The Girl From Kathmandu: Twelve Dead Men and a Woman’s Quest for Justice

By Cam Simpson, Harper, 387 pages, $27.99

In November 2004, a terrorist group patrolling the highway from Amman to Baghdad managed to capture 12 labourers being ferried to work on an American military base in Iraq. The terrorists killed the young men on camera, beheading one with a hunting knife and forcing the rest to lie facedown in a ditch, shooting each in the back of the head, so that their blood soaked into the ground beneath their faces.

These were not strapping American soldiers or beefy contractors from the suburbs. As proxies for American military power, these victims were something far more strange and pitiful: the sons of farmers from mountain villages in Nepal, passed from hand to hand by the “body shops” that had sprung up to provide cheap labour for American bases.

Their families had scraped together wads of cash for traffickers who had promised their sons jobs at a luxury hotel in Amman. Instead, they had been forced to continue their journey to Iraq, crammed into gypsy cabs that were dispatched, unprotected, down a highway known to be so dangerous that American civilian workers were flown into the country, not driven.

By the standards of 2004, this was enough of a story to linger for three or four news cycles until it was replaced by the next atrocity. But Cam Simpson, an investigative journalist at Bloomberg News, began a quest, fuelled by outrage and disgust, to answer a question lurking behind the murders: How could the world’s wealthiest, most powerful military treat its workers this way?

That quest produced The Girl From Kathmandu, Simpson’s chronicle of a 13-year effort to hold Kellogg Brown & Root, a subsidiary of the titanic American military contractor Halliburton, accountable for its role in the deaths of these impoverished workers.

Simpson and his translator haunt the chain-smoking Jordanian businessmen who demanded the Nepalis’ passports and crammed them into squalid rooms. With the guile of a great reporter, he lulls them into boasting about their operation on the record, and lures them to a cafe where a photographer is waiting to capture their faces on film. His reporting became the seed of a lawsuit against KBR Halliburton, and the second half of the book gains momentum as a David-and-Goliath legal drama.

Simpson’s obsessive reporting is the book’s great strength. There is no journalist working in South Asia or the Middle East who is not surrounded by shades of human trafficking — from apparently benign examples, like the nannies and drivers who serve their own homes, to more obviously coercive arrangements, including the children sent to work as housemaids in South Delhi bungalows. The globalisation of labour is the overarching story of Asia, hauling millions of families out of desperate poverty and trapping millions of workers in something close to slavery. It’s so ubiquitous that it’s easy to stop seeing it.

Simpson insists that you see it. He has given us an anatomy of globalised labour at its most shameful, complete with the internal correspondence of American military and Kellogg Brown & Root officials reporting coerced labour and human trafficking to their superiors. “These kinds of allegations really need to be put to bed in such a manner that we do not revisit them each time a ‘social crusader’ comes on the scene,” one of the company’s procurement managers wrote in response to the complaints.

It is unfortunate, given this achievement, that Simpson felt it necessary to remove himself from the heart of the story. He builds the book’s plot around Kamala Magar, the 19-year-old wife of one of the murdered workers. Kamala is a courageous woman: Rendered a nonperson by her widowhood, she leaves her husband’s family to build an independent life for herself — a breathtaking risk for a teenager with a new baby — and eventually travels to the United States to testify in the case against Kellogg Brown & Root.

But Simpson attributes thoughts to Kamala too freely, stumbling into cliches. (“Deep anxiety and worry remained her constant companions, no matter how far from home she travelled,” he writes at one point.) It feels incorrect, as well, to plant Kamala as a central actor in the legal case pursued by a Washington law firm on behalf of the men’s families, though one can understand why Simpson chose to. Journalists, like class-action lawsuits, need a hero.

I just wish Simpson had acknowledged his own role as a prosecutor. As journalists we labour under the illusion that we are not players in the stories we write. We are taught that we are present to observe and document. But by scraping away at layers of corporate misdirection, by asking and asking again and not letting go, Simpson reached something naked and ugly and unimpeachably true.

–New York Times News Service