MANILA, Philippines – Filipino Ruth Pana remembered the windows of her employer's house in Damascus riddled with bullets. The maid, who escaped first to the Philippine Embassy in the Syrian capital and then to Manila aboard an evacuation flight, also remembered one of the sons of her Syrian employer being killed by government forces.
"His chest was opened like there was large steel that passed through it," she said, sobbing. "Do you know that we buried him at the back of the house because there were no more cemeteries?"
Pana was among nearly 300 Filipino workers — young women who escaped unemployment at home for jobs abroad as maids and babysitters — who fled the worsening civil war in the biggest single repatriation negotiated between the Philippines and Syria. They were flown to Manila on Tuesday by the International Organization of Migration and brought with them the tales of horror and sleepless nights as violence between government forces and rebels fighting to overthrow the regime of President Bashar Assad spiraled out of control.
Pana, 29, said the man she worked for was supportive of the opposition and his son was killed during a recent demonstration. After the family's house where she lived and worked was shattered by bullets, they all fled to a neighbor's basement to escape being caught in the crossfire between government troops and the rebel Free Syrian forces.
She said she liked her employer and had worked for him and his family for three years until 2010, and then returned just months before the fighting erupted in March 2011.
Pana said a military camp behind her employer's residence was occupied by the rebels but the military launched a counter-attack and bombardment last week using helicopters.
"If you could just see the bodies, oh brother, you would be throwing up," she said in an interview.
She said when her employer and his family moved to a rented house, she made contact with the Philippine Embassy, which sent a car that took her away to the care of Filipino diplomats until she and the others were repatriated.
Pana said her employer initially didn't want her to leave, saying she was still under contract, but then relented.
"If it were not for the war, I would not have returned home," said Glemer Cabidog, 34, who was a caretaker of a villa in Damascus for a wealthy Kuwaiti businessman who had fled the war. "We asked permission from our employer but after three months ... he said he won't allow us to leave. That's why we escaped."
Cabidog, who was paid $200 a month, said she and another Filipino worker at the villa decided to leave after a clash two weeks ago between Syrian forces and demonstrators in their neighborhood.
"That was when we decided to leave," she said. "We didn't want to die there."
She said they made arrangements with the Philippine Embassy to pick them up a week later.
She said her employer has stayed in Kuwait for the last nine months. She said she would get food and other provisions by requesting supplies from one of his secretaries who would have them delivered to the compound.
The 263 Filipinos who returned home, many shedding tears of joy, had sought refuge at the embassy compound until Philippine Foreign Secretary Albert del Rosario traveled to Syria last week to organize their evacuation.
"I was scared and I really wanted to go home. Now that I am home, I am very happy," said Sasulaya Abdula.
Some of the women were crying and were comforted by others as they waited for their papers to be processed by officers from the Overseas Workers Welfare Administration, a government agency in charge of nearly 10 million Filipinos who work overseas.
After welcoming them at the Manila airport, del Rosario said up to 600 more want to return home.
The rest of the estimated 3,000 Filipino workers decided to stay in Syria for the time being, he said.