Contractors increasingly seek high-paying jobs in Africa as US pulls out from Afghanistan.
*This article was initially published in 2015 in the January 16-29 print issue of Prishtina Insight. To browse seven years of Prishtina Insight online, click here to become a subscriber.
It was barely 4:30am one early July day in 2013 in Afghanistan’s dusty capital, Kabul, and almost everybody was still asleep when a thunderous noise jolted everyone from their beds: a truck packed with explosives had managed to blast through the front gates of Orhan Ismaili’s compound.
“At that moment, I thought I was in a dream,” Ismaili recalled. “When I woke up I heard the sounds, ‘Go out, go out, we’re under attack, we’re under attack, we’re under attack!’”
The attack ended up killing at least eight foreigners and two Afghan civilians. The remaining four armed attackers who entered the compound were soon killed by security personnel, mostly American civilian contractors. Ismaili, 28, survived the assault by Taliban insurgents on his compound, Camp Pinnacle.
He had already become accustomed to attacks elsewhere in Afghanistan, where incoming mortar fire was frequent, but the attack in Kabul was the biggest and most frightening. “I knew this was Afghanistan, a danger zone. Anytime something could happen,” he recalled.
Despite the daily security risks that came with working in a hostile environment like Afghanistan, he was determined to stay on as long as he could.
He is not alone. Ismaili is one of a wave of Kosovars who have gone off to distant and sometimes dangerous lands to work on behalf of the US government and military, mainly in support jobs for the US Army. Many already worked at Camp Bondsteel, which employed more than 6,000 Kosovars at the peak of the US Army’s presence in Kosovo. Located on the outskirts of Ferizaj, it helped sustain the town’s economy.
Many Kosovars working at Bondsteel from the Ferizaj region went on to work with large US contractors like DynCorp International, KBR, Fluor, and AECOM in Afghanistan and Iraq. Most of the work comes under the US Army’s Logistics Civil Augmentation Program IV, LOGCAP, which provides support and logistics for the US troops stationed in Afghanistan, Iraq, and Kuwait and now large swathes of Africa, including the Central African Republic, Uganda, Chad, and Djibouti, which come under US Africa Command.
Most contractors require their employees to sign documents in which they acknowledge the risks associated with working in a hostile environment. Some contracts say that in the event of death, there is no guarantee that the employee’s body will be brought home. Despite these risks, many Kosovars are desperate to go and sign up.
At least one Kosovar contractor, a woman from Ferizaj, was killed in Afghanistan in 2011, while another Kosovar woman was reportedly abducted some years before that but later released. One Kosovar who was also with Ismaili in Kabul returned to Kosovo shortly after the Taliban attack. He was left traumatized by the events and unable to continue living in a war zone.
Hailing from Gjilan, a town in eastern Kosovo that has also sent many Kosovars to Afghanistan over the years, Ismaili was earning around $70,000, (60,000 euros) a year, an unheard-of salary back home, where wages average less than 400 euros per month. He worked as a quality assurance and logistics supervisor for DynCorp under their multimillion dollar Afghan police training program. DynCorp received 69 per cent of State Department funds for reconstruction in Afghanistan, a total of $2.8 billion, making them the top recipient of reconstruction funding.
DynCorp had also implemented a similar program in Kosovo after the war. Ismaili flew on helicopters throughout Afghanistan to inspect DynCorp’s multiple training bases and oversaw their closure after the bases were handed over to the Afghan National Police.
“I was preparing myself [to go home] because all the camps were closing,” Ismaili said. In the end, he was given two weeks’ notice and returned to Gjilan at the end of 2013. He now spends his days checking the websites of various companies for job openings in Afghanistan and elsewhere. “I want to go again to make money and to think of the future,” he said.
Besides the everyday security risks faced in Afghanistan, other hazards exist on military bases. Fatmir Ferati, 47, a plumber from Ferizaj, left Kosovo in November 2006 to work with KBR and then for Fluor in Afghanistan. He stayed on for six years until an accident occurred while working at Bagram Airfield.
“I was waiting in front of the gate in a parking zone, and he just came from behind. He almost killed me,” Ferati said, describing the accident apparently caused by a 20-year-old American soldier driving a forklift. The accident seriously injured his lower spine. In the end, he was forced to come back to Kosovo to deal with lawsuits and start physical therapy. “I never was thinking about leaving Afghanistan,” he said.
Others still working in Afghanistan hope they can stay as long as they can. Ylber Sahiti became a taxi driver in his hometown of Ferizaj shortly after returning to Kosovo in 1999 as a refugee from Austria. He acquired a steady stream of clients but it was not enough to support a growing family. In the summer of 2012, he sold his car for 800 euros. He didn’t need it any longer as he was preparing to leave for Afghanistan.
Sahiti, 47, is confined to Bagram Airfield, the largest US base in Afghanistan, set against the towering Hindu Kush mountains, about 40 kilometers north of the capital. Sahiti works seven-day weeks as a mechanic in a garage repairing armored MaxxPro Mine Resistant Ambush Protected (MRAP) vehicles and other military trucks. He works with ten other men, six of whom are Kosovars, all from Ferizaj.
It is estimated that contractors like AECOM and Fluor have employed more than 8,000 Kosovars since the beginning of the war in Afghanistan. They bring in 50 to 55 million euros annually, according to a 2011 report prepared by the GAP Institute for Advanced Studies, a think tank in Pristina.
But, as the drawdown of US troops continues in Afghanistan, the number of people losing their jobs rises. Sahiti, whose American friends at the base call him “Rainbow” – the English translation of his Albanian name – is aware that this year, many soldiers will be going home. “They finished the job here,” he said.
On December 28, 2014 President Barack Obama announced the official end of America’s longest war and introduced its new mission in Afghanistan, Resolute Support, a NATO-led mission that will consist more than 12,500 troops whose main goal will be to advise and train the Afghan security forces. Most of the troops will be stationed at Bagram as most of the other bases have been handed over to the Afghan security forces.
In the last few weeks alone, Sahiti said that around six people had been sent back to Kosovo from Bagram. Around the same time, another 15 people were notified that they would be laid off in one month’s time, including 10 Indians and five Kosovars.
Non-American contractors, also known as “Third Country Nationals,” TCNs, say they are paid significantly less than their American counterparts, and that the terms of their employment contracts can be easily violated. “For those of us from Kosovo and India, it’s not important whether you sign a contract or not,” Sahiti noted in a Skype interview from Bagram.
He is worried about his own job security and hopes that he can stay on in Afghanistan until at least next July, but nothing is certain on these contracts, he said.
Sahiti has a large family to support, including six children aged five to 19. He said one can earn up to ten times more in Afghanistan than back at home. He is already planning to go back to Afghanistan, or even Iraq, if he is sent home before his contract ends. “I will go again if I can. One year, two years,” he said.
Sahiti may be compelled to join his countrymen looking for new opportunities in a new and unfamiliar territory, Africa, which has a growing US military presence.
LOGCAP has now extended operations there. Fluor, the same company that operated out of Camp Bondsteel, Afghanistan and Iraq, has multiple projects across West Africa, supporting US Africa Command’s mission to “protect American interests and strengthen Africa’s defense capabilities in the region,” according to a Fluor press release. Tasks now include humanitarian work dealing with the Ebola outbreak.
“The people that we’ve recruited there [in Kosovo] had a good background in the kind of contracting work that we do for the US Army,” said a spokesperson for Texas-based Fluor, about plans to continue hiring Kosovars and other people from the Balkans for new projects in Africa. “We had this new opportunity and that’s why we did the recruiting for the West African work.”
Valmir Gashi, 27, has worked at various bases in Kandahar, in southern Afghanistan, since 2010. Currently employed by Ecolog as a warehouse supervisor at Kandahar Airfield, one of the few remaining US military bases in Afghanistan, he is also wondering how long he will be able to stay. “The projects are going down, people are being released from their contracts,” he said in an interview in Ferizaj during a recent trip back home in December.
His manager told him they will start to demobilize people from Kandahar and is recommending sending him to the Central African Republic, CAR, to do the same job. Gashi is certain that he will go to CAR once the work dries up in Afghanistan. He plans on going straight to CAR from Afghanistan in a few months, despite the risks of working in a fragile country that has experienced civil war during the last year. The salary will be better for him there, as he will be paid in euros, he remarked.
If all works out for Gashi, he will join a growing flow of Kosovars trying to make their way to the African continent. One is Adnan Dermaku. Speaking from inside a tent in Gbediah, a remote town in Liberia, he recalls his 15-year odyssey working with Americans, from being a security guard at Camp Monteith in 1999 to a translator with UNIMIK, a stint at Camp Bondsteel, a three-year tour with Fluor in Afghanistan and two separate assignments in Iraq, the last ending in December 2014.
“For 15 years, all my meals for my kids and our income is from America. In one word, America kept us alive,” his wife, Lira, said, describing her husband’s continuous work with American companies.
However, the duration of Dermaku’s contracts was never guaranteed as the US started to pull out its troops from Afghanistan. “We knew that one day we would go home because of the downsizing of the troops,” he said. When he came back to Kosovo in 2013, he was eager to go back abroad because of the deteriorating economy in Kosovo. He found a job as a waiter, earning around 200 euros a month. But that was not enough.
“If I live with five, six, seven members of my family, it’s not so easy with 200, 300, or 500 euros, so we have to think about the next mission, the next thing, the next steps to get something more and more and more,” Dermaku, 41, said.
After nine months in Gjilan, he applied for a job with Ecolog in Iraq. It would be his second time in Iraq, after spending 2006-2008 in Baghdad with KBR, the same contractor that was operating out of Camp Bondsteel. When the opportunity to work in West Africa opened up, which his wife found for him, he grabbed it.
“Compared to the rockets in Iraq and Afghanistan, it’s better here,” he said of his new life in Liberia, where he works on a USAID-funded project to fight Ebola. “I don’t want to put myself at risk,” he said, when asked about the risk of getting Ebola. He maintains that he keeps safe and takes daily precautions, such as not touching colleagues’ hands and taking daily temperature checks, monitored by the project’s international medical staff.
As the economic situation in Kosovo remains dire, others are hoping to follow Dermaku on the trail to Africa, or to another war zone.
“Kosovars are looking for similar opportunities to work in the Middle East, in Syria, or in other countries, as they are willing to go there just to find a job,” said Agron Demi, executive director of the GAP Institute for Advanced Studies in Pristina, the same organization that conducted the 2011 report on remittances from Afghanistan and Iraq.
Ilir Marveci, 34, spent two years in Bondsteel before going to Iraq for five years and Afghanistan for two years. He recalls how contractors like KBR were recruiting Kosovars to go to Iraq back in 2005. Marveci was among the last group of international staff to stay in Iraq until the end of that mission in 2011. He remembers seeing thousands of people waiting in line at the airport during the final days of the US presence.
With the savings he accumulated abroad, he was able to buy an apartment and a shop in Ferizaj, spending close to $200,000. He and his family now live off his savings and the rent from the shop, earning about 400 euros a month. But he needs more money.
“I’m trying to go back, if I can go back … somewhere, Afghanistan, or Africa or wherever,” he said, adding: “Everybody is talking about it [Africa].” He’s already applied for a few jobs in Senegal with Fluor, and like many others, is waiting for a call back.
With the economy in Kosovo looking unpromising, jobless Kosovars understand that they will have difficulty in finding work in Western Europe, which is why they are willing to go to Africa or the Middle East if they can find the way, with America’s help.
According to Demi, many Kosovars “are just asking if the US will go to Syria or to Libya or other countries, and if there will be the same work that they did in Afghanistan or Iraq.”