American soldiers and Afghan citizens aren’t the only casualties of the ongoing war in Afghanistan. Traffickers have been using the war to lure Nepali men into accepting lucrative “jobs” as security guards. But too many of these jobs have turned out to be nothing more than modern-day slavery. Now, Nepali men trapped in Afghanistan are fighting a war of their own — a war to escape slavery.
Take the story of Ram Thapa. He went to Afghanistan two years ago upon hearing that he could make up to $1000 a month working as a security guard there for a private company or military base — several times what he could make per month in Nepal. The recruiter he met with, a woman named Shuma, told him she’d arrange all his papers and travel for about $3900. So he borrowed the money and set off to make a good living as a security guard and support his family. But once he arrived in Afghanistan, the job Ram was promised didn’t exist. He was forced to wait for four months before he started working, while the interest on his loan and the fees his traffickers charged him for room and board added up. Ram has been in Afghanistan for two years now, working, and he still hasn’t made enough to pay off his debts, much less send money back to Nepal. He’s trapped in Afghanistan.
Sadly, Ram actually has it better than some of the Nepali men trafficked to Afghanistan. They can rack up debt for up to 18 months before finally being placed in a job. And when they do start to work, the men are forced to live in groups of six to eight, in a 10 x 16 room lined with mattresses. They are forced to pay for their room and board out of their wages, which for many means continually racking up debt. And even if they could pay off their trafficker in Afghanistan, almost all of them owe money back in Nepal, which they borrowed to be able to take the job. And they can’t return home without that money.
The trafficking of Nepali men to Afghanistan is not just a few isolated incidents — it’s so common these men have a nickname, “Gurkhas.” The name has a military connotation, even though most of these men have no military experience. But presenting them as such makes them more attractive to security companies. The real Gurkhas usually get the paying jobs, while men like Ram who were duped by a trafficker back home and passed off as a Gurkha just sit and accumulate debt. Real gurkhas even have a name for their trafficked counter parts: tauku katwa. The name is a play on words, referring simultaneously to an incident a few years ago when six fake Gurkhas were beheaded in Iraq and the process of cutting off the heads of the men’s photos to fake their documents. It would be a funny pun, if it weren’t a mockery of murder and a nickname that could be synonymous with “slave.”
There is a common perception that victims of human trafficking victims are somehow weak — they’re vulnerable young women, they’re uneducated, they’re poor. But in reality, many victims of human trafficking are incredibly strong, both physically and emotionally. They’re ambitious and strapping young men who are looking for jobs in risky areas that involve carrying a gun. Or they’re career-focused women who want the chance to earn a better living in another country. Trafficking victims can have mental, emotional, and physical strength and still be forced, tricked, or coerced into a situation they can’t get out of, much like these Nepali men have been.
Ram’s story is a reminder that the war in Afghanistan, along with other conflicts around the world, will inevitably have unintended consequences. I don’t think any strategists from the countries who have troops there ever thought this war would lead to the debt bondage of Nepali men trying to find work as security guards.