The Chicago Tribune has a horrifying series of articles this week about impoverished Nepalese workers being lured to Jordan, supposedly for relatively good jobs available there, only to find that they are in fact being sent to Iraq (earning half as much money as promised) to work for Kellogg, Brown & Root, a subsidiary of Halliburton. Thousands of such workers are sent there, because of course we’re not employing Iraqis.
American tax dollars and the wartime needs of the U.S. military are fueling an illicit pipeline of cheap foreign labor, mainly impoverished Asians who often are deceived, exploited and put in harm’s way in Iraq with little protection…
Several nations, including Nepal, have banned or restricted citizens from work in Iraq, but KBR allows people from these nations to work under its contract anyway.
Bishnu Hari Thapa [an impoverished Nepali restaurant worker] found an advertisement in the June 13, 2004, edition of the Kantipur Daily, the leading Nepalese-language newspaper…”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…
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.”…
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.
[It was now weeks since Bishnu Hari had left Nepal for a job in Jordan.] The long-distance line into the Katmandu restaurant carried a familiar voice.
It was Bishnu Hari Thapa…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.”
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.
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.
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.
…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.”
…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 bluejeans 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.
Read the Full Series in The Chicago Tribune
“Pipeline to Peril”
October 10-11, 2005
Read an earlier story covering this topic in The Los Angeles Times
“Poor Migrants Work in Iraqi Netherworld”
October 9, 2005