We know the faces, stats and jersey numbers of the celebrities in one of the oldest and most popular professional sports, but who were the people who went to build Qatar and came home in a coffin? Meet the families of the victims.
Av Martin Schibbye 4 juli, 2022
All that is left of 19-year-old Anish Gurung’s head is a bloody mess. The cranium is crushed. To keep it together, the head is wrapped hard with white strips of fabric and duct tape. It’s been almost a week since the fatal car accident, but it’s illegal to cremate bodies in Qatar.
As if the state of Anish’s body wasn’t bad enough, the bureaucracy at the Kathmandu airport has held up his family all day. His father, Jagan Gurung, sister Amina and family friend, Lachin, are trying to claim the body and remove it from the luggage hall. They have spent the day chasing from one end to another in the hunt for the right stamps, different kinds of documents, the death certificate and copies of the passport.
It is almost midnight by the time they have finally managed to transport Anish’s body, on a luggage cart, the short stretch, from the airport to the golden temple Pashupatinath. They manage to find firewood, which is expensive, and wake up a monk who can perform the funeral rite.
Now they run into another problem.
According to tradition, the monk is supposed to put food in the mouth of the diseased, but it’s impossible.
Bells ring in the dark and the family members’ cries echo between the stone temples by the riverbed. They do the best they can and the food is pushed into what’s left of Anish’s face.
To “clean the fire”, Anish’s father throws sugar, mustard seeds and grain into the flames. Around the body, wrapped in an orange shroud and decorated with marigolds, they have placed 50 small bowls of food.
Shortly after the traditional funeral rites are performed, the flames engulf the 19-year-old migrant worker’s body completely.
This is not how it was supposed to end.
Every year 400,000 Nepalis leave their cities, towns and villages to seek employment abroad. They aren’t emigrants and called guest- or migrant workers, depending on perspective. Two full Boeing 747:s leave Nepal every day. Malaysia, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates have long been the largest markets for labor. Since 2010, every fourth Nepalese leave for Qatar. The construction industry’s appetite for cheap labor has basically insatiable since the small peninsular country on the Persian Gulf got word from FIFA that they got the 2022 World Cup in Soccer.
Sixteen of the 22 men on the FIFA executive committee, who awarded the Cup to Qatar back in 2010, have been suspended, prosecuted or imprisoned for corruption. Since then lots of journalists and human rights activists from all over the world have traveled to Qatar, shocked by the corruption, exploitation and the many deaths of migrant workers that seem to have lived like serfs, without possibility of switching jobs or going back home.
But the reason why 2.3 million migrant workers are in Qatar is not just because of a world cup in soccer. It is found two thousand feet about sea level – in Anish Gurungs’ home village.
During the monsoon season in the north central Nepal, the clouds never really let go of mountains and when dusk descends the valley suck up the fog, but when it’s over, the air is high and crisp, like a south-Asian aquarelle that just dried. The sweeping view ends in the holy mountain Macchapuchre, which means fish tail in Nepalese. The two-tipped peak on the Annapurna massif is illegal to climb, and nobody has (officially) conquered it.
Historically, the road from poverty for the residents in this region (Ghandrung) have gone via military duty with the British Army’s Ghurka Brigade. Several of the village elders made a name for themselves as some of the world’s absolute finest soldiers and are part of the British Army’s special forces. The best of the best were awarded work visas in the UK.
About twenty years ago, the men and women of the village also began to travel to the countries around the Persian Gulf. Loyal and hard working-people, they quickly made names for themselves as skilled construction workers and diligent housekeepers when the futuristic skyscrapers began towering like soldiers of steel, glass and concrete in the small country of Qatar.
Until just a few years ago, the only way to reach the village Ghandrung was by foot or on the back of a donkey. When a road for cars was built, Anish Gurung immediately started drivers’ education. Being able to find the traction mode in the manually geared car, using the breaks and backing up when meeting the local buses is a crucial skill in this part of the world.
In the last ascent, just before the village, a bus recently crashed down the hillside. One girl survived by jumping out of the window and clinging to a tree. The rest of the passengers died in the crash.
Anish and his friends were convinced that it would be so much easier to drive in Doha, Qatar’s capital city, with paved roads and traffic lights. If he took his driver’s license he could work as a chauffeur.
The last stretch of the path up to Anish Gurungs’ childhood home is made of black slate. Dried wood is stacked in neat pile, along all the house walls. The windows are minimal.
On a plateau in front of the house his mother, Khuili Gurung, 51, sorts firewood. Winter is on its way and without it, the stone houses on this altitude (2,000-meters) will turn into iceboxes. She sits down on a stool, wraps herself in a shawl and starts talking about her son.
“He was not a mischievous child, rather shy and a little quiet, and always helped me cook and clean here at home,” she says. “And as soon as he was done, he asked if he could play basketball and then he ran off, he loved doing that.”
A group of young men Anish’s age runs by the house. They are on their way to today’s big event in the village – a basketball tournament in his memory.
“When I see his friends I always expect to see Anish’s face too but he will never come back,” the mother says. “Our future died with him. He was our only hope.”
Inside the food is cooked over an open fire. A kettle of water is boiling on another fire, and stainless steel cookware hangs along the walls.
Anish tried to get a job abroad already after seventh grade but the rules had tightened and it wasn’t possible to travel with a fake ID anymore. You have to be 18. There were no jobs in his, or any of the neighboring villages.
The tourists that used to trek toward Annapurna had not returned after the Covid-19 pandemic.
“My son wasn’t doing anything, just laying around at home, and when we pressured him to keep trying, he said he could consider working abroad,” says Jagan Gurung, Anish father.
But he didn’t want to send his only son, at such a young age, to work in a foreign country.
“I told him to get married and build a life here,” Jagan says. “But he refused.”
Jagan spent two years building tunnels in Qatar, back in 2002, but made poor money and he also felt that he needed to be home when the children were small. When Anish wanted to leave, he advised him against it over and over.
“If there would have been jobs here in our village, we would never had let him go,” he says.
But Anish lived off his parents, month after month, and even if he did help out at home, he didn’t produce an income as, according to tradition, the youngest son is supposed to do.
After watching his son not earning his keep, hanging out with lazy friends and getting more and more spoiled, Jagan gave in and told Anish he could go. They paid a recruiter $1,000 despite the rule that recruters are not allowed to charge more than $100.
“He started as a construction worker in Qatar and since he didn’t have much training, he had to start at the bottom and work his way up.”
They stayed in close contact, and talked almost daily. Then one day, July 7, 2021, Anish died in a car accident with three others. They were on their way to work.
“He sat up front, next to the driver when they collided,” Jagan says.
It feels like Anish will call him any moment and that’s why he keeps his cell phone charged and within reach at all times.
“I am just waiting for him to call and say Aama, Babaa.”
Jagan’s worn black leather boots are muddy after a long day of work. While Anish was alive they dreamed about buying their own house for the money he’d make in Qatar. Now all they can do are surviving day by day.
“We have no steady income and we don’t get any younger. How long will we manage to work?” he asks himself.
Jagan says that when their son died, his wife slipped into a deep depression, they have had to spend a lot of money on doctor’s visits and medicine.
“He was our only son and had just begun sending home money when he was taken from us, now we have no one who can help us,” he says.
They also don’t know how long they can stay in the simple house they live in. If the tourists come back, maybe the owner wants to use it for other renters and will evict them.
The small compensation from the Nepali government helps but they never received any restitution from Anish’s employer since he died on his way to – not at – work.
Anish’s mother has heard about the World Cup but says she doesn’t know all that much about soccer.
Her son only played basketball.
Anish Gurung is one of 292 fatalities on the job and outside of work between 2010 and 2019, according to official statistics from the Embassy of Nepal in Qatar.
The debate about the actual numbers of diseased has raged since the British newspaper, The Guardian, published its investigative piece: “Revealed: 6,500 migrant workers have died in Qatar since World Cup awarded”.
Qatari authorities responded that they did not dispute that number itself, but that in such a large population of migrant workers – more than 2 million – the death toll isn’t abnormal.
The debate over death tolls and statistics isn’t new. For decades, politicians have argued over whether migrant workers and the money sent home are the so-called remittances, is really a way out of poverty or a form of modern slavery with lives at stake. The opportunity for one to migrate is also not the same as being forced to do so.
So who are the people that died and why did they go to Qatar?
Back in Anish Guring’s village a speaker voice is echoing between large mountains. Basketball is the natural option for the kids in such a mountainous area, which makes it impossible to play soccer. Everything is slanted aside from the bus station and basketball court, which is hand painted in white over the cracked concrete. Suddenly a whistle cuts through the air followed by the thumps of a basketball.
Twenty-one-year old Gautam Gurung feints a player and jumps to make the basket. On the back of his grey team gear it says Ghandruk, the name of the village, in black and the number one. He is two years older but was a close friend of Anish’s. They wore out many basketball shoes together on this court, and played uncountable nights until it got too dark to see the ball.
“I missed him a lot already when he left for Qatar,” Gautam says. “But we stayed in touch. He was supposed to come back for the annual Tihar Festival, and now he is no longer able to be here with us. That’s why we are playing this tournament in his memory.”
That Anish was well liked in the village is also evident by the collection the other members did after his passing to pay for his final rest according to Hindu tradition. It was expensive. First the body had to be flown to Nepal from Qatar for the actual cremation and ceremony at Pashupatinath, which is dedicated to Shiva, protector of Nepal, and then the ashes transported to the village.
“He was an honest man. One of the best basketball players we had. He also took care of all the little ones in Ghandruk, everyone knew him,” says Lachin Gurung who is a family friend.
The speaker announces the score and the game continues. Nobody knows how many of the 10 players on the court will still live in this village after they have finished school.
“He just said ‘I’m leaving.’ That’s what we do here. We leave to go work somewhere else far away. What should I have told him, don’t go it can be dangerous? But he had to leave. The family is poor, and according to tradition and our culture it was his role to earn money,” Lachin explains.
Dressed in a black Adidas cap, sunglasses and a shiny black jacket with fur collar, he thinks for a moment and then shares all that has happened after Anish died, and how the glorified picture of getting a job in Qatar has been smashed.
“Nobody wants to go there and work after what happened to Anish.”
Lachin’s father was a Ghurka soldier and after a long time serving he was awarded citizenship in the UK. Lachin returned to the home village to build a hotel.
“If you want to travel abroad to find work it’s easy to borrow money,” he says. “But if you want to build something here in the village, nobody will give you a loan. That’s our reality.”
For two years Lachin slept in a blue tent, it’s still sitting there, while the hotel was built.
“I want to offer the young people in our village an opportunity to make money without having to travel abroad,” he says. “I hope they can stay and work the land, or do something they can be proud of instead of working for minimum wages and be treated like animals.”
When the game is over and the sun goes down over Ghandrung, Anish’s friends gather by one of the houses to dance together and celebrate Tihar, the festival of light.
“If Anish was alive he would have been here with us,” says one of his friends. “But he probably wouldn’t have danced because he was very shy.”
Following the main artery of the region, the untamed Mardi River, some fifty meandering kilometers as it plunges downwards from the southern slopes of the Himalayas towards the lowlands, you will reach the widow Sita Kumari’s house.
The villagers slaughter an ox, the best cuts are carefully prepared and boiled. It’s for the Tihar, the festival of lights, but this year Sita Kumari and her children won’t decorate their houses with light strands because they are in mourning. Kubir Singh, her husband and father of their three children never came back from Qatar.
Inside the house, Sita Kumari wraps herself in the red and pink shawl and squeeze together with her children on the minimal patio. The youngest, Manish, who is eight wears a grey hoodie and his older sister Salina, 11, is dressed in red sweat pants. The oldest, 19-year-old Sunita, dons a pastel green Mickey Mouse T-shirt. Her dead father’s watch is on her right wrist.
The roof of their house is made of galvanized steel and the floors are cold. Since the loss of the father and husband, and their breadwinner, they were forced to move and are now renting a room next to the river on land they don’t own.
“This house was damaged in the earthquake, that’s why can rent it for cheap,” Sita says. “Out plan was building a house for the whole family, but now we are stuck here.”
Shortly after Sunita’s was born, Kubir Singh traveled to Qatar to secure the family’s future.
“He was a heavy equipment operator, he drove a steamroller,” the widow explains.
When he left the first time it was early 2000s and no social media or WhatsApp available but the past few years it’s been easier to stay in touch. Every other year, Kubir Singh came home to Nepal and his family – but during the majority of the past 19 years, he lived his life in Qatar and the family theirs in Nepal. It was a situation of missing and mourning that Sita Kumari and her three children shared with many others in Nepal but it still hurt just as much.
She will never forget how her husband said in their last conversations that he was finished with Qatar. Kubir Singh wanted to come home. That was his last trip. He often complained about being sick and his colleagues too.
“If they missed one work day, they lost two days of pay, but I always told him not to pressure himself if he was sick,” Sita Kumary says. “He didn’t listen. Without his income our children could not go to school, he reasoned.”
Kubir Singh told his family that they had a ton of work because of the approaching World Cup. One of the roads he worked lead to a newly constructed arena.
One night he told his wife that he’d felt sick and fallen off the steamroller while driving, he just collapsed.
“He took it as a sign and he said he had bought a plane ticket home.”
Kubir Singh collapsed again and was taken to the hospital.
Ten days later his dead body landed at the airport in Kathmandu.
“In his death certificate it states that he died from ‘high blood pressure, which affected the kidneys.’”
In hindsight, the widow concludes that her husband gave 19 years of his life to an employer that wouldn’t even provide adequate medical care.
“I am devastated that the company did not take care of his disease. They made him work when he was sick, it’s heartbreaking. Now we are left without income and I think everyone can figure out how that will end,” Sita Kumary says and glances at her children.
She received $4,500 from the company but she hasn’t seen any of the outstanding paychecks and bonuses Kubir Singh had talked about.
“All the money he sent home we used to pay for the children’s education,” she says. “Our wish was to give the children a brighter future.”
She hesitates to answer the question how she feels that he died to build infrastructure for an upcoming Soccer World Cup. The goats grazing the riverbank bleak in the background, finally Sita Kumary responds.
“There are no words that could describe that, no words.”
The children go into the family bedroom, sit down on the bed and show a painted portrait of their father that hangs on a yellow-painted wall.
Neither of them had a chance to be with him for any longer period of time. Or, get to know him. They got good at taking care of themselves and – waiting for their father to come home. He sacrificed his life for their future for 19 years.
Unless there’s a miracle all three have to quit school now.
Next to a photo of Kubir Singh is a poster depicting roses. When everyone has left, the oldest daughter hurries to change from the Mickey Mouse T-shirt to a glittering dress that her father bought during one of his many trips.
It’s been almost a whole year and tonight she really wants to go out and celebrate the light with her friends.
The Mardi River flows past the Bishworkarma family’s house and eventually reaches the fresh water lake Phewa Tal, the second to largest in Nepal. Framed by mountains it rests like a jewel in the southern Pokhara Valley. Small boats and canoes are dragged up on land, waiting to set out with a load of tourists. If there had been any tourists to guide, Bine Bahadur Bishworkarma’s sons would have been doing just that.
Instead the grown up children, Suresh, Raj, Amit and Krishna sit at home in a simple room blue walls. There’s a reed mattress and a green blanket on a wooden bed, a yellow power chord hang from the ceiling. The only other piece of furniture is a large dresser with broken handles. As children they scribbled on the blue wall with pens and pencils.
Now they are 21 to 34 years old. Four sons and the youngest, Sumitra, is a girl. Their mother, Nir Maya Bishworkarma, wearing a blue dress and a red shawl, sits down on the bed. Her husband’s death in May 2020 crushed the family’s hope for a better future.
“We could never afford sending our children to school when they were little so they are all unemployed now,” she says.
Many of the neighbors went to Qatar during the past 20 years, and many returned in suits as “Gulf-Men” after a few years. More brick houses were built and the literacy increased—at a big cost.
During his years in Qatar, Bine Bahadur Bishworkarma told them how hard life was as a migrant worker and urged his children to study hard so they could get a job in Nepal.
“He forbade them to travel for work,” says his wife. “And as long as he was alive, we never had any problems with money. Now we don’t know what to do.”
The father, who was 52 when he died, seldom spoke about work when he called home, but they knew he was skilled and got to work with expensive materials like laying marble in the new hotels that were being built.
“He used to say that when he got his bonus, he would never go back abroad again,” the widow says.
During all the years Bine Bahadur Bishworkarma and his wife dreamed of a brighter future for their children.
“I used to argue with him, try to convince him to let the children to go to Qatar when they were unemployed back here, but he said no. Today I understand why,” she says.
In the spring of 2020, when colleagues started getting sick with Covid-19, many tried to go home. Not Bine Bahadur Bishworkarma. He was worried that he’d bring the disease back to the village and decided to stay put.
“When his boss got Covid-19, the husband sounded absolutely terrified when I spoke to him on the phone,” the widow says.
Nobody really knows what happened the night of May 19. Half an hour before lunch the following day, the colleagues found Bine Bahadur Bishworkarma dead. The official death certificate states that he committed suicide. But one his sons, Raj, says that his father was his usual self and didn’t seem depressed.
“That he killed himself in fear to give us the virus back home in Nepal? That’s a pretty far fetched theory,” he says. “He had bought a ticket home. Do you buy a ticket home if you’ve planned to kill yourself? I don’t know what happened, I don’t even know where his body is. They never sent it to us, non of his things either, the returned nothing.”
Somewhere in Qatar is the body of Bine Bahadur Bishworkarma along with his belongings, bankcards, money and furniture.
“Not being able to bring home my father’s corpse was absolutely horrible. We had to make a life sized doll and dress it in his clothes and then cremate it.”
The family has received about $5,800 from the Nepali Foreign Employment Board and about $10,800 from the insurance policy. His employer paid $1,080.
Nir Maya Bishworkarma started cleaning at a hospital for Covid-19 patients. She’s worred about getting too old to work.
“All I want is for my children to get married so I can afford food and rent.”
They are still waiting for the tourists to come back and Raj’s canoe lay unused by the lake. When it’s not raining he paints houses in the town.
“I’ve seen on Facebook that many people are writing about the World Cup,” he says. “I am proud that my father laid marble on the hotel floors. Those who will go to Qatar to watch the soccer games will enjoy his craftsmanship. For it’s a tragedy. The job became his death.”
This is the first part in a series of reportages from Nepal by Blankspots Martin Schibbye. Translated by Majsan Boström. Part two will be published in Swedish on July 7. Read also Martin Schibbyes meeting with professional soccer player Tim Sparv who said: ”We can do so much more than just winning games.”
For more stories about migrant workers see: Cards of Qatar.