The old sentimentalist and romantic, within me, relentlessly wages war with the lesser known pragmatist and eventually, reluctantly concedes defeat. Even though our separation has barely been a month, my sense of loss is very real heightened especially on my return, to the very location where it all transpired. As I recall, re-enact and relate some of our well worn paths and rituals, as it was then, their stories, presence, the personalities and our time spent together come crowding back as vivid digital images and sound bites.
Even though the physical infrastructure, which once housed the countless personal security detail (PSD) teams, has been systematically cannibalized (hastily added then removed fixtures designed to improve living conditions such as A/Cs) their life force lingers on in every nook and cranny of the Karada compound. Their presence and energy will dissipate over time, no doubt, to be replaced but by then I’ll have consigned this experience to a more permanent and timeless existence in my life and perhaps those of others as well.
I’ve been in awe of our second skin or PSDs since arriving in Iraq many months ago and have decided to try and capture some of the mystique surrounding the profession and the men behind it. Consisting primarily of former UK armed forces personnel who visited Iraq on one or more deployments, as part of the Coalition of the Willing during the 2003 invasion, they’ve become an integral part of our closely-knit work and social life whilst in-country. Hyperbole aside, we are largely dependent upon them for our personal and collective safety and security.
Fortuitously, we just happened to share our compound with a similar group of men and it was this group that became, for me, a source of intense interest and inspiration. They represent a new generation of young South African military men, forged on an anvil of unprecedented social, political and economic change in their homeland, which has carved out a unique niche in a now globally lucrative and competitive security industry. With time, I’ve been able to get behind the facade and their closely guarded seclusion to see and know them for the true, outstanding men that they are. Although this chronicle focuses on them, Iraq has and continues to be a veritable league of nations when it comes to nationalities represented across the various private security companies (PSCs) with all, in my experience, deserving praise for the exceptional work they do under trying circumstances.
The SA boertjies are far from the Rambo-esque, stereotypical characters that taint the profession. Although most are in peak physical condition; model brush-buzz haircuts; range from clean shaven to full blown beards and somewhere in between; clad in combat boots and occasional wrap-around shades they certainly do not sport tattoos, bandanas or an arrogance that exudes, from some of their international counterparts, like a bad odor. Societal misfits, boonies, bosbevok grensvegters, mercs, psychopaths (call them what you may), who seemed to epitomize the soldier of fortune industry of yesteryear, have been replaced by a brotherhood of proud, professional and thoroughly dedicated minders. Even though they tend to blend into the dusty and dour background, their unassuming and charming dispositions are not altogether unnoticed and clients (primarily American and other international development practitioners) and Iraqi nationals are drawn to the aura of irresistibility around them. They don’t do war stories and are generally well read, informed and travelled. The rapport they have with the Iraqi’s is uncanny; most have mastered conversational Arabic and in turn have passed on Afrikaans in its most flamboyant form.
|Baghdad rooftop views|
Once spurned and more importantly, outlawed by the South African government via a plethora of anti-mercenary legislation (Foreign Military Assistance Act of 1998, subsequently reviewed and augmented by the Prohibition of Mercenary Activities and Regulation of Certain Activities in Country of Armed Conflict Act 2006) they have continued to dodge these bureaucratic bullets, all the while, making a name for themselves and a significant contribution to stability, reconstruction and development assistance efforts within Iraq and Afghanistan.
A mercenary (according to the Additional Protocol I of the Geneva Convention - August 1949) is an individual who takes part in an armed conflict, who is not a national or party to the conflict, and is ‘motivated to take part in the aggression essentially by the desire for private gain in the form of considerable material or monetary compensation well in excess of that pledged or paid to combatants of similar ranks and function in the armed forces of that Party.’ Under the Protocol (Article 47. Mercenaries) all criteria (a – f) must be met for a combatant to be described as a mercenary and if the case, will not have any rights as combatant or be eligible for protected prisoner of war status. Tried mercenaries can be treated as common criminals where they may face lengthy imprisonment and may even be summarily executed.
In its strictest interpretation, the legendary French Foreign Legion and the Gurkhas are not mercenaries under the laws of war, since although they meet many of the requirements of Article 47, they are exempt under most its prescriptive clauses. Most countries, including the US do not accept or endorse the most widely accepted definition of a mercenary and the issue remains highly contested internationally especially within military circles. To my mind, former South African Police Service and National Defense operatives working in Iraq, as employees of regulated private security companies (PSCs), can hardly be regarded as mercenaries as they were not recruited specifically for the purpose of fighting in 2nd Gulf War (with or against either of the belligerents) and without exception, hardly ever took part, directly or indirectly, in hostilities. In reality, their role verges on a humanitarian one as non-combatants with the obligation/right to protect their own lives, in self- defense, and those of their clients.
As recent as 2007, the South African government tabled the Prohibition of Mercenary Activities and Regulation of Certain Activities in Country of Armed Conflict Act (Act 26 of 2006) as part of a collaborative effort with the UN Working Group on Mercenaries to strengthen the regulatory framework for private military and security companies exporting their services abroad. Ostensibly, this was also a response to the United States and Britain’s outsourcing of what was originally a national security function creating a global demand and market for PSCs particularly in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Seen from a different perspective, its yet another attempt but a norming incumbent government to flex its muscles; legislate and over-regulate its way around inconsequential issues without the hope of ever being able to deliver upon them; and score further brownie points, with international agencies, for being the first country on the continent to promulgate such groundbreaking transnational legislation. In terms of the Act (Section 7), any person or organization wanting to provide military assistance is required to apply to the South African National Conventional Arms Control Committee (NCACC), yet another bureaucratic hurdle, for authorization to do so. Similarly, South African humanitarian agencies are also required to register with the NCACC . This makes is exceedingly difficult for nationals to export their services overseas, including development assistance and humanitarian services to the UN and other international donors.
Although many, including the South African government, may regard private security companies as re-branded soldiers for hire and a legitimization of the mercenary trade, they are seemingly here to stay. This may be short-lived but with a diversification of services into areas ironically labeled life support, the growth of PSCs has been phenomenal as they increasingly receive tacit support (and funding) from many governments worldwide.
Pertinent and even more revealing questions are: how and why did (according to conservative estimates) between 5000 – 7000 South Africans manage to work in Iraq as members of international PSCs during the period 2003 – 2010? One can only guess how many are currently serving in Afghanistan and elsewhere globally. I’ve previously come across a number of South Africans, working under similar circumstances, in Papua New Guinea providing security and other services to the tele-communications, oil and gas industries respectively. This is far cry from the dark days when South African dogs of war were involved in clandestine military operations or attempted coups d’état in Seychelles (‘Mad Mike’ Hoare – 1981), Papua New Guinea – Bougainville (Sandline International – 1997); Angola and Sierra Leone (Executive Outcomes – 1992 and 1995 respectively); and Equatorial Guinea and Zimbabwe (Logo Logistics – 2004).
With most South Africans currently serving in Iraq born in the early to mid-1970s, they found formal employment in police and military services undergoing prolonged transition and de-militarization as the country celebrated its first democratic election. Many served with distinction for a decade or more, in highly trained and specialized roles, but became increasingly disillusioned as the government’s equal opportunity policies of affirmative action and black economic empowerment began to stifle and frustrate their call to serve. Ironically, many are apolitical, served with elite units and in some cases were even deployed by the South African government, in peace-keeping roles, to African hotspots including Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo. And so it began, as a trickle at first, South Africa’s very own lemming or chicken run; a politically inspired and fuelled brain drain; an exodus of necessity reminiscent of so many years before.
This has been a diaspora with a difference though with most having found a transient home in Iraqi towns and cities; in fortified compounds and US military forward operating bases (FOBs) and central operating bases (COBs); for so many years whilst their families and loved ones remain, in waiting, back in South Africa. Having plied their trade in this multi-national environment, they’ve become exceptional good at it – world class in fact!! At their very core is a strong spiritual doctrine which not only grounds but sustains them. Their old school discipline is impeccable and as they travel this bizarrely familiar journey with the Iraqi’s, they have become something of an international affairs revelation. With patience, empathy, and dashing sense of humor they have become purveyors of peace, hope and tolerance. They‘ve spread immense goodwill and embraced the people and country as their own. As clichéd as it may sound, the South Africans are a huge hit and have won over many an Iraqi heart, no mean feat given the unique situation in this country.
Another busy day at the office for Team 7
The driving force, for many, has been the desire to serve and contribute to something meaningful yet at the same time serve as chief provider to their families. Herein lies the greatest loss for a country like South Africa – so many creative, youthful, energetic and innovative people flung to the furthest reaches of the planet. Rumor abounds as to the astronomical salaries PSDs are reputed to earn – in my view they are worth every dollar and more. The bulk of earnings finds their way back to South Africa and into the mainstream economy yet there is and never will be any recognition of this.
Let’s talk about remuneration commensurate with services rendered and working conditions – consider the following: that these are highly qualified, experienced and mature men in their own right; regularly working in temperatures ranging from minus 16 Celsius to 55 Celsius; working almost every day of the week in excess of 12 hours per day decked out in body armor, side arm and ammunition weighing 15 – 18 kgs; maneuvering or riding shot gun in armored vehicle conveys protecting precious, sometimes cantankerous and obnoxious, human cargoes as they are transported throughout rural and urban Iraq; putting themselves directly in the firing line daily from any number of life threatening situations; endlessly negotiating with Iraqi armed forces – Iraqi Police (IP) and Iraqi Military at countless checkpoints to gain quick and secure access; putting on their best face, day after day, when dealing with clients; leading a divided life characterized by tenuous relationships ……
Let’s get to the why - why are the South African’s so sought after and respected in the work they do? Simply put …. it’s the no nonsense – no dramas can do, will do, have done repeatedly with distinction approach, ’n boer maak ’n plan attitude that they bring to the work they do. In addition to an extraordinary work ethic, they bring a toughness, reliability and resilience to the job that not only inspires their peers but also instills a very important sense of safety and comfort in clients under their protection. Attentive and softly-spoken Archer, PSD Team Leader, summed this up by saying ‘gee ons ’n braai, dop, en tjop en ons is gelukkig’ (give us a barbeque, beer and chop and we’re happy!).
Almost inseparable for the past decade and Iraqi veterans for half that period, Clement and Louis may be the proverbial opposite sides of the same coin yet are articulate, sensitive and brutally honest about each other, their time in-country, the now and aspirations for life after Iraq. Whilst providing me with some unique and privileged insights into their world, the bond and friendship shared between them gives new meaning to the worn-out phrase band of brothers. This phrase though best describes the South Africans here at large and it’s a dynamic that is scary in its intensity and complexity. It works though and they’ve formed a formidable team and social support structure that appears to cater for both the needs of individuals as well as the collective whole. They appear to be largely in-tune with one another - each other’s moods, fears, frustrations and ambitions. Mutual respect for one another appears to be a key ingredient. Clement desires the best for his young family in a troubled country – both cannot see themselves living elsewhere and see self-employment, as entrepreneurs, in South Africa as the only way out. There is a real sense that its time for many of them to move on…… most have served their time and are keen to re-connect with family and loved ones in South Africa as part of a more permanent arrangement.
Others will continue to work in Iraq or perhaps further afield as long as there is a demand for their services. Modern communication especially Skype has made life and maintaining long distance relationships infinitely easier yet many a marriage has perished in the process. Most of the guys are philosophical on this score and there are the exceptions where relationships have stood the test of prolonged separation.
The staging point for daily missions (PSD escorted conveys), in and around Baghdad, still resonates in the pre-dawn with the idling of high performance engines; the dull chunky thud of heavily, armor-reinforced doors; the squelch and static of radios; background banter and sparring between team members, Iraqi nationals and expats alike, as they prepare to go about their daily business. Occasionally, this gentle and reassuring reverie is punctuated by the spontaneous and infectious guffawing of Marius - excitable, enigmatic and larger than life. Many a morning, I awoke to these comforting sounds which were far easier to the ear and psyche than the cocking and clearing of countless AK47 automatic rifle breeches; the hubbub of guards changing shift; near and distant detonations emanating from car bombs or shelling of the International Zone.
As much as I recognize that change is inevitable, I mourn the absence of my countrymen and am somewhat lost without them – the Karada compound has most definitely lost some of its charm, character and soul in the process. My rusty and imperfectly spoken Afrikaans will now fall on deaf ears and our vibrant camaraderie will also fade away. The spaces frequented by them are empty and only echo - the gymnasium … a privileged surrogate - partner, wife or lover, parent that has, so unfairly, received so much of their physical attention and exertion; passion; fear and frustration ……… sharp, deep exhalations of effort; bodies and muscles burdened under unresponsive, hard, cold unyielding metal weights as they toil away at countless reps … weekly, monthly and annually. Vitality and youthfulness – their caresses, longing glances, sighs, energy, passion and perspiration are all so greedily consumed and that are lost, forever, to their loved and deserving ones so very, very far, south.
Rooftop rituals, private and part of the inner sanctum, socials concentrated around smoky, charcoal barbecues or wholesome oxtail stews leisurely and lovingly cooked in 3-legged African cast-iron pots. Measured consumption of alcohol always mindful of missions that have to be undertaken – duty and responsibility to clients and one another. The communal TV lounge where avid sports fanatics and armchair critics congregated to while away many lonely hours - witness sporting events and codes from around the world…. feasting with fervor on rugby …Super 14, Tri-Nations and other international games…..
In the great scheme of things, this was but the briefest of interludes but one that I’ve pondered on long and hard. I still cannot offer up an emphatic answer to the question – What it is to be South African? There is though, the deepest comfort in the knowledge that I share a common history and identity with these men.
Finally, let’s keep the memories alive of all those who made the supreme sacrifice in pursuit of Iraq’s own moving mirage (hopefully some semblance of democracy). In particular, we salute those South African’s unaccounted for as yet another year of separation from loved ones, home and all things African slips away.
On the morning of December 10th, 2006, Andre Durant, Callie Scheepers, Hardus Greeff and Johann Enslin were stopped at a roadblock north of Baghdad and taken hostage by militants masquerading as Iraqi military. The four men were acting as security escorts for a truck laden with food and water when the incident occurred. They remain unaccounted for – we will not forget the Baghdad 4.