Death in the labour camp

The vicious slaying of a Nepali site worker by Indian co-workers at his labour camp over the Eid weekend shocked the industry. Construction Week visited the Sonapur camp where other workers who were attacked that night, are now staying, to discover how a drunken squabble between a few men escalated into a running battle between Indian and Nepali workers living in the camp. Conrad Egbert reports.

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By  Conrad Egbert Published  November 26, 2005

It should have been a weekend of celebration, as thousands of Indian construction workers across Dubai celebrated Diwali and the Eid holiday. But at one labour camp in Jebel Ali, a petty squabble between a few men who bumped into each other on the way to the camp kitchen, soon escalated into a running battle between Nepali and Indian workers. By the end of the evening, 24- year-old Nepali site worker Beeshu Raj Rai was dead after being savagely beaten by several men armed with steel bars. His death has highlighted the unreported violence that is a regular occurrence in the camps, where men of different nationalities are forced to live in close proximity to one another. In a dangerous industry where many workers are killed and injured in site accidents every year, this was a tragically mundane and pointless death. The evening of 3rd November started off well at the Jebel Ali camp, where Beeshu Raj Rai was living. Many of the men had been drinking during the day and making the most of the rare time off from their daily grind on building sites across Dubai. The specific details of how the row between the workers started are not clear, but it is thought to have been triggered by an incident that took place after the men had eaten their evening meal, when two Nepalis were on the way to the camp kitchen to wash their plates. At the entrance to the kitchen, the men encountered two Indian workers, and a scuffle ensued. But the original clash quickly grew out of control and divided the camp along ethnic lines, according to eye witnesses who spoke to Construction Week. It was big enough to attract the attention of the police who visited the camp earlier in the evening, but they left when it appeared that the row was over. Beeshu Raj Rai had only been in Dubai for nine months and had made the journey from his village in Nepal to support himself and his retired father. “Fights between workers of different nationalities are very common in these labour camps,” said K Kumar who works for the welfare wing of the Indian Consulate. “This case, however, is very unfortunate and it occurred only because the Indian labourers were under the influence of alcohol.” CW visited the Sonapur camp where many of Rai’s co-workers are now living. A week after the tragedy they were still trying to come to terms with the awful events that occured on 3rd November. They said that Beeshu Raj Rai was an innocent victim who had not been involved in the original fracas involving the Indian and Nepali men. “He wasn’t that sort of person,” said Chitra Thapa Magar, a close friend and fellow worker of Rai’s. “He couldn’t even raise his voice at people. He was a happy-go-lucky kind of boy and was treated like a kid at the camp. His death is the worst wrongdoing. He was first hit in his stomach with a scaffolding pipe and then when he doubled over he received the fatal blow on the temple of his forehead.” Other workers staying at the camp were also dragged out of their rooms and beaten. “The police [turned] up several times and each time they were told that the fight was over,” said Deengar Thapa, a worker who was beaten unconscious and then found himself in hospital when he came round. Thapa was beaten with a length of steel rebar. A week after the attack, the distinctive threading which is on all rebar, can be clearly seen in red marks on his back. “As soon as they [the police] left, the Indian workers would begin fighting with us again. It was just a matter of numbers.” Dhankumar Rai, a first cousin of Rai, who also lives in the same camp, said breaking the news to the victim’s father was the most difficult thing he had ever done. “His father is a retired soldier who was with the Gurkha regiment in the British Army,” said Dhankumar. “He has two brothers who are soldiers in the Indian Army. Can you imagine their frame of mind? They’re protecting a country whose nationals have murdered their own flesh and blood. It’s all very sad.” Rai’s friends have pasted a photograph of him on a diary that belonged to him. “We do feel bad about what has happened; it’s not something that usually happens,” said Narain Prasad, a worker at the camp. “What hurts the most is that in the end, we had friends fighting with friends. It was a small thing that blew out of proportion and ended in the death of someone. It could have been avoided.” The company, Arabtec, has promised that they will separate the Nepali workers from the Indians and give them an individual camp in Al Quoz; however the company has refused to comment since the tragedy occurred. “I think it’s a good idea to separate workers of different nationalities,” said Chandra Kumar Sapkota, a Nepali social worker in the UAE. “It’s the only way to prevent fights fuelled by national rivalry from breaking out again.”

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