Past incident remains in memory

Then Labor Attaché Restituto “Resty” SM dela Fuente who asked me to cover the trip to Sakaka, Al Jawf in the northern part of Saudi Arabia. And the modern concrete King Fahd Road that goes all the way to Qassim Region.

    Many retired overseas Filipino workers (OFWs) enjoyed working in Saudi Arabia and collected a treasure trove of memories.

    They had a good compensation package, company accommodation, free medical care, annual vacation leave with pay, plus mid-year and annual bonuses. They could take leisurely strolls at the park when the weather was fine, and visit other countries as tourists to satisfy wanderlust.

    “What more could you ask for?” Dr. Mohd. Ali Carlito L. Astillero, former director of Pathology  and Laboratory Medicine at the Al Mishari Hospital in Riyadh, the Saudi capital, would probably ask.

   A ninth placer in the medical board exams, he is  now retired and lives in Cebu with his family where he manages a resort.

    “Probably no more!” engineer Restituto “Resty” Sarmiento Sibug, vice mayor of Candaba, Pampanga, and former TKT country manager in Saudi Arabia, would probably reply.

    Both were prominent OFWs in Riyadh, with the former regarded as “Dean of Filipino community leaders”.

    Memories are varied. While the tendency is to talk about exciting experiences, there are things that we would rather keep to ourselves.

    Landon Carter in Nicholas Sparks’  novel “A Walk to Remember”  won’t  talk about what happened when he was 17 that changed his life forever. He would do it on his own terms.

    The reader would probably ask why.

    It was probably painful for him to talk about his love for Jamie Sullivan whom he married even if he knew she was dying. (Mandy Moore played the role of Jamie Sullivan in the film version of the novel.)

   But, unlike Landon Carter, I set no conditions in telling my tale.

   It was the crack of dawn on Dec. 28, 2008 when I took an elevator from my third-floor flat in a four-story building off Sitteen Street in Riyadh.

    Getting out of the building, I felt cold as it was winter. The temperature had become much colder. It was hot in the previous months, with sporadic driving rains brought about by climate change.

    Like other countries, Saudi Arabia also feels the effects of climate change.

    I crossed the asphalt windswept street and walked towards my car, a Toyota Corolla, which had seen better days.

    I opened the locked door beside the driver’s seat with my car key. This was long before cars were opened by remote control or started by pushing a button.

   I got in, started the vehicle and turned on the headlights but waited for a while to warm the engine. I eased the car out of the parking area and drove off.

   Reaching Sitteen Street, I turned left and headed towards Khurais Road, which I crossed, and climbed  the access road to the gracefully winding concrete Gulf Bridge and drove all the way to Umm al-Hammam Street where Bahay Kalinga (BK) was. 

BK is where stranded women OFWs stay while awaiting deportation.

    It was at BK where I met others from the Philippine Embassy and POLO-OWWA.

    We were to travel to Sakaka 979 kilometers away in Al Jawf – nine hours 28 minutes by car – to render consular and other services to OFWs. I was to cover the event.

   I remained seated behind the wheel in the blue and gray sedan. Nothing could be heard except the deafening sound of silence.  I could make out in the darkness shadows of passing cars steadily moving westward along Makkah Road.

   The darkness gradually lifted to give a purplish view of houses and buildings in the distance and a horizon that was gradually being illuminated by a rising sun.

    I looked up through the glass window and saw gleaming stars as if they were smiling at me. I thought it was a good sign, evoking an immensely deep feeling that I was at a loss for words to describe.

    A bright and exciting day was ahead of us. The signs were clear. Everything had been taken care of by POLO-OWWA (Philippine Overseas Labor Office- Overseas Workers Welfare Administration).

    It is now called MWO-OWWA or Migrant Workers Office- Overseas Workers Welfare Administration.

    Then Labor Attaché Restituto “Resty” SM dela Fuente, who was on his second tour of duty in Riyadh, arranged that I be included in the trip to Sakaka in Al Jawf before he left for vacation in the Philippines.

    Dela Fuente, who jokingly told us not to mention him as a menopause baby, was bright, soft-spoken and a compleat gentleman who knew labor issues like the back of his hand.

    He graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (AB) degree, summa cum laude, from the Far Eastern University on Nicanor Reyes Sr. Street in Manila.

    While editing Pinoy Xtra (PX), the defunct Sunday Tagalog supplement of Arab News, I asked him to write a column on labor issues involving OFWs.

   PX, which was quite popular among OFWs and published continuously for 14 years, was generating substantial revenues for Arab News through advertising. With only eight pages, it sometimes ran 2-3 full page ads in a single issue.

   PX was a project of Khaled Almaeena, former editor-in-chief of Arab News and Saudi Gazette and a prominent Saudi editor, journalist, entrepreneur and blogger.

    Other cars arrived at BK and parked beside my car. Occupants were joining the trip. One of them was a Welfare Officer, or Welof, who was only in his 20s and still single but with a girlfriend. His name is withheld to protect his family’s privacy.  A self-supporting student, he attended the University of Santo Tomas for his degree.

    Two SUVs—Isuzu Troopers— drove up. I joined others in one of the SUVs driven by another Welof.

    But I was told to join the Welof in the other SUV driven by Taib Domado, who is now with the Consular section of the Philippine Embassy in Riyadh.

    When the acting POLO-OWWA officer-in-charge (OIC) arrived, he told me to go back to the other vehicle, probably wanting only POLO-OWWA staff in that car.

    So I went back to the other SUV. As the sun started to rise, the two-car convoy made a move for what I anticipated to be an exciting journey.

    The convoy headed towards King Fahd Road and set out on a long trip along a concrete highway with several lanes on both sides all the way to Qassim 358.1 km. in the north.

    I had gone to Qassim for coverage (in Buraidah, Al Rass and Unaizah) a number of times but this was my first trip to Al Jawf.

    Our car was running at a fast clip, exceeding the 120-km per hour speed limit. (To minimize car mishaps, cameras have been installed on the road to monitor speeding.)

   Vast stretches of desert could be seen on both sides of the highway with occasional patches of vegetation consisting of date orchards and green fields, a relaxing sight in the middle of an arid environment.

    Before reaching Qassim, we turned right towards Hafr Al Batin where we stopped for lunch, seated on a carpeted floor.

    We had plenty of food consisting of tasty Arabic rice, grilled chicken and lamb, and soft drinks. Bound by friendship, camaraderie and goodwill, we had a hearty and enjoyable lunch together.

    Since we had only traveled half the distance, we resumed our trip shortly.

    We noticed that, in contrast to the modern concrete King Fahd Road, we were now cruising along what seemed to be an underdeveloped road network, yet the Welof driver hardly slowed down. (There were no electric lamps to guide motorists at night.)

    I thought that was a bad sign and wondered if we would safely reach Al Jawf.

    While we were headed towards Rafha, a town in the north of Saudi Arabia, someone from the other SUV, which was behind us by a kilometer, called for a reason we did not know yet.

    Our SUV made a U-turn and drove back to where we came from.

    From a distance, we saw the other SUV lying on its side. It had turned turtle. The left rear tire was blown out. The sight of the horrible tragedy struck fear into the heart.

    The Welof was lying on the ground unconscious. The ground where the SUV was lying on its side was drenched with blood.

    Had I not transferred, I could have also been a victim just like the young Welof.

   He was rushed to the hospital in Hafr Al Batin. Gripped by shock and fear, we stayed at the hospital quarters until a Coaster arrived to take us back to Riyadh.

   The Welof, young and promising, was reported to have expired a few days after the accident.

   I wrote a report regarding the tragedy but for a reason I could not explain, I did not file it. Is this why the tragic incident is a recurring image in my mind?

    If there was another journalist during the trip, Arab News would have been scooped!

   Feeling sorry for the unfortunate Welof, I prayed silently thanking God for the new lease on life.

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