April 15, 2009
In 2004, twelve Nepali non-skilled laborers were captured in Iraq, held hostage, tortured and finally murdered. One was beheaded while being videoed. The grizzly event was later aired on television throughout the Middle East. The remaining eleven hostages were shot, execution-style.
A terrorist group calling itself the “Army of Ansar al-Sunna”, who took credit for the carnage, later explained that the Nepalis had been “punished for helping the US.”
In fact, the victims’ connection to the US-led coalition was non-existent. They were lured to Iraq -- promised that they would earn the kind of money that was hard (if not impossible) to get back home. They had no political agendas. They were simply coming to Iraq to be cooks and cleaners.
This week I interviewed Raj Kumar Guni; a young Nepali who worked in Iraq two years after the twelve Neaplis had been murdered.
Raj’s determination to get ahead financially, in spite of the inherent risks in seeking work outside Nepal, speaks volumes about the plight of Nepali youths who, like Raj, feel that they must look to foreign countries for a brighter future. They take a deep breath, walk away from everything that is dear and familiar to them, and hope that luck is on their side.
RAJ: My name is Raj Kumar Guni. I was born in Nuwakot district, Sunkhani VDC. I’m 24 years old.
DUNHAM: What was your job in Iraq?
RAJ: I catered to the armed forces fighting in Iraq. I was kind of a waiter in a dining hall facility.
DUNHAM: Who was employing you?
RAJ: KBR. The main contractor was KBR. But the subcontractor was an Oman-based company. In our company there were about 500 Nepalis.
DUNHAM: Were you trained once you got to Iraq?
RAJ: Those who were there for security got training. But in the dining hall, there was no real training. We were feeding a multinational force, but there were only American troops in our camp.
DUNHAM: Where in Iraq was the camp located?
RAJ: Tikrit. It was a very big camp. We were working for Section C1.2. We served four to five thousand people each day, including civilian workers and troops.
DUNHAM: Was there any interaction between you and the American troops?
RAJ: No, not really. Very simple conversations limited to “yes” and “no” and the names of the food.
DUNHAM: No personal attachment or friendships?
DUNHAM: What was your daily routine, from the time you got up to the time you went to bed?
RAJ: It was a 24-hour facility. My group woke up at 8 am and began work at 8:30. Once we arrived at the facility, we cleaned the mess that had been left by the breakfast crew. Then we set the tables and prepared for the arrival of troops for lunch, which began at 11:00am and was over by 2:00pm. From 2-3 we had free time, either to eat or rest. It didn’t take us long to eat, so the hour was mostly about resting. Then we cleaned up the dining hall again, then got ready for the 5 pm dinner, which lasted until 8:30. After that, we returned to our quarters and went to sleep. It was a twelve-hour workday.
DUNHAM: What were your accommodations like? Prefab buildings?
RAJ: They were like transport containers, movable containers. Each container was well furnished and air-conditioned. The outside temperature went as high as 58 degrees centigrade, [136 degrees Fahrenheit] so when we went inside, it felt like we had gone to heaven.
If there was enemy action, our housing could be easily moved to a safer location. Each cabin had two sets of bunk beds. The toilets were portable too. To avoid getting too hot, we ran to the toilets. We ran everywhere.
DUNHAM: Was the dining hall air-conditioned?
RAJ: Yes. Even though it was so big. The hall could accommodate 1500 troops in one sitting.
DUNHAM: So your movement was restricted between the sleeping containers and the toilets and the dining hall? That was your life while you were in Iraq?
RAJ: Yes, pretty much. There was a pathway that led from building to building, and if you varied from the paths, you didn’t know where a bullet might come from. There was always a chance of catching a bullet.
DUNHAM: You were never allowed off the base?
RAJ: No, except for one time: We had to get a multi-national identity card, which had the description of our jobs and nationality – it was issued by the American army – for that we had to go outside the camp once. It was about 20 kilometers outside the camp. That was the first and last time we got to see any Iraqis outside the camp.
We low-level employees were only allowed to go to the canteen, the hospital, the sleeping containers and the free bus that circled the base. Those were the only places we had permission to visit. The hospital was free for the workers.
DUNHAM: How long were you there?
RAJ: About one year. I was there in 2006-7.
DUNHAM: Any firefights around the base during your stay?
RAJ: We were in the red zone in Tikrit. Tikrit was the hometown of Saddam Hussein. His birthplace was 15 kilometers from the base. Our camp had once been one of Saddam’s army base camps.
On September 11, 2006, the Iraqis who loved Saddam celebrated in Tikrit. Everyone celebrated the anniversary of the bombing of the World Trade Center. That night, helicopters circled and patrolled our base non-stop. There was exchanged of gunfire that night. We saw tracers in the night sky. And then we were rushed into the bunker.
Another time I can’t forget ... It was fearful. Whenever the base was attacked, a red light would flash and we would have to run to the bunker. But the most dangerous times were when there were also sandstorms. It wasn’t just sand. Big pebbles would come flying. There would be no visibility. The wind was fierce. The terrorists would wait for these sandstorms and then they would fire RPGs on the base while there was no visibility. All we could do was seek shelter in the bunkers. It was terrifying.
DUNHAM: Was the camp ever seriously under fire while you were there?
RAJ: No, we never had to face that, though we heard that a nearby camp was heavily targeted.
DUNHAM: What about the Nepalis, who were captured, tortured and murdered? That was two years before you arrived, but you must have known about them.
RAJ: Oh yes. What I heard was that the twelve guys who were killed were part of a larger group of twenty-five. Twelve were captured and killed and thirteen got away.
In fact, I talked to one of the guys who escaped being kidnapped and killed. He told me that the capture took place just inside the Iraqi border. They drove into Iraq from the Jordanian border. They had waited a long time in Jordon to get to Iraq. That wait was really hard on them. Not all the Nepalis had enough money for the lengthy stay in Jordon. They almost ran out of money for food and housing before they were transported across the Jordanian border.
The twelve guys who were murdered had, in fact, some money with them. So they reserved a jeep with their own money, to drive into Iraq. But the other thirteen guys were almost out of money, so they had to take a cheap local bus to drive into Iraq. That crowded bus saved their lives. They blended in with the local people and, even if there were checkpoints, they were somehow overlooked by the Iraqi checkpoint guys. But the guys in the jeep stood out as foreigners and paid the price.
DUNHAM: Given the dangers of working in Iraq, I’m assuming the only reason you went was because of the good pay, right?
RAJ: It wasn’t only for the money. Yes, I was told that I would get 30,000 rupees a month [$350 US], so the money was a big part of it.
DUNHAM: How did you get the job?
RAJ: I knew a guy: I had a friend who owns a foreign employment company. I had transferred some Nepali laborers to Delhi for him, several times.
DUNHAM: How does that work – getting from Nepal to Iraq?
RAJ: Nepalis who want to go to Iraq first have to go to Delhi. From Delhi, they go to Bahrain, then to Dubai, then to Jordan, and finally to Iraq. It’s a long trip. During the journey into India, if the police suspect that the Nepalis are going abroad for employment, they confiscate their passports and extort money from them. So generally, the Nepalis know to keep their passports hidden.
But one of these guys, who was using my friend as a broker, hid his passport in his socks, and the humidity ruined his passport. My friend contacted me and said that if he didn’t replace the guy who had ruined his passport, he might lose his contract for the whole group. So I went to India. It was a good deal for me. I didn’t have to pay the brokers fee because I was doing my broker-friend a favor. In Delhi, I bought 5000 rupees worth of supplies [that I would need in Iraq].
DUNHAM: Did you like the work in Iraq?
RAJ: The food was good but I did not enjoy it. Then, eight months into my service there, I came down with appendicitis. They took out my appendix in Tikrit – in a very good army hospital called the 47th Combat Support Hospital.
In addition to the sick and wounded army troops, there were Iraqi terrorists being treated at the hospital – although the terrorists were bedded in a separate unit. The funny thing was that the wounded terrorists had to wear blindfolds the whole time -- even in bed.
After I healed, I told the company that I had had enough and wanted to return to Nepal. So I was sent to Baghdad, then Oman, where I received further treatment for ten days. And finally, I got back to Kathmandu.
DUNHAM: I’m guessing you won’t be going back to Iraq any time soon.
RAJ: I don’t think I’ll go back. The pay isn’t high enough to be tempted to go back. Still, it was a once-in-a-lifetime experience. I took the challenge and I’m not sorry that I went. I went there with full knowledge of the twelve Nepalis who had been murdered there. I think I was brave. And also, during the process, I visited five countries. I received nice treatment at the hospital.
DUNHAM: What are you doing now? What is your job in Nepal these days?
RAJ: I’m a tire supplier here in Kathmandu.
DUNHAM: Would you ever consider going overseas again?
RAJ: Not right away. I’m in business with my maternal uncle. My brother is working in South Korea, but he will come back soon. After that, I really hope that I can find work in a European country.
DUNHAM: But it must be a big challenge to find work overseas these days. Malaysia, which offered jobs to so many Nepalis, has now closed its doors, for instance. What countries are still allowing Nepalis to enter their borders to work?
RAJ: I want to go to a European or developed country. Not the Middle East or Southeast Asian country. I know that Dubai has stopped recruiting as well.
DUNHAM: Are there European countries recruiting Nepalis?
RAJ: No, none. I’ve heard that Poland is going to accept workers sometime soon, but I’m not really sure. I have friends in Spain. If I go there, I can stay with them and they will support me, but it’s impossible to get a work permit if I go to Spain. At the same time, I’m considering the possibility of going to Israel to work as a caregiver.
DUNHAM: How much would it cost you to get to Spain, including visa?
RAJ: I don’t know about the visa, but I will have to pay the broker somewhere between 600,000 and 700,000 rupees [7,000 -- 8,000 US dollars].
DUNHAM: My god, that’s a lot! Tell me about these brokers you have to go through: are they legitimate or is their work illegal?
RAJ: Totally illegal. And it’s not worth paying a broker unless you have friends and relatives already in the country where you want to go. If your relatives have assured you that they will get you work, it’s OK to pay the broker the money, but otherwise you’ll just end up in a foreign country without job possibilities.
DUNHAM: Would you go on a tourist visa?
DUNHAM: While you were in Tikrit, were you able to send money back home to your family?
RAJ: Not personally. I never saw one dollar while I was there. I provided the company with my father’s bank account number in Kathmandu. They would wire money to the account and give me a receipt. From time to time, I would call home to make sure my father was getting the wires. There was no need for money in Tikrit. The food and accommodations were free. There was no place to go. No place to spend money.
DUNHAM: As a young Nepali man with experience abroad, what opportunities do you see in Nepal for good jobs? Are there any economic incentives that might make you want to remain in Nepal?
RAJ: There could be opportunities here. If the youth could unite and create collective projects, it would be possible to make as much money here as it would be to go abroad.
What happens to a young Nepali who grows up in a village is that, after you pass your SLC, you come to the urban area for further study, but all the urban advancements tempt you. So your studies are affected by all the city distractions and you want to be able to afford all the things you can buy in the city. Ultimately, this leads you to the conclusion that you have no other alternative but to go to the Gulf countries for work.
DUNHAM: What about Dr. Bhattarai’s recently announced program to launch self-employment grants. Do you think that is a step in the right direction?
RAJ: I didn’t apply for the program, but I think it’s a good one. What I understand is that 200,000 rupees is the maximum amount to be granted per person. But if you look at the budget allocation for that program – 500 million rupees – and the number of people who applied for grants – four to six thousand applicants per district [there are 75 districts in Nepal]– it seems to me that it’s just a populist slogan. But if the government significantly increases the budget for the program – enough to finance a large portion of the applicants – it would be really significant.
DUNHAM: Do you think that there is any one political party in Nepal that is more attuned to the youth and the problems that arise because of the high unemployment among the youth?
RAJ: Most of the parties have united and mobilized the youth to show the strength and muscle of the parties. It also seems that the youth are blindly following and rallying behind the most populist groups. In terms of the allocation of responsibility and representation, it seems that the United CPN (Maoists) are in the forefront of youth popularity and unity.
DUNHAM: Do you still feel, however, that the youth are under-represented in Nepal? Could, for example, the Maoists be doing more for the youth?
RAJ: I don’t precisely know how the Maoists divide and mete out responsibility to the youth within their party, but it’s obvious that large numbers of youth are mobilized for their political campaigns, elections, and rallies. Based upon that, I believe that they are being given proper representation. I believe that it would be better for everyone if the parties would give more responsibility to the youth and less to the old guys.
DUNHAM: I’m trying to figure out how many of the youth are actually trying to get the hell out of Nepal. In your village in Nuwakot, for example, what’s the percentage of youth who want to work outside of Nepal?
RAJ: Our village is no different than any other village in Nepal. From what I can tell, 80% of the youth in my village want to work abroad. And among the 80%, the only reason they haven’t gone abroad is because they either don’t have the money or they have other problems that are keeping them from leaving. As for the other 20%, they have enough financial security to keep them here.
DUNHAM: Are we talking about guys, or do the young women also want to go abroad?
RAJ: There are very few girls in my village who have gone abroad. But those who have went to Israel. Anyway, everyone -- including male and female -- the talk of the town is: who went where, who applied for which country and which company, how much money per month in salary, how long is the contract for, and who will return when? And who failed to get a contract? Who was rejected? Wherever you go, you only hear them talking about employment abroad.
DUNHAM: What kinds of Israeli jobs are offered to Nepali women?
DUNHAM: Are the young women treated well in Israel?
RAJ: Mostly, yes, they’re treated nicely. But we have heard that a few of the girls have been psychologically harassed, tortured, exploited as laborers.
DUNHAM: In your village, is there a history of girls being lured to India – thinking that they are being offered good jobs when, in fact, they’re being trapped into sex trafficking?
RAJ: Yes, there have been some cases and some of them have returned to the village. In the past, people would talk about girls coming back from Bombay with gold and jewelry and they would gain recognition because of their wealth. Back then, the villagers were not aware of the diseases that accompanied that line of work.
DUNHAM: Did the girls go to Bombay knowingly or unknowingly?
RAJ: Some were sold unknowingly and some of them went fully aware of what they were doing. In those days, if a house had a tin roof, you knew without asking that some girl connected to that house was working in Bombay.
DUNHAM: Has the trend to go to Bombay now stopped?
RAJ: It has been reduced significantly. There may be a few isolated incidents, but I hear that there are organizations along the border that stop the girls from crossing into India and continuing on to Bombay.
DUNHAM: Have any of the women who returned to your village from India come back with AIDS?
RAJ: One girl died two years after she returned from Bombay; I don’t know for sure but everyone in the village believed that she died from AIDS.
DUNHAM: So the younger girls in your village are now more aware of the dangers inherent in the sex trade?
RAJ: Yes, there is more awareness. They have been warned about being lured into fake jobs. Even the uneducated girls in the village are wary of people coming in and offering big dreams to them – great jobs, marriage, big houses, rich life. They will reject those offers. They suspect that they will be sold. And our district, Nuwakot, used to be famous for being the number one district in which girls were being sold into prostitution. Now there are programs organized in our district specifically designed for making girls aware of sex trafficking.
DUNHAM: If you had the chance to make a lot of money here in Nepal, would you forget about leaving the country?
RAJ: If I had such an opportunity here in Nepal, I would stay here in Nepal. This is my country. This is where I was born. I would stay in Nepal.
DUNHAM: Last question: If a young guy came up to you today and said to you, “Raj, you’ve been in Iraq; should I go to Iraq and serve the American forces?” how would you respond?
RAJ: The promise of getting work in Iraq at an American base is never guaranteed. The Nepali might end up inside a base … or he might end up outside the base. And outside the base is terrible for Nepali workers. They could end up in Baghdad. They could end up in Tikrit, Mosul. Even in Baghdad, they could end up in the red zone. Or they could end up in the green zone. What I’m trying to say is that, in the end, it depends on each worker’s luck. If a guy told me that he wanted to go to Iraq just to make money, I would advise him not to go.
DUNHAM: You were one of the lucky ones?