Manila (Philippine Daily Inquirer/ANN) - The sound of what seemed like thunder wakes me up at 3 a.m., Monday, a few hours after I arrived in Damascus on my mission to assess the situation on the ground as head of the House of Representatives' Committee on Philippine Overseas Workers' Affairs.
Storm coming, I think, and my jetlagged brain plunges back to sleep.
When I go down to jog at six, the sidestreets around the Hotel Arjaan are blocked off by burly security men who tell me I can only run in the hotel grounds.
I am not about to argue with guys with Kalashnikovs, and I begin to sense that their presence has something to do with what woke me up hours earlier. Only when the Embassy car picks me up at 9:30 a.m. do I get the real story from our diplomatic staff.
The sound of thunder was the explosion of a rocket propelled grenade that killed eight alleged terrorists in a building just two blocks away from my hotel and about three blocks from the Philippine Embassy here in West Mezzeh, which is also known as the diplomatic quarters.
The gunfight between government forces and "Afghan nationals," as they were described in the government-controlled media, lasted six hours.
Like the two massive explosions on Saturday that destroyed two government buildings in the center of the capital, killing 27 people and wounding about a hundred, it was a grim announcement that the rebellion against the regime had arrived in the capital in earnest.
The Embassy here is on emergency mode. Families of the staff and non-essential personnel have been sent back to Manila. In Philippine diplomatic jargon, the Embassy is on "Alert Level Four," entailing the mandatory repatriation of all nationals. The single-minded focus of the staff is on reaching and evacuating the estimated 10,000 Filipinos in Syria.
Most of the Filipinos in Syria are domestic workers. The problem is most of them-around 90 per cent of the 9,000, according to Charge d'Affaires Olive Palala-are undocumented, having been illegally trafficked into the country by unscrupulous agencies based in Syria that have operatives in the Philippines.
Reaching them has become a herculean task since the whereabouts of a significant number are still unknown to the Embassy. A call on Overseas Filipino Workers (OFWs) to register with the Embassy was disseminated in both English and Arabic a few weeks ago, following a visit by Secretary of Foreign Affairs Alberto del Rosario to convince the Syrian authorities to help the Embassy locate Filipino nationals and stanch the flow of undocumented Filipinas into the country.
"Since early January, we have sent back 1,097 workers," says Ambassador Palala. "But since the deployment ban came into effect in April of last year, some 1,100 might have come in illegally. So the people we sent back were simply replaced."
A database for over 6,000 workers is now available, but the task of contacting them, much less repatriating most of them once the situation worsens significantly, is enormous, to say the least.
The siege of Homs
A very special concern of the Embassy's Rapid Response Team headed by Ambassador Eric Endaya, a seasoned veteran of evacuation operations, is the situation of Filipinos in key conflict areas such as Homs, an opposition stronghold that was subjected to a 26-day siege in February.
So far, one person, Mer-an Montezar, is known to have perished in Homs, the victim of an ambush at 11 o'clock at night. But given the restrictions on the movements of the Rapid Response Team placed by the Syrian government, says Ambassador Endaya, "we don't know how many more of our OFWs may have been killed."
The siege of Homs produced a significant number of OFWs fleeing Syrian households because of their fear of being caught in the crossfire. Talks with OFWs at the Embassy shelter produced eyewitness accounts of close-quarters combat, tank assaults, and artillery shelling.
"I was paralyzed with fear for days on end, hiding under the bed," said Rowena R. "I contacted the Embassy and they told me they would rescue me, but I could not wait anymore out of fear, so I left. And my employers also escaped along with me."
The siege also produced a true heroine: Alma G. An OFW based in Homs, she took it upon herself to contact and ferry OFWs trapped in that city to safety in Damascus. She made arrangements with taxis to get her friends out, and soon she was being contacted by other OFWs.
Virtually a one-person rescue mission, she is credited with bringing to the safety of the Embassy over 25 OFWs, with she herself undertaking the dangerous task of coming in and out of Homs several times at the height of the siege. Asked why she did what she did, she looks down shyly during a meeting I held with the domestic workers at the Embassy shelter. The answer comes in the form of a resounding applause from the 163 OFWs in the room.
Aside from contacting and looking for OFWs in the many cities of this ancient land, diplomatic and labor personnel at the Damascus post are busy drafting and redrafting contingency plans to address massive evacuation in the event the Syrian crisis worsens significantly, mapping out, among other things, evacuation corridors.
In fact, they are preparing for the worst, as many other diplomatic missions are doing in this increasingly tense city. Talks with Syrians, diplomats, and journalists in the few days I have been here reveal different assessments of the "survivability" of the government. But there is consensus on one thing: things will get worse before they get better.
Inquirer. Net columnist Walden Bello is head of the Committee on Overseas Workers' Affairs in the House of Representatives, where he represents the partylist Akbayan.