The Girl from Kathmandu: Twelve Dead Men and a Woman’s Quest for Justice by Cam Simpson (Harper)
Soon after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a group of Islamic militant terrorists kidnapped and murdered a dozen Nepalese men who had been recruited to work in a Jordanian luxury hotel. For Cam Simpson, a London-based investigations editor and writer for Bloomberg Businessweek, that episode was not just a single atrocity but a complex, full-scale human drama that unfolded for a decade. He puts it all together in fascinating, gripping style in his new book The Girl from Kathmandu: Twelve Dead Men and a Woman’s Quest for Justice (Harper). At its emotional center is a shy, young widow who evolves into a forceful presence, whose tenacity amplified her allies -- an advocate who worked with lawyers and a sociologist -- to expose international corruption, the dangers of privatized war, and the dark military-corporate channel of foreign labor. Simpson patiently followed this story and captured nuances and subtle shifts over time, reporting from the Himalayas, Iraq, Jordan, Houston, and Washington, D.C.. He looked back on his experience writing the book with The National.
Q: The massacre of the Nepalese migrant workers in Iraq took place more than a decade ago. How did you come to cover the story? How did you initially learn of it?
A: Their massacre, broadcast to the world in August 2004, would turn out to be the catalyst for a saga spanning more than a decade, but I was first drawn by a small news story ten days before the killings. Insurgents had kidnapped twelve Nepali men. They said the twelve had come to Iraq to serve “U.S. Crusader forces fighting Islam.” There were a lot of kidnappings at the time, but most were about capitalism, not terrorism. They were fetching big ransoms. So this kidnapping, news-wise, was kind of a blip. Even the U.S. military was silent. Still, I found it puzzling. What on earth were twelve young men from the foothills of the Himalayas, one of the most remote and isolated corners of the world, doing in the U.S. warzone in Iraq, let alone serving the occupation? For most if not all of them, I figured running water was something that spilled down a mountain stream. So literally, how did they get there?
Ten days later the insurgents posted an execution video on the Internet. I saw the news about the massacre on the BBC at my home in Washington, D.C., where I was based for the Chicago Tribune. Sadly we’re too familiar with these videos now, but it was new then. The video lasted four minutes and five seconds, which is an eternity. The twelve men were born beneath the most majestic skies on earth, and were killed lying prone in a ditch, their backs to the heavens. All the questions I had when they were kidnapped multiplied and became urgent. There still were no explanations about who they were, or how they’d arrived at their deaths. Nor was it clear how they were killed, for our country, in an act of political theatre. I became obsessed with finding out why. But as I hinted, the saga that followed, and the truth about what was behind their deaths, was more shocking than the four minutes of violence captured on the video.
Q: How did Nepal fit into the world of globalization and the global supply chain that supported the war in Iraq?
A: That is such a big one! It’s really at the heart of the book, and the focus of much of my work about globalization over the last decade and a half.
Many of us Americans view globalization through an understandably local aperture. We’ve seen U.S. companies move factories overseas and export jobs to nations with cheap labor costs. Yet most Americans remain almost completely unaware of the millions of people on the other side of the world who lost out to a different facet of globalization in ways that were far more sinister.
Entire industries and nations in Asia and the Middle East figured out how to import millions of cheap laborers from poorer countries to their factories and worksites without the business owners spending, or risking, any of their own money. That applies to electronics factories in Malaysia, construction sites in Dubai, and any other form of manual labor you can imagine. They do this through a global system of “brokers” that sprouted up to service them with untold thousands of recruiting agents. The brokers have networks reaching into the farm fields and impoverished cities of Bangladesh, Cambodia, India, Myanmar, and even into the Himalayas in Nepal. Workers’ families buy the jobs from the brokers—usually costing years of wages at home—based on the promise of a few dollars a day in a faraway land. Families pay the brokers by taking out usurious loans and mortgaging their farmlands. Workers can become indentured, simply because their families are so desperate to pay the debts. This vast global network is rife with abuses. It’s a big reason the State Department has estimated that a large swath of the world’s 230 million international migrants are at risk of falling prey to human trafficking.
With the invasion of Iraq, this became the business model for how we run our wars. Mercenaries grabbed all the headlines about the privatization of war, but security contractors made up just a sliver of the workforce. The largest group of civilians, by far, was made up of men like the twelve Nepalis. There were tens of thousands of them in Iraq. They formed an invisible army for Halliburton and its subsidiary, KBR, who had the largest wartime contract in history. They dug the ditches, cleaned latrines, unloaded trucks in desert warehouses, did the laundry, and virtually everything else, except for the fighting. Many were deceived and put at risk. The Nepalis had contracts for jobs at a five-star hotel in Amman, but instead were kept in a sewage-infested room for nearly fifty days. Then they were driven into Iraq, unprotected, on the world’s most dangerous road. That’s how they got kidnapped.
Q: How did you develop such a deep sense of the Nepal -- and of the Nepalese workers killed in Iraq?
A: I can’t pretend to be any kind of expert. Cumulatively, I’ve spent only something like three months of the last thirteen years on the ground there. But it’s fair to say none of that has been leisure time! I’ve crossed the country a couple of different times, so my view extends to big cities and tiny villages, and from the Himalayas to the lowlands of the south. I read some of the best nonfiction books in English about Nepal, and translations of Nepalese novels, folk stories, and poems. I’ve made some very dear Nepali friends who helped me understand important things about the culture. But the most valuable experiences have come in the company of the people at the heart of this saga. I interviewed more than fifty people in Nepal for the book over the course of those thirteen years, many of them multiple times, including families of the men killed. I met them in their homes, which makes a real difference. I’ve also gotten a broader sense of their world through interviews I’ve done with more than 100 Nepali migrant workers for some of my other journalism about globalization.
The man I captured the deepest sense of was Jeet Thapa Magar. His wife, Kamala, is the soul of the saga, and my book, so I spent a ton of time with her, with both of their families, and on the farm where they lived before he was murdered.
Q: You chronicle how Kamala Magar, initially a reticent woman, evolved in the many years you followed her after her husband’s death. How did you change over the experience of writing this book and becoming so engrossed with the story?
A: If you brought together some of the greatest literary minds in the world I don’t think they could conjure a more unlikely victim of America’s forever wars than Kamala. She’s also one of the most extraordinary human beings I’ve ever met, precisely because she refused to be a victim. She was more than reticent the first time I met her. In the aftermath of Jeet’s murder, she was shattered. She lived with her daughter in an ashram for destitute widows and their children. She couldn’t even look at me, let alone speak to me. We sat on a bench under a gazebo at the ashram and she just held her daughter tightly and cried. I knew nothing about her life, or how she got there. I only knew life for a widow in Nepal could be grim. She was still a teenager, just 19. That was in 2005.
In 2013 I returned to Nepal on a different assignment. I reconnected with some of the 12 families. I walked into an office where they had gathered and saw this woman who commanded all the attention, made everyone laugh, and lit up the room. It was Kamala, but it took a moment for me to recognize her, because she had so completely transformed herself. A small band of human rights lawyers in Washington had taken up the families’ cause and had launched an epic legal battle against KBR. I learned that Kamala had become perhaps the most important witness in the case. The farm girl from the mountains of Nepal had flown to Washington to face down the lawyers for the powerful companies she blamed for her husband’s death. I was stunned at how powerful she had become, and I was deeply moved by her transformation.
I got home and wrote her a letter asking if I could come back to hear the story I never knew, the story of everything that had brought her to that ashram, the story of how she had changed so deeply since. She agreed, and I flew back and we spent a week together. It was one of the most extraordinary weeks of my life. It would take years for me to more fully understand her experience, but just the rough outlines convinced me that I had to try to write this book. I also knew that even if no one published it, even if no one read it, my life was so much richer for knowing this extraordinary, courageous young woman. And that sense only deepened across the next few years I spent with her, her family, and others in her life while working on this book.
I’ve been a journalist for thirty years, my entire adult life. For almost half of that I’ve been lucky enough to be fully employed writing long-form narratives, first for newspapers, now for a magazine. That’s meant fully immersing myself in my stories and the people they’re about. But I’ve never had to so completely inhabit someone else’s life in this way. It’s such a rich and valuable experience. In the case of Kamala, it also was deeply life affirming, even though what she experienced was so traumatic, even though the entire nation, everyone she knew or would ever meet, watched her husband die in that video. How she overcame that, and also overcame the crippling discrimination against widows in Nepal, is why she’s such an inspiration. I hope that knowing her might change your life as it did mine.
Q: I wonder if you worked with interpreters and how you built a bond of trust with Kamala through that barrier? Over the course of a decade, you interviewed her and traveled with her through the places she had once lived.
A: Two things were incredibly important. First, I was lucky enough to convince one of my favorite people in the entire world to work with me on this across four years, and it simply would not have been possible without her. Minani Gurung is a doctor in Nepal and is one of the most deeply lovely and empathetic human beings in the world, and she’s also clever and wise. I’ve known her family for a long time. She’s the same age as Kamala and their families hail from the same part of Nepal, and they had a personal connection, so they hit it off instantly. That made things ridiculously easy for me. She translated so much more than language. So there really wasn’t much of a barrier at all.
But the most important thing was Kamala herself. I don’t want to give too much away, but it turned out that the ashram where I had first met her after Jeet’s murder had been established by Mahatma Gandhi’s followers in Nepal. There probably aren’t many places like it in the world. It was filled with 100 women just like Kamala, each coming together and learning to refuse to accept the horrible discrimination in their society against widows, while also learning trades so they could become self-sufficient. The women committed to living there for two years. All of their needs are attended to, including their children getting a great education at a school on the campus. It was like two years of intensive group therapy for women who had all suffered similar traumas, and were victims of the same patriarchy. They cared for and healed each other. So this place that I had thought of as rather grim when I first saw it in 2005, because my experience of it was shaped by how shattered Kamala was, turned out to be quite magical. She was only at the start of her journey when we first met.
That experience has given Kamala such extraordinary self-awareness and wisdom about everything she’s been through. It made it incredibly easy for me to get to know her. It just took time and patience and listening. Overall, we spent a total of about a month together through the years. Mechanically, Minani would do a live interpretation of our conversations, and then she would write long memos from recordings, so I could circle back and explore things more deeply. That’s what you buy with time and patience, and it’s a necessity. Kamala also is a chatterbox, which is amazing. I could simply say, “So what happened next?” which is my favorite question, and she would go!
After I had the outline of her experiences, the three of us, along with Kamala’s daughter, returned to the mountainside where she was born, and where she married Jeet. We stayed in the family farmhouse. I had Kamala walk me through every experience of her life in the places where she experienced them. We did the same at the ashram. Usually I was running an unobtrusive, go-pro style video camera, so I could record what I was seeing as we talked. Her home village, on a lush mountainside a mile in the sky, is the most beautiful place on earth. The vistas fill your chest as much as your eyes. Seeing it with her was so important to understanding her life and the person she was before her husband was murdered, and how she came back to herself. It also allowed me to transport readers there (or at least to try!). We also spoke with so many other people who knew her across her life—teachers, family, friends.
Q: Some of the action in the book takes place in the Texas courtroom and Washington, D.C. As you reflect on this sad story, are there any lessons to be learned about oversight of companies like KBR-Halliburton? Or, more generally, what can be done about human trafficking and companies that rely heavily on foreign migrant workers?
A: I want to push back gently on two words in the question, and say the story isn’t completely sad. Parts of it are heartbreaking. Parts of it are infuriating, but I hope in a good way. Yet Kamala’s unbreakable spirit, and the way she fought back, is inspiring. There also is some measure of justice for her and the other families, which is significant. But you’re right in that this is real life, not Hollywood. It’s messy. I hope that’s what makes this book meaningful.
One of my favorite public intellectuals is the Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel. In his 2012 book, What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets, he talks about how there have always been things that were too important for our society to treat like commodities, including prosecuting our wars. Yet I don’t think he knew anything about any of this when he wrote his book, and he focused on the mercenary side of privatization. Even so, he concluded that hiring foreigners to fight our wars might save us a few bucks, and might even save us a few lives, but it corrupts the meaning of our citizenship. I read those words and thought to myself, Michael, if you only knew! How much does it corrupt our citizenship to prosecute our wars through the worst kind of exploitation and human trafficking? Is that who we want to be as a people? The problem is that it’s now the business model for fighting our wars. Inevitably, it’s sparked a race to the bottom. All the checks you can possibly create in the system can’t ever make something good out of something so inherently bad.
Professor Sandel asks in his book something like, ‘Who decided we should fight our wars this way?’ but he didn’t give an answer. My book does. It’s men such as Dick Cheney, first as Secretary of Defense, then as the CEO of Halliburton, and then as the Vice President of the United States, and the biggest White House advocate of the Iraq War. It’s about money and the unrestrained side of global capitalism. Through the work of the great Robert Caro, I was able to trace how this same company redefined modern corruption in American politics through its backing of Lyndon Johnson, allowing it to become the largest construction firm in the world via the Vietnam War, and draw that back to Cheney and Iraq.
There also is human trafficking and bonded labor in the supply chains of everything from our favorite electronic gadgets to the clothes on our back. Again, welcome to globalization. When big brands are involved, consumer pressure can make a massive difference. When companies that don’t rely on consumer sentiment benefit or are involved, it’s much tougher. Defense contractors rely on clout. Tweets don’t change that. Some of these issues were on their way to being addressed at the end of the Obama administration. Now that our national creed is “America First” I fear they’re only going to get worse.
There are also important lessons in the book about how difficult it has become to hold American multinationals accountable in our courts for their conduct overseas, at the very same time that their power and reach are greater than ever before.