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[Dehai-WN] MondeDiplo.com: Slaves to the private military in Iraq-Cheap help from Uganda

From: Berhane Habtemariam <Berhane.Habtemariam_at_gmx.de_at_dehai.org>
Date: Wed, 16 May 2012 23:30:53 +0200

Slaves to the private military in Iraq-Cheap help from Uganda

May 2012

Private security firms won lucrative contracts to supply support staff and
security guards to back up US forces in Iraq. They recruited Ugandans and
pushed them to the limit, on low pay and no benefits

by Alain Vicky

"I realised immediately that I'd just made the worst mistake in my life. But
it was too late. I'd signed up for a year. I had to take it like a man,"
said Bernard ( <http://mondediplo.com/2012/05/05uganda#nb1> 1), a young
Ugandan who worked for an American private military company (PMC) operating
in Iraq. He was part of the "invisible army" (
<http://mondediplo.com/2012/05/05uganda#nb2> 2) recruited by the US to
support its war effort. Bernard returned to Uganda last year. He is ill, but
has been denied the welfare and healthcare benefits promised in his

White recruits - from the US, Israel, South Africa, the UK, France and
Serbia - hired by PMCs that have won contracts with the Pentagon (worth
$120bn since 2003) have received substantial pay, often more than $10,000 a
month; "third country nationals" (TCNs) like Bernard have been treated badly
and their rights as employees have been abused. Some, sent home after being
wounded, get no help from their former employers.

In June 2008, when the US began its withdrawal from Iraq, there were 70,167
TCNs to 153,300 regular US military personnel; in late 2010 there were still
40,776 TCNs to 47,305 regulars. TCNs (men and women) were recruited in the
countries of the South to work on the 25 US military bases in Iraq,
including Camp Liberty, an "American small town" built near Baghdad, which
at its peak had a population of over 100,000. They made up 59% of the "basic
needs" workforce, handling catering, cleaning, electrical and building
maintenance, fast food, and even beauty services for female military

Some, especially African recruits, were assigned to security duties, paired
up with regular troops: 15% of the static security personnel (guarding base
entrances and perimeters) hired by the PMCs on behalf of the Pentagon were
Sub-Saharans. Among these low-cost guards, Ugandans were a majority,
numbering maybe 20,000. They were sometimes used to keep their colleagues in
line: in May 2010 they quelled a riot at Camp Liberty by a thousand TCNs
from the Indian subcontinent.

The high ratio of Ugandans was due to the political situation in central
Africa in the early 2000s. In western Uganda the war in the Great Lakes
region was officially over. In northern Uganda the Lord's Resistance Army
rebels had been brought under control. In neighbouring Sudan the civil war
was over, opening up the way to independence for the south (
<http://mondediplo.com/2012/05/05uganda#nb3> 3). More than 60,000 Ugandan
troops were demobilised; Iraq seemed like an opportunity. The Ugandan
government, a key ally of the US in central Africa, was one of the few to
support the Bush administration when the Iraq war began in 2003. US and
Ugandan armed forces have collaborated since the mid-1980s. Ugandan
journalist and blogger Angelo Izama (
<http://mondediplo.com/2012/05/05uganda#nb4> 4) told me that in 2005 the US
needed more paramilitary security - "They were looking for reliable labour
from English-speaking countries, veteran labour" - and turned to Uganda.

Veterans can be trouble

Norbert Mao ( <http://mondediplo.com/2012/05/05uganda#nb5> 5), an
unsuccessful candidate for Uganda's Democratic Party in the 2011
presidential elections, believes there was another motive for sending
Ugandans to Iraq: "When veterans . are idle, they can be a source of
problems. So Iraq was a way of exporting idle veterans. The government saw
it as a way of mopping up." Companies founded by former US military
personnel linked up with others founded by former high-ranking officers of
the Ugandan armed forces.

Kellen Kayonga - sister-in-law of one of the best-known security company
directors in Uganda, General Salim Saleh, who is a younger brother of
President Yoweri Museveni - founded Askar Security Services. Since 2005
Askar has recruited manpower on behalf of Special Operations Consulting
(SOC, now renamed SOC-SMG), a Nevada-based company founded by two former US
officers. Askar's main competition in Uganda - the Pakistani company Dreshak
International - opened a branch in Kampala the same year and began working
for another US-based PMC operating in Iraq, EODT. (Since 2006 a dozen more
"conflict entrepreneurs" have set up operations in Uganda.) In poorer areas
of Kampala, Iraq was seen as the new frontier for kyeyos (migrant workers).
A former combatant who signed up with these firms could earn up to $1,300 a
month, well above the average in Kampala's flourishing security and civilian
protection sector.

In 2007 more than 3,000 Ugandans were deployed to Iraq. In 2008 they
numbered 10,000. Most were employed by American PMCs such as Torres,
DynCorp, Triple Canopy, Sabre and SOC. "Then," said Izama, "it degenerated
into a price war." Pay started to fall. "It was an unregulated sector here,
so if you had political connections you could muscle your way [into] a
business like this. But the essential reason for the under-pricing was that
. recruitment was [no longer aimed just at] veterans. Anyone could go [to
Iraq]." Another pretext for cutting pay was competition from workers
recruited in Kenya and Sierra Leone. Uganda's labour ministry failed to
intervene. In 2009 average pay fell below $700. Meanwhile, Sabre was getting
$1,700 from the US government for every Ugandan guard recruited. Askar was
paid $420,000 dollars for sending 264 guards to Iraq for Beowulf
International, another PMC.

The Ugandan press uncovered the first cases of exploitation of kyeyos in
2008, but the government merely strengthened the position of the more
powerful companies - and those closest to Museveni - by a limited clean-up

"Going to Iraq is like a drowning man grasping at a crocodile. He thinks it
will save him from drowning," said Mao. In autumn 2011 kyeyo pay in Iraq
fell to $400 a month for a 12-hour day and a six-day week. All the men and
women I met had been sent to Iraq in or after December 2009. Most were
originally from the countryside and had previously worked for security
companies in Kampala. Two had studied at Makerere University. They found it
difficult to talk about what they had been through, and their testimonies
were interrupted by long embarrassed silences.

Start of the journey

Their story began at Dreshak's Uganda branch in central Kampala. For two
months, they underwent military training designed to test their aptitudes.
During this time they were not paid; the company only provided meals. At the
end of training, Dreshak asked them to go home and wait to be recalled. Some
waited for three months. The day they were finally summoned was the point of
no return. A former recruit said: "We had no other option. All the time we
were waiting, we were spending money without earning any. Some of us had
even sold all our belongings, except for the chairs. We had no option but to
sign. Under those conditions, they could make us accept anything." The
contract they were shown at this point was 11 pages long. They were given 15
minutes to read it and initial each page.

That day, the recruits also discovered the name of their final employer -
SOC. Bernard remembered hesitating before signing: "I was working for the
internet department of a company and when I saw the pay SOC were offering I
really wondered if it was worth it. It was only 300,000 shillings (around
$117) more a month." On the insistence of his friends, and after a number of
phone calls from an "American manager", Bernard eventually decided to go.
Two days and a seven-hour flight later, he landed in Baghdad.

Three-quarters of an hour by helicopter from Baghdad, the Al-Assad airbase
was a little piece of America in the middle of Iraq. The SOC unit the kyeyos
were joining was made up of around 800 Ugandans, commanded by a few Ugandan
expatriates who took their orders from US superiors. After another month of
training, again unpaid, the new recruits discovered Iraq's dust storms and
freezing winter nights. They had to wait several months for the equipment
SOC had promised. The gloves they needed for the cold nights only arrived at
the end of the winter. Some had to buy their own dust masks at the PX (base
store), $25 out of their meagre pay. Even the military equipment they were
issued with was not regulation: AK 47, cartridge belt, helmet and
bulletproof vest, all second-hand - the kyeyos joked that they were Chinese.
They carried a heavier load, but were less well protected than the regulars
from snipers, who could hit the mark at a range of several hundred metres:
among their duties was checking the 500 vehicles entering the compound each

Termination of services

As the weeks went by, they discovered that the enemy could also be within
their own unit: their bosses worked them far harder than was allowed in
their contract, pushing them beyond the limits of their physical endurance.
Some worked 15 hours a day. Holidays (unpaid) in Uganda, which they had been
promised after 12 months on tour, were repeatedly postponed. A number of
former TCNs told me they had lived under constant pressure, terrified, even
at night: "You couldn't say anything. They had the power of life and death
over you; they could send you wherever they liked - to the most dangerous
posts if they thought you were a troublemaker."

SOC had the perfect way to control recalcitrant TCNs: terminating their
contract without severance pay and shipping them home. A contract I obtained
from SOC lists 21 kinds of unacceptable behaviour that will result in
disciplinary measures. In this document, "termination of services" is the
last resort after a series of other measures, ranging from a written warning
to suspension for five days without pay. On the ground, the reality was far
harsher. In the contract, SOC reserves the right to "take other disciplinary
action on other violations of orders or policy that may not be listed". A
former recruit told me: "You would get a warning letter ... because you
hadn't been wearing your helmet off duty, and they would stop your pay for
two weeks. And you still had to work. We were scared of losing our jobs, so
we kept our mouths shut." The code of conduct section of the contract
requires the employee to "uphold the ideals of the Republic of Uganda" and
"refrain from tarnishing the image of Uganda abroad".

The SOC contract also provides for "termination of services" if the employee
is unable to work, owing to illness, injury or accident, for 30 days or more
in any four-month period. Bernard was privileged because he worked in SOC's
offices, but saw dozens of his countrymen fired for arbitrarily assessed
health problems. "During the long dust storms," he said, "they used to
develop ear infections or sinusitis. They had eye problems, even lung
problems. When they asked for treatment, all they got was aspirin. And when
they came back because it didn't cure them, they would be fired. SOC just
didn't want to have to pay any kind of medical expenses. As they used to
tell us, they were there to make money."

Last summer Bernard began to have pains in his knee. An SOC "doctor" gave
him a corticosteroid, which made things worse. The skin on his face began to
peel: "I saw another doctor, or so-called doctor, who started looking for
information on Google!" A few weeks later, Bernard's contract was
terminated. He spent 20 days in transit, left to his own devices at a camp
in Baghdad, before finally managing to get on a chartered flight to Kampala.
That was last autumn, just 10 days before I met him. Bernard had not yet
been to see his mother, fearing she would be upset at the state of his face.
But he had been to see the family doctor: "I told him what they had
prescribed. He said it was the worst mistake they could have made and told
me I would have to fight to regain my health. He made me a list of drugs.
It's the biggest expense I've ever faced: over 300,000 shillings. I
desperately need money to continue the treatment, but Dreshak don't want to
know. And I've heard nothing from SOC."

Like all foreign nationals working for PMCs under contract to the Pentagon,
sick or wounded Ugandans repatriated from Iraq are, in principle, covered by
the Defense Base Act, which guarantees that their employer's insurer will
reimburse their medical expenses. It also provides for disability pay for
the most unfortunate. "But, all too often, the Ugandans do not receive the
medical care and disability that they are supposed to," American lawyer Tara
K Coughlin told me.

Taking on the insurers

A couple of years ago, Coughlin, a member of a Christian organisation
supporting US soldiers in Iraq, discovered that Ugandans were working
alongside "our boys". Using her own money - her clients can't afford the
medical examinations they need to put together a dossier to support their
claim - she has taken the cases of 30 former kyeyos who came back sick or
injured from Iraq to the US Department of Labour. They include Ugandan women
suffering from musculoskeletal problems caused by excessively heavy
equipment. Coughlin has filed complaints against EODT, SOC, Sabre and Triple
Canopy, and their insurers, including the giant American International Group
(AIG). Ultimately, she stressed, it is the insurance companies that deny
medical care and compensation to the Ugandans.

Coughlin has already visited Uganda twice. She has to work discreetly and
delicately. First, with the help of a former kyeyo also returned from Iraq,
she seeks out victims: "One problem is that many of the injured Ugandans who
come home to Uganda cannot afford to live in Kampala or other large cities,
so they go back to their villages without knowing how to get help [from the
US legal system]. . My estimate is that there are several hundred Ugandans
at least who have been wounded. And that estimate could be conservative."
Then, she has to overcome their suspicion and the embarrassment they feel in
talking to a white female foreigner. Many of her clients were pressured not
to report their injuries. "I had one client who was injured and his
contractor boss threatened to send him home to Uganda in a 'body bag' if he
reported his injury." And when they received medical care in Iraq, their
medical records were often confiscated by their bosses before they were
allowed to return to Uganda. Coughlin and her clients have to start again
from scratch. They have to work quickly too: kyeyos returning from Iraq have
just 12 months to file a complaint.

Coughlin also has to fight the mighty machine the insurance companies have
deployed, reaching all the way to Uganda. AIG uses investigators, such as
the Maltese company Tangiers International, to contest claims. According to
Coughlin, some investigators have extremely questionable ethics. Another
investigative company contacted one of her clients and tried to take him to
their own physician for a second opinion. Another client has been physically
unable to work since he returned from Iraq - he received a mysterious call
offering him a job, just to see if he would accept it. Given the scarcity of
medical specialists in Uganda, Coughlin is concerned that she will one day
run into a doctor who is in the pay of the insurance companies. Countering
the investigators, she said, is one of the most difficult aspects of her

Uganda's labour ministry estimates that the men and women sent to Iraq since
2005 should have been able to send over $90m home to their families. This is
more than Uganda makes from coffee, its principal export. Having, in many
cases, spent more than a year in the Middle East, the men I met had on
average saved the equivalent of less than $1,300. Their pay, in Ugandan
shillings, frozen in accounts at Crane Bank in Kampala until their return,
has been steadily eaten away by exchange rate losses, and by inflation,
which hit Uganda hard while they were away (over 40% in 2011). "Dreshak
recruited us, sold us to SOC and pocketed the proceeds. What we got at the
end of the day was peanuts. Basically, what we experienced was modern-day

The Commission on Wartime Contracting's report to the US Congress in August
2011 states that "abuses in contingency contracting undermine the United
States' reputation abroad" and takes the view that "as troop numbers
decline, the number of contractors may increase, at least in the short term,
for it may be many years - if ever - before the United States fully
withdraws from operations in Iraq and Afghanistan" (
<http://mondediplo.com/2012/05/05uganda#nb6> 6). The "market for force" (
<http://mondediplo.com/2012/05/05uganda#nb7> 7) is not likely to dry up in
the near future. To protect the 16,000 employees of the US embassy in Iraq,
the Department of State has hired eight American PMCs, at a cost of $10bn,
to recruit an army of 5,500 "contractors". Triple Canopy will protect the
diplomats while SOC will provide static security for five years, for $973m.
Askar is now also operating on the Afghan market. Its director Kellen
Kayonga says more kyeyos will probably be recruited. The Iraq returnees
believe that, from Baghdad to Kabul, and tomorrow maybe to Mogadishu, there
will always be Ugandans ready to join this "black force ... because of
inflation, because of education costs, which are rising, because of the cost
of food, which is soaring. It's not that we like it, but we need to make a


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