"Tej Prakash Pun is my relative," points out Dolendra Bahadur Khatri, 30. But this didn't save him from being trafficked first to Macau, then to China, and eventually to Libya, from where he had to be rescued and brought back to Nepal (see box).
The 108 Nepalis who were rescued from Libya recently are victims of an international trafficking ring run by Pun (pic, right), aided by his wife Tikadevi Gurung. Pun, who has been involved in trafficking since at least the mid-1990s, has a long history of fraud, is wanted by Hong Kong immigration, and has now gone underground in Libya.
Following a troubled time as a student in Myagdi district's Prakash Secondary School, Pun served in the British Gurkhas from 1981 to 1994. After his discharge, he forged a passport and under the alias Keshar Bahadur Gurung, entered Hong Kong in 1995 as the husband of legal resident Radhika Gurung (real name Tikadevi Gurung). In reality, both were already married to other people. Together, they registered Gurkha Construction Ltd in Hong Kong in 1995, and Dhawalagiri International Manpower in Nepal in 1997.
Pun and Gurung worked as a team to fleece Nepalis seeking work abroad, and specialised in trafficking prospective labourers to Hong Kong and Macau. But with the tightening of visa on arrival rules for Nepalis in both these destinations, and Hong Kong immigration's discovery of Pun's criminal activity, he moved to Libya. It became his new destination of choice for hapless migrant labourers.
In 2008, Indonesian company Citramegah Karya Gemilang (CKG) won a bid to construct 1,200 houses in Libya. The company approached Gurkha Construction Ltd for 180 skilled labourers. Pun charged Nepali workers Rs 130,000 to Rs 270,000 apiece to arrange for visas and tickets, even though CKG was covering these costs. According to Mausam Roka, who has just returned from Libya, Gurkha Construction sent 25 skilled labourers from Hong Kong while Dhawalagiri International Manpower sent 108 Nepali workers. Those from Hong Kong were paid US$2,000-2,500 a month but the Nepali workers were paid just US$300, and eventually had to fend for themselves (see box). Pun's venture fell apart when the workers appealed to the Nepali authorities, prompting their rescue. His whereabouts are currently unknown, but Tikadevi remains in Hong Kong, where she lives in an apartment she owns.
Despite his recent failure, Pun has done extremely well out of exploiting his countrymen. He has long had good relations with the powers that be, and the former king Gyanendra awarded him the Birendra Aishwarya medal and Gorkha Dakshinbahu IV. He is also the outgoing treasurer of the International Coordination Committee of the Non-Resident Nepali Association (NRN) and chief advisor to NRN Libya, as well as the coordinator of the Myagdi Overseas Nepalese Association (MONA). Pun and Tikadevi Gurung each own shares worth HK$50,000 in Gurkha Construction Ltd. Dhawalagiri International Manpower has a principal capital of Rs 4 million and current capital of
Rs 3 million.
The government has now banned Nepali labourers from going to Libya. But Pun and Gurung are just one of many involved in trafficking Nepalis around the world. Indeed, Nepal is seen as a source country for human trafficking. Trafficking In Person, a report published by the US Department of State, lists Nepal as an extremely vulnerable country, particularly for the trafficking of children and women.
For Surya Limbu of Sankhuwasaba, who exclaims that in returning from Libya he felt as if he had "escaped a monster" in the form of Tej Prakash Pun, the worst may be over. But while Nepalis still dream of foreign climes, they will continue to fall prey to the worst nightmares that could befall them.
With Dev Pachbhaiya in Myagdi and the Centre for Investigative Journalism
"We were tortured in custody"
Dolendra Bahadur Khatri, 30, paid Rs 180,000 to his relative Tej Prakash Pun to be flown to Macau, where he covertly worked for a year. Once his tourist visa expired, he was taken to Guangzhou, China, where a dozen Nepalis lived in a room for three months. Dole ndra was then returned to Nepal and flown to Libya once he made a further payment of Rs 30,000 to Pun's partner-in-crime, Tikadevi Gurung.
"On 19 May 2009, Dhaulagiri Manpower gave me a letter of understanding that said I would be paid US$500 per month," recalls Dolendra, who is from Rupandehi. "I reached Libya. But I was paid only US$300, and the food and accommodation wasn't as they said it would be. When I demanded my pay so I could return home, Tej Prakash accused us of trying to kidnap him and got 23 of us arrested. We were tortured in custody."
"We ate grass to survive"
"I was preparing to go to Bahrain, where I had been promised room and board and a monthly salary of Rs 25,000, when I met Tikadevi Gurung and her niece Kamala Gurung of Dhawalagiri Manpower," says 40-year-old Lal Bahadur Khatri of Kaski district. It was a fateful meeting. They persuaded him to sign up for Libya instead, though he had already submitted his passport to another manpower agency.
Even after making a payment of Rs 130,000 ("I later discovered that CKG had paid for my visa and travel costs," he says), it took a whole year before Lal Bahadur made it to Libya. But conditions were so bad he had to resort to eating what the cattle did Ė shrubs and grass Ė for a week. He's now back home, but has to pay back debts incurred of Rs 80,000. Lal Bahadur says, "When I remember what I went through, I just feel angry."