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Ground Zero in Marawi City

By: Antonio T. Carpio – @inquirerdotnetPhilippine Daily Inquirer / 05:06 AM May 28, 2020

The siege of Marawi City by Islamic State militants started on May 23, 2017, and ended five months later. The vicious fighting and wanton destruction centered on a 250-hectare area called Ground Zero, home to 4,000 families in Marawi City. Today, Ground Zero remains as devastated as it was when the fighting ended. Ground Zero is still off-limits to its former residents, who temporarily live in evacuation centers or with relatives. I visited Ground Zero last August 2018 after the inauguration of the refurbished Hall of Justice of Marawi City. I was accompanied by Marawi City trial court judges who, like me, saw Ground Zero for the first time. It was a pitiful and dreadful sight, with all buildings thoroughly pockmarked with bullet holes. Except for occasional stray cats and dogs, no other living creature could be seen moving on Ground Zero.

Ground Zero, called Dansalan by its early inhabitants, is adjacent to the scenic Lanao Lake. Located outside the old Camp Keithley that the Americans built over the ruins of the Spanish Fort Marahui, Ground Zero was where generations of Muslim merchants sold their goods and where they also lived. Over time, Ground Zero became the urban center of Marawi City where rich merchants had their residential and commercial buildings, and where cultural and religious centers were established.

There are those who claim that Ground Zero is part of a military reservation, while others claim it remains unclassified public forest land. Whatever the case may be, Ground Zero is still public land today and this is the overriding problem of former residents of Ground Zero.

There are talks that the former residents will not be allowed to return to their homes because Ground Zero will be redeveloped into a new urban center. The government also planned in 2018 for the military to establish a camp on Ground Zero, but this plan was thankfully withdrawn. The uncertainty of the rights of the former residents over their lands, and the prohibition to return for three years now, have fueled fear and anxiety among former residents that they could lose their lands.

The IS militants are expected to exploit this fear and anxiety. The loss of one’s ancestral home, where one’s parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents lived, is a powerful personal grievance that may turn former residents of Ground Zero against the government. Three years of waiting to return to their homes is a long time to make desperate former residents fall prey to the propaganda of the IS. After winning the Battle of Marawi, the government may in the end lose the war for the hearts and minds of Muslims in Mindanao.

It is still not too late for the government to win the hearts and minds of our Muslim brothers in Mindanao. The President can simply issue a Proclamation declaring Ground Zero alienable and disposable. The legal effect is that former residents of Ground Zero, who can establish that they and their predecessors-in-interest have been in possession of their lands since June 12, 1945, are automatically deemed legal owners of their lands. To secure an original Torrens title to their lands, all they have to do is to file a petition with the proper trial court establishing such possession since June 12, 1945. The mere issuance of this presidential proclamation will remove all the fears and anxieties of former residents that they could lose their lands.

In the 2009 landmark case of Heirs of Malabanan v. Republic, the Supreme Court ruled that as Section 48(b) of the Public Land Act “merely requires possession since 12 June 1945 and does not require that the lands should have been alienable and disposable during the entire period of possession, the possessor is entitled to secure judicial confirmation of his title thereto as soon as it is declared alienable and disposable.” In short, the date June 12, 1945 is material only to establish possession of the land, not to its Proclamation as alienable and disposable.Recommended by

There is, however, an important caveat. Under existing law, the petition to avail of the benefit under Section 48(b) must be filed in court before Dec. 31, 2020. Time is running out for the President to issue a Proclamation.

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