Nepali Times
Dying for a better life


The houses of the Shah and Thakur families in Janakpur face each other across the street. But they are not just neighbours, the youngest sons of both families were among the 12 Nepali workers killed in Iraq on 31 August.

Nearly two months later, the country is preoccupied with its own conflict. The September First riots are just a memory, and the media has moved on to other stories. But for the families, shock of their losses are still raw.

Some family members are in denial. Bodhan Shah was among those killed, but his sister still doesn't believe he is dead. "They never showed the faces of those killed, perhaps they just wanted to warn off foreigners they shouldn't come to Iraq and showed the bodies of other people," she reasons.

Other family members have accepted the deaths, but are now hoping the bodies can somehow be found and brought home for last rites. Both families have received the Rs 1 million compensation the government, but they want the finality of funerals to provide closure.

"We think if the government has the will it can certainly bring back the bodies," Shah's youngest sister says, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Across the dusty street, Manoj Thakur's parents accept their son's death. "What has been done can't be undone," says Manoj's mother, Sumitra Devi Thakur, as she breaks down looking at the photograph of her youngest son. She and her husband, Ram, both agree their son needn't have gone to Iraq. "He wanted to earn a higher salary and just wouldn't listen to us," says Ram Thakur, "he wanted to strike it rich."

Both Bodhan and Manoj believed they would make a fortune in Iraq after they met the local agents of Moonlight Consultants, the manpower company in Kathmandu that had sent nine out of the 12 Nepalis to the Gulf. Both the young men in the early 20s were promised $700 each to work in a US army base in Iraq. The equivalent of Rs 50,000 a month was just too tempting for the two jobless youths.

But after landing in Jordan, they found out their salaries would be only about $150. "After that, Bodhan began to call us saying he wanted to return but his employer had taken away his passport," Bodhan's brother Satyanarayan told us last week. "We told him to do his best to come back, and then we didn't hear from him again."

In Thakur's case, his family members suggested he work for at least a year even if the salary was not what was promised. "But, we never knew the risks involved," his father said. Both the Shah and Thakur families had borrowed a lot of money to afford the recruitment agents' fees to send their sons to Iraq. They needed the income to pay back the loans. Bodhan's family mortgaged a portion of the family property to get Rs 250,000 to pay the middleman. Manoj's father paid the fee thinking that with his youngest son's earnings he would soon be able to pay off the debts and the loan he had taken from a finance company to build his house.

After the news of the murders in Iraq was flashed on television, Bodhan's family caught the local agent and held him for more than a week. When the agent promised to pay back Rs 150,000, they let him go. "But he has disappeared and the government has not been able to catch any of the crooks," says Satyanarayan Shah.

In Kathmandu, all that the Labour Ministry has done is cancel the registration of Moonlight Consultant. Not a single person from the recruitment agency has been arrested while the 12 Nepalis had repeatedly said in videos broadcast before the killings that Moonlight's Pralhad Giri was the person who duped them. Giri is also at large.

K B Rana, one of the directors of Moonlight, maintains his company had sent the nine Nepalis to Jordan and not Iraq. "After reaching Jordan, they were offered better salaries to work in the US camps in Iraq and they went there on their own," he told us.

However, the testimonies of the Thakur and Shah families in Janakpur prove that the men, their families and the manpower middlemen all knew they were going to Iraq and Jordan was only a stopover.

A study by the Nepal Overseas Employment Agents' Association has shown that more than 20,000 Nepalis are already in Iraq. Some of them returned home after the Nepalis were killed. In a letter sent to his brother in Kathmandu, Surdarshan KC of Lalitpur said he was safe enough in an US army camp because there are helicopter escorts verytime he drives a tanker truck twice a week. A dozen other Nepalis who reached Iraq with KC returned to Nepal because of the risk of kidnapping.

Despite all this, there was pre-Dasain rush here at the Dhanusha District Administration Office. The young men lining up were desperate for jobs abroad. One told us: "We will go anywhere but Iraq."

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)