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Nepali Migrants Trapped in Tripoli

On March 15, 2011

An article by Nepali journalist Deepak Adhikari on Nepali migrant workers stranded in Libya, re-posted with permission. Adhikari writes for The Kathmandu Post, and has written frequently about labour migration issue. You can see read his personal blog here.

Trapped in Tripoli

On a warm afternoon on March 1, I found myself talking to a group of migrant workers returning from the troubled country of Libya.

While reporting on this topic, I realized how slow and inept our government machinery is. On Sunday evening, I was listening to Saja Sawal (common question), a popular BBC radio program. In the program, the government officials claimed they were doing everything to rescue the stranded migrant workers. They also admitted that they heard only recently about the 150 Nepalis trapped in Tripoli. (This is happening when the Indian foreign secretary Nirupama Raois assuring her countrymen through twitter on the evacuation efforts.)

But my friend Debendra Bhattarai of Kantipur has written about a nursing professor seeking evacuation in Tripoli. BBC Nepali radio has reported about the Nepali migrant workers’ plight in the Libyan capital. One Surya Mohan Sapkota sounded desperate when he said that no one had contacted them while they were stranded at the airport.

This forced me to recall the conversation I had with the migrant workers at the Kathmandu airport. That afternoon, as the preparation for Shivaratri festival in nearby Pashupati was in full swing,  I rushed to the edge of the arrival section where Chandra Bahadur Rinjali, dressed in a combat jacket and wearing a baseball cap, agreed to talk about his Libyan nightmare.

The 38-year-old worked at Won Construction, a South Korean company, for nearly two years. But for the grueling work, all he earned was 200 US dollars a month!

From his narration, a bleak picture of the war-torn North African country emerged. “On February 12, a group of armed Libyans barged into our camps and put it on fire. We fled to a nearby mosque. We stayed there for a few days,” said Rinjali, a native of Syangja district.

But typical to the Nepali culture, many migrant workers joined the conversation and they answered my questions that were directed at Rinjali. One even prodded me to raise his grievances hoping that it would prompt the government to act. There was anger and frustration among the returnees.

They said the locals provided them with food and blankets. But the food was very scarce; they had to share a loaf of bread among four. “Water was also scarce. We would satiate our thirst with just a few drops of water,” Rinjali recalled.

He said they kept eating salt because they had heard that their forefathers in the villages would survive for several days by eating salt (this could not be independently verified!).

“We did not lose hope. We waited for someone to rescue us because the situation was worsening each day,” Rinjali, who seemed a little jaded but happy to be back, told me.

How did it all begin? I asked him. He said first the agitating local people started to hurl stones at them at their work place i.e. a construction site.

But even their camps were not spared. The protesters arrived at their camps and ordered to leave asap.

They said the unfamiliar language made it all the more difficult to understand what was going on. To make matters worse, the regime had cut off the outgoing phone calls (an eerie echo of Nepal’s February 1 takeover).

They said what they saw left them shocked. Rinjali described a country literally burning. “Government buildings were put on fire. The town was under flames even as we left Darnah (eastern Libya),” said the father of four.

From the restive town of Darnah, the group of 562 workers (total 3,000 Nepali migrant workers in Libya) boarded a trailer and arrived in Alexandria, a border town in Egypt, spending three days there.

“I felt a huge respite when we crossed the border. We were finally in a safe place,” Rinjali said.

“It dawned on me that life is precious; money is nothing. If you can live, you can earn. I’ll spend a few days in home. Then only I’ll think about what to do next,” he said.