MARAWI, Philippines — As she approached her house for the first time since militants took over the neighborhood, evidence of a disaster unfolded around Haydee Dimalawang: “ISIS” spray-painted on the door of the family’s completely stripped car, walls gouged by bullets, a kitchen ripped in half by a mortar shell.
She felt lucky — relatively.
At least her house, in a central neighborhood of Marawi, was still standing. Her neighbor across the street, Alpata Utto, was left with an empty plot. His house had burned down early in the fighting, and weeds had sprouted from the ashes.
Islamic State loyalists seized Marawi, a predominantly Muslim city of more than 200,000 people on the Philippine island of Mindanao, more than 10 months ago, leading to months of military siege and devastating American airstrikes.
The residents are finally being allowed to return, but only for a day or two per family to salvage what they can and then leave again.
What happens next will depend on how and when the city is rebuilt. And in a central example of how the political wind is shifting in the Philippines, the destruction enabled in part by American military assistance will be repaired by a Chinese-led consortium, officials say.
On Tuesday, President Rodrigo Duterte visited China to discuss the project, worth an estimated $ 1.5 billion, with President Xi Jinping, among other issues, officials said.
As residents’ visits to Marawi began, three New York Times journalists were given exclusive access both to those neighborhoods and to some parts of the city still cut off to civilians and littered with ordnance and rubble.
Since Mr. Duterte declared victory over the Islamic State loyalists in October, residents have been kept out. For the past five months, they have been scattered across the country. Some moved in with relatives, but many were stuck in open-air, government-sponsored camps for the displaced.
After residents protested the delayed return to their city, the military scheduled the short-term visits.
Last year, President Duterte admitted that the Philippine security forces had been caught off guard by the militants’ assault on Marawi, and he grudgingly asked for help from the country’s traditional military allies, the United States and Australia.
What followed were five months of the most intense clashes the military had faced, with the militants killing hundreds, taking dozens of people hostage and beheading victims on video. In total, the government estimates that some 1,200 people were killed.
Long known as the “Islamic capital” of the Philippines, Marawi has a history of marginalization by the government of the predominantly Catholic country. Even before the siege began, residents would stay away from banks in favor of keeping their money in vaults and doing business among themselves. Many refused to register their property, preferring to stay off government books.
As people began returning this week, some said they believed that the Philippine military, not the Islamist militants, had looted their homes. That has only added to the sense of isolation.
“Our practice was staying together and closely guarding each other,” said Samira Gutoc, a community organizer from Marawi. “Now, if you’re a Muslim Filipino, you’re going to be suspected of being a part of this.”
Across the city, the residents tried to gather up whatever belongings they could: scrap metal to sell in the market, old family photo albums, half-burned high school diplomas.
In the center of the city, Dr. Bedoria Macabalang, 52, was inspecting what remained of the family-owned, 50-bed Salaam Hospital, which was one of the city’s most modern health facilities before the siege began. Militants had taken over the hospital and used it as an infirmary for their wounded. On the walls were pro-Islamic State graffiti.
“I have had to also let go of the hospital’s 80-plus staff. No one knows what’s going to happen to us,” Dr. Macabalang said. “I can’t cry anymore because all the tears have dried up.”
Plans to rebuild the city have been coming together slowly. Mr. Duterte announced last week that most of the contract will be bid out to a group of Chinese companies. But it could be months before the actual work can start.
On Tuesday, Mr. Duterte seemed to hint at that relationship — and others — as he addressed a business conference on the Chinese island of Hainan, with Mr. Xi in attendance.
“As sovereign equals, the Philippines and China are partners in the building of much-needed infrastructure,” Mr. Duterte said, according to a government transcript. “We are building bridges of greater understanding between our peoples.”
Rommel Banlaoi, a political and security analyst, said Marawi’s future would be a critical indicator of the Philippines’ relationship with China. “It is not only a case of counterterror,” he said. “It’s a test for Duterte’s foreign policy.”
Over the past year, the Duterte administration has been edging toward closer ties with Beijing. Though the two countries have a territorial dispute over islands in the South China Sea, the prospect of becoming part of China’s Belt and Road infrastructure initiative — which has provided highways, bridges and tunnels to neighboring countries like Thailand, Laos and Cambodia — appears to be moving the Philippines further out of the United States’ orbit.
“The Philippine relationship with the U.S. has already changed,” Mr. Banlaoi said. “Duterte doesn’t want the U.S. to lay on the terms anymore.”
With the level of destruction so high, Marawi will probably need to be completely razed and rebuilt. But residents are holding on to hope that they will be able to do the work.
“We don’t want the Chinese to come in and be paid to destroy our homes,” Ms. Dimalawang said. “This is our city, and we can rebuild it ourselves.”
In January, the government made moves to take control of the reconstruction away from the residents. Mr. Duterte released a presidential proclamation classifying much of Marawi’s present area as a military reservation, offering to repay residents for whatever areas are claimed. So far, no payments have been discussed.
“I will do what is best for you, so do not hurry me up,” Mr. Duterte said at a news conference this week. “Can you rebuild it with how many billions? Just stay put.”
There is certainly danger in any large-scale return right now. Around Marawi, volunteers for the Swiss Foundation for Mine Action distributed leaflets to returning evacuees warning them of unexploded ordnance. Posters showed different types of bombs.
One soldier walked past carrying an empty shell of a rocket-propelled grenade, while spent shells of World War II-era ammunition still littered the ground.
A “cadaver recovery team” from the health department continues to retrieve remains from the bombed-out areas. When the Times journalists visited, Dr. Khadafi Mapandi’s recovery team had found 12 sets of skeletal remains, and expected to find more.