Iraq: Masseuses, Ugandans, Bangladeshis, and yeah, Americans, too

Marc Santora at the NYT delivers a fantastically absurd opening paragraph in his story today about the future of America’s bases in Iraq. 

JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq — It takes the masseuse, Mila from Kyrgyzstan, an hour to commute to work by bus on this sprawling American base. Her massage parlor is one of three on the base’s 6,300 acres and sits next to a Subway sandwich shop in a trailer, surrounded by blast walls, sand and rock.

Truly, that’s a classic, one of the best I’ve read in awhile. (Now that I’m thinking about, the NYT’s Baghdad Bureau has been producing great stuff lately, per usual, including this piece by Rod Nordland and Riyadh Mohammed on the recent bank heist.)

Back to the superbases. It’s good to remind folks of what our tax dollars are paying for in this war, and there’s no better place to look than Balad. Subways. Ugandan security guards. Indian and Bangladeshi sandwhich makers and iced frappiciono specialists. The plan going forward, according to Santora, is to move all our troops into 6 big bases and 13 smaller bases.

Santora’s story touches on the creepy side of staffing our foreign military installations with folks like Mila the Masseuse and Sanjay the Short Order Cook.  It’s one of the underreported stories of the war that the big contractors like KBR ship in a labor force from the developing world to do all the shit jobs so they can a) pay them far less than a Westerner b) make them live in conditions that would be unacceptable to a Westerner and c) not give them things like, say, vacations or benefits, or any kind of labor protections.  

The Ugandans make up only one nationality of a diverse group of workers from developing nations who sustain life on the F.O.B.’s for American soldiers. The largest contingents come from the Philippines, Bangladesh and India. They live apart from both Western contractors and soldiers on base, interacting with them only as much as their jobs demand.

“Everyone stays pretty much separate,” said Mila, the massage therapist, whose last name could not be used out of security concerns. She has been in Iraq a year, but she said other workers had been here as long as six years, some never taking a break to go home. “You miss nature, trees and grass,” she said.

The last bit of irony: we’re trying to hand the bases over to Iraqi companies, but can’t because we don’t trust them (“security concerns”.) So where are all the Iraqis?

One of the few places Iraqis can be seen, in fact, is the “Iraqi Free Zone,” a fenced-in area enclosed with barbed wire and blast walls. There, Iraqis sell pirated movies, discount cigarettes, electronics and Iraqi tchotchkes.

Yep, that about sums it up.

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About michaelhastings

Journalist
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