Indian Mercenary in Afghanistan

Discussion in 'Foreign Relations' started by SPIEZ, Nov 7, 2014.

  1. SPIEZ

    SPIEZ Senior Member Senior Member

    Sep 24, 2011
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    Life of an Indian Mercenery in Afghanistan

    On the morning of July 17, Banu woke up to alarm sirens from three buildings. It was 4.20 am, 20 minutes before he usually woke up for his 12-hour shift that began at 6. As he excitedly rushed up the stairs, he wondered if the blasts would help extend his job.
    Banuchandar Rajendran is a 29-year-old from Tamil Nadu who commands a team of 42 security guards at a guesthouse in Kabul. He’s been in Afghanistan since July 2013 looking for a job, and finally got his break at the guesthouse in April this year. He’s been leader of his team since May. That early July morning, he could hear the gunfire and the blasts from an attack that was already underway at the nearby airport. He felt glad this particular attack hadn’t happened at midnight and ruined his sleep. A more distant sense of relief also washed over him – such attacks kept him employed. For people like Banu, more blasts mean more jobs, more salary.
    Instead of getting dressed, Banu slammed his body armour over a T-shirt and shorts and ran to the terrace to get a view of the action. He had to report to his bosses every 10 minutes about the intensity, frequency and direction of the blasts. He stood there for a long time, puffing cigarettes, watching the smoke-bursts along the half-dark horizon and the steady punctuating light of continuous gunfire. It was a new experience for him. He felt that even if something had fallen on his head, he might not have run for cover.
    About an hour later, his thoughts began to wander. He wondered how long it would take for everyone to emergeso they could go in for their breakfast of Afghan rotis and tea. “A few [shells] hit around 500 to 800 meters away from us,” he told me later. “But I was also enjoyed watching them all. That was my first time watching blasts,” he said.
    A few days earlier, he’d sent me a WhatsApp text describing the city as “hot, hot and hot with too many blasts.”
    About a week later on July 23, I spent several anxious moments scanning a news report. Two Indian security guards had been killed in a Taliban suicide attack at a compound near the Kabul airport. I had not heard from Banu all day, which was unusual since he often texted me during his lunch break.
    My mind immediately rewound to March 11, when my friend, Swedish journalist Nils Horner was shot dead in Kabul. We had met in Delhi when he’d come to report on the 2012 Delhi gang rape. A week before he was killed, he had emailed me to suggest that I join him on his upcoming reporting trip. Nils worked for the National Swedish Radio and had reported from Afghanistan several times. He wanted to report stories ahead of the elections, especially about women who feared for their rights if the sizeable international community left the country. “Perhaps go to Herat also, it is supposed to be a very interesting place and more economically advanced than Kabul,” he wrote in his email. We’d been trading notes about the humdrum of life: my dogs, his plans to take up gardening on the rooftop of his Hong Kong apartment. “I would need plants that don't mind me being away a lot,” he’d added.
    A few days later, Nils was shot dead by two men on a Kabul street. There is still no reliable information on why this happened. The murderers have not been apprehended.
    Banu messaged me that evening of July 23. He had not been in touch because his phone had run out of battery. “I’m free now. Had dinner, smoke, and resting now,” he wrote. The attack had killed two men from Kerala, Ponnappan V Kuttappan and Parambhat Ravindran, who had been working for an American security firm.

    The bombed-out Darul Aman palace in Kabul. "Kabul, Afganistan" Photo by ninara via CC by-2.0.... more
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    Guns & chocolates
    In August last year, I’d left Banu sitting on a mattress in a large and sunny room of a Sikh gurudwara in Kabul. On August 15, 2013, India’s Independence Day, he had phoned home to tell his parents that he needed more time to find a job. On reaching Afghanistan in July the previous month, Banu had discovered that his employment agent, a man called Senthil, had duped him – there was no job waiting for him as a security guard in an American military base for $800 per month. His tourist visa had expired within a month.
    Today, even though his life is in danger daily, Banu has decided not to return home until he can earn back the money his family paid to Senthilto secure him a job. He also wants to earn enough to ensure that his parents are financially comfortable for the next few years, and build a house before getting married.
    I first met Banu for a story on the Indians who continued to live in a conflict-ridden country like Afghanistan despite the frequent attacks by the Taliban and other insurgent groups. They had specifically been targeting Indians over the past few years. When I reached Afghanistan last summer, Indians were getting plenty of distressed calls from home – set off by an attack on the Indian consulate in the province of Jalalabad on August 3.
    Since that visit, Banu had called me a few times to let me know that he was still waiting to find a job in Afghanistan. He acknowledged that Afghanistan was a dangerous place to hang around, but he didn’t brood about it. He would often say that returning home was not an option. In April, I was traveling to cover an election rally in Uttar Pradesh when my phone rang in a noisy train. Banu’s voice was barely audible. “I'm calling to tell you that I've got a job as a receptionist in a guesthouse. I'm very happy and my parents are very happy,” he said.
    A few weeks later, he phoned with more news. He had been promoted from a receptionist to a security commander in charge of a group of 42 guards. “I worked in [a] call centre [earlier] and [now] became a security commander. My life has completely changed,” he said. “I never even touched a gun earlier but I'm always with one AK-47 even in my bed time now.”
    We started messaging more frequently after he downloaded the WhatsApp application on his phone this June. Our exchanges about the blasts and suicide attacks around him became an almost weekly ritual. His messages would be short and to the point: “Blasts nearby. Just 500 meters away, will text you later.”
    Being a security commander, Banu told me, involves allotting shifts, taking attendance, checking weapons, escorting guests around the guesthouse, and translating instructions from his bosses to the guards. These guards are mostly from India, Sri Lanka and Afghanistan who talk in a mix of English and Hindi. In case of an emergency, Banu says, he has to ensure that the other staffers take cover. “Whenever we have attacks around, I will be in the frontline and place everyone as per the directions,” he says.
    He usually wakes up at 4.40am. His shift begins at 6am. Breakfast is at 7.30am. Lunch follows at 12.30 pm and dinner at 7pm. Through the day, he has to check that his guards are at their stations and the compound is secured. “I need to give situation report to my heads every five to ten minutes,” he says.
    For example, September 21 was a busy day. They converted a room into a second security office. They arranged for a first aid box, notice boards and cleared waste papers. They cleaned the emergency gate – for that he needed to arrange two cleaners, engineering staff to grease the rails and station four security guards as the rest worked. He also trained four men to handle a PK machine gun.
    He has to work weekends. He hasn’t had a single holiday since he started work in April. He does not complain much, preferring to be stoic about the work and the conditions. He sometimes complains about the breakfast.
    2pm, August 15, 2014. Exactly one year to the day and the hour since I last saw Banu, he was wolfing down rajma-chawal (beans and rice) for lunch at the guesthouse. His first message to me that day was a greeting for Independence Day. The second one was about the Afghan cook forgetting to put salt in the food.
    “But it is better than other days,” he added.
    Breakfast might usually be “stale bread and tea” but the cook likes to mix it up. He sometimes serves boiled potatoes and insists it’s “dum aloo”, Banu’s favourite Indian dish of potato curry, peeving the Tamilian further. Since it was Independence Day, Banu was contemplating buying some chocolates, which he says are his one weakness. He’s spent $100 on chocolates since finding a job this year. “I can live without food if I get chocolates. I’m crazy about this,” he says.
    “It is hard to carry around 20kg for 12 hours with these foods,” Banu explains. He’s calculated that his body armour weighs 13kg, his weapons weigh 4kg and the ammunition magazines are another 2kg.
    But for all the deadly gear that he lugs around, Banu says he doesn’t see himself as emerging victorious after an attack. “Funny thing is that we will be alert for nothing,” he says. “If anyone throws bombs or missiles, we have to die. We are human, not Bollywood heroes.”
    Into the blue
    In 2008 and 2009, the Indian embassy in Kabul was targeted. The first attack, which claimed the lives of four Indian officials, was blamed on the Haqqani network, a Taliban faction closely associated with Pakistan’s spy service, the Directorate for Inter-Services Intelligence. Nine Indians were again killed in 2010 when the Taliban attacked two guesthouses frequented by foreigners. In 2013, three more Indians – a waiter, a laundry manager and an officer manager who were working for a firm that provided supplies to NATO forces – were killed when their guesthouse was attacked.Last year, Indian author Sushmita Banerjee, whose Afghan memoir was made into a major film, was abducted from her home in Paktika, taken to the Al Jihad madrassa and shot 25 times. In May this year, gunmen attacked the Indian consulate in Herat.
    The Indians I met last summer included cooks, engineers, a doctor, a bellhop, and Banu. A group of engineers who had come to pray at the Hindu temple in Kabul said that they were making more money than their counterparts in India. They liked not having to deal with the traffic, high taxes and pollution that made for a stressful life in India. Some added that they had never experienced, in any other country, the kind of warmth that Afghans had for Indians.
    An official at the Indian embassy in Kabul told me that 800 Indians are currently registered with the embassy as compared to 3,000 last year. Embassy officials say they don’t know how many Indians have arrived in Afghanistan through employment agents to find work with private companies or on US military bases – though the assumption is that even their numbers have dwindled as US troops have pulled out of the country and businesses linked with them have shuttered.
    Those who had lived in Afghanistan for several years said that they had explored Kabul and other provinces of the country in the years following the American invasion of Afghanistan in 2001. Their excursions dwindled after the Taliban remerged around 2007 and the country was once again riddled with violence. Indians who have subsequently arrived in Afghanistan rarely leave the compounds of their companies. They make short trips to banks for wiring money home or to buy recharge cards for their mobile phones. Most know little of the city and its people. They don’t really want to tip the balance from adventure to risk. They see their Afghan stint only as a chance to earn a fistful of dollars.
    A life abroad
    Banu speaks to his family once a week. While his parents know that he works as a security guard in Afghanistan, he says he’s never told them about how close the attacks are to his compound.
    Banu previously worked at a call centre in Hyderabad from where he was fired after an argument with his boss, but not before he had learned to speak English fluently. Punching in long hours for a salary of Rs 17,000, he decided, was not how he wanted to live. And so he contacted dubious employment agents who promised better wages in the Middle East and high salaries in areas of conflict like Afghanistan and Iraq.
    He says he didn't care if he had to cook, wash dishes, make beds or sweep the floor – as long as he earned some good money for the work. “I had no choice,” he says. “Jobs in India pay too little to have any kind of good life. But you are seeing so many people in India getting rich. But it is not you or your friends.”
    His first foray abroad was in 2012 as a housekeeping supervisor at a hospital in Muscat, Oman. Banu was promised a monthly salary of $300 (around Rs 18,000) for an eight-hour shift, plus an extra $150 (around Rs 9,000) for four extra hours of overtime. He planned to save most of the $450 since his lodging and food came free. Just covering his expenses had taken up half of his call centre salary in India.
    On reaching Oman, though, Banu was not paid extra for any overtime. “The agent had lied to me,” he says.
    That wasn’t the deal breaker, he explains. The real reason why he quit in three months had more to do with his supervisor, a man from Kerala, who, Banu says, would often flirt with him. “It made me so uncomfortable. I thought about complaining but then he would lose his job, and what if no one believed me? What could I do?”
    His father, who runs a grocery shop, sold their family house in Usliampatti, Tamil Nadu for Rs 800,000 to cover debts, medical expenses and pay Banu's agent a sum of Rs 150,000. “My dad started his life with 6,000 rupees in debt but we had two of our own houses and land in three places,” he said. He says he feels sad when thinking about the gradual decline of his family’s fortunes by the time he grew up. He has a elder sister who is a homemaker and an elder brother who works as a cashier at a Mega Mart store.
    His parents sold their two houses and land to pay for his college education, his sister's wedding, his brother's failed business venture, medical expenses and the employment agent, who had lied to them. “We lost everything [around the same time],” he says.
    Most residences in Kabul are fronted by high walls and a thick gate with a slit from which a security guard peeks out and ask visitors to identify themselves. That is the job that Banu had hoped to get for $800 a month when he arrived.
    In July 2012, when Banu first arrived in Kabul, he discovered that his agent Senthil had duped him. He’d heard of Senthil through a friend who used to work with him in a hotel in Bangalore in 2007. Senthil, Banu said, is from Vilathikulam village, which is three hours by road from his own village in Usliampatti.
    “I trusted Senthil because [my friend’s] brother also paid him for [an Afghan] job along with me. We both got cheated,” he said. There was no job waiting for him when he landed in Kabul.
    After discovering that he had been duped again in Afghanistan, Banu was ashamed and alarmed at the prospect of returning home. By August 2013, he neither had a visa to stay on nor any certainty of finding a job in the conflict ridden country, which was creaking with unease at the forecasts of political instability and more violence after the U.S. troops moved out.
    In February, the United Nations reported that since 2009, the armed conflict had claimed the lives of 14,064 civilians and injured thousands more, and that 2013 was “the worst year for Afghan women, girls and boys.” Still, Banu was determined to execute his three-fold plan; repay his father, restore his own honour and earn enough money to build a big house before getting married. “My parents’ happiness is my priority. I’m willing to lose my life for them,” he says.
    After his visa expired, his local handler, a Sri Lankan man called Vaithyalingam, left Banu at the Indian embassy in Kabul. The embassy officials sent Banu to the local Sikh gurudwara in Kabul, which is often the refuge for Indians who are abandoned in Afghanistan by their agents. The Indian embassy officials know that Indian workers are often abandoned or cheated by their agents, and customarily leave such people at the gurudwara to stay as they try to arrange money for their ticket home. Only once the ticket money is arranged do the Indian officials stamp an exit visa for people like Banu.
    Instead of arranging money for the first plane out of Kabul, Banu tried to find a way to stay on. After a week he received a call from a man called James, a colleague of Senthil’s who had helped him with the paperwork for Afghanistan. While they had both deceived Banu, he said that James was the “nicer guy among all the villains” he had come across in his quest abroad.
    James, he said, told him to meet an Afghan man called Naseer, who would help him get placed as a security guard somewhere. Banu went to stay at Naseer’s compound – two floors of a very old dusty building, resembling an abandoned factory, in a crowded part of Kabul. He met other men there, including from India, Sri Lanka and Nepal, who were waiting like him for work to materialize. “We cooked our own food twice a day. We cooked dal, brinjal cauliflowers, potato, any cheap vegetable,” he said. “It was the worst part of my life. I was just waiting for a job,” he said.
    In addition to the Rs 150,000 that Banu had already paid Senthil, he now needed to shell out an additional commission of Rs 65,000 to Naseer. Banu’s mother approached her family for the money but they refused, so she agreed to forfeit her share of a family property worth Rs 10 lakh for the immediate cash payment of Rs 65,000. “She fought with them,” said Banu. “It was an emergency so she had to give up her property.”
    Banu ended up waiting for nine months for Naseer to find him a job. He’d dipped into his little kitty of 1,000 afghanis for cigarettes and phone cards to call his parents on weekends. Naseer provided the food. “One and a half years went by only by waiting, waiting, waiting. Only got disappointment,” he said. “Reading my story, what will you say? Was I stuck or did I succeed?”
    Banu said that around 30 Indians and 10 Sri Lankans who were in Naseer’s camp during that time returned home without jobs. Banu did not like Naseer but he didn’t mind chatting with him, and they often talked about movies, family, job vacancies, mobiles, and computers. “He was always friendly. Always said that he knows everything. But he always cheats someone,” he said.
    During this time, in anticipation of landing a job as a security guard, he taught himself how to use the AK-47 and a PK machine gun by watching videos on YouTube. “Training is nothing to do with shooting someone,” he told me. “Just theoretical knowledge on how to shoot and open every part, safety mode, single shots, continuous shots.”
    Later, at the guesthouse an Albanian soldier taught Banu how to clean his weapons. “We clean all weapons once every two weeks. I opened them first with the help of the Albanian. Then I started to clean them myself,” he said.
    He’s never warmed to Afghanistan. He doesn’t like Kabul or Afghans. He doesn’t find the city to be beautiful. He never went beyond two kilometres from Naseer's camp. “Kabul is like the village in my childhood. No development in technology, no literacy,” he says.
    “I don't want to speak to anyone. It is just five or six persons in my life to whom I have talked a lot. I'm a talkative person in my family. I'm not a shy person. [But] I don't like anyone. I don't trust anyone.”
    In all our conversations, Banu only ever mentioned one person in Kabul whom he liked – a 27-year-old Punjabi called Omveer Singh at Naseer's camp. “He came to Afghanistan along with five other guys,” said Banu. “They had also been cheated by their agent – their agent didn’t pay Naseer the commission money. [Singh] took care of all expenses for those guys because they came along with him.”
    Once they started getting jobs, he told Naseer to place the other guys first since he could wait if required. Banu described his Punjabi friend as a rich man who owned land back home. According to Banu, this man had chosen to work in Iraq and Afghanistan just for the thrill of it.
    “He spent around 80,000 [Indian] rupees in seven months for everyone and then he returned to India [since he didn’t find a job]. He is just living for fun. No motive, no fear. We talked about everything – about his previous job, his family, girlfriends and how he impressed them, cricket. We played cards and watched girls next door.”
    Banu and his friend would go to look at college girls in the neighbourhood when they’d come to dry laundry on their roofs. “I did not speak to them because I was always thinking of my job,” he says. He described the girls as beautiful.
    I'll earn so I’ll never turn
    Banu doesn't know why he was promoted so quickly since he had no experience of being a commander and he had taught himself how to use weapons by watching videos online. He said that the other men had long army backgrounds or they had worked in private security firms. His ability to converse easily in English, Banu said, is probably why they wanted him to be a security commander. He can communicate with the guards and his bosses – British, Australian and American. “Communication”, he says, is why he got promoted so fast in a place where conventional job rules seldom apply. He said he doesn’t know anyone else like him in his compound – good with English and management but not with weapons and security.
    His employers and colleagues know that he has no prior experience in security work. Some of the other soldiers resent his swift rise despite his limited experience. His superiors don’t seem to mind, even when he confessed that he had lied about being in the army to get the job. “I informed them, ‘Sorry sir, I’m not from army. I worked in call centre before. I lied at you to get this job.’ They said: No problem.”
    “They are really supporting me,” he continued. “They told me to tell them if anyone gave me hard time and they would take care of it,” he said. “They need me to lead the people, do the job perfectly, and to translate.”
    Banu told me that two men from Tamil Nadu, one from Punjab and another one from Assam also worked at the Afghan guesthouse where he was employed. Most of the other security guards are older than Banu. He is civil to them, but not friendly. Banu didn’t consider the 38-year-old Albanian to be a friend either, but he admired him. “He never says no or impossible,” he said. “He sleeps three hours a day. He is always active and questions a lot. He smokes 20 or more cigarettes a day but he can run fast. He doesn’t go to the gym but he lifts 100 kilograms.”
    The local Afghan staff at the guesthouse, he says, resell goods to expats like him for a profit. “I don't like these people. They are all same,” he says. “They cheat everyone for money. They sell all this stuff [to us] like soap, oil, mobiles, etc. We know the [market] price but they take more.”
    His room is a metal container, like those used to ship cargo. He shares a container with a former security commander from Sri Lanka. Neither of them, he says, is talkative. He gets a few hours of free time after dinner before he hits bed, which he likes to spend surfing the Internet instead of being social. He spends his free time downloading Tamil, Telugu and English songs and movies, and occasionally some pornography. He recently downloaded Wall-E and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
    Besides his dream of a having a monetarily secure future, Banu is stuck in Afghanistan because he has neither a visa nor a passport. His visa expired within a month of landing in Afghanistan while his passport is being held hostage by Naseer, who is in dispute with the guesthouse management where Banu is now working.
    Naseer, Banu explained, has refused to release his passport until the Afghan management gave him more money for the placements that he had arranged. The guesthouse, however, has refused to pay Naseer because he had failed to renew the visas for their employees.
    “They are all criminals. They do business but lie to each other,” Banu said. While he didn’t divulge any details, he sounded confident about solving his passport and visa dilemma. “This is Afghanistan. Anything is possible with currency,” he declared. “We have many ways to catch a cat. Can't I find one to catch my passport?”
    But he admits he is worried that his company won’t let him stay if the visa issue isn’t resolved soon.
    In September, Banu finally finished repaying his parents for his agent fee of Rs 150,000. Now his focus is to build a house back home, which he estimates will cost Rs 8-10 lakh. “No ideas but everything will be on my dad's wishes,” he says about the kind of house. “House and ambassador car is my dad's wish. I’ve heard [this] from my childhood.”
    Building a house, Banu reasons, means that he’ll need to reach an even higher pay grade. Of the $1,000 he currently earns every month, he sends $700 to his family.
    “I'm going to earn so I will never turn,” he said when I expressed doubt about his plan. “Ha ha, that rhymes.”
    * * *
    When I spoke to Banu on October 6, he suddenly told me he’s decided to appeal to his boss to be demoted from commander to guard. He said he was exhausted from the gruelling 12-hour shifts; as a guard he would have to work for six to nine hours and be paid only $100 less.
    He says he’s still proud of becoming a commander but he increasingly feels like a machine. "Just automated. Morning: 4.40 wake up, 5 brush, 5.10 toilet, 5.20 shower, 5.40 dress, 5.55 report for duty. Then evening: 6.30 or 7.00 shift over, then dinner, then I can stay awake till 9 maximum.”
    He says he has to weigh his health against money. “I’m in a dilemma. I don't know what to do," he said. “I'm still deciding because this is the first time that I’m thinking about my health.”
    So far, his superiors have refused to demote him. Banu says he will keep trying.
    He’s also been thinking about looking for a job in a security firm in Iraq as a backup plan. If he leaves Afghanistan, he told me, it will be for Iraq where the Islamic jihadist group ISIS has taken control over parts of the country and the United States has carried out air strikes since August.
    “We will have jobs in Iraq very soon because of war," he said. "More danger so more salary.”


    PS: Not sure if this in the right thread
    Srinivas_K likes this.
  3. Srinivas_K

    Srinivas_K Senior Member Senior Member

    Jun 17, 2009
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    In simple, one cannot enjoy a single moment once he wakes up from his bed.

    All he has to do is survive, split his day into segments and plan accordingly.

    He has to be very careful in his movements and the areas he travel daily.

    At the end of the day if he survives, take a whiskey shot relax for 10 or 15 min before sleep and the start all over again.

    All this he has to do it alone since he is a mercenary and there are very few people whom he can trust and mingle with.

    Last edited: Nov 7, 2014

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