But the money didn’t always assure the safety of Lafarge’s workers or its operations. Between 2012 and the end of 2014, at least a dozen workers were kidnapped, according to testimony and witness statements of former employees, company documents and the internal review. Employees faced gun-toting militants when they went to work. And the factory — one of the biggest foreign investments in Syria — was captured anyway. It has been shuttered ever since.
A panel of French judges appointed by the Paris High Court, which oversees criminal investigations, is now looking into whether Lafarge put workers at risk and violated international sanctions by paying the Islamic State and other armed groups to keep operating as war bore down. Six former top Lafarge officials, including two former chief executives, are being formally investigated under charges of financing terrorism.
The judges, who decide whether cases go to trial, are also examining a lawsuit by Sherpa, a French anti-corruption organization that pursues humanitarian abuses by corporations, on behalf of former employees alleging Lafarge was complicit in war crimes. The employees, in the lawsuit, claim that the company ignored the dangers they faced, and pressured them to keep working.
“Lafarge acted as if it was above the law,” said Marie-Laure Guislain, the head of litigation at Sherpa. “But it played a role in an armed conflict, as well as in the violation of human rights, and must be held accountable.”
The Sherpa lawsuit helped prompt the French investigation, as did reports on Lafarge’s activities by the French newspaper Le Monde.
All of the former Lafarge executives have denied the charges against them, which could be dropped if judges find the evidence insufficient. If prosecuted, the executives could face penalties of up to 10 years in jail and fines of 225,000 euros. Authorities will also determine whether the company itself can be held liable. The activity occurred before Lafarge merged with the Swiss cement giant Holcim in 2015.
The former chief executive Eric Olsen resigned last year after the internal inquiry, although Lafarge concluded that he was not responsible for, or aware of, the activity. In the United States, the company, now called LafargeHolcim after the merger, dropped plans to supply building materials for President Trump’s proposed wall on the border with Mexico amid criticism in France over the Syria affair.
LafargeHolcim, in a statement to The Times, insisted that the No. 1 priority of Lafarge executives was to guarantee employee safety, and pinned the decisions on local managers who “wrongly believed” they were acting in the interests of the company and its employees. The company acknowledged “unacceptable errors committed in Syria,” and said that it “deeply regrets what happened.”
Residents leaving Manbij, Syria, in a 2016 evacuation. The town, which is near the Lafarge cement plant, was chosen several years ago as a place to relocate some workers for safety and in order to keep it operating. Credit Rodi Said/Reuters
It also said that while the use of an intermediary was a “serious concern,” its internal review “could not establish with certainty the ultimate recipients of the funds.”
LafargeHolcim’s chief executive, Jan Jenisch, said the company is cooperating with French authorities. “I am the most interested person that truth comes out and we can close this chapter, which we are very sorry about,” he said during a presentation of the company’s results last week.
In its statement, LafargeHolcim added it had put in place extensive reviews and controls “to ensure that LafargeHolcim today is a different company with further enhanced compliance.”
Mr. Mohamad and the other workers, all of whom survived, are now trying to rebuild their lives. Many had to flee Syria, becoming refugees in Turkey and Europe. While some managed to get jobs, others struggled afterward.
For a while, Dr. Adham Basho, the Lafarge employee who warned Mr. Mohamad, lived with his wife, children and 18 other families in a Turkish refugee facility after leaving Syria. He has found only odd jobs to support his family. Hisham Haji Osman, an information technology specialist, made it to Germany and is still trying to land permanent work. Mr. Mohamad is living as a refugee in Turkey, unable to return home while war persists.
‘We Kept Going’
When Lafarge bought a dilapidated factory in northern Syria in 2007, one of the biggest advantages was a local partner with ties to President Bashar al-Assad’s government.
The partner, Firas Tlass, an influential tycoon, could navigate back channels in a country with murky rules and bureaucracy. He arranged an operating license and other permits for Lafarge.
Founded in 1833 as a family business in France, Lafarge had a history of landing big and complicated projects. In the mid-19th century, it won a contract to build the Suez Canal in Egypt. During World War II, it helped furnish cement for the construction of a massive coastal wall of bunkers for the Nazis, known as the Atlantic Wall, that stretched from Scandinavia to the Spanish border.
Militant Islamist fighters parading along the streets of Raqqa province in June 2014. After Raqqa fell to the Islamic State in 2013, fighting moved closer to the region in northern Syria where the cement plant is located. Credit Reuters
In Syria, Lafarge saw a new opening to the Middle East. After a three-year renovation of the €680 million plant, Lafarge Cement Syria opened in October 2010, employing hundreds of people and generating thousands of related jobs. Trucks and vans crisscrossed the desert, transporting employees, delivering Lafarge cement and bringing in fuel and raw materials from nearby quarries.
As operations ramped up, a wave of revolutionary fervor from the Arab Spring movement swept the region. Anti-government protests spread to Syria, and were brutally suppressed in March 2011 by government security forces. Soldiers from Syria’s army defected and, along with civilians who took up arms, formed rebel groups to battle the government, some of them loosely organized as the Free Syrian Army. The government responded by attacking rebel-held areas, in an increasingly complex and bloody conflict that continues to batter the country.
While the fighting took root in the south, the security around the Lafarge plant in the north slowly began to deteriorate. Free Syrian Army groups moved into the area, long controlled by Mr. Assad’s government, along with the militia of the Kurdish Democratic Union Party, or PYD. By the end of 2011, the United Nations declared Syria in a state of civil war, and the European Union placed an embargo on arms and oil purchases in Syria.
After that, Total, the French oil giant, halted its Syrian operations. Other French multinationals followed, including Bel Group, the maker of Babybel cheese, and Air Liquide, France’s largest gas company.
Not Lafarge. Bruno Lafont, who was the Lafarge chief executive at the time, saw no reason to leave. Company security advisers assured bosses at headquarters in Paris that the plant was not in a combat zone and remained safe. “So we kept going,” Mr. Lafont told investigators, according to the court documents. “Lafarge has never run away.”
By summer 2012, the situation in Syria had grown increasingly uncertain, and Lafarge decided to move hundreds of foreign employees out of the country for their safety. Senior managers, including Bruno Pescheux, the chief executive of Lafarge Cement Syria at the time, relocated to Cairo to oversee operations remotely.
The Syrian employees kept working. Their job was to keep the cement flowing — and to make the factory appear occupied as a way of discouraging militants from raiding it.
Lafarge said it wanted to keep providing jobs for locals who eagerly wanted to work. The company relocated employees to Manbij, a town near the plant, and provided lodging for others inside the factory compound so they could keep working as road travel grew more risky, according to testimony by former executives and employees. When the civil war ended, “we’d at least have an operation that could furnish cement for the reconstruction of Syria,” Mr. Pescheux told French investigators.
Marie-Laure Guislain, head of litigation at Sherpa, the French anti-corruption organization that has sued Lafarge on behalf of employees who say they were pressured to continue working in a war zone. Credit Roberto Frankenberg for The New York Times
Workers felt fortunate to be employed by a major French multinational that offered good salaries to support their families in a region with few opportunities. Yet as the situation grew starker, Lafarge’s local managers, the employees said in interviews, witness accounts and testimony, turned up the pressure, threatening to dismiss or cut the pay of those who balked at the worsening safety environment.
“Before the war, the management practices were very good,” said Jarir Yahyaalmullaali, a former warehouse keeper. But later, he added, “they would force you to go to work and threaten to dismiss you even if there were problems and the roads were dangerous.”
After their foreign colleagues were evacuated, the Syrian employees discussed forming a union or striking to protest deteriorating work conditions. They were especially upset about being ferried in Lafarge-contracted vans through checkpoints held by a rotating cast of armed militants, the employees said in interviews, testimony and accounts submitted to the court.
“Imagine the journey,” said Nidal Wahbi, a former Lafarge human resources manager in Syria who is part of the lawsuit. “You could be stopped at any time, and either they let you go, or they could take you from the car for questioning.” When sniper bullets grazed his vehicle one morning, “I realized for the first time how unsafe it was,” he said. “But the next day, you had to go through the same road, because Lafarge would ask why you didn’t go to work.”
A Growing Threat
When the fighting got too close, the payments to ISIS started to flow.
In mid-2012, local Lafarge executives provided the Syrian partner with a monthly budget of around $100,000. They gave him instructions to act as an intermediary with local groups to ensure safe passage around the factory, Mr. Pescheux told investigators.
The partner, Mr. Tlass, according to the law firm’s review, steered large sums to the Free Syrian Army, which occupied Manbij, where Lafarge had relocated employees. More money flowed to the Kurds, who had worked with the Free Syrian Army and promised military-style protection for the factory, which they considered to be in their territory.
The payoffs didn’t guarantee safety. In autumn, the Kurds kidnapped nine Lafarge employees and transferred them to local militias. Lafarge’s local managers reported the kidnappings to Paris and spent around €200,000 to secure their release, according to the internal inquiry and testimony of former executives.
The troubles worsened in 2013, when the Qaeda affiliate in Syria, the Nusra Front, and other Islamic groups seized Raqqa, a strategic city about 90 kilometers south of the factory. In the ensuing months, a schism within Al Qaeda split the Nusra Front from the Islamic State group, which took control of Raqqa. ISIS began a slow but steady push toward the region around the Lafarge plant.
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