In a desperate bid to protect themselves from an ISIS-linked terrorist group, Christians in the war-torn Filipino town of Marawi are borrowing the hijabs of their Muslim friends and disguising themselves, a new report has revealed.
The Daily Mail reports that nearly a month after the Maute extremist group overtook the town, kidnapping and killing Christians and cutting off running water and electricity, residents have taken "extreme measures" to ensure they stay alive.
Zia Alonto Adiong, a local politician managing rescue and relief efforts, told the outlet that in a text message pleading for help, one family said they had "started to eat their blankets".
While thousands fled the Muslim-majority after Maute overtook it in May, it's estimated that 300-600 civilians are still trapped or are being used as "human shields" in areas controlled by the terrorist group. Currently, there are believed to be about 100 militants in the city, and the organization's news agency, Amaq, said its fighters controlled two-thirds of the city.
At least 100 people have escaped on foot, while still others have made it across the river to safety. On Tuesday, five Christians and five police officers braved sniper bullets to run across the town's commercial district this morning to reach a government-controlled area on the Agus River western bank.
A doctor treating those who make it to safety revealed that Muslim residents are "protecting" Christians by lending them their religious head-coverings.
"Some of the stories that stuck were Muslims helping protect Christian workers by letting them borrow a hijab," said Dr Gioia Ancheta, head of the psychosocial therapy team.
However, not everyone is so fortunate: when a group of 18 civilians attempted to flee Tuesday morning, "the terrorists ran after them and indiscriminately fired at them, killing five of the civilians and taking the remaining eight as hostages," says the Mail Online.
Last week, authorities found the bloodied bodies of eight Christian men thrown in a ditch. Their hands were tied, and beside them was a cardboard with the word "munafiq," which means hypocrite, according to GMA News.
The men were workers at a local bakery who were caught trying to escape to a nearby city, two witnesses told ABS-CBN. The militants reportedly separated from the group those whom they identified as Christians.
The ISIS-linked Maute group has been joined by Jihadists from other countries, sparking fears that ISIS could be trying to establish an Asian foothold as it weakens in Syria and Iraq.
"IS is shrinking in Iraq and Syria, and decentralizing in parts of Asia and the Middle East," Rohan Gunaratna, security expert at Singapore's S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies, said according to Reuters. "One of the areas where it is expanding in Southeast Asia and the Philippines is the center of gravity."
So far, the military has killed militants from Malaysia, Indonesia, Saudi, Yemen, Chechnya, Pakistan, Turkey, Morocco and India.
Colonel Edgard Arevalo, spokesperson of the Armed Forces of the Philippines (AFP), said they are "exploring different means" to meet the deadline while considering the safety of the civilians, ABS-CBN reported.
Arevalo confirmed reports that the militants are separating the Christians from the Muslims.
"It's sad that we are getting reports from the ground that the terrorists are separating fleeing Christians and Muslim," he said. "They are letting the Muslims go but not the Christians."
On Wednesday, security official who is familiar with the region told Reuters the battle in Marawi does not appear to be ending anytime soon.
"At the very least, it is not at all clear that government forces are presently winning or even gaining significant ground," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
"ISIS demonstrated significant determination and success in capturing and holding Mosul in Iraq and their effort in Marawi is of a similar notable quality."