Casualties of S. Africa's silent war in Iraq

Chicago Tribune

pretoria, south africa -- Andre Durant, a policeman from this leafy African capital, was kidnapped more than nine months ago by unidentified gunmen in Iraq. Apart from one brief phone call, in which Durant managed to shout a strangled "I love you" to his wife, he hasn't been heard from since.

There are no yellow ribbons trimming Durant's quiet suburban Pretoria house. There has been no drumbeat of sympathetic news coverage about his case. Durant's family, like the families of three other South Africans who were snatched with him in a Baghdad ambush in December, has maintained an anguished and puzzling silence for the better part of a year.

And in that hush lies a clue to this nation's murky and angst-ridden participation in America's military adventure in the Middle East: Durant is just one of thousands of South African police officers and soldiers, most of them white veterans of the old apartheid regime, who have left their jobs to work as private security contractors in Iraq -- a semi-clandestine exodus of hired guns that has alternately embarrassed and alarmed the pacifist government here.

"Maybe in the States soldiers' wives can talk about these things to ease their loss," said Lourika Durant, who has kept a low profile for months not only to safeguard negotiations for her husband's release, but because of the stigma attached to operatives who freelance in a war that is deeply unpopular in South Africa. "Here we must suffer alone, without making waves."

The Sept. 16 killings of as many as 17 Iraqi civilians by guards employed by Blackwater USA has rekindled debate in the United States over the propriety of outsourcing security responsibilities in Iraq to scores of private security companies. But the acrimony in America can't begin to match the political hand-wringing that surrounds the issue in South Africa.

Sensitive to its apartheid-era reputation for exporting soldiers of fortune to wars across Africa, the young, black-led government in Pretoria recently drafted an anti-mercenary bill that would criminalize virtually all of its citizens working in Iraq.

And as the war grinds into its fifth year, there is growing concern that Iraq's drain on skilled police and military personnel may be crippling the nation's elite security services. Local media reports warn that tactical police units in major cities are being thinned by the stampede of officers to Baghdad. And a former South African military officer who runs his own security company says that most of the nation's best special-forces trainers are on the U.S. contracting payroll in Iraq.

Meanwhile, South Africa's national police force has begun offering its most experienced staff monthly bonuses of about $900, in part to staunch the flight of talent.

"We don't deny that there has been an exodus," police spokesman Selby Bokaba said. "We simply can't compete with the obscene salaries that our officers are being offered in Iraq."

Wages for private contractors who work as bodyguards, convoy escorts and oil-field security workers in Iraq average $10,000 a month -- more than 10 times the pay of a South African army or police captain.

The number of South Africans who have signed up for such hazardous duty is not known. The Foreign Affairs Ministry estimates 10,000, but industry experts and U.S. contracting firms say it's more like 2,000 to 3,000. Still, even the lower estimate would make South Africans the third-largest contingent of armed foreigners deployed to battle the insurgency in Iraq -- behind Washington's closest military ally, Britain, with 5,000 troops.

A Blackwater spokeswoman, Anne Tyrrell, said that no South Africans were currently employed by her company in Iraq. She said the company's main contract, guarding State Department officials, requires a U.S. security clearance. Industry sources said most of South Africa's guns for hire rent their services to British companies, or to U.S. companies with strong South African ties, such as OSSI-Safenet or Reed Inc.

Their presence in Iraq isn't new. South Africans armed with submachine guns were guarding Washington's first proconsul, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, within days of Saddam Hussein's fall. About 27 to 30 of its citizens have died in Iraq so far, the South African government says.

"The Americans like us because we're well-trained and used to working in rustic conditions," said Alex de Witt, who spent 18 months in Iraq protecting construction sites run by KBR, the U.S. engineering giant. "But there's a political cost to going: The government here doesn't like it."

The root of that distrust dates back to the mid-1990s, when thousands of white officers abandoned South Africa's security agencies during the transition from apartheid to majority black rule. Many unemployed soldiers and police joined private security companies that became embroiled in African wars from Angola to Sierra Leone.

In 2004, more than 60 South Africans -- in this case mostly black veterans of a covert unit that once fought in the apartheid government's border wars -- were arrested on suspicion of plotting to invade oil-rich Equatorial Guinea. That incident prompted one exasperated South African minister to label her country "a cesspool of mercenaries." Parliament tightened existing anti-mercenary rules to make it all but impossible for South Africans to work in conflict zones overseas. The new bill has been awaiting President Thabo Mbeki's signature for months.

"It may never be signed into law because it will be challenged in court," said Sabelo Gumedze, a military analyst at the Institute for Security Studies, a Pretoria think tank. "Its definition of mercenary is so broad that even private humanitarian groups working in war zones would be affected."

Still, the mere threat of a tough new law has driven South Africa's community of Iraq contractors further underground. While Fiji, Nepal, Colombia and other nations supply large contingents of guards to the U.S. war effort somewhat openly, gaining access to South Africa's army of private soldiers can seem like infiltrating a secret fraternity.

"I've got a letter of commendation from Gen. Petraeus," said Hendrik, 33, an ex-policeman. He was referring to praise from the senior U.S. commander in Iraq, Gen. David H. Petraeus, for his work training Iraqi police. "I'm probably the only South African with one, but that's not something you talk about in South Africa." Like most contractors who agreed to be interviewed for this article, he asked that his full name not be used for fear of future legal repercussions under the anti-mercenary act.

However, that silence is cracking with the case of the Baghdad Four -- Durant and the other three South Africans -- who were abducted while escorting a food convoy through a phony Iraqi police checkpoint north of Baghdad. Desperation has driven the four families to speak out about their isolation.

"I didn't even know what Shiites and Sunnis were," said Durant's wife, Lourika, 36. "I think South Africans should think very hard before going there. I don't care what they earn. It really isn't worth it."

She said her 6-year-old son, Xandre, had recently packed a bag and announced he was going to Iraq to look for his father.

"We need a support network in South Africa because we're on our own," said Daniel Brink, 38, who worked as a bodyguard for the U.S. security company DynCorp International.

"Our guys have no way to deal with the bossies" -- the Afrikaans' term for post-traumatic stress disorder -- he said. "When I first saw my wife, I told her to leave me. I didn't even want her to see me."

A bluff man who uses a wheelchair, Brink lost a leg and most of his fingers in 2005 to a mine that exploded under his armored vehicle in Baqubah. Since returning to South Africa, he has been trying to encourage his wounded colleagues to apply for workers' compensation under the U.S. Defense Base Act, which applies to all workers -- American or foreign -- who are subcontracted in war zones by Washington.

As Brink met one recent afternoon with another ex-contractor in suburban Pretoria, a scene unfolded that could happen only in South Africa.

The house's resident, Deon Gouws, 45, was a former police sergeant who had received an amnesty under South Africa's famous Truth and Reconciliation Commission for assassinations and other human-rights abuses he committed under the apartheid regime.

Now he was one of the few public voices warning his countrymen about the dangers of Iraq. Gouws' right arm, left eye and toes were blown away by a suicide bomber who drove an explosives-packed ambulance into his Baghdad hotel. Brink was advising him on how to file for U.S. workers' compensation.

"I'll buy a farm if I can collect on my claim," said Gouws, who has survived a mugger's bullet and a train collision since returning to South Africa. "But I don't recommend this method of getting a farm to anyone else."

There may be little need.

According to security-industry experts, the golden era of freelance work in Iraq may wane as Iraqi companies push to take over the business in the wake of the Blackwater shootings and as the United States gets ready to draw down its troops.

Still, as several South African contractors said, there is always Afghanistan.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
57°