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IRAQ: Rescue Spares Some Workers

Footage of 12 of their countrymen executed at the hands of insurgents in Iraq last year set off a panic among Nepalis who didn't want to risk the same fate. But a manager for First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting Co., issued an ultimatum: Agree to travel to Iraq and they would get more food and water. Refuse, and they would get nothing and be put out on the streets of Kuwait City to find their way home.

by Cam SimpsonThe Chicago Tribune
October 10th, 2005

The four-dozen Nepalese workers were waiting for jobs on American military bases in Iraq, but then a horrifying video on TV changed everything.

Footage of 12 of their countrymen executed at the hands of insurgents in Iraq last year set off a panic in the Kuwaiti compound where the workers waited. The Nepalis didn't want to risk the same fate.

But a manager for First Kuwaiti General Trading and Contracting Co., the contractor sending them to Iraq, gathered them together and issued an ultimatum: Agree to travel to Iraq and they would get more food and water. Refuse, and they would get nothing and be put out on the streets of Kuwait City to find their way home.

"The company was forcing them to go to Iraq," said Lok Bahadur Thapa, the former acting Nepalese ambassador to Saudi Arabia.

A First Kuwaiti executive, Wadih al-Absi, acknowledged that Thapa helped Nepalis at the firm's compound return to their homeland. But he denied anyone from First Kuwaiti tried to coerce them into Iraq. "It's nonsense," he said.

Thapa traveled to Kuwait after Nepalese families began urging their government to rescue relatives bound for Iraq.

He visited the compound and other locations throughout Kuwait on his mission. His diplomacy helped pave the way for the Nepalese men to return to their homeland, prodding contractors to release the workers from their obligations. He also persuaded the Kuwaiti government, albeit briefly, to ban the traffic of Nepalis across the border into Iraq.

What Thapa found shows that the questionable practices uncovered by the Tribune are far from isolated to the case of the 12 Nepalis killed in Iraq.

Indra Tamang, a 24-year-old from a Nepalese village without electricity, was among those Thapa found in First Kuwaiti's compound. Unlike many of his compatriots, Tamang had intended to work in Iraq because he could earn good money there.

He already had a badge from First Kuwaiti identifying his job: plumber at an American military base in Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown. The name of First Kuwaiti is emblazoned on the badge. At the bottom are three, bright red letters, "KBR," the Halliburton subsidiary that is the Pentagon's largest contractor in Iraq.

Tamang recalled the panic in the compound as word spread of the executions. But the First Kuwaiti supervisors watching over them--and holding all of their passports--were not sympathetic.

"They told us that we could not return to Nepal, we had to go to Iraq," Tamang said. "We could not go back because we did not have the ticket and passport, or any money."

Thapa confirmed Tamang's version of events inside the First Kuwaiti compound. He also found the scene repeated elsewhere throughout the country.

"Other companies also were trying to force men to go into Iraq," Thapa said during an interview in his office inside Nepal's Embassy in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, where he is now the first secretary.

While some workers, including Tamang, knew their ultimate destination was Iraq, Thapa said, others had paid huge sums to brokers who had promised them jobs in safer places. "They'd been told by the manpower agents they were bound for Kuwait only--not Iraq," he said.

Many of the Nepalese workers were desperate to return home. But some, like Tamang, were equally eager to continue into Iraq despite their fears.

His motivation was simple: Tamang had paid a Nepalese job broker more than $1,000, the equivalent of almost four years of wages for the average Nepali.

"I had invested so much to go to Iraq, I had no other choice," Tamang said.

Another Nepali working for First Kuwaiti, Prabin Bhetwal, was already in Iraq when his 12 countrymen were killed.

He had first been told his job would be in Kuwait. But after mortgaging the family farm to pay $1,500 to the broker arranging the job, Bhetwal said, he was told he would work in Iraq. At night, he said he was told, he would be returned to the safety of Kuwait.

Papers he signed with First Kuwaiti appear to confirm that. Under the heading "Job Site," the contract dated July 6, 2004, reads: "Kuwait/Iraq (Mainly Iraq)."

Instead, First Kuwaiti shipped him to Camp Anaconda, which is about 400 miles from Kuwait and is one of the most frequently attacked U.S. bases in Iraq. Bhetwal grew scared as mortars inched ever closer. After a month he demanded that he be returned to Kuwait.

The company sent him back, he said, but did not pay him for a single day of work.

He arrived in Nepal with the help of his government, but at a heavy price. He lost the family farm he'd put up for collateral.





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