Hiring for War

by Mari Michener Oye:

Besfort Selimi, from Ferizaj, Kosovo, squinted in the hot sun. “Afghanistan?” he said. “I want to go.” A few weeks earlier, the 19-year-old had filled out an application for a mechanic’s job with the American military contracting company Fluor. Many private military contractors hire personnel from the Balkans, but their concentration in Selimi’s town of Ferizaj is unusual; about one in three families has at least one relative sending remittances from Iraq or Afghanistan. Residents fly American flags along with the blue, white and gold of the self-proclaimed Republic of Kosovo and the red and black eagle symbol of ethnic Albanians.

To most people in the town of Ferizaj, there is nothing strange about packing up for the frontlines of another country’s wars. Selimi’s cousin worked 13-hour days in Afghanistan, earning enough money to open his own sandwich shop back home. Selimi’s father fixes machinery with the contractor Kellogg, Brown and Root, or KBR, a former subsidiary of Halliburton. He works in Kosovo itself, at the U.S. military base Camp Bondsteel, in the hills above Ferizaj. The Army contracts support services at Bondsteel out to KBR, which then subcontracts these tasks to Ecolog AG, a company based in Germany. Ecolog’s Macedonian division hires the staff spooning out canned peas and mashed potatoes at Camp Bondsteel.

A soldier walks through a central plaza in the city of Ferizaj in Kosovo. (Oye/TYG)

Bondsteel was built in 1999, following NATO intervention in the conflict between the Kosovo Liberation Army and Serbian forces under Slobodan Milosevic. At its largest, the base housed approximately 5,000 American and international troops. Following the war, job seekers lined up at Bondsteel’s main gate and thousands of them found work in food service, cleaning, perimeter security, translation, and other support roles.

“The Bondsteel base has helped a lot in the development of this city, especially right after the war, when it brought in millions. We are very grateful for this,” said Mustafë Grainca, director of Economy, Finance and Budget for the municipality of Ferizaj.

But the number of troops at Bondsteel, and hence the number of local employees, is shrinking. Now meant to provide a “deterrent presence” in the region, the base looks out sleepily over the surrounding villages. National Guardsmen rotate in and out, watching action DVDs and lifting weights to kill time. With a smaller number of soldiers to feed, Camp Bondsteel’s “Northtown D-Fac,” or dining facility, is closing down. Many food service workers there have put in requests to be transferred to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Military contractors are comfortable hiring employees from the Balkans, where they have contacts from past engagements and where they can pay lower salaries than most American hires demand. The companies know that “they can trust us,” said one worker at Camp Bondsteel. “you’re privileged if you’re working for the Americans,” he added. “First people join for the money, but there’s a little bit of Hollywood in it.”

Edona Hassani, also from Ferizaj, joined KBR in Afghanistan in 2006 when she was 23 years old. She began work while salaries were comparatively high, earning $5,000 per month. By contrast, a typical public sector employee within Kosovo makes only $300 per month. Hassani will soon return to Afghanistan, this time to work for the contractor Fluor. “Kosovo is paradise compared to Kandahar,” she said, but claimed she was still eager to go back. Hassani put down her cigarette and took a sip of macchiato, the afternoon drink of choice in Kosovo. “I love working with Americans,” she laughed. “I know every single thing about Americans!”

Others in Ferizaj echoed Hassani’s sentiment, suggesting that Kosovo, which unilaterally declared independence from Serbia in 2008, should become the 51st star in the American flag. In the capital, Pristina, posters advertise an upcoming Snoop Dogg concert. An 18-foot model of the Statue of Liberty adorns the Hotel Victory on Avenue Bill Clinton. A nearby hair salon is called Hillary.

“Everyone knows the Americans saved us [in the war with Serbia],” Mentor Selimi, Besfort’s cousin, said. This pro-American stance contributes to contract employees’ eagerness to work for U.S. military forces, but the incentive is primarily economic need. Ferizaj residents send home remittances from Germany and elsewhere in Europe, but the salaries are higher with American military contractors in conflict zones. “One year of work there [in Afghanistan] is worth 15 years of work here,” said Selimi. Still, his view of contracting work differs starkly from Hassani’s. “I hated it,” he said. Selimi spent 18 months in Khost province in Easter Afghanistan, an unstable area the contractors
nicknamed “rocket city.”

“They were shooting all the time,” he said. “A rocket hit the kitchen—it was 40 meters away.” Convoy rides of 45 minutes felt like 45 hours, Selimi said. He never told his family about the attacks. “They worried about me, but I told them ‘Oh, I am in Kabul,’ and showed them some photos. They didn’t know where I really was,” Selimi said. He still sometimes has nightmares about Afghanistan. “I didn’t want to open my eyes, I didn’t know if I was in Afghanistan or Kosovo. I didn’t want to open my eyes in case I was back over there,” he said.

Typically, KBR employees work three and a half months at a stretch, returning home for two-week breaks. To date, no contractors from Kosovo have died in Iraq or Afghanistan, though a few have suffered injuries. Employees pay life insurance out of their salaries, about U.S. $150-$300 per month. They often send the rest of the money home to their families, and buy cell phones and other presents for family during breaks in Dubai.

“We’ve had people working there since the beginning, for four, five, or six years,” said Albulena Sadiku, the director of the Initiative for Progress, a civil society watchdog group in Kosovo. “The joke is you don’t have to know English to go, you just have to know Albanian, because everyone there is Albanian.”

Sadiku worries that income from the contracting jobs is not being spent wisely. The returning workers buy cars and build or expand their houses—a stimulus to Ferizaj’s economy, but “not things that create a lot of new jobs or are helpful to the city in the future.”

Construction is everywhere in Ferizaj, and the mayor has big plans for a new park downtown and increased trade with Macedonia. As elsewhere in Kosovo, however, the government faces budget shortfalls and serious corruption problems. “Even the bears in the mountains know about the corruption,” joked Shpejtim Sherifi, owner of the Kosova Souvenir shop. Tax collection is seldom enforced. 40 percent of the population is unemployed, and many young people have never held a job. If the United States carries out a drawdown of forces in Iraq and Afghanistan, many in Ferizaj will be out of work.

The salaries for contracting jobs are lower now, and draw a different, needier workforce than the first hires. Fluor and Dyncorps pay a starting wage of $1,000 a month. Considering the 13-hour days and long separation from family, “they give nothing,” said Sherifi. “I think now they are playing with people.” Still, the salaries go a long way in Kosovo, and many of Sherifi’s friends have left to work for the Americans in Iraq or in Afghanistan.

Besfort Selimi is still waiting on a call from Fluor. “I want to experience another place, and I just want to work,” he said.

Mari Michener Oye ’11 is a Political Science and International Studies major in Timothy Dwight College. Her research for this article was supported by the Les Aspin ‘60 Fellowship and aided by Fjolla Dumani, Garentina Kraja, and Nebi Qena. Contact her at mari.oye@yale.edu.