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A Long Fight For Justice For Contractors In 'The Girl From Kathmandu'


During the war in Iraq, there was another army that served the war effort but got very little attention. They were the cooks, the cleaners, the drivers that worked on U.S. military bases and American outposts in Iraq. They came from the poorest parts of the world - India, Nepal and Pakistan, among others - and faced the same dangers and risks of living in a war zone but with almost none of the protections.

And, as journalist Cam Simpson reveals in his new book "The Girl From Kathmandu," they were often trafficked with the alleged full knowledge of U.S. companies, in particular, KBR Halliburton. His book traces the story of 12 Nepalese workers who were brutally killed by insurgents in Iraq at the start of the war and the widow who dedicated her life to finding justice for them. This pipeline of human labor that led to their deaths began with a promise of a job in Jordan.

CAM SIMPSON: They had contracts for a five-star hotel in Amman, Jordan. They wound up being held in a room for 45, 50 days without knowing what was going to become of them. They were loaded into gypsy taxicabs, driven down the most dangerous road in the world, the Amman to Baghdad highway, which I think you had some experience with, as well, right?

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Indeed, too many times. The Highway of Death.

SIMPSON: And, predictively and foreseeably, they were kidnapped from two cars that got away from the rest. It was the first mass execution video of this horrible modern era of terrorist theater that we've all come to know, but it was a blip. The deaths of contractors - it was a parade every day. It was horrible, and it's the most horrible thing I've ever seen in my life. And, sadly, I had to watch it several times just to understand, you know, what happened to them really.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Your book begins with Kamala.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Tell us who she is.

SIMPSON: She grew up in the most beautiful place my eyes have ever seen in the world. I mean, in the foothills of the Himalayas, their lives are difficult. They work very hard, but they never want for anything. But there was this lure of foreign work. At about that time, in about 2001, 2002, Nepal started feeding this cheap global pipeline and labor to the Middle East, to factories in Asia. And her husband became a part of that.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did her husband decide to take a job abroad? And talk me through how something like that normally happens, how it's not just an individual decision.

SIMPSON: Yeah. Exactly. So, I mean, he had put his passport with an agent, and his passport had sat with his agent forever. And then, all of a sudden, as the war in Iraq is raging, you know, they hear back from the agent. You've been accepted for a job in Jordan. And so they took out massive loans because you have to buy the job. You have to pay the agent.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And so Kamala's husband did not end up at a five-star hotel in Jordan.

SIMPSON: He wound up in a room in Jordan for 45 days and sent along the most dangerous road in the world and then become some kind of global symbol.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: And then what happened to Kamala?

SIMPSON: To be a widow in Nepal, you're pretty much - you become the property of your husband's family after you get married. And if he dies, you're sort of treated that way, sadly. So she was completely isolated by his family. She was cast out. She wound up at a home for widows and their children in Kathmandu, an ashram. I found her there in 2005. She was so devastated, she couldn't even look at me.

I went back to Nepal in 2013 to write about the same supply chains feeding guys making cameras for the iPhone 5 in Malaysia. And some of the families that I wrote about at the time and got together and - was this woman, this magnetic woman who lit up the room, who was leading the conversation that everybody was deferring to. She was cutting off the men, which you also don't see much of in Nepal. And I didn't even recognize her.

And it was the same young woman. This woman, who was broken when I saw her in 2005 at this ashram, had just completely transformed her life. She not only made herself self-sufficient, but she rebuilt herself emotionally and has just this incredible self-awareness about everything that's happened to her and her refusal to be a victim and to rise up and face KBR Halliburton as a key witness in this case.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: I was about to ask. How...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: ...Does her story intersect with KBR Halliburton's?

SIMPSON: I mean, you know, there was a group of human rights lawyers here in the United States who heard about this case, who read my work more than a decade ago. And three very idealistic young human rights lawyers, one of them had been a Peace Corps volunteer in Nepal. And, you know, they took up this case. This was really the dawn of the era of modern-day slavery and international human trafficking. And the U.S. government had fueled it with our own tax dollars.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: What were these human rights lawyers trying to prove against KBR?

SIMPSON: Well, they were trying to prove their culpability. First, they just needed to prove that these men were in KBR supply chain in order to get U.S. government compensation for them, which took two years. And the key witness, you know, they needed the families. They represented the families, then, in a human trafficking civil action that they brought, hoping to end this practice in the U.S. military and also hoping to get some justice for the - for Kamala and the other victims.

And she was the key witness, you know? She came here, and she faced them in a deposition. And her performance, her testimony was really extraordinary over two days.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: You, as you've mentioned, investigated the fate of these 12 Nepalese at the time. And you have come back to this story over and over again...


GARCIA-NAVARRO: This book is the product of, I think, over a decade of investigation.


GARCIA-NAVARRO: Why did you continue to tell this story?

SIMPSON: You know, for a few reasons. I mean, Kamala - her courage when I met her again and saw the transformation in her life. She was the reason I did this investigation, originally. Just that someone who couldn't be further from the war was so victimized in a way by globalization, by outsourcing, by privatization, by the war. It just - it staggered me. And it was just an extraordinary story.

But it also speaks to these incredibly powerful forces that we're all looking at today. The U.S. is withdrawing its leadership on human rights around the world, you know? We were just at the point where some of this was starting to be cleaned up. And now all that is gone. It's so important for people to understand the mechanics of how this works, why it's so difficult, why it's so pervasive.

Again, from our electronic devices to the U.S. military running our wars, it's such an important issue. But I also think it says a lot about - we all rely on the justice system. We have this sort of magical view that people can get justice. And I think it's really important for people to understand what that actually looks like in a case where, clearly, it's hard to imagine anyone more deserving of justice than the people in this case, especially Kamala.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Cam Simpson, investigations editor and writer for Bloomberg Businessweek and author of "The Girl From Kathmandu." Thank you very much.

SIMPSON: Thank you, Lulu. It's been a pleasure.