By Mary Margaret Ewens
In an era marred by a barrage of fake news, sensational reporting, and corrupt business practices, the work of investigative journalists like MAAS alumna Dorothee Myriam Kellou (’12), who exposed one of the biggest cases of corporate greed and exploitative war-zone practices seen in recent years, is more important than ever. Kellou’s groundbreaking investigation, which began in 2014, found that French cement giant Lafarge-Holcim not only endangered employees at its Syrian branch, but also paid concessions to armed groups in Syria, including ISIS. Kellou’s work, published in 2016 in a three-part report by Le Monde and on the television station France 24, led to an ongoing judicial inquiry of Lafarge, the resignation of Lafarge’s CEO and criminal investigations of several top executives, and an overhaul of the company’s corporate practices.
In 2012, Nidal Wahbi, head of human resources for Lafarge’s branch in Syria was abducted. Eventually he paid a bribe and was released. While his individual story wouldn’t have made news in wartime Syria, Wahbi knew that what had happened to him was telling of a larger problem and began looking for a way to bring his story to international attention. Word of Wahbi’s search for a French and Arabic-speaking journalist spread and eventually reached Kellou, who had graduated from MAAS on a Fulbright Scholarship in 2012 and was working in Paris as a journalist.
Kellou interviewed Wahbi and began seeking out testimonies from other Lafarge employees. She found numerous cases of Syrian Lafarge employees being forced to go to work despite the inordinate amount of danger that came with both traveling to and working at the plant. Working on the story from afar wasn’t easy, says Kellou, who initially contacted several of her informants who were still in Syria through Facebook. “I had to gain the employees’ trust, and many of them initially feared talking to me,” Kellou explained in an early interview with Jadaliyya.
In September of 2014, the Islamic State (ISIS) took over the plant. “Officially, all Lafarge employees on site were evacuated safely,” Kellou told Jadaliyya. “In fact, no evacuation was organized. Employees had to flee using their own resources through the desert.” After the takeover, more and more employees stepped up, ready to talk, and Facebook posts condemning Lafarge’s funding of ISIS began appearing. Syrian news site Zaman al-Wasl published an article exposing links between the cement giant and terrorist organizations, citing leaked emails to which Kellou was able to gain access and cross-check the testimonies she had gathered. Suddenly the story had teeth.
Kellou continued to work on the story for two years and eventually uncovered that Lafarge had indirectly paid armed groups in Syria to secure the roads for employees and cement convoys to pass. As the influence of Al-Nusra Front and ISIS began to increase, Lafarge was, in effect, indirectly funding one of the largest terrorist groups in the world. They not only paid intermediaries for security—despite the fact that at least 13 employees were kidnapped for ransom over a two year period—but also had paid taxes to ISIS in order to keep the company running long after most foreign companies had withdrawn from Syria. Kellou also found emails that seemed to prove that Lafarge’s headquarters in Paris were aware of these arrangements.
Kellou was awarded the 2017 TRACE Prize for Investigative Reporting for her work on the Lafarge story. The judges at TRACE, the internationally recognized anti-bribery organization, said that Kellou’s work “powerfully captured, with nuance and intelligence, the moral crisis that faces businesses caught in the desperate situation in Syria, and by extension, every war-torn region.” She was also a finalist for the Samir Kassir Award for Freedom of the Press in the Arab World and the Albert Londres Award, France’s highest journalism honor.
Kellou, who in addition to her continued work as a journalist is also producing a documentary about forced resettlement during the Algerian War of Independence, credits the MAAS program for building the skills she uses in her reporting work. “I gained wonderful research skills while writing a thesis at MAAS,” she says. “Conducting thorough research—often reading materials in French, English, and Arabic—and trying to find new approaches to a subject all proved to me that I could be bold, take on difficult projects, and succeed in doing great work. I wouldn’t have started my research on Lafarge in Syria without having first done the research I did at Georgetown.”
Mary Margaret Ewens is a graduate student in Georgetown’s Communication, Culture & Technology Program.
This article was published in the Winter/Spring 2018 CCAS Newsmagazine.