Nepal Wracked by Religious Violence After Iraq Murders

KATHMANDU – A haunting specter grips Nepal as the Himalayan kingdom mourns the deaths of 12 of its workers murdered in Iraq. There is a strong possibility that the relatives of the dead will never see the return of the bodies of the victims, and this has incensed many Nepalis.

In the southern district of Dhanusha, the entire village of Mahendranagar is in mourning. The village is home to four of the hostages shot in the backs of their heads by Islamic militants.

"We were waiting for their release, but that didn’t happen," said a tearful and furious Sudarshan Khadka, who only two months ago said goodbye to his brother Ramesh, who was off to Iraq to seek a job as a cook.

"We met with the ministers and top officials, yet the government didn’t do anything to bring them home safely," he told IPS.

An Islamic website, on Tuesday, released a grisly videotape showing one Nepalese man being decapitated, with his bloodied head held up like a trophy. Eleven others were shot in the head after being held captive for over a week.

Upon hearing the news of their son’s death, Ramesh’s mother, Radhika, and father, Jit Bahadur, collapsed from grief.

Nepal, which is not part of the U.S.-led coalition, is one of the world’s poorest countries. For many youths, a future only exists if they manage to secure an overseas job – often low-level and risky.

Nepalis abroad collectively send an impressive 100 billion Nepali rupees (about $1 billion U.S.) in remittance every year. That amount is equivalent to Nepal’s annual budget of 102.4 billion Nepali rupees ($1.32 billion U.S.).

The brutal slayings of the 12 have made many Nepali workers reconsider their decision to head to the Middle East.

"Now we’ll think twice about going to Iraq," said Man Bahadur Thapa, a 25-year-old from Khotang district. One of the murdered hostages, Rajendra Shrestha, was from that district.

"This is so sad. It’s really bad that it has happened this way," said Thapa.

Out of the 500,000 Nepalese working abroad, nearly 350,000 work in the Middle East, while the rest are in East Asia and Europe.

Overseas, the Nepalis work mainly as security guards, truck drivers, carpenters and manual laborers according to figures made available by the Department of Labor.

Meantime, labor recruiters in Kathmandu say over 17,000 Nepalis are in Iraq.

Just hours after the horrifying footage of the killing of the Nepalis was released, anti-Muslim riots broke out in the capital.

In the heart of Kathmandu, right on the famous Durbar Marg street leading to the palace of King Gyanendra, a large mob stormed the Jama Masjid mosque in Ratna Park. Hundreds of copies of the Koran were thrown on to the street and burnt.

The offices of Pakistan International Airlines and Emirates Air were also vandalized. Several properties were attacked; including the facilities of privately owned popular media houses like the Kantipur Publications and Space Time Network.

"This [killing] is very inhuman and barbaric. The boys were innocent and they went to Iraq to support their poor families back home," one of the protesters told IPS.

Two people were killed in Kathmandu on Wednesday, including a man who was shot dead by police as a crowd tried to storm the Egyptian Embassy, which represents Iraqi interests in Nepal.

Egypt on Wednesday summoned Nepal’s charge d’affaires in Cairo and asked that Egyptians in the kingdom be protected.

Muslims make up 3.8 percent of the 27 million people in Nepal, which is the world’s only official Hindu nation.

The country has never seen religious violence between Hindus and Muslims, and this week’s riots were the first in Nepal’s modern history.

"Muslims and non-Muslims have been living side by side for the past 1,000 years and there has never been any communal violence," said Sayed Mohammed Habibulah, a Muslim who heads Tribhuvan University’s political science faculty.

"This anti-Muslim wave will be short-lived. Muslims in Nepal are peace-loving people and loyal to the state," he said.

Political leaders in Nepal, including King Gyanendra, have appealed for inter-religious harmony.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Sher Bahadur Deuba has appeared on state-run television vowing to take legal action against foreign employment firms involved in "illegally sending" Nepali workers to Iraq.

There is an official government ban on work in Iraq after the U.S. invasion last year. But many Nepalis, through foreign-owned employment companies, circumvent the ban by first traveling to Kuwait and other countries in the Gulf before heading to Iraq.