AMMAN, Jordan - The long-distance line into the Katmandu restaurant carried a familiar voice.
It was Bishnu Hari Thapa, the young man who only weeks earlier was working at the restaurant in Nepal, sleeping at night on its dining tables while awaiting a chance to land a foreign job.
He told the restaurant owner that he wanted to speak to his younger brother, who was now sleeping on the same tables, hoping for a similar opportunity.
"Where are you?" asked Gana Magar, owner of the restaurant, the New Bamboo Cottage.
"In Jordan," replied Bishnu Hari, whose family had been desperate to hear from him.
"I am done for."
Before he could explain, before his brother could come to the phone, the line went dead. It was the last message he left for his family.
They had no way to know, but Bishnu Hari would soon be on his way to a war zone - not the job he had been promised at a luxury hotel in Jordan.
After leaving Nepal, Bishnu Hari would become entangled in the illicit system delivering cheap labor from impoverished countries to U.S. military bases throughout Iraq.
On Aug. 19, 2004, about three weeks after he tried to phone his brother, Bishnu Hari would be among 12 Nepalis kidnapped from an unprotected caravan in Iraq. They were on their way to work for a major subcontractor of KBR, the Halliburton subsidiary that runs military support operations in Iraq.
KBR relies on more than 200 such subcontractors, many based in the Middle East, that employ thousands of men like Bishnu Hari imported into the region from some of the world's poorest corners. The company leaves every aspect of the workers' recruitment and deployment in the hands of those firms, which tap the pipeline that has long pumped laborers from South and Southeast Asia into the Middle East.
In retracing the trail of Bishnu Hari and the 11 other men kidnapped with him, the Tribune found a chain of brokers, middlemen and subcontractors along the way, all of whom stood to profit from the trade.
The journey of each of the Nepalis began with a village agent. The agents took the men to a broker on the edge of Katmandu, Moon Light Consultant, which had placed the job ad that attracted Bishnu Hari. Moon Light sent them to middlemen in Amman. From there, they were to be delivered to a KBR subcontractor at an American air base northwest of Baghdad.
They never arrived.
Carved into the side of one of the seven hills that Amman is built on, Malfouf Street seems far from the bustling byways lined with white stone buildings that typify the newly booming Jordanian capital.
There is little traffic, only a couple of shops, and laundry drying in the wind on the balconies of apartments.
It was here, at No. 58 on Malfouf Street, where Bishnu Hari briefly lived, along with at least seven other Nepalis who later would be kidnapped with him, according to Jordanian police records. It is one of the few places in Amman where the towering Le Royal Hotel, where paperwork filed in Nepal said he'd be working, is beyond sight.
But there was no such job. And Bishnu Hari's future was in the hands of labor brokers his family back home knew nothing about.
One such man was Eyad Mansour, a stout Jordanian who was the general manager of Amman's Morning Star for Recruitment and Manpower Supply.
Mansour was working with firms in Nepal that were on the supply-side of his business, exporting foreign workers to the Middle East. One of the firms was Moon Light, the company that sent Bishnu Hari and at least 11 others to Jordan.
Jordanian firms especially liked Nepalis because, in Mansour's words, "they are good, they are honest and they accept low salaries."
To Mansour, juggling two cell phones and two land lines from the swivel chair behind his desk, life as a middleman is straightforward. He describes it in an interview like this: The "factories" are places such as Nepal, which feed him "the goods," then he passes them on.
For years, those goods were mostly menial laborers, low-skilled assembly workers or maids from South and Southeast Asia employed by Jordanian factories or in households of the wealthy.
But with the onset of the Iraq war, workers from Nepal and other impoverished countries were in greater demand. Mansour was a very busy man. Because of the war, "Jordan has a big booming in recruiting," he said.
Thousands of workers are needed to meet the demands of the unprecedented privatization of military support operations unfolding under the watch of the U.S. Army and KBR, its prime contractor in Iraq.
The U.S. bases there are like self-sufficient cities, and almost all logistical support is outsourced to KBR - from electricity generation, ditch digging and mail delivery to the operation of dining halls, latrines and movie theaters.
KBR, in turn, outsources much of the work. Mansour said his take of this action was from $300 to $500 per worker, paid by other brokers and subcontractors in Amman who send the laborers directly to the bases in Iraq.
Typically, he said, he would receive e-mails from Moon Light and other Nepali brokers containing the names and flight data of arriving workers. He would send someone to pick them up at the airport, before placing them in Amman homes or apartments, where they waited before going to Iraq.
Paperwork filed in Nepal said Bishnu Hari and the 11 other Nepalis kidnapped last summer all came to Jordan under Morning Star's authority, along with about two-dozen others from the South Asian country.
Mansour would first admit, then deny, that Bishnu Hari and the others came to Jordan through his company, despite the paperwork in Nepal and the fact that he kept photocopies of all 12 of their passports, stamped with Jordanian entries.
In addition, a man who worked for Morning Star at the time owned the house at No. 58 Malfouf St. where Bishnu Hari and some of the others stayed.
That man, Amin Mansour, who is no relation to Eyad, took the Nepalis to Amman's Zaharan police station. Amin Mansour registered them as tenants of his home, records show, listing himself as their landlord. (Under Jordanian law, foreign visitors must register at the local police station if they stay in the country for more than two weeks.)
Among his new tenants were three best friends from the Nepalese village of Mahendranagar. Not long after their arrival in Amman, they called their families in a panic.
Unlike Bishnu Hari, the three friends always knew their ultimate destination was an American base in Iraq. But their Jordanian brokers were now demanding they surrender two months' pay as a fee and accept less than half the salaries promised them in Nepal, according to their families.
The men were desperate to go home. But their families told them the they must continue into Iraq, solely to cover the loans used to pay a Nepalese broker $3,500 for each man - more than a decade of earnings.
By mid-August, their fate was settled. The plan was for Bishnu Hari and dozens of other Nepalis to load into a caravan of cars and make the trip into Iraq along the Amman-to-Baghdad highway, where insurgents and bandits routinely attack, kidnap or kill travelers.
The caravan's journey was to end north of Ramadi and Fallajuh at Al Asad Air Base, which is near the banks of the Euphrates River. They were to depart from Amman on Aug. 19.
Deploying personnel into Iraq is expensive. Flying one-way from Amman to Baghdad can cost about $600 per person. Armored vehicles from Amman are no cheaper. And professional security contractors charge big dollars to organize and escort roadway caravans.
But under its Iraq subcontracts, KBR left such details for menial workers in the hands of the Middle Eastern firms hiring them.
Before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq transformed the Jordanian capital with war and reconstruction money, Ali Kamel al-Nadi was a dry cleaner. By last summer, he was responsible for sending men into what had become one of the world's most dangerous places.
His firm, Bisharat & Partners, had arranged to transport 65 Nepalese men into Iraq, al-Nadi said. This included Bishnu Hari and the other 11 sent to Jordan by Moon Light, according to another broker involved with the caravan.
Bisharat & Partners has a contract to supply workers to a company called Daoud & Partners, al-Nadi said. In turn, Daoud & Partners, also based in Amman, is a major KBR subcontractor on the American bases in Iraq.
Officials with Daoud & Partners did not return repeated calls or respond to a formal interview request at their office in Amman.
Al-Nadi didn't have enough cars to deliver the 65 Nepalis, according to Eyad Mansour, the other broker involved in the caravan, so al-Nadi called him for help.
Mansour phoned his own driver to see if the man was available, but he said the driver refused, explaining that it was far too dangerous and the caravan would be an obvious target for insurgents. Two drivers from Daoud & Partners had been kidnapped in Iraq just weeks earlier. In exchange for their release, the company had issued a public statement saying it would cease operations in Iraq, though it did not.
Mansour's driver wasn't alone in his concern. Because of attacks and kidnappings, many Western contract personnel had avoided the Amman-to-Baghdad highway since late 2003.
Concerns about driving through Iraq's Anbar province grew deeper after the deadly March 2004 attack in Fallujah on four American security contractors, whose bodies were burned and dragged through the streets as insurgent video cameras captured it all.
Such dangers were catalogued in repeated and specific warnings issued publicly by the American and British government in the weeks leading up to Aug. 19 departure date of the Nepali caravan.
The British cited the threat of kidnappings in the same areas the convoy would be headed. The Americans said travel by road should be undertaken only if absolutely necessary, and only then with proper security.
According to Eyad Mansour and Prakash Mahat, who was then Nepal's foreign minister, there was no security for the caravan that was eventually assembled. There were no escorts. There was no armor. And there were no professional security contractors along for the ride.
Bishnu Hari and his 11 compatriots rode in the two lead cars.
Because of clearance delays at the Jordan-Iraq border crossing, those two cars got well ahead of the others in the caravan at the very start, according to an account from Mansour. As such, the drivers violated the most basic rule for convoys in dangerous places: Stick together.
About 40 miles south of Al Asad, a handful of men dressed in the uniforms of Iraqi security forces stopped the two cars at a checkpoint, according to Mansour's account.
The Iraqis told the drivers they had to leave the workers at the checkpoint, that Americans would come from the base to pick them up. The drivers complied and dropped off the Nepalis.
The drivers may not have known it, but the men at the checkpoint were insurgents or Iraqi soldiers working with them.
When Mansour found out about the kidnappings, he phoned Bisharat & Partners. The firm checked with a Daoud foreman working at Al Asad base and called Mansour back.
The convoy had arrived, he recalled being told, but it was 12 men short.
An insurgent group in Iraq, the Ansar al-Sunna Army, posted a statement on the Internet on Aug. 20, listing the names of the 12 Nepalese workers it had kidnapped and branding them "infidels."
They were captured the day before, the group said, because they were in Iraq to help America's "crusader forces."
The statement also said it took the men from a convoy sent by Bisharat & Partners, al-Nadi's firm. Al-Nadi admitted to the Tribune that he likely got the 12 Nepalis from Morning Star. He said they likely were among the Nepalis that Bisharat cleared to leave for Iraq last August. In the end, he claimed not to know what became of them.
But on Aug. 22, the Ansar al-Sunna Army made that clear: The group uploaded pictures of the men on the Internet so the Nepalis would serve as "a lesson" to others.
In the Nepalese village of Siudibar, the mother of Bishnu Hari Thapa saw the images on her tiny TV after a boy told her to watch the news.
The last she had heard of her firstborn son was the fractured message he'd left at the New Bamboo Cottage - "I am done for."
But now here he was, staring from the small screen, the familiar baggy shirt untucked from his blue jeans.
"It's imprinted in my memory," Bishnu Maya Thapa said.
She recalled that she quickly descended into a state of shock. Two days later, she went to Katmandu with her husband, hoping to learn something about the fate of their son.
The couple brought with them the parents of Kumar Thapa, the village dalal, or middleman, who had brokered their son's journey from the New Bamboo Cottage.
"Everybody reassured me that he would be released and return safely," Bishnu Maya Thapa said. "I lived on that hope."
They pressed Kumar Thapa, demanding to know why their son wound up in Iraq. He checked with Moon Light and told the family he'd learned there had been no immediate work in Jordan. So their son and the others were sent to Iraq temporarily and had been scheduled to return soon to Amman - an explanation that was untrue.
Bishnu Maya recalled Thapa saying: "Don't panic, brother has done nothing. He will be released. He will return. Don't worry."
Nepalese authorities scrambled for answers, looking for someone, anyone, to negotiate with.
Instead, the Foreign Ministry received video footage on Aug. 24 featuring 10 of the 12 men. They were speaking in Nepali and into the camera. Some were so terrified they broke down, their words making little sense.
All but two blamed Prahlad Giri, the Moon Light general manager.
"My name is Bishnu Hari Thapa," said the 18-year-old from Siudibar. "The Nepali agency, Prahlad Giri, had said that we had been offered employment in Amman. But today he sent us to Iraq."
Another hostage lashed out at the brokers who had deceived them. "Trapped by Moon Light," his statement ended, " ... in Jordan, Jordan."
A third hostage made the stakes clear: "I do not know when I will die, today or tomorrow."
Despite the terrifying words, some hope remained. On Aug. 29, the government-controlled newspaper, The Rising Nepal, even carried a front-page story under the headline, "Release of hostages likely in a week."
Two days later, in images released by the kidnappers and beamed across the world, the families learned what some in Iraq and the West already knew: The Ansar al-Sunna Army wasn't interested in negotiating or money, only blood.
The terrorists sliced one Nepali's throat, holding him down as he wheezed through the gash for air. After beheading him, they shot the other 11, one by one, as they lay face down in a ditch.
The carnage was captured in a grainy video. Judging by the blurred image of a young man in blue jeans and long-sleeved shirt, it appears Bishnu Hari was the fifth man shot.
Although it was barely noticed at the time, and largely forgotten by the outside world since, it remains perhaps the worst massacre of foreign workers since the outbreak of the Iraq war.
Within hours of the executions, Nepalis took to the streets across their nation, erupting in rage.
Rioters attacked the offices of Qatar Airways, Gulf Air and other airlines that transport workers overseas. At Moon Light's headquarters, looters took computers, phones, desks and chairs before the place was torched. About 350 other agencies also were attacked.
In the wake of the riots, the slain men's families each received about $14,000 from the Nepalese government. But they had to use much of that money to cover the loans taken out to pay the job brokers.
The 10 families interviewed said they had never heard about a mandatory U.S. insurance program that is supposed to compensate survivors of wartime workers.
No amount of money, though, would keep Bishnu Maya Thapa from seeing her dead son in the faces of boys wearing blue jeans or sandals, or in the flicker of a light bulb connected by the wires he used to fiddle with.
"My child is dead, my son who I brought up in the midst of hardship and difficulties, crushing rocks, carrying sand," she said. "I want to die myself."
Nine days after their own son's death, the parents of 19-year-old Ramesh Khadka returned to the sacred temple at the confluence of the Lele and Nalu rivers where they'd said goodbye to him eight weeks earlier. Into the water, they floated a small effigy of Ramesh fashioned from sacred grasses by Hindu holy men - a funeral rite for dead men whose bodies are lost.
Five days after they burned an effigy of their own lost son, the parents of another executed Nepali worker, Prakash Adhikari, received a letter. It was posted in Jordan a month earlier, the address, "Topgachhi 7 Jhapa," scribbled in Adhikari's familiar hand.
"I have realized that life is like a flowing stream," he wrote. "Until yesterday I was in Nepal. I am now in a foreign land. Why? Who knows? Maybe it's the times, or the situation, or maybe I had no choice."
The letter mentioned only in a matter-of-fact way that he was heading to Iraq after being "in Jordan for a month without work," raising questions about when he might have learned Iraq was his ultimate destination.
The bodies of Adhikari and the other victims were never reported found.
The slaughter left three widows. Kamala Thapa Magar, now 20, is raising her 2-year-old daughter at a home for widows and destitute women on the outskirts of Katmandu, where she is learning to spin yarn and sew. She plans to return to her remote village, though she may not be so welcome. In traditional Hindu villages, widows often are considered alachin, a Nepali word for someone who brings bad fortune.
All of the victims' families in Nepal curse the brokers behind the journey of their sons, brothers and husbands, including the businessmen in Jordan whose names they never knew.
Of the men who sent her son through this pipeline, Bishnu Maya Thapa cries to the heavens for vengeance: "I say, `God, you gave breath to my son. Now let my tears drown'" them.
Many Nepalis assumed that the main local broker involved in recruiting the victims had gone into hiding, perhaps in India, perhaps beyond. But Prahlad Giri is still in Katmandu.
These days he works out of an office atop a three-story building in a strip-mall just off the main road ringing the city.
With Moon Light's license gone, Giri has moved to another agency, Sea Link Overseas. Only the firm's owner needs a government license, so Giri can work as its general manager.
He runs the agency from behind a high desk, sheer curtains darkening the rooftop office. An oscillating fan on a pedestal recycles the warm air in the small room.
One floor below, Nepalese men linger in Sea Link's main office, hoping for one of the jobs in Qatar, Saudi Arabia or the United Arab Emirates trumpeted in "Urgent Demand" notices hanging from a bulletin board on the veranda.
Giri contended he had no idea the 12 men were bound for Iraq, even though one of his dalals made that clear to families of the three best friends from Mahendranagar. Giri blamed Eyad Mansour, the general manager of Jordan's Morning Star firm. But Mansour and other brokers in Jordan said Giri was aggressively and willingly feeding them workers for Iraq under false papers all along.
"I am just the one guy who was unlucky, who faced the problem," Giri said.
In Amman, Mansour said his business is booming again, handling about 4,000 foreign workers a year. Noting that Morning Star was temporarily shut after the executions, he insisted he doesn't like to send men to Iraq anymore.
Amin Mansour, the Morning Star employee who registered eight of the Nepalis as residents of his home on Malfouf Street, left the firm at about the time the men were kidnapped. He's now al-Nadi's partner at Bisharat & Partners.
Earlier this year, on the open-air porch of Amin Mansour's home, 21 foam sleeping mats lay stacked next to the front door. A few feet away, there was a separate room attached to the house with its own outside door_secured by a thick, rusty chain.
Amin Mansour and al-Nadi sat in the lobby bar of an Amman hotel, chain-smoking American cigarettes and discussing the fate of the 12 doomed men, whom they claimed to know nothing about.
"If they were my workers," al-Nadi said with a smile, "maybe I should be compensated for losing them."
Back in Nepal, Bishnu Hari's mother clings to her last living son, Krishna, 17. She has moved with him to the edge of Katmandu, where he attends school and she watches over him and makes sure he doesn't seek work overseas.
Even if it means they live in poverty, she won't consider letting him go.
"I've tried to persuade her, but she says no," Krishna said, sitting on the edge of a bed stuffed into their two-room apartment.
At that, his mother, squatting on the floor beside him, reached for his leg, her face contorting, and wept.