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Web-only Exclusives
November 30, 2000

From Our Correspondent: Hirohito and the War
A conversation with biographer Herbert Bix

From Our Correspondent: A Rough Road Ahead
Bad news for the Philippines - and some others

From Our Correspondent: Making Enemies
Indonesia needs friends. So why is it picking fights?

Asiaweek Time Asia Now Asiaweek story

A Nightmare Finally Ends

Balabagan returns as a symbol of injustice

By Jose Manuel Tesoro and Antonio Lopez / Manila


WHEN SHE QUIETLY LEFT Manila in 1994, the 15-year-old Sarah Balabagan was like many other overseas contract workers: nervous and scared. She was also hopeful that the land that awaited her would be welcoming, or at least indifferent. All she wanted was to earn a decent living and send back money to her struggling Muslim family.

Reunion Sarah is safe, but other workers still face hardships

She returned home last week as someone very different. Scores of officials and journalists greeted her as she arrived from the United Arab Emirates, where she had endured a harrowing ordeal -- and become a figure that represented the trials of all Filipino overseas workers.

Balabagan spent 20 months in a jail in Al-Ain, a suburb of Abu Dhabi, for the murder of her employer Mohamed Abdullah Baloushi, 67. She told U.A.E. courts that he had repeatedly tried to rape her. On July 19, 1994, he succeeded in doing so at knifepoint, she says. She grabbed the knife and stabbed him 34 times. Balabagan was jailed without bail and in June 1995, a local court sentenced her to seven years in prison. The court also ordered her to pay Baloushi's family $41,000 in diyah, or "blood money," for manslaughter.

Back home, public anguish and anger were still simmering over the execution six months earlier of Filipino domestic helper Flor Contemplacion in Singapore for murder. Manila, smarting from accusations that it had not done enough to help Contemplacion, rushed to save Balabagan. The first retrial returned a verdict of murder and a death sentence. But a plea from Manila resulted, one month later, in a one-year jail sentence and 100 lashes. After President Fidel Ramos appealed personally, U.A.E. President Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al-Nahayan cut short the girl's jail term by three months. Said Balabagan on her return: "Allah did not abandon me."

Neither did her compatriots. The government has set aside $46,000 for her education and offered her a job in Malaca–ang, the presidential palace. Some individuals have donated cash awards, funded scholarships and promised royalties to Balabagan in exchange for the rights to film her story. As for Balabagan, now 17, she wants to study law "so I can help my countrymen." She thanks Ramos for helping secure her freedom. His response: "We must make sure the difficulties and the sad experiences that Sarah underwent be prevented from ever happening again."

A tall order, for her story could well have turned out differently, as it has for other overseas workers. The same day Balabagan arrived, domestic helper Elisa Salem, 25, also returned -- in a coffin, a victim of her Jordanian employer's abuse and one of the 130 overseas workers returned dead so far this year. In 1995 alone, the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration received 14,000 complaints of abuse.

Similar problems remain for tens of thousands of other migrant workers. But so does Manila's need for their earnings. Labor Secretary Leonardo Quisumbing calculates that last year remittances by overseas workers amounted to $4.7 billion. In the first half of this year, laborers abroad sent home $3 billion. Without these inflows, says Quisumbing, "We can never cover the ballooning trade deficit, which in 1995 amounted to $12 billion."

Looking back, Balabagan regrets having gone to Abu Dhabi. But it is still likely that more like her will venture into similar situations, putting themselves at risk to secure their family's and country's future.


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