Syria workers say French firm abandoned them to jihadists
AIN ISSA - Syrian mechanic Yassin Ismail appeared to have an ideal job earning good money as a supervisor for French cement giant Lafarge at the company's remote plant in the deserts of his homeland.
But after war broke out and the firm took a decision to keep operations open, his relatives say his sought-after position descended into a nightmare that would ultimately lead to his gruesome murder.
The choice to cling on in Syria after other international firms fled the fighting has dragged Lafarge, which merged with Swiss firm Holcim in 2015, into a spiral of scandal and recriminations that has embroiled the French state.
Three French judges are investigating allegations the firm funnelled some 13 million euros ($16 million) to armed fighters including Islamic State group jihadists to keep the factory working.
Six former or current top Lafarge executives have been charged with financing a terrorist organisation.
Those bosses could also face prosecution for endangering the lives of their local Syrian employees after 11 of them filed their own lawsuit alleging Lafarge put the prospect of profits rebuilding Syria after the war ahead of their safety.
The firm and its executives insist they treated security as a "priority" but a string of former employees and their relatives in war-torn Syria have detailed to an AFP investigation what they say was deadly neglect.
- 'No other options' -
The home that Ismail was building for his family in the northern Syrian town of Ain Issa remains unfinished.
The two-storey building would have looked impressive in the dusty neighbourhood on the fringes of the desert some 30 kilometres (20 miles) away from the Lafarge plant at Jalabiya.
But in 2013, as armed rebels and Islamists tussled for the region, the father of three young sons was detained by jihadist fighters from a group that would later change its name to IS.
After several months in captivity Ismail was executed, relatives and three former colleagues said.
They were told by IS that his throat was slit and body thrown into a canyon in the desert where the jihadists dumped hundreds of victims.
Ismail's cousin Mustafa Yassin said that like many other workers his relative had little choice but to keep working as he desperately needed the money.
"He knew that it was dangerous, but he had no other options," Mustafa Yassin told AFP.
"The factory was located in a Kurdish-held area and IS killed him after accusing him of being a spy for the Kurds," added his uncle, Yassin Yassin.
Lafarge knew only too well about the perils facing its employees.
Foreign staff were evacuated in 2012 and an internal report documented some 12 cases of its workers being kidnapped and held for ransom by armed groups from the start of that year.
Former company officials have told French investigators they paid up and got all those taken released unharmed.
But they claim not to know about Ismail.
LafargeHolcim told AFP this week that it had "no knowledge of a worker for Lafarge Syria dying after being abducted".
Ismail is not the only employee who former workers say disappeared.
Another mechanic Abdul al-Homada, 35, was kidnapped in 2013 in the city of Aleppo -- and later very likely killed -- after heading there to pick up his salary, four former colleagues told AFP.
Homada, who a top Lafarge official has claimed was close to the opposition to President Bashar al-Assad, had to make the 150-kilometre (95-mile) trip to collect his wage after Lafarge insisted no cash be kept at its vulnerable Jalabiya plant.
At the time it was common for companies to request that employees receive their pay in larger cities given the instability in the regions around.
"We told Lafarge that it could be dangerous to go to Aleppo, but they refused to pay the salaries at the factory," said former worker Jarir Yahyaalmullaali.
"He was kidnapped as he left the bank."
For Lafarge, his colleague insisted, Homada did not count because they said he was taken by the Syrian regime due to his opposition ties.
As part of the French probe it would emerge that the firm eventually sacked Homada for an "unjustified absence".
"If any of us didn't show up at the factory because of security problems they were fired," Yahyaalmullaali said.
- 'Nobody warned us' -
Before the war came to Syria, many ex-Lafarge employees agree, the 680 million euros the firm ploughed into the factory brought much-needed investment to the region.
But when the area became a fault line between warring Kurdish, jihadist and regime forces, some say, the situation went terribly wrong.
Yahyaalmullaali points to one day above all -- September 19, 2014 -- the day IS finally came.
"It was neighbours who told us that IS was going to attack, no one from the management warned us, the factory manager had fled with his family," he said, accusations echoed by other workers.
"Lafarge did not care about our safety and did not make any evacuation plan, we piled up at 29 in the three vehicles we found, and if we had stayed we might all be dead."
The account starkly contradicts Lafarge's version of the incident.
In an email a few days later, the factory director Frederic Jolibois, who is among those charged, wrote to colleagues that "we managed to get our employees out of the factory safe and sound".
But in an earlier message sent just the day before the seizure by IS, Jolibois had simply instructed to "prepare mattresses, food, water, sugar in the tunnels" and "move teams there in case of clashes".
"It seems that there has been a real blindness, voluntary or not, from management on the safety of employees," said Sandra Cossart, director of French rights group Sherpa, which lodged the lawsuit on behalf of the ex-employees.
- 'Accept the consequences' -
The scandal around Lafarge has engulfed not just the company but also the French authorities.
Former CEO Bruno Lafont, along with former deputy chief executive Christian Herrault and Eric Olsen, who took over as CEO when Lafarge merged with Switzerland's Holcim, are among those charged.
Herrault has alleged that French diplomats knew about the "shakedown" by armed groups and urged the firm to stay put in Syria.
Sherpa has asked judges to question Laurent Fabius, foreign minister from 2012 to 2016 under the former Socialist government of president Francois Hollande.
Under interrogation in December Bruno Pescheux, the head of the former Syria affiliate, who has also been charged, admitted they paid $20,000 a month to IS to facilitate the plant's work in 2013 and 2014.
Ultimately those payments and the risk Lafarge took were in vain -- the plant in Jalabiya slipped from their control and, according to local authorities, is now a base for US, British and French special forces who have helped push back IS.
In his testimony Pescheux appeared to sum up the calculation by Lafarge when it made the choice to stay.
"From the moment the decision was taken to continue to operate this plant in the context of a civil war, then it became necessary to accept the consequences," he told investigators.