By Froilan Gallardo
Special Correspondent .
BUTIG, Lanao del Sur— The destruction the Maute-Isis caused is still evident in this town and nearby villages.
A bullet-riddled public school still stands unrepaired and Butig remained a “ghost town” except on Sundays when its town market becomes crowded with vendors and residents buying supplies.
On Sundays, a group of men is seen playing the “Sipa sa Lama” a local game similar to “Sepak takraw,” a foot volleyball sport native to Southeast Asia.
The old Butig town hall has now become the headquarters of the Army’s 49th Infantry Battalion.
The flagpole where the Dawlah Islamiyah Lanao or Maute Isis group raised the black flag, is flying a Philippine flag now.
Security is still tight though. Heavily armed soldiers still patrol the deserted streets of the town day and night.
The Maute-Isis insurgents took over the town of Butig and nearby villages in 2016 before they made a big push to seize the provincial capital of Marawi in 2017.
The government regained control of Butig after several months of fighting in 2017 but the many of its residents still support the Maute-Isis group, many of whom were relatives and family friends.
At the courtyard of the old Butig town hall, soldiers loaded boxes of vegetable seedlings and a small hand tractor at the back of a military M35 truck.
The soldiers will bring them to the nearby village of Sultan Dumalondong, once a hotbed of Maute-Isis insurgents.
Capt. Ron Villarosa, civil military officer of Army Joint Task Force Tabang, said the shipment is part of their “arms to farms” program to stop the Isis from recruiting new members.
Villarosa said their effort is focus on the needs of the 165 Maute-Isis returnees, their families and their community.
He said they had partnered with Peace Crops, a group of young agriculturists volunteers to teach the former Maute-Isis returnees and their families how to plant vegetables in some 90 hectares of land in Butig.
“The Mautes recruited seventy percent of their fighters from farmers of these village. It was not the students in Marawi,” Villarosa said.
Villarosa said the Mautes took advantage of the dire poverty situation in Lanao del Sur.
“Take down poverty and the Isis will lose their appeal,” he added.
From its peak strength of 1,000 fighters when they took over Marawi City in 2017, the Dawlah Islamiyah Lanao is now down to around 50 fighters operating in the forests south of Butig.
The military said a little known leader known as Zacharia has taken over the leadership after the death of its leader Obwaydah Marohombsar a.k.a. Abu Dar in a battle with government troops on March 14, 2019.
Abu Dar took over the command after the Maute brothers Omar and Abdullah Maute were killed along with Isnilon Hapilon in Marawi City in 2017.
Villarosa said the military does not want the insurgents to regain their strength.
He said the Army’s 103rd Infantry Brigade has partnered with the Peace Crops, an NGO made up of agriculture specialists, to help them implement their “Arms to Farms” program to stop the Isis recruitment in Butig town.
Villarosa said their efforts are focused on the 165 Isis fighters who have surrendered; their families and the community who have supported the extremists in the past.
About a hundred of former Maute-Isis members and their supporters turned up in the village of Sultan Dumalondong as a military contingent arrived on Sunday bringing vegetable seedlings and a small farm hand tractor.
“I think we need more seedlings,” Peace Crops volunteer Rey Anthony Anacleto said as the crowd gathered around them.
Anacleto and the soldiers teach the former rebels how to plant vegetables of cabbages, okra, and eggplant in rows.
Villarosa also demonstrated how to use the small hand tractors to plow small agricultural plots.
Nappy Magondacan, a 20-year-old former Isis fighter, said he was glad that the military and the volunteers came to teach them some agricultural skills.
“This will augment my income to feed my family,” Magondacan who has two children said.
Magondacan fought with the Maute brothers in the battles around Butig town in 2016.
The military also suspected Magondacan had a hand in the killing of Army intelligence officers Maj. Jericho Mangalus and Cpl. Bryan Libot in Marawi City on February 2017.
Magondacan said he works in the rice fields around Butig town during harvests and gets a small share of rice as salary.
He said to augment his meager income, he and other farm workers invested their hard-earned money to buy a small second-hand rice thresher for their additional money.
“I joined the Isis when the Maute brothers promised to pay me P20,000 every month,” Magondacan narrated.
He said he fought with the Isis against the military and carried food supply to the beleaguered insurgents in Marawi City.
“I did not receive that money they promised me,” Magondacan said.
Anacleto said there is a lack of support from government agencies in the effort to help turn the tide against Isis recruitment in Butig town.
He said most efforts and donations made by the government and non-government organizations are concentrated in Marawi City.
“I hope in the future that would change because the real fight against extremism starts here in the farms,” Anacleto said.