Devendra Bhattarai in Kantipur, 6 June
In August 2004, when news of the mass murder of 12 Nepali men in Iraq spread like wildfire, Kamala Thapa Magar nearly collapsed in her house in Bakrang village of Gorkha district.
Her husband, Jit Bahadur Thapa Magar, was one of the 12 Nepali migrant workers abducted and murdered by a terrorist group fighting US-led forces in Iraq. One of them was beheaded, and footage of others being executed was broadcast on international tv.
Riots erupted in Kathmandu.
Carrying her 18-month-old daughter, Thapa, then 18, desperately sought help from labour recruiters to have her husband return, either dead or alive. But he was never found.
A photo of her walking through an unknown alley with her infant daughter, published in Chicago Tribune, became an iconic image of that tragedy.
Nearly 14 years later, Thapa, now 32, has re-appeared in Kathmandu this week at the launch of a book about her at a book fair. She is the protagonist of The Girl from Kathmandu, the book by British journalist Cam Simpson.
Thapa, a seventh grade dropout, says: “I can’t read this book, but my daughter will.” Her daughter Kirtika, now 15, is now in Grade 10 at a private school in Kathmandu.
Simpson tells the story of Thapa’s fight for justice and struggle to raise her little daughter. Simpson had previously exposed a web of agents, contractors, sub-contractors and security companies responsible for the massacre of Nepalis in Iraq.
Jit Bahadur, Thapa’s husband, wanted to give his wife and daughter a better life. So, when he spotted an ad in a paper about a highly-paid job in Iraq, he applied at Moonlight Consultants in Kathmandu. They told him he could earn Rs100,000 a month by working in a luxury hotel in Jordan.
Little did he know that Moonlight Consultant was actually the local agent of an American contractor involved in supplying cheap labour in the war zones of Iraq. The Department of Foreign Employment issued him a labour permit in June 2004, and he was taken to Iraq.
She earned money tailoring clothes in Kathmandu while others helped her file a case in a US court against the American security company that hired her husband. Journalist Cam Simpson, American attorney Matthew Handley, and Nepali migration expert Ganesh Gurung helped her.
Back in Gorkha, his wife was growing anxious as there was no word from her husband. After 48 days, Radio Nepal broke the news that Jit Bahadur Thapa was among the 12 Nepalis abducted and killed in Iraq.
At the launch of The Girl from Kathmandu, Thapa recalled the turbulent and traumatic weeks after her husband’s murder. “I thought my life was over,” she said.
After spending some time in Tulsi Mehar Ashram, a Gandhian shelter in Kathmandu, she found a purpose in fighting for justice for herself, her daughter, and all those who were widowed like her. She earned money tailoring clothes in Kathmandu while others helped her file a case in a US court against the American security company that hired her husband. Journalist Cam SImpson, American attorney Matthew Handley, and Nepali migration expert Ganesh Gurung helped her.
The US court had asked Thapa how much she wanted as compensation. She told the court she wanted justice, not money. Her stand worked. The court forced the company to compensate the families of all Iraq victims.
In the wake of the anti-Muslim riots following the massacre, the government banned Nepali workers from going to Iraq, but lifted it without explanation in 2010.
Today, Iraq is partially banned, and thousands of Nepalis continue to go there illegally. Thapa says: “I do not understand why Nepalis risk their lives going to Iraq, even though they are now fully aware of the dangers that lie ahead.”
At the launch of The Girl from Kathmandu, human trafficking survivors asked the government what it is doing to make labour destinations safe. But there was no one from government to answer them.
The organiser had invited Labour Minister Gokarna Bista to discuss these challenges, but he was off in Geneva to tell the world about the steps Nepal is taking to protect its workers abroad.