Living among the ravages of war

By Michael Kimberley and John Harvey

COMPARING an Afghan or Iraq housing compound to a South African boarding school “like the one in the ‘Spud’ movie” may sound trite.

But for many South Africans working in some of the world’s war zones, the compounds are the only way of making sense of the unraveling chaos.

That is the harsh reality of life in Afghanistan and Iraq, where scores of South Africans risk life and limb daily.

They work as security contractors, cargo pilots and office workers at mainly American companies and are paid good money  – reportedly up to R7 000 a day – to fly an aircraft or safeguard American interests. All this in the hope of making enough to secure their families’ futures back home.

But their work is also dangerous, given locals’ often hostile attitude towards Westerners.

A recent suicide attack in  Afghanistan’s capital, Kabul,   claimed the lives of eight South Africans.

Eastern Cape pilot Harvey Green, who left Afghanistan less than a year ago, spent his free time in a Kabul compound. Most foreigners there are forced to live in “life support compounds”, which are removed from the violence of the  war-torn areas locals call home.

Green, a close friend of Port Elizabeth pilot  Johan van Huyssteen, who lost his life in Kabul, said: “Friends made under these conditions are forever.”

Green, 33, hails from Port Elizabeth but now lives in Dubai and works on oil rigs.

“I do miss the guys. The flying and the camaraderie that we once had. But going back is not an option anymore… I guess I am one of the lucky ones that doesn’t have to go back.”

Entering a maximum-security compound, guards check for bombs and identification before allowing entry through the barbed-wire gate.

Pictures are not allowed to be taken in  most compounds and the punishment of snapping one is sometimes expulsion.

“Living in Kabul was always a bittersweet experience. Seeing and hearing things going on in town had us on edge every now and again, but were quickly put to the back of our minds after a few cold ones at the bar,” Green said.

“The best way to describe the lifestyle that I experienced in the compound was like being back at boarding school, if you’ve ever seen the movie ‘Spud’ then you’ll have an idea.”

Green said trips to the airport and back were always the most strenuous.

The eight South Africans – including Van Huyssteen – were killed when a female suicide bomber struck while they were en route to the Kabul Airport.

Most foreigners  arrive at the Kabul Airport and are  whisked into an armoured vehicle and  escorted to their compound.

This is aptly named the “Kabul bubble” because most visitors never get to see the poverty and gritty side of life in the war-torn city.

A Port Elizabeth woman, whose husband works in Kabul but cannot be named because of his work, has visited the country’s capital twice in the past few years.

On her first night in the city, she said a bomb went off near to where she was staying.

“There are good times and bad, but you learn to not be afraid… I just kept thinking:: ‘If my husband can do it, so can I’,” she said.

The Iraq compounds in the ravaged country also offers the same serene lifestyle found in Afghanistan compounds.

East Londoner Dean van der Westhuizen lived in a compound while working in Iraq’s notorious Green Zone.

The 41-year-old said he felt “safe and secure” when touring  Baghdad three years ago.

It was more dangerous going to an ATM in South Africa than living in one of the compounds, he said. Working as a dog handler, Van der Westhuizen said he spent his free time swimming and watching movies.

“But when you work you work. There is no question about it.”

It is not clear how many South Africans are currently stationed in Afghanistan or Iraq.

This is a shortened version of an article that appeared in the print edition of the Weekend Post on Saturday, September 29, 2012.

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