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Wounded in Basra, no regrets: high risk means high perks

The recent flurry of ‘‘statements of concern’’ from different branches of the Government over the presence of Indians wo...

Written by Vijay Singh | Mumbai |
May 6, 2004

The recent flurry of ‘‘statements of concern’’ from different branches of the Government over the presence of Indians working in Iraq is unlikely to deter others, including ex-servicemen, from venturing forth.

Ask Col (retd) T Kapoor.

Working as a private security guard for a power plant near Basra, Kapoor would often walk around in the markets of An-Nasiriyah and Basra and marvel at how cheap everything in Iraq was—thanks to his monthly salary of Rs 1.5 lakh with free boarding and lodging.

‘‘In the shops, it was all available at one-third the price in Mumbai… even automatic guns like AK-47 were being openly sold for a mere 100 dollars a piece.’’

Now in retrospect though, Kapoor thinks he should have known what to expect in such a place. Less than a month after his arrival in Iraq in January 2004, he was caught in a shooting incident which claimed the life of a colleague.

Kapoor was sent by the Mumbai-based Trig Guardforce security firm, to work for an Indo-Sweden venture involved in laying high-voltage power lines in the war-torn country.

‘‘We were going from Basra to An-Nasiriyah on duty to check high power transmission lines when we heard gunshots from two cars in front of us.’’ His engineer colleague, Santosh Ghalsasi, was fatally shot in the neck. The car driver was also killed. And the vehicle, out of control, had swerved off the road and turned on its side.

Kapoor did not suffer any bullet injuries, but he is still nursing two rib factures, a neck injury and has lost his vision partially in the left eye due to the shrapnel that hit him.

He was treated in a Kuwait hospital and then flown back to India.

Looking back at the experience, the former serviceman considers himself ‘‘extremely lucky to survive and return to Mumbai.’’ The funny thing though, he says, is he was there four months ago when the situation was more peaceful.

‘‘We would merrily stroll on the streets during off-duty hours,’’ he reminisces. ‘‘I was sometimes mistaken to be a Turkish national by the locals, but when we told them that we are Hindustanis, they would actually hug us warmly. Iraqis have high regards for Indians for some reason,’’ says Kapoor.

Sometimes, they were reminded of the dangers when British soldiers visited their field sites to check for potential mines or unexploded bombs. It was also unnerving to see cars on the roads bearing no number-plates carrying armed men. ‘‘But on the whole, the stay had been peaceful barring the one incident which took place.’’

Today, as violence escalates in the region, he says the risks are greater, but they are still unlikely to faze many of his former Army colleagues from making the trip.

Retirement benefits for ex-armymen in the early 40s and 50s are not sufficient to ensure a financially stable future, he says. ‘‘There is a rush of officers wanting to work as private guards in Iraq. Higher risks means better perks. And ex-army officers have already seen enough action in India to refuse such lucrative offers in Iraq.’’

Sitting in his plush office at Juhu, chairman of Trig—the firm that sent Kapoor—Captain Swaran Salaria said he was being bombarded with calls from former armymen looking for jobs in Iraq.

‘‘I can show you hundreds of letters and e-mails received till yesterday that prove that ex-servicemen are fully aware that they will be sent to Iraq on private duty,’’ he says.

A sample:

‘‘I am physically fit and available for Iraq immediately. Please send details’’ — Capt Gurvinder Singh, May 3.

‘‘I am interested in going to Iraq. Please provide me with terms and conditions’’ — Brigadier R S Jatrana, May 2.

When asked about the advisory sent out by the government to Sainik Boards, warning retired officers about the dangers of landing in Iraq, even if they apply for jobs in Kuwait, Capt Salaria says: ‘‘There is no order in Iraq, so all MNC offices are located in neighbouring Kuwait. But the candidates are fully aware that they will have to travel to Iraq. You can see this from the request letters).’’

Bangalore-based Captain (retd) Ashok A Balikai, who is among the hopefuls, said: ‘‘I know how dangerous Iraq is, but want to work there as the salary will be double the one I am getting at ONGC, where I am currently employed.’’

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