MARAWI CITY, Philippines (Reuters) – After five months of crippling conflict, there are slow signs of life returning in the Philippines’ battered Marawi City.

Utilities engineers were at work on Thursday in the near-deserted outskirts of Marawi which escaped the daily air strikes that flattened vast swathes of the city.


A few groceries, motorcycle repair shops and gasoline sellers have opened, ready for the first batch of returning residents in the coming days.

Nearly 6,500 families will be headed back to the homes that were left intact, out of the 353,000 people displaced when hundreds of pro-Islamic State gunmen ran amok and seized control of central Marawi in May.

Combat operations ended on Monday, when the last fighters were killed in a fierce final stand. With vehicles crushed and overturned and buildings reduced to skeletons of mangled steel and rubble, the city appears to be in the aftermath of a war that lasted years, rather than months.

Amelah Ampaso said she decided that day to sneak back to Marawi and reopen her shop, now stocked with cooking oil and cigarettes and offering photocopying services, printing, and haircuts.

As a first-mover in a liberated Marawi, the 25-year-old is doing brisk business among the few people around.

“The other shops are closed, so people are coming here,” she said. “It’s safe again.”

But nearby streets look like the set of a post-apocalyptic film, silent, with shutters pulled down and weeds growing between concrete slabs. Rust and decay is setting in after months of heavy rains and neglect.

Spray painted on the walls of almost every building is the word “clear”, marking where police and soldiers went house-to-house checking thousands of abandoned properties for booby-traps or signs of insurgents hiding.

The fighting has taken a heavy toll, killing more than 1,100 people, mostly militants, and reducing a large part of the interior of the city to piles of rubble, leaving only shells of uninhabitable gray buildings.

Shop owner Madid Noor, 64, returned two months into the battle, reassured by detachments of soldiers and police nearby, and unperturbed by what were constant explosions and the howling of fighter jets over the city.

After a few lean months, he hopes returnees will come to him to buy washing powder, petrol and fake branded sportswear.

“Some days we have customers. But not every day,” he said. [/restrict]