leave everything and escape with only the clothes we were wearing,” she recounts, her voice cracking. “But at the end of the day, we are still blessed. My family is together under one roof, even if it’s in a convenience store.”

She shows off her loom, makeshift from pieces of wood, which hangs right above her sleeping mat on the floor, not far from Jardin’s. She’s working with threads of red, green, orange, blue, and yellow, forming intricate okir patterns in panels of three. Right before the city was attacked, they had a pending order from the US that would reap in thousands of pesos. They needed the money now more than ever.

When you’ve lost the place, the tangible objects that have shaped your identity, what could you possibly turn to, to remind you of who you are and what you can still be?

Day in and day out, for as long as sunlight permits, she and her fellow weavers sit by their looms and work continuously. Business is crucial now more than ever, she says. With their expertise, they can weave a malong landap measuring around two meters in two weeks. One piece can sell for Php2,000. The more elaborate designs can fetch more than Php7,000.

Salika, Monawira’s daughter and Jardin’s wife, credits her husband for this possibility to weave again despite the circumstances. “Siya gumawa ng lahat ng tools para makapag-habi kami. We had nothing when we got to Iligan, naiwan lahat sa Marawi, at nag-isip agad siya paano kami makakatrabaho to earn so we could all eat. And weaving is what we do, it’s what we know.”

With much scavenging, studying, and repurposing of various scrap materials that he could gather, Jardin managed to create makeshift weaving tools and looms for himself and Salika’s relatives so they could get to work.

During the course of the war, tension and anxiety loomed throughout the province of Lanao del Sur, as it did across the whole of Mindanao. The conflict in Marawi had not just triggered a constant state of insecurity for safety, but it had without a doubt disrupted the economy. The loss and displacement of merchants, traders and distributors in Marawi City had abruptly stunted the demand for the kilos upon kilos of goods and produce that were sourced from the neighboring towns.

The war displaced thousands of Marawi residents, forcing them to live in neighboring towns like Iligan City and Cagayan de Oro.

On the other side of Lake Danao in Lanao del Sur, just over an hour away from the city, a lakeshore community called Tugaya has been lauded as the capital of traditional Maranao art and crafts. It is a town famous for its intricate woodcarvings and lavish ceremonial feasts and rituals, but moreover, it is celebrated for being a town of artisanal craftsmen.

In September, when the AFP expected the conflict to enter its final stages, the heritage conservation advocacy group Culture Aid traveled to the municipality to embark on its cultural mapping project. Tugaya, once listed in the UNESCO Tentative List for Heritage Sites, was later removed and nominated to be included in UNESCO's Intangible Cultural Heritage List due to the intangible cultural traditions of the Maranao.

Maranao artisinal craftsman working-up okir patterns on a wooden plate.
Wooden bolo sheaths with carved ornamental patterns as a signature Marawian art.
Close-up of intricate artisinal wood carvings
Maranao artisinal craftsman hammering geometric and floral patterns on a wooden plate.
A woodcarver in Tugaya works in his workshop, located beneath the house. Every design is precisely made by hand.

Maranao traditions and art have been classified into Tangible and Intangible: Tangible art refers to the more visible and material representations of cultural heritage, such as weaving textiles, wood carvings, body tattoos, crafted musical instruments, amongst others; Intangible heritage is considered more delicate as it’s prone to the danger of discontinuation. These include oral traditions and expressions, performing arts such as songs and dances, social practices and rituals, knowledge and practices that concern nature and the Universe.

An example would be the Darangen Epic Chant, an ancient epic song about the Maranao people’s history and mythical heroes. It is comprised of 17 cycles and 72,000 lines, encoding customary law, standards of social ethical behavior, notions of beauty, and social values that are specific to the Maranao. Culture Aid’s founder, Charisse Aquino Tugade, searched for any known culture bearers in Tugaya that would still have knowledge of this epic. They found Hadji Yenes Hadja Fatima Natangcop, 99 years old and the last of the Darangen epic chanters. She is the last of her kind—nobody in her community seemed to know more than the synopsis of the epic, not even in her own family.

To understand what it means to be a bakwit means having to understand the sheer horror and heartbreak of having your home, your family, and your life as you know it, ripped away from you in the blink of an eye.

Hassanain Magarang met with the Culture Aid team in Tugaya to assist in the cultural mapping project. “Hash” had just graduated from the Mindanao State University, and belonged to the only Filipino Muslim folk theater company in the Philippines, the Sining Kambayoka Ensemble. His graduation date was delayed due to the war, which forced the university to suspend classes for three months, and then relocate from Marawi to the Iligan City campus.

Having grown up in Saudi Arabia, he had returned to his family’s hometown, aiming to reconnect with his roots. He found himself in dance and theater, falling in love with the different traditional Maranao dances. In his ensemble of performers, he found his tribe. “Many of us bakwit have been returning since classes resumed last August,” he says. “We have a performance coming up and we have to keep rehearsing.”

Maranao folk dance

When asked about the danger that constantly loomed over the school, being within such close proximity to the fighting, he nodded but had a determined look on his face. “We keep going back to the school because this is our way of holding our ground, of not backing down. We are keeping our school and our community standing,” he explained. “In our own small way, by performing, by being here, it’s our way of fighting back.” Holding on to this piece of intangible heritage that makes him Maranao, something that reminds him of who he is, he shows the rest of the world who he wants to be, regardless of where he lives. He shows the world something that nobody can ever take away from him.

Maranao folk dance performed to the tune with brass gongs
Brass gong in furnace

“Here in Tugaya, almost everyone is a craftsman. It’s what we know, it’s what we do best. Our people have worked as craftsmen because it’s passed from generation to generation. It’s our identity, it’s what has sustained our people,” says Alfattah Balindong Pacalna, the mayor of Tugaya. “Our challenge is to keep our people busy now. Because of the war, orders for the crafts have stopped and income is slow. Because of Martial Law, roads are blocked or filled with checkpoints everywhere and people are scared to travel and transport the goods—usually okir woodcarvings or brass gongs—to the towns where they can sell them.”

Walid Zacaria Pangoca is the official cultural ambassador of Tugaya. He is barely 25 years old and works at the Mayor’s Office. His WordPress blog, Tugaya Artefacts, is a testament to his cultural pride. Scroll through the archives, dating all the way back to 2013, and find that each post pours into detail about the different facets that fall under Maranao art: from where you can find a torogan (a traditional Maranao royal house), to the origins of the town’s name (from a tree endemic to Mindanao), to cataloging the artisanal products that are made in Tugaya. The blog has also extended into its own dedicated Facebook page, which Walid updates religiously.

The Dalliman Central Masjid was built by Tugaya’s own craftsmen.
The Dalliman Central Masjid was built by Tugaya’s own craftsmen.

So it’s not surprising that he’s also the designated tour guide around Tugaya: He can swiftly map out an itinerary to visit every woodcarver, weaver, and brass maker. The first order of business would be Tugaya’s towering mammoth of architecture, the Dilimbayan Tugaya Central Masjid. Built after the Second World War, the mint green and pastel-colored house of worship still bears the ornate details of okir carvings that outline the walls and doors, standing strong through the test of time. “This masjid wasn’t actually constructed by engineers. Artisans, carpenters, master craftsmen from Tugaya built it,” Walid proudly shares.

“This is our way of holding our ground, of not backing down. We are keeping our school and our community standing.”<callout-alt-author>Hassanain Magarang<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

In fact, Walid introduces the man who led the masjid’s construction. Hadji Hassan Tamano is praised and respected in his community for building a grand masjid without formal engineering credentials. Hassan was only in his 20s when he built the masjid in the 1950s. Now 80 years old, his eyes are pale and grey, and his spine has a curve so defined that it’s impossible for him to stand or sit upright. “Here in Tugaya, almost every household has some sort of craft, whether it’s woodcarving, weaving, brass casting,” says the elder craftsman, speaking through a translator. “Everyone is a maker. So when I was commissioned to work on the masjid, I had a lot of help. It wasn’t just me. This was built by all of us.”

intricate wood carvings on a vase
Maranoan craftsman sitting on his finished bench with intricate floral carvings
A worksman in action: intricate wood carvings on a piece of furniture
Intricate okir patterns in capiz on a vase
craftsman's tools
A large cabinet with mother-of-pearl inlays tracing the intricate okir patterns

In this town of 24,000 people, you can ask where you might find a woodcarver, and you’ll be asked to specify the type of work you’re looking for exactly. Mohammad Dayag Taha usually takes his morning coffee in his workshop, located separately beneath his main house. His tools are laid out on his stool: a curved knife, called a nawi; a chisel, or panasang; a patok or an axe; and some charcoal used as a pencil for outlining. They may be crude or antiquated, but these are the only tools he had ever known and used, just as his mentors and elders had taught him. Everything is done by hand.

Five young boys sit nearby, watching him work. “They are all interested in learning how to carve,” says the 40-year-old woodcarver. “It’s a man’s job, so it means you have become a man when you have finally carved your own chair or baul.” The small space is packed with wood, large planks and chunks with carvings here and there, finished chairs and tables. Most are large and bulky: storage chests (baul) and benches, such as the one Mr. Taha had been working on for over a month. It was six feet long, with mother-of-pearl inlays tracing the intricate okir patterns.

“Here in Tugaya, almost everyone is a craftsman. It’s what we know, it’s what we do best.”<callout-alt-author>Mayor Alfattah Balindong Pacalna<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

“I can work on a chair and table for about a month, depending on the size, and sell it as a set for maybe Php60,000 to Php80,000 plus if it’s a small and simple set. But something as large and ornate as these,” He points at the bench in progress and a massive wardrobe cabinet that was almost entirely covered with intricate carvings and shiny capiz shell inlays. “These will take me a few months, I’ll probably even work overtime at night with a headlamp. I would have been able to sell it in Marawi through my contacts there for maybe Php300,000.”

Sighing, he fishes out a packet of tobacco and betel from his pocket. “Marawi was our marketplace, that’s where the buying happens, that’s where our customers are, or at least our contacts who can find us customers. Things are harder now, everything is much slower. Transporting these products are also harder because of all the detours and checkpoints, the new traffic; people are also scared to travel and come here.”

A deep sense of insecurity is spreading throughout Tugaya, says Walid’s uncle, Sultan Mohammad Muid Zacaria. “People are getting restless, and we are afraid they will start looking for something else to do, somewhere else. They will become vulnerable to all sorts of influence outside. This is how terrorists are able to influence people.”

The exterior of the Dalliman Central Masjid was built by Tugaya’s own craftsmen.

Mohammad’s nephew, Najib, is a freelance photographer who had been living in Marawi City. He had since moved back to Tugaya, where he originally hailed from, yet it was not without heartbreak. He was a new father when the war broke out, his wife having just given birth. But their infant daughter died—due, perhaps, to the constant moving, the drastic change in conditions and environment, the exposure to the elements and to the smoke emanating from the battlegrounds. His baby’s sudden death still haunts him, constantly reminding him of a time lost forever. This would not have happened if it weren’t for the war, he believes adamantly. “I hate ISIS, I hate these terrorists, and I wish for them to be dead, for this war to be over,” Najib seethes.

He has had to keep himself busy, burying himself in project after project, hoping that the distraction of productivity can be a balm for the pain and ultimately allow him to heal. “I need to keep working. I need to exhaust myself,” he shares. “Otherwise, I just lie awake, every single night, because I can’t stop thinking about the daughter that I barely got to spend time with and never will.” He buries his face in his hands, as he breaks down in tears.

“People are getting restless, and we are afraid they will start looking for something else to do, somewhere else. . .This is how terrorists are able to influence people.”<callout-alt-author>Sultan Mohammad Muid Zacaria<callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author></callout-alt-author>

The battle of Marawi ravaged on every day for five months until October 23, 2017, as reports confirmed that the leaders, Hapilon and both of the Maute brothers, were dead. Over 800 terrorists had been reportedly killed by the military. The President declared that the war was finally over, that Marawi City was finally liberated.

A task force called Task Force Bangon Marawi has been put in place, deploying more than 500 military engineers in Marawi to support recovery, reconstruction, and rehabilitation efforts. The return of residents would be facilitated in phases, which began last October 29 and expected to culminate by the first quarter of 2018. Named the Bakwit Village, a three-hectare area community made up of 16-18 square meter modular houses will serve as temporary homes for the returning residents. Acting Social Welfare Secretary Emmanuel Leyco announced that each returning family would be given a sack of rice, relief goods sufficient for 18 days, and cash for work for 30 days.

According to Marawi Mayor Majul Gandarma, the city had a population of about 210,000 before the war. As of November 15, the DSWD has recorded 182,014 IDPs in Northern Mindanao, of which some 20,268 are in Cagayan de Oro and 95,0511 in Iligan City. Most had been living with relatives in these neighboring towns, yet many were staying in evacuation centers. The reported number of returning bakwits, roughly 6,469, is likely to have been drawn from evacuees living in these shelters, as the total number has been increasing since return operations began.

As of November 20, Salika had found a better location for their residence and weaving area, which has been registered as Maranao Collectibles under the DTI. Her husband, Jardin, would be participating in an ideation camp under the British Council in Davao City. Under the phased return operation, they were scheduled to return to Barangay Amito-Marantao in Marawi City the next day.


This story was originally published in GRID Volume 04.

The interior of the Dalliman Central Masjid was built by Tugaya’s own craftsmen.