May 28, 2012

Sunil* was a well-fed Indian shipping millionaire. I”€™d heard about him through people who worked for him. I was helping the British Army build a prison in Iraq and would wonder about Sunil. He was in charge, the workers would say, although he was hardly ever there. I knew how much he was getting paid. It was hard not to be impressed by Sunil.

The most impressive thing was what he did when things went wrong. He didn”€™t call managers and chew them out on the phone. He didn”€™t send long emails from safer countries. He got on the plane. And then Sunil would be there on the ground with everyone else, dodging bombs. I grew to respect that about him. A millionaire in the danger zone. The first time I saw him he was already important to us in the military. Whereas I drove a beat-up civilian 4×4, Sunil was given a sporty, shiny black Range Rover. Wearing Ray-Bans, he hopped out of his air-conditioned chariot and shook my wrist. I noticed the heavy Rolex. Rich Indians liked to show their wealth, and poor Pakistanis noticed.

I was the man who was making things happen for him in Basra, and he wanted to know more about me. We walked around the prison and as the mortar siren wailed, he lit a cigarette and asked me how it was going. I told him the truth”€”it was going as well as anything could go in a lawless place where everyone was trying to screw money out of the military budget. He laughed.

“€œIt was going as well as anything could go in a lawless place where everyone was trying to screw money out of the military budget.”€

I told him I”€™d do my best because that’s what the Army had taught me to do and I wasn”€™t there for the money, I was there for the Army. He suggested going for a spin in the Range Rover. I learned more about him as we drove around the £70-million complex we were building for the Iraqi Army. The first stop was the bus station. There were battered buses with bare tires driven by Pakistanis who brewed tea in the shade and talked about going home.

They”€™d worked for Sunil in Dubai and he told me he”€™d paid them a bit more and asked them to join him in Iraq. The Pakistanis told me they knew it was dangerous, but what else could they do? They couldn”€™t read or write but they could drive, so they drove and sent money back to Pakistan”€”via one of Sunil’s bank accounts, of course. Sunil charged the military a hefty fee to drive troops around the airfields, but it was still cheaper than getting a Western soldier to do it. It cost over $1,000 a day to deploy a soldier in Iraq. No wonder the private military companies were everywhere.

As we drove to another one of Sunil’s operations he pointed out the Portaloos, the blue plastic boxes that warmed in the sun and made soldiers hold their breath as they took a crap. Sunil had brought the toilets in, too. Some days you didn”€™t need to hold your breath, as a person we called the “€œhoney sucker”€ had cleaned the toilets. We always wondered if the guy who did that job earned a fortune. He didn”€™t; he did it for a few dollars. The Kuwaitis wanted a piece of the pie when it came to toilets and charged a fortune for the loos. Sunil and his team ended up buying them in Italy and driving them over, as it was cheaper. At least that’s what he told me”€”I was the Army’s man, not his. He was careful with some figures but honest with others. He knew I talked to the same people and saw the same budgets he did.

Then we got to the washing center. Sunil had set up lines of washing machines in a warehouse. On the second floor were all the beds of those who washed sweat and sand from Army uniforms”€”sometimes blood, but mainly sweat and sand. A wagon would go to each camp and pick up the washing bags full of uniforms. The laundry workers were all Pakistanis and Bangladeshis with Qurans who stuck prayers printed on shiny holographic stickers above their beds”€”all Muslims. All the managers were in an office downstairs. They were Sunil’s friends, all Hindus from India who”€™d thank him for bringing them alcohol. The divide was obvious.


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