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Afghan war goes to Philippine mountains

by Jason Gutierrez* A week ago, only a handful of people in the sleepy mountain valley town of Sagada in the northern Philippines had ever heard of Afghanistan, let alone the Taliban.Now, Afghanistan is all anyone talks about there, as the family and friends of Zenia Aguilan wait for her body to be sent home.The 31-year-old woman, who sought work overseas so she could help support her family, was killed last week in a Taliban suicide attack at the five-star Kabul hotel where she had worked as the spa supervisor.Clutching a portrait of her slain daughter, retired school teacher Herminia Aguilan struggles to speak, her eyes welling with tears."They are bad people," she told AFP of the Taliban extremists blamed for the attack on the Serena Hotel, which killed eight people: a US national, a Norwegian photographer, an Afghan guest, four guards — and Zenia.The youngest of five, the vivacious and outspoken Zenia was a straight-A student who earned a degree in physical therapy and a ticket out of Sagada, a town where literacy is high but where poverty remains a major problem.Zenia's four siblings are also professionals working abroad — just a handful of the more than eight million Filipinos sending billions of dollars home every year from more than 120 countries.The vast army of overseas workers — who sent home 13.1 billion dollars in the first 11 months of 2007 alone, up 14.1 percent on a year earlier — have become the backbone of the Philippine economy, according to government data.The Aguilans are typical of those who have joined the exodus to try and make a better life for themselves and their families.When Zenia was just two months old, her father died, leaving Herminia to raise the family alone. On a public schoolteacher salary of about 100 dollars a month, "life was hard," she said."The children knew we were poor and they had to leave for economic reasons," she said, adding that one of her children is a nurse working in the United States, while another works in Saudi Arabia.While Aguilan said the money did help, it did not replace having the family together. Now, following Zenia's death, her remaining children will be under one roof for the first time in years — to bury their sister.Zenia first sought work in Taiwan before heading to the Middle East.From Dubai, she landed a job paying around 700 dollars to work as the Serena's spa manager in Afghanistan. She had been there for almost a year, when the fatal attack happened."She came home on vacation last July and did not appear worried about being in Afghanistan," Aguilan said."She loved her work and she was enjoying her time in Afghanistan."Friends and relatives gathered at the family's modest wood-paneled two-story home nestled in the middle of Sagada's maze of pathways described Zenia as easy-going and generous. Pictures show a young, smiling attractive woman."She was family-oriented and always thought about family first," Aguilan said, her voice again trembling."I pity my child. Her life had been full of sacrifices and now she had to die that way in a foreign country, all by herself without family. She didn't even see her father."Zenia had been planning on returning home, most likely for good, in February, and had promised her mother they would go on a long-delayed vacation.Instead, the 62-year-old matriarch is sadly preparing to bury her daughter.Word of Zenia's death has spread quickly in Sagada, where practically everyone knows each other by first name and are either relatives by birth or marriage.Conversation in coffee shops and markets centres on the Aguilan family's tragedy.Sagada, a farming town of approximately 15,000 people nestled in the northern Cordillera mountain range, is considered a fifth-class municipality — meaning the income level remains among the lowest in the Philippines.While the local government has turned the town into a successful tourist spot with its ancient caves and scenic cliffs, local households still earn an average of less than 100 dollars a month, according to the local census.Aguilan says despite the tragedy of Zenia's death, she knows her other children will continue to work and live abroad, to ensure a better life for them all."They had a difficult life — they should experience what I did not experience in life," she said.