Bombs dropping a few kilometres away were a daily spectacle but the students of Mindanao State University were not cowed
The Philippines university where the most important thing they teach is tolerance
Situated on top of a gently rising hill covered in rich foliage and long green grass, Mindanao State University is a serene place. Groups of students mill around the campus or scurry to classes in faculty buildings planted into the verdant surroundings.
A slope stretching towards Lake Lanao affords a clear view of the city of Marawi that hugs the lakeside. It looks peaceful from up there. But the aircraft of the Philippines air force circling overhead tell a different story.
When the academic year began in September, their bombing runs were a daily spectacle. Propeller planes and jets would swoop in to drop their payload, and thick plumes of smoke would follow an explosion just visible from the distance. It was a routine reminder of the bitter battle being waged on their doorstep.
On May 23, militants of the Maute Group, a local ISIL affiliate, took control of Marawi, a city on the island of Mindanao in the southern Philippines. At Mindanao State University (MSU), the exam period was just drawing to a close. Students and staff were hastily evacuated to the nearby city of Iligan as soldiers poured into Marawi to take on the insurgents. The ensuing battle lasted five months. The military finally eliminated the last pocket of resistance in the city centre on October 23, five months to the day after the siege began.
As the fighting raged in the city, the university's leadership took stock. The campus borders Emishu, a Marawi suburb that derives its name from the acronym MSU. Emishu is detached from the rest of Marawi, and its residents returned when it became clear that the military had the insurgents hemmed in.
MSU president Dr Habib Macaayong decided it was safe enough to reopen the university. Staff prepared for the next academic year, and students were asked to return in September.
And they came. When classes resumed, about 9,000 students enrolled in courses at the Emishu campus, according to Dr Macaayong. Only a few had stayed home. While the students sat in class, soldiers were fighting and dying a few kilometres down the road, and Marawi was pulverised by relentless air strikes.
The campus was within reach of the heavy-calibre machine guns of the Maute Group, and stray bullets occasionally hit Emishu. In September, one of them killed a government official as he was driving out of Emishu after a visit to the university. Insurgents from outside Marawi even attacked an army base in the suburb, local residents say.
"There is always the anxiety, because of the air strikes and gunfire every day. Sometimes it can be a little distracting in courses and lessons but after a while we get used to it," said Mahib Mangonta, a third-year literature student, at the time.
For the students, the opportunities the university offers outweigh the risks. Mindanao is the poorest region in the Philippines and MSU is the country's largest university, with 11 campuses dotted all over the island, giving 78,000 students a chance to better their lives through higher education at highly subsidised rates. Dr Macaayong says it is the only university in the Philippines offering an education "practically for free".
Such chances — and aspirations — are not easily given up."Before it opened for enrolment I was actually encouraging some of the students to come back because it’s our university, it’s our second home, and if we don’t come back then there will be no more MSU," says Yvonne Bertiko, a student from eastern Mindanao. "[Without] this university there will be no uni for anyone who can’t afford college."
Helping along the economic development of Mindanao has been an explicit goal of the university since it was founded in 1961. By increasing education levels and prosperity on the island, MSU is also intended to counter the insurgencies that have plagued Mindanao for decades. Poverty has been the key driver of unrest on the island, not least because it has reinforced the sense of discrimination felt by the Muslim population. While Muslims are traditionally looked down on by the Christian majority, economic disenfranchisement is by far the most tangible form of discrimination.
"The mission of the university to be active in promoting peace and development in the Mindanao region. All of our campuses are strategically placed in areas that are conflict-prone, or very poor," says Florencio Recoleto, MSU's vice chancellor for academic affairs.
It is no coincidence that university's main campus is in Marawi, the only city in the Philippines where sharia is applied, which is officially known as the "Islamic City of Marawi".
The Autonomous Region of Muslim Mindanao, or ARMM, is home to about four million people and is also the poorest region in the Philippines. Marawi lies in the middle of the autonomous zone, a vast stretch of jungle on the western shores of Mindanao island.
Whereas in the past Islamist insurgent groups demanded more rights and autonomy for the country's Muslim minority, the insurgencies in the autonomous zone have become markedly jihadist in recent years. The Maute Group is one of several militant outfits seeking to spread terror and link up with extremist groups abroad.
MSU is on the other end of the ideological spectrum. Apart from trying to alleviate the economic grievances that are a root cause of Islamist extremism in the Philippines, it also promotes tolerance and peaceful coexistence.
"If you go into our classrooms you see a very diverse mix of students. You see Muslims and Christians studying and learning together. There is no such thing as tension just because of religious reasons," says Dr Johara Alangca-Aziz, a lecturer at the university.
The university's "special mission" has also inspired its leadership and staff to carry on working in spite of the risks.
"We believe that education is really the solution to extremism," says Aslainee Macatanong, another MSU lecturer. "We cannot just give in to this kind of thing."