IRAQ: Desperate for Work, Lured into Danger

The journey of a dozen impoverished men from Nepal to Iraq reveals the exploitation underpinning the American war effort
Publisher Name: 
The Chicago Tribune

  KATMANDU, Nepal -- The jolting news out of Iraq came to the woman from a neighbor boy.

"What's your son's name?" the child cried out, his voice ringing through their village in the Himalayan foothills, almost 4,000 miles from the American theater of war.

"Bishnu Hari Thapa," the woman called back.

"Turn on your television," the boy shouted.

Peering at the small screen in her family's apartment, Bishnu Maya Thapa saw the solemn face of her firstborn son. Worried for three weeks, ever since he'd left an alarming phone message, she now saw him posed before a black banner emblazoned with Arabic, holding his passport open with his right hand, just below his chin.

Someone beyond the frame's edge held a rifle's muzzle over Bishnu Hari's head. Alongside him stood 11 other Nepalis, as if gathered for some kind of class photo. The 12 men had been seized by terrorists in Iraq, the announcer said, the words robbing the mother of her breath.

It had been only seven weeks since she sent her 18-year-old son off to earn a paycheck that would bring their family a better life. But that paycheck was supposed to come from the safety of a five-star hotel in Jordan, not the combat zone of Iraq.

Whether Bishnu Hari and most of the other 11 Nepalis even knew before leaving home that they were headed to Iraq remains a mystery.

At least three did, but they were deceived about key details. Most of the rest, including Bishnu Hari, appear to have been lured with fraudulent paperwork promising jobs at the luxury hotel in Amman.

They learned Iraq was their real destination only after their families went deeply into debt to pay huge sums demanded by the brokers who sent these sons and brothers to the Middle East.

The stench of grease, scorched cumin and sweat coats the brown thatch walls of the New Bamboo Cottage, a Tiki-hut restaurant on the edge of Katmandu, Nepal's sprawling capital.

In the early summer of 2004, Bishnu Hari worked odd jobs around the restaurant. At night, he would sleep on the pale linoleum tables shoved together, side-by-side and end-to-end, after the restaurant's final customer had gone home.

He was 5 feet tall and wore bluejeans and sandals. His face often sported fuzz that wouldn't trouble a razor. But in Nepalese society he was already a man, expected to help his family. That was why his mother, like so many here, had prayed for a son.

For Bishnu Hari, sleeping on the restaurant's tables was about finding a chance to improve the lot of a mother who earlier in her life had crushed stones at a quarry for pennies a day. It was about helping a father shouldering the burdens of rent, food and clothing for a family of five.

In Bishnu Hari's hometown of Siudibar, a rural village named for a wildflower, there are few opportunities beyond subsistence farming. But he was trained as a welder and electrician, giving him the skill to fix the wiring rigged all around the New Bamboo Cottage. In return, the owner let him stay there for free.

Being close to Katmandu was his real reward: Bishnu Hari dreamed of getting a job in another country with help from one of the city's more than 400 manpower agencies.

For a fee, often 10 times more than Nepal's per capita income of $270 a year, those agencies send men to labor in the Persian Gulf region, Malaysia and beyond. While onerous, the fee is a gamble that any job in the Middle East might yield a salary of $200 a month, an unimaginable sum in Nepal.

Tourism, once buoyed by Westerners in search of Shangri-La, was an early casualty of Nepal's 9-year-old civil war with Maoist rebels. Almost 40 percent of the country's nearly 28 million people live on less than $1 a day.

So the estimated $1 billion wired home each year by overseas Nepalis outpaces tourism, all exports and foreign aid combined.

Many from Bishnu Hari's remote village, in a district ravaged by the Maoist war, had made the five-hour bus ride to Katmandu before him, following the same dream.

  Meeting the middleman

Kumar Thapa, a former neighbor from Bishnu Hari's village, was living in Katmandu. During a visit back home, he had offered to help the young man.

Thapa is what Nepalis call a dalal, which is a Hindi-derived word once used to identify a pimp. Now it's synonymous with "middleman" or "agent." Dalals are vital to the overseas labor system. They don't have licenses. They only take cash. There are no receipts. Nothing is written down.

Thapa was an amateur in this world, but he earned the dalal's reward. He pocketed a fee for each man he sent to the labor agents. And he hoped for another commission, helping get Bishnu Hari into the New Bamboo Cottage and close to the action.

After sleeping on the restaurant's dining tables for three weeks, Bishnu Hari found an advertisement in the June 13, 2004, edition of the Kantipur Daily, the leading Nepalese-language newspaper.

In the bottom corner of Page 16, it read: "Vacancies in Amman, Jordan."

More than 100 jobs were waiting for Nepalese men, the ad promised. They would fetch $200 to $500 per month. Just one month's salary would be enough to cover rent for Bishnu Hari's family for more than half the year. Enough for him to send his little brother to college.

Help wanted

With the American presence in Iraq making Amman a boom town, the city needed cleaners, laborers and laundry workers. Butchers, bus drivers and mechanics too. There were even four openings for a "salad man."

But there was a price to be paid to secure such a job, as there always is here. The agency's cut of the fee ranged from the equivalent of $1,000 to $1,285, a huge sum for a Nepalese boy.

"Preference will be given to candidates who have already worked in hotels," the ad stated. "Probable flight for selected candidates within two months."

Near the bottom of the ad was a logo, a crescent moon and six stars slung low over two mountain peaks. Arching over the stars and the mountains like a rainbow were the words "Moon Light Consultant Pvt. Ltd."

Moon Light also stated in the ad that a "demand letter" for the hotel jobs in Amman from its Jordanian counterpart--called Morning Star for Recruitment and Manpower Supply--was on file with the government, as required by Nepalese law. Job interviews were scheduled for the next day.

In less than three months, Moon Light's logo would become the focal point of rage for thousands of Nepalis wielding torches, tire irons and Molotov cocktails in their own streets. They would burn and loot Moon Light's office, along with scores of others.

But on June 13, it was still a symbol of hope for men such as Bishnu Hari.

He could have gone straight to the job agent himself. But instead, like many other inexperienced young men from rural villages, he entrusted his future to an older, more experienced man, the dalal who understood the world of overseas work. So he took the newspaper to Thapa.

Moon Light listed its Labor Ministry registration number in the ad, so Thapa figured it was aboveboard. He knew the office, so he took the young man from his village there.

If Bishnu Hari or any of the other men responding to the ad that day had questions about Moon Light, the firm's full-color brochure would have offered answers.

Printed on 42 glossy pages, it was more like a soft-cover book or the special edition of a top-selling magazine. "Our motto is `Right workers for the right job' so that all of our clients are happy with us," it announced on its first page.

Inside were copies of 32 demand letters from Moon Light's broker-counterparts in the Middle East, including Morning Star.

A smile and promises

The brochure also carried a picture of the smiling Prahlad Giri, Moon Light's general manager.

At 6 feet tall, Giri would have towered over most of the men who responded to the Moon Light ad. Although just 24, Giri ran Moon Light, his family's business. Dressed in a three-button suit, shirt collar open, he would poke the air with his slender fingers when he spoke or touch the tips of all 10 together and prop his hands below his sharp chin, like a man saying something profound.

Would-be workers swarm the offices of such brokers after job ads appear. Lines stream outside the doors, into hallways and even streets and alleys unprotected from the hot sun of Katmandu summers.

Among the job seekers, Bishnu Hari was a standout. Unlike many young Nepalese men, he had graduated from high school. He was experienced in wiring and welding. And he was ready to pay the fee.

Giri said in an interview that he didn't mention anything about Iraq to the applicants that day. Because of the danger, the Nepalese government had prohibited job agents from sending men there.

But Giri said he did offer Bishnu Hari and the others who interviewed a warning: Jordan's Morning Star is a multinational company, and it might send you somewhere else.

Bishnu Hari's dalal, though, said Iraq wasn't mentioned, only Jordan. In any case, at the end of the day, Bishnu Hari got the one piece of news he really wanted to hear: He had passed the interview. He was told to have his money ready.

Within days, Giri's office filed paperwork with the Nepalese Labor Ministry for Bishnu Hari and 34 others to head to Jordan for Morning Star. He and at least eight other men, the paperwork said, had contracts to work at Amman's five-star Le Royal Hotel.

In the days ahead, Bishnu Hari couldn't wait to get out of the New Bamboo Cottage--for good. He excitedly asked Thapa, the neighbor who recruited him, "When will I go?"

In late June, Bishnu Hari spoke by phone with his mother. It was time to pay the fee for the job, he told her, so please arrange to get the money.

She borrowed more than $2,100, about $400 of which came from the local development bank, a sort of savings and loan. The rest came from lenders in the village who charged 36 percent interest a month, she said.

Bishnu Hari made the five-hour bus ride back to Siudibar the next day to collect the cash.

If his mother had known what awaited her son, "I would have kept him by my side even if I had to do backbreaking work," she said. "For me, he was still like a newborn babe, just like a chicken that hatches from an egg."

The promise he made before leaving still echoes in her mind:

"Life is hard for us, Mummy. I will earn and send money home. We will buy land and build a small house to live in."

She handed him the cash, sending him out of their small apartment and back to Katmandu.

Into the unknown

Bishnu Hari was among many young men following a route that would take them to Katmandu and then to the Middle East. The 11 others who eventually would be kidnapped with him in Iraq also came from rural areas, stretching from the hills of northwestern Nepal to the nation's low-lying plains in the southeast.

They ranged in age from 18 to 27. Their lack of opportunity at home was evident in the professions written in their passports--"farming," "helper," "labor."

  One of them, 19-year-old Ramesh Khadka, began his journey from a mud-and-brick home with a blue tin roof in a village where he helped farm his family's fields near the nexus of two majestic river valleys, the Nalu and Lele.

In another Nepalese village hundreds of miles away, three best friends who would later meet Bishnu Hari boarded a bus. Budhan Kumar Shah, Manuj Kumar Thakur and Lalan Singh Koiri were inseparable in their hometown of Mahendranagar, in Nepal's lower plains.

Just weeks before, a recruiter had trolled their village, promising that any willing young man could earn $700 a month serving food to U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

The three best friends had listened together intently. They and their families knew little of Iraq, the American war, its dangers or the nation's daily atrocities. "Don't worry," family members recalled the recruiter telling them. "You are working for American soldiers. The plane will take you to the camp, and in the camp there is no danger."

The oldest, Shah, marveled at the idea that just one-month's salary was more than four times what he earned all year as a ticket-taker at the local movie house. His two friends, Thakur, a 23-year-old college student, and Koiri, a 21-year-old farmer, were equally dazzled.

Together, they persuaded their families to borrow money to pay the broker, who had demanded $3,500 per head. And together they boarded a bus, which rolled down a road where oxen pull carts filled with dung and straw before passing under a canopy of mango trees and reaching Nepal's only east-west highway.

It would take them all night to reach the Nepalese capital.

Ominous call back home

Bishnu Hari flagged a taxi in early July outside the restaurant where he'd been working, and waiting, for weeks.

The cab took him to Katmandu's Tribhuvan International Airport, which fills nearly every day with young men headed to the Middle East. The volume is so great that Gulf Air even reconfigured its Boeing 767s to accommodate more workers.

Destinations roll across the airport's flight boards: Doha, Dubai, Manama, each a hub for the network that sends South Asians to labor in the Middle East.

Bishnu Hari and several of the other men took a night flight, landing at Queen Alia International Airport on the Fourth of July.

About three weeks later, he phoned Nepal. Bishnu Hari called the New Bamboo Cottage and spoke briefly with his younger brother, Krishna, who had taken his place at the restaurant in the hope of landing a job overseas as well.

Bishnu Hari started to ask his brother how things were, but the line went dead.

He called back later, and the fractured message he left haunts his mother to this day.

- - -


To fill a need for cheap labor in Iraq, the U.S. military and its contractors have tapped an illicit human pipeline that exploits and endangers workers.

The U.S. and its main contractor in the war zone, KBR, leave every aspect of the hiring and deployment of foreign laborers to Middle Eastern subcontractors.

Some subcontractors and brokers employ the same tools of fraud and coercion condemned by the U.S. when practiced in other countries.

Several nations, including Nepal, have banned or restricted citizens from work in Iraq, but KBR allows people from these places to work under its contract anyway.



About the series

Tribune correspondent Cam Simpson and photographer Jose More retraced the journey of 12 Nepalese men from the Himalayan kingdom to the Middle East. This account is based on interviews with scores of people, including victims' family members in Nepal as well as job brokers there and in Jordan. Documents obtained in the U.S., Jordan and Nepal corroborate those accounts. Tribune staff reporter Aamer Madhani interviewed workers in Iraq.

Coming Monday: The words that froze a mother's heart.

AMP Section Name:War & Disaster Profiteering
  • 174 War & Disaster Profiteers Campaign