SUKABUMI, Indonesia--Neneng Sunengsih binti Mamih Ujang, an impoverished villager, went to Saudi Arabia as a domestic worker to earn enough to put her teenage daughter through school.
What she encountered amounted to virtual slave conditions, and when the infant in her care died, Neneng was caught up in a nightmare.
An Islamic court sentenced her to beheading.
That she lived to tell her story illustrates the seriousness with which the Indonesian government regards the plight of migrant workers.
As the country with the world's largest Muslim population, Indonesia would seem to offer a perfect fit for domestics seeking jobs in Saudi Arabia that pay enough to send money home.
The lure of a relatively lucrative monthly salary has drawn countless Indonesians to the Middle East. There have also been headlines detailing abuse of domestic help by Saudi households.
"I was treated like an animal," Neneng, 35, said of her experiences in Saudi Arabia.
In hindsight, she counts herself lucky.
In an incident that sent shock waves across Indonesia, a woman was beheaded in public in Saudi Arabia last year.
The Indonesian government is now working on ways to provide training so that women do not have to go overseas to seek work as domestic help. The government intends to implement a ban on such work from 2017.
Neneng was sentenced to death last November.
On hearing the court verdict, she said, "I was stunned."
"Although I partly accepted the verdict as my fate, I also worried about where my body would be buried, so I prayed that I would be buried in my homeland," she said.
Neneng comes from a small village in the mountains of the Sukabumi regency in West Java province. All of the large tile-roofed homes in the village were built on remittances of migrant workers to Saudi Arabia.
Neneng returned to her village in January after former Indonesian President B.J. Habibie intervened.
She began working as a domestic in January 2011 for a family in Al-Jawf, northern Saudi Arabia, some 1,000 kilometers from the capital of Riyadh. That was her third time working in Saudi Arabia. She first went there in 1998 soon after her husband died, and again in 2000.
Her primary reason for going a third time was to earn enough to put her 16-year-old daughter through senior high school.
Because she had also gone on a pilgrimage to Mecca on her two previous stays, Neneng said, "As a Muslim, I never thought of going anywhere other than Saudi Arabia."
She earned 800 riyals a month (about 17,000 yen, or $214), veritable riches where she was from.
She worked for a young couple who had a 3-year child and a baby who was born after she started working. However, because the parents of the couple as well as other relatives lived in the same compound, she had to care for close to 20 people.
She worked from early in the morning, with no time for breaks except for the five prayer sessions daily observed by Muslims. She did not go to sleep until 2 a.m.
Neneng said that on one occasion she was grabbed by her head while she was praying and forced to return to work.
Last October, the infant she was caring for came down with diarrhea and became very weak.
She told the couple she wanted to take the baby to a hospital, but they said there was no need.
The diarrhea continued, and one morning in November the baby was lifeless. She tried calling the mobile phone of a family member about 20 times but could not get through.
Frightened, she ran out of the house. She saw a police vehicle and reported what had happened. She was taken to a police station. A relative of the couple who hired her came to the police station and said, "The baby is dead. This is the woman who killed the child."
After being placed in solitary confinement, Neneng was tried and sentenced to death.
Toward the end of last year, as she waited on death row, Neneng was suddenly released from the detention facility. She was accompanied by her lawyer to the Indonesian Embassy in Riyadh where she met Habibie. When he told her she could go home, she broke down in tears.
She returned to Indonesia on Jan. 19 along with another domestic worker who had also been handed the death sentence. The two were granted amnesty by the Saudi king.
However, because Neneng could not transfer money home after last October, her daughter could not go on to senior high school. She married instead and soon gave birth, making Neneng a grandmother at 35.
"Life may become more difficult, but I will never again go abroad for work," she said.
What triggered the effort to rescue Neneng was the beheading of an Indonesian domestic worker in June 2011 without prior notice to the Indonesian government. Video of the beheading turned up on the Internet, which led to daily demonstrations in front of the Saudi Embassy in Jakarta.
Last August, President Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono decided to implement a temporary ban on sending workers to Saudi Arabia. A special task force was established under the president to rescue domestic workers.
As part of such efforts, Habibie was dispatched as a special envoy of the president.
Neneng's miraculous return to Indonesia reflects the government's efforts to avoid public criticism should other domestic workers also die by beheading.
According to Anis Hidayah, executive director of Migrant Care, an association in Jakarta that provides assistance to migrant workers, there are nearly 7 million migrant workers from Indonesia in 42 nations.
Saudi Arabia has about 1.5 million Indonesian workers, second only to Malaysia.
Saudi Arabia is a popular destination not only because Mecca is located there, but also because of the relatively good pay. Saudis also find it easier to accept the workers because they are fellow Muslims.
More than 200 Indonesians are under sentence of death in China and Malaysia as well as Saudi Arabia and elsewhere.
As of April, 22 Indonesians expecting to be beheaded in Saudi Arabia were returned home. But 25 still remain on death row there.
There have been a number of cases in which employers have been stabbed after they sexually abused the Indonesian domestic worker. One worker was charged with using black magic after the son of the employer died.
Tatang Budi Utama Razak, director of protection for Indonesian citizens and legal entities at the Indonesian Foreign Ministry, said, "While we are making every effort to save those on death row, it is difficult in the Middle East because governments there do not directly handle such cases, but leave it up to the private sector."
Shelters have been established at Indonesian embassies in the Middle East, including Riyadh, to provide refuge to domestic workers who have run away.
Indonesians fleeing abuse seek refuge at those shelters on an almost daily basis, Tatang said.
Earlier this year, the Indonesian government announced it planned to ban domestic workers from going abroad by 2017. Those who want to work as domestics would be given training and education so they can work as nurses or technicians instead.
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