The first Monday of the new year was a grim day here in Lebanon. My friend and fellow journalist Matthew Cassel tweeted about a commotion (warning: graphic photos) near his house in Sanayeh, Beirut. Without even seeing what had happened, he said he already knew: a migrant domestic worker had killed herself. Sadly, this is all too common- since October, at least 30 migrant women (and one man) have reportedly died, mostly by suicide.
Following Cassel’s tip-off, I traveled to the scene, where more than one hour and a half later after jumping to her death, the crumpled body of 28-year old Filipina Theresa Otero Seda was still lying face-down on the pavement, covered with a thin white plastic sheet. It had taken an ambulance around one hour to reach the scene, where a crowd of curious bystanders, four officials from the Philippine Embassy and three policemen had gathered. According to Cassel, the street of the incident wasn’t cordoned off for some time, with cars speeding along the street and almost running over Theresa’s corpse, unaware of what lay under the bag (though of course if they respected the speed limits it would have been clear). One woman driving a school bus apparently stopped almost next to the body to ask for directions. “Someone’s just died here,” she was told. “Huh,” she replied. “So how did you say I am supposed to get to destination X?”
Theresa landed on a slight incline, and her blood had trickled down the pavement. Her right hand poked out from under the sheeting, slightly curled inwards. In full view of the public, the forensic team removed the plastic sheeting and turned her over. Her face had been smashed into an unrecognizable collection of bone and blood: a sickening sight that seems to have been burnt into my mind. Forensics let her lie on the road for a while, taking photos and allowing photojournalists to take a few snaps and giving the public a good look. I felt humiliated for her.
After a while the ambulance staff placed her crumpled, tiny body on a stretcher (without wheels) and carried her towards the entrance of the building, I’m assuming to investigate in a more discreet environment. They reversed the ambulance into the area to try to block off the site. But as they put Theresa on the ground and began to remove her shirt and trousers, I could see everything. I watched with horror as they wiped her face and arms down with Kleenex tissue, and I saw more than I should have been allowed when they turned her over and removed her bra. Again I felt humiliated for her: even in death, she wasn’t treated with due respect . She was practically stripped naked for the world to gawp at.
I managed to speak to her employer, who was standing around at the scene fiddling with his mobile phone. At times he seemed concerned, but at one point he shared a laugh with another man. About what, I don’t know. After telling me the insurance and embassy would take care of everything (aka, repatriating Theresa’s body), he said: “This is the point- I used to leave my two children with her.” What does that mean, I thought. “So, you won’t be doing that again with future employers?” I asked him. “No way,” was his response.
Unfortunately, it appears Theresa arrived in Lebanon illegally (please excuse the error in first sentence), defying a deployment ban by Manila to work here. “Responsibility will have to be borne by those who brought her here,” Philippine Ambassador to Lebanon Gilberto Asuque told me later, mentioning the Lebanese agency that recruited the young woman.
Theresa arrived two months ago and leaves behind a partner and three young daughters. Even though she had no dignity even in death, I hope she now has the peace she deserved in life. Let her miserable and wholly avoidable demise be the long-awaited wake-up call to the Lebanese authorities that they must protect women like Theresa from the isolation, desperation and, in many cases, the rights abuses that push them over the edge.