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The new surge: Ugandan guards in Iraq

Sample Imageby Alexis Okeowo*

Not quite as good as a winning lottery ticket, but better than a middle-class job for thousands of Ugandan men: deployment to Iraq.
On a sunny, damp morning, dozens of young men loaded with gear lined up in perfect military formation, eager to return to service.
The recruits are some of the more than 6,000 Ugandans who have been employed as security guards for American military bases, hospitals, airports, bridges and road checkpoints in Iraq since 2005.
The contingent in Iraq is the largest armed group of Ugandans abroad.
One of the returnees, Milton Kambula, has a short to-do list while on holiday in Uganda: visit family, look into possible business opportunities, and renew his contract for the third time to work as a guard in Iraq.
I was born a solider and I knew there was money to be made, too," Kambula, 26, said, his open, serious face cracking into a smile as he leaned his well-toned body into a chair.
He has spent two-and-a-half years in Iraq, and was one of the first Ugandan recruits of the Dubai-based firm Dreshak, which now has offices in Kampala.
Ugandan security guards make 600 to 1,000 dollars per month over a year-long contract.
The sums are a far cry from the 15,000 dollars Iraq's top Western guns-for-hire can earn in a month but represent up to 20 times the average income in Uganda.
Under the shade of a red-coloured fruit tree, a Dreshak recruiter shouted instructions to a crop of fresh applicants. The men, all carrying screening paperwork, hopped at his directions.
"I want to go to Iraq to change my life," said Nicholas Ssembatya, an Iraq hopeful. He is 24 and has a wife and two young children.
A veteran of the Ugandan army, Ssembatya was sent to the volatile Democratic Republic of the Congo when he was just a teenager. He retired soon after.
Despite the heightened risk of work in war-ravaged Iraq, Ssembatya said the money was worth the danger.
"I want my family to be comfortable. I am confident I will go there and come back."
Standing next to him, Godfrey Kiwanuka, 31 and a Red Cross counsellor, said he shared the same motive.
"The money I will be making will be worth it," Kiwanuka said, flipping through a stack of documents including his passport and Interpol clearance.
Dreshak said the Ugandan force in Iraq has yet to suffer a casualty.
But controversy still lingers over the recruitment of cheaper African labour to Iraq. South Africans are the most numerous at around 10,000.
Dreshak and other firms with branches in Kampala said they chose Uganda as a recruiting ground because of the abundance of unemployed veterans.
"They notice that there are people who are trained and have skills, but are sitting at home," said Patience Atuhaire, Dreshak's public relations officer. "That's why we are here. There are trained people and we needed them."
But Atuhaire admitted that the high level of poverty in Uganda plays a vital factor in the firm's recruitment of retired military veterans, police officers and security guards.
"Some of these people did not have a penny to their name," she said. Outside her office, throngs of men were being turned away at the gate by guards.
"We are overwhelmed, we cannot handle the numbers," said Atuhaire.
Kambula, the Iraq veteran, said the allure of an increased salary — though low by Western standards — spurred Ugandans to do several tours in Iraq.
"God has blessed Uganda. Americans are dying every day, but Ugandans never die, though we are at the forefront," he boasted.
But Kambula added: "Some are suffering psychological torture. Many feel it's time to go back but feel they have not made enough money yet."
A Ugandan guard complaining of mistreatment committed suicide in Baghdad in early March, after killing a South African supervisor.
Ugandans also said that time in Iraq would ideally help them land other more lucrative contracts abroad.
"Other than money, I think employment in Iraq will give me exposure to other international opportunities," said Fred Kisingo, 40, a teacher and another army veteran.
Ugandan army spokesman Captain Paddy Ankunda said the army was "monitoring" the increased numbers of veterans going to Iraq after several active soldiers went AWOL in an attempt to sign up for Iraq.
But Ankunda cautioned there was no need for alarm yet.
"We are not facing en-masse defections," he said.
The number of armed Ugandans in Iraq is almost four times as large as the biggest Ugandan troop deployment abroad, in Somalia.
Public pressure is growing in the United States to pull its troops out of the war. Yet the Ugandans, including one wearing a black leather jacket emblazoned with the US flag, did not waver in their enthusiasm for deployment.
Kambula said he plans to finally return in 2009, but does not rule out another Iraq tour after that.
"I am still a young man," he said.