Tuesday, April 25, 2006

When Journalism Feels like Science Fiction

The Chicago Tribune ran a series back in October that reminds me of a lot of science fiction I've read. Donald Westlake's Anarchaos, for instance. The plot centers around a man who goes to an anarchist world to find out what happened to his brother, and is himself ambushed by "corporation" thugs and sold into slavery (which is, ironically, inevitable on an anarchist world). Then there's the classic Merchants of Space, which is about an advertising executive who is likewise ambushed, has his identity papers stolen, and finds himself working a brutal agricultural job in order pay off ever increasing "debts" to a corporation he once promoted -- I think it starts with his kidnappers charging him for transportation.

I'm pretty sure I could think of a lot more if I tried hard enough. World building, suspence, and social commentary all in one neat package. And there's one other bonus: you get your readers on your main character's side right away. It's automatic; you can't help but identify with the victim in these stories.

Which is why the Tribune's series is so weird to read. 1) It's not science fiction. This is the world we see on the news. 2) The victims are young men from the incredibly foreign (to Americans) country of Nepal; the bad guys are American military contractors -- and you can't help but identify with the victims. It makes me a little dizzy to switch perspectives like that.

Here's the basic outline:

It had been only seven weeks since she sent her 18-year-old son off to earn a paycheck that would bring their family a better life. But that paycheck was supposed to come from the safety of a five-star hotel in Jordan, not the combat zone of Iraq.

Whether Bishnu Hari and most of the other 11 Nepalis even knew before leaving home that they were headed to Iraq remains a mystery.

At least three did, but they were deceived about key details. Most of the rest, including Bishnu Hari, appear to have been lured with fraudulent paperwork promising jobs at the luxury hotel in Amman.

They learned Iraq was their real destination only after their families went deeply into debt to pay huge sums demanded by the brokers who sent these sons and brothers to the Middle East.


For a fee, often 10 times more than Nepal's per capita income of $270 a year, those agencies send men to labor in the Persian Gulf region, Malaysia and beyond. While onerous, the fee is a gamble that any job in the Middle East might yield a salary of $200 a month, an unimaginable sum in Nepal.


Just one month's salary would be enough to cover rent for Bishnu Hari's family for more than half the year. Enough for him to send his little brother to college.


In late June, Bishnu Hari spoke by phone with his mother. It was time to pay the fee for the job, he told her, so please arrange to get the money.

She borrowed more than $2,100, about $400 of which came from the local development bank, a sort of savings and loan. The rest came from lenders in the village who charged 36 percent interest a month, she said.

(from part one

Unlike the science fiction stories I mentioned above, though, this one doesn't end with any kind of poetic justice. The unprotected convoy which is taking the Nepalese workers from Jordan to Iraq gets stopped by insurgents. The mother gets to see the ending on TV.

The carnage was captured in a grainy video. Judging by the blurred image of a young man in bluejeans and long-sleeved shirt, it appears Bishnu Hari was the fifth man shot.

(from part two)

I'm not quoting the graphic parts, or the the last words of the men, captured on tape. But it was all on shown on TV. Apparently there were some riots in Nepal afterward. I feel guilty about not knowing about this sooner. Maybe you people who read this already did. But in case anybody didn't, I feel like I should maybe try to publicize it. Not that I think I'm really helping any, but it's such a powerful story you know, classic plot, I'm really not going to be able to come up with anything better to write about. So I might as well put a few more links about this on the internet, for whatever it's worth... Maybe try to get the Tribune some more readers, so they can keep paying reporters to do this stuff. Maybe they can put a little more pressure on the military...

Because the whole point, of course, is that the guy in this story wasn't alone.

The top U.S. commander in Iraq has ordered sweeping changes for privatized military support operations after confirming violations of human-trafficking laws and other abuses by contractors involving possibly thousands of foreign workers on American bases, according to records obtained by the Tribune.


The Tribune also found evidence that subcontractors and brokers routinely seized workers' passports, deceived them about their safety or contract terms and, in at least one case, allegedly tried to force terrified men into Iraq under the threat of cutting off their food and water.

So basically: it's there may be more Americans holding hostages in Iraq than being held hostage, Nepalese kids, not enemy combatants.

But that might be changing. The last story that I quoted above was from Sunday's paper, and the headline was Iraq war contractors ordered to end abuses. Ordered by the "top U.S. commander in Iraq" -- so the US doesn't come off as a complete villain. (Although the Tribune says officials had been informed before, and that this order might not go far enough. Still, at least the officials admit something is wrong.)

Here is the home page for the whole series:Pipeline to Peril.

Be warned: you will have to register in order to read it. There's ways around that, but I sort of hope people to register this time. As a sort of reward for the paper, for good reporting, so they can keep doing it. Also, if you follow these links, you should know a lot of the descriptions are bloodier than the parts I've quoted. And with the photos, there's a couple that are really sickening. The others are mostly of daily life in the place these guys come from, which I think are really valuable, but this isn't a pretty story. The problem with the pictures, I guess, is that they make it feel so real.

1 comment:

Maurice said...

Hello again Mary, Yes, it is like science fiction, you would enjoy Weapon Shops of Isher, and Bill the Galactic Hero also. Similar themes. Having lived in Nepal, I am especially sensitive to the plight of a fellow from a country of very nice people. Here is the bottom line: We are living in the great beast of our time. It will take many of us from within to reign it in. We are not the good guys anymore, if we ever were since the conquest ( lol "discovery") of this continent. Rebirth and Karma aside, when you indulge in murder and enslavement for profit, or knowingly benefit from it....you leave yourself open to unenviable consequences. Thanks for the thread to the Chi Tribune. If you like my YT works, I'll give you an ebook of my collected works. Via Con Dios