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KAI RYSSDAL: In Iraq today, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki gave Shiite insurgents in the southern city of Basra 72 hours to stop the violence. The New York Times says 40 people have died and 200 have been wounded in fighting in Basra and Baghdad that started yesterday. It’s not clear if any of those casualties are civilian contractors, but the death toll for them is rising. Last year, the number of civilian contractors killed in Iraq rose 17 percent. Not all of them were American. Private security firms are increasingly using third-country nationals to support the war.
Gretchen Wilson reports from Namibia.
GRETCHEN WILSON: Namibia’s war for independence ended 20 years ago, but Alex Kamwi still likes to dress up in fatigues and recall his years as a battalion commander.
ALEX KAMWI: The comrades have been shot. I have to pick the gun and try to see how I can move that colleague.
Kamwi’s the head of Namibia Ex-Freedom Fighters and War Veterans Association. He says former soldiers in Namibia have few marketable skills.
KAMWI: Our economic situation as veterans, it’s very, very poor.
So when an American private security company put “help wanted” ads in local papers last September, hundreds of Namibians lined up. The job? Non-combat security guards to work in Iraq and Afghanistan.
KAMWI: They were really rushing in large numbers to get job, because they are suffering.
The U.S. Defense Department says 30 percent of contract personnel in Iraq are so-called “third-country nationals,” brought in to support U.S.-led efforts. They guard convoys, bridges and pipelines. Doug Brooks heads the International Peace Operations Association, a trade group for private security companies. He says Africans have valuable experience of conflict.
DOUG BROOKS: So they have some knowledge about risk mitigation, what is risky in a war zone, and most people in the world don’t know what this is. People in Africa do, and they have this amazing amount of experience they bring to their jobs.
Of course there’s another reason U.S. contractors like hiring Africans.
BROOKS: They tend to be much cheaper than Americans or Westerners, and maybe by a factor of five or six. You know, should the U.S. government only hire Americans to do these sorts of jobs, the cost would be just insane.
But what’s cheap for Western firms is gravy in Africa. In Namibia, some war-zone jobs pay $600 a month. That’s 10 times what a local security guard can earn.
BROOKS: Which is a lot of money for them. Now they’re willing to take a certain degree of risk to earn that money, and for them it can mean the survival of their families, and so as long as they have a choice, if they’re allowed to do this kind of work, you’ll get a lot of people willing to do it.
PHIL YA NANGOLOH: What is really the choice when somebody is poor and is trapped in this poverty? What choice do they have or can make?
Phil ya Nangoloh heads National Society for Human Rights in Namibia’s capital, Windhoek. He says recruiting companies can exploit the desperately poor and uneducated.
YA NANGOLOH: Some of them do not have even have access to newspapers or television to know what is going on there with the suicide bombers. They are not aware of this.
Suicide bombers aren’t the only potential hazard for third-country nationals. Africans also risk labor and other rights abuses. Amnesty International reports companies have taken away passports or delivered new hires to unexpected locations. Concerns about abuse by these companies boiled over in Namibia in September, when a Nevada-based private security firm called SOC-SMG started recruiting. Namibians need jobs, but when news spread about the risks they’d face in Iraq, there was public outcry. In October, Namibia kicked the company’s officials out of the country. Former soldier Alex Kamwi worked as a consultant for SOC-SMG before the blow up, but as the father of 10 started to learn more about Iraq, he started to question the company.
KAMWI: Are you sure these people will come back safe? And that question which was worrying me was also worrying government, was also worrying anyone in this country.
SOC-SMG wouldn’t speak to Marketplace for this story, but in an e-mail it said it had been in Namibia with the approval of the government and the U.S. embassy, and it intended to comply with local laws. In November, South Africa became the first African country to effectively block all such recruitment, but today, U.S. companies are looking for new hires in many African countries such as Angola, Uganda and Mozambique.
In Windhoek, Namibia, I’m Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.