Why 10,000 Ugandans are eagerly serving in Iraq
Thousands of men and women from poverty-stricken Uganda risk their lives for $600 a month in Iraq.
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Paul Mugabe is back in Uganda for a month. For the past year, the sinewy, nervous young man has been guarding the American Camp Diamondback at the airport in the northern Iraqi town of Mosul, and soon he will be heading to Baghdad.Skip to next paragraph
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With the money he's earned during those 12 months, back in his village Mugabe has built himself two houses, bought a bar, and increased the herd of cows his father left him to 30.
"You should see the size of my banana plantation," he smiles. When he returns from another year in Iraq, he should have saved enough money to cover a wedding and the traditional bride price needed to find a pretty wife, he says.
But despite his nascent business empire and hopes of love, the fact that he is putting his life on the line to help US companies make massive profits is not lost on him. "If I am earning $600 a month and these companies are making billions, it is not fair," he says.
For Uganda, however, another country's war on a continent far away has proved to be lucrative. "The Iraq opportunity brings in about $90 million dollars, whereas our chief export, which is coffee, brings in around $60 or $70 million a year," says the former state minister for labor, employment, and industrial relations, Mwesigwa Rukutana, now minister of higher education. That figure is mostly made up of remittances.
But domestic criticism has been fierce, with some equating the system to human trafficking or slavery. Reports of abuse, ranging from poor conditions and changeable contracts to sexual assault, have appeared in the media.
"Unlike in the past when there was the slave trade, no company comes here and recruits anyone against their wishes. It is willing worker, willing employer," Mr. Rukutana says. "If anyone thinks the conditions there are bad or that he is going to be exploited, no one is compelling him to go." Rukutana says that only one Ugandan has been killed in Iraq, while others say more have died.
If anyone understands some of the hardships of working in Iraq and the industry it's spawned, then it is Moses Matsiko. Mr. Matsiko has spent nearly four years working for a US firm in Afghanistan and Iraq. In late 2006, a convoy he was escorting through the town of Fallujah was ambushed. He was shot seven times but survived. Two American colleagues he was with were killed.
But far from shy away from the dangers of Iraq, Matsiko has embraced its opportunities. In 2007, he started his own company to train and send guards to Iraq and now has over 1,200 in the country.
"My experience in Iraq is that despite having been shot seven times, it is very great," he says. President Obama's withdrawal plans have cast a shadow of doubt over his future business plans. But that has just forced Matsiko to start looking opportunities elsewhere.
"If all goes well, then I hope to be sending people to Afghanistan in the near future," he smiles.