Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change

A Baghdad Security Guard's Tale

A young Iraqi explains why he chooses to work in one of the capital's most dangerous occupations.
By Ayub Nuri
Saif sits on a couch in his family's living room, still wearing the sneakers he wears in his job as a security guard. He begins his story by recalling an unforgettable memory.

While on duty late one night in Baghdad, Saif and the other Iraqi and American guards on his shift came under fire from gunmen. One of the Americans was injured and two of his colleagues took him to hospital for treatment.

When they returned to the compound where they worked, a fellow security guard opened fire on them.

"They were driving on the wrong side of the road, so my friend [the security guard] thought they were insurgents. He opened fire on their car and injured the two Americans who’d taken their friend to hospital. That’s something I will never forget," said Saif, laughing at the absurdity of the situation and falling back on the couch. "They took one injured man to the hospital and the three of them ended up hurt."

Saif was a carpenter in northern Iraq before US forces toppled Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. He moved to Baghdad to be with his family, but as he could not find work in carpentry he got a job as a guard with an American security company two and a half years ago. He did not want his real name or that of his company published because of security concerns.

It is a dangerous job, Saif admits, but having a limited education means he does not have many job opportunities.

"You don't know which moment a car bomb or a suicide bomber might hit you," he said. "If the insurgents get a chance, they will kill me right away."

Private firms such as the big security company Blackwater pay their western employees - mostly former US and British military - upwards of 200,000 US dollars a year to protect foreign dignitaries, international companies and even US military convoys on humanitarian missions.

Saif, as an Iraqi guard without military training, makes 350 dollars a month protecting an international compound. He dreams of saving up and moving to Sweden, where he believes he can work as a carpenter.

"It’s a tiring job with no future," he said of the security business. "My work brings me more hate than love from people. People see me carrying a gun all the time. A gun is hateful. It is not a friend, it’s an enemy."

Saif was born in Baghdad 26 years ago to an Arab father and a Kurdish mother. His father left the family five years ago, and Saif is now supporting his mother and two sisters.

He spends three weeks in the compound, working eight hours a day, and then has a week off to visit his family. While on duty, he always wears full body armour - a flak jacket and helmet - and works in an area surrounded by concrete barriers.

The job is serious but also boring. He mostly checks the IDs of people entering the compound and asks passers-by what they are doing.

"It’s like a prison,” he said.

In the past three years, many Iraqis working for foreign companies have been targeted as collaborators with the occupying forces and killed.

One day a man approached Saif and his colleagues and revealed a plan to attack their compound. The man's friends had persuaded him to drive a car bomb into the office, which they told him was an American intelligence base.

"The man told us, 'I have a young daughter, and I don't want to die,'" said Saif.

Saif's boss did not consider the man a threat because he talked about the attack openly. He took the man on a tour inside the compound to prove that it was not an intelligence office, gave him 10 dollars for a taxi home and let him go.

About 1,000 guards work at Saif's company, but he regards only four of them as friends. He tells other friends and neighbours he is still working as a carpenter in the Kurdish north.

"There is no trust these days - you're even afraid of your brother," said Saif. "If I tell a friend it will soon spread. Even if someone does not have anything against you personally, he'll send a threatening letter so you'll quit your job.”

When he goes home, he changes into civilian clothes and walks about a kilometre away from the compound before getting into a taxi, so that no one will know where he works.

During his free time at work he keeps himself busy lifting weights, playing chess and smoking a nargila pipe, which he often shares with his American colleagues. At home, he chats with Iraqis and Egyptians on the internet or plays computer games.

With his computer speakers at full blast, Saif opts for the Iraqi side in a war simulation game where he fights soldiers from countries including the US and Britain.

His mother doesn't understand why Saif plays with imaginary guns when he is not at work.

"Guns have got into my blood. They're part of my life," he said.

Saif was in love once, with an American woman who worked at a US investment company he was guarding. She used to chat with him when she went for a smoke and offered him chocolates. He was too shy to tell her he wanted to marry her, and stopped seeing her when he was transferred to a new post.

"She told me, 'You have a happy face,'" remembered Saif. "She was right, I always kept a smile on my face, but my heart was full of sorrow."

He does not oppose the occupation, but is quite critical of it, saying he believes America is in Iraq for its own interests. Still, he was in love with one American and has made many other friends from the country.

"Love comes from God, and Americans are human beings just like us," he said.

Saif has souvenirs such as photos, pocket knives and baseball caps from American friends who have now left Iraq. One important thing he learned from them, he said, is that there is a time for work and a time for play.

He sometimes listens to English music at home. One song, Show Me the Meaning by the Backstreet Boys, brings back memories of good times with his late cousin.

"Every time I listen to this song, I remember my cousin. He worked with me in the same company, but he was shot in the head [while off duty],” said Saif.

His cousin survived, but he cannot speak now and his left hand is paralysed. In the past two years, five of Saif's friends have been killed in clashes with insurgents while working as guards.

As the song winds down, Saif returns to the reality of Iraq.

"I cannot bear it any more," he said.

Ayub Nuri is an Iraqi freelance journalist and a former IWPR radio trainer.

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