Desperate for Work, Blind to Dangers

AMMAN — Ahlam Najam just needed a job. At 25, she had a university degree in education but could not find work as teacher.

When Kellogg Brown and Root (KBR), subsidiary of the U.S. firm Halliburton offered her a job as a security guard at a U.S. base in Iraq, she took it.

On May 18 last year she was shot twice in the head as she waited for a taxi to take her to work. Her injuries left her blind, and she lost her sense of smell.

”Many people were working with the Americans, so I felt it would be okay,” Najam, now at a Saudi-funded organisation in Amman that assists blind Arab women told IPS.

”My two bosses at KBR, Mr. Jeff and Mr. Mark used to be very good and gentle with me,” she said. ”They told me it wasn’t dangerous to work for them.”

Najam worked for KBR three months before she was shot. She was taken to hospital in Hilla, about 100 km south of Baghdad, and kept there several days. But her good bosses never contacted her, she says.

She was later moved to a hospital in Baghdad. Here she was told there had been a call from ”Mr Jeff” (she was never given the last names of her bosses). She was too much in pain to be able to take the call. Her employers never called again. Attempts to find their last names, email addresses or phone numbers have been fruitless.

”I sent two emails to the KBR public relations person last June. But they never replied. I don’t know what to do now, I can’t go back to Iraq because it is too dangerous.”

Najam feels hurt in many ways. ”I was very good with them. Always on time, never left early, and they were happy with me. But when I needed them most, they were not there.”

KBR has an email address where questions about employees in Iraq are said to be answered within 12 hours. Emails to that address were not returned.

Ahlam Najam went to work as a security guard in a country where unemployment is more than 50 percent and prices are rising. Like Najam, many have no choice but to work in situations of grave danger. And the security situation is getting no better.

Car bombings and other attacks have killed at least 80 U.S. soldiers and more than 800 Iraqis in the last month alone.

It does not help that U.S. President George W. Bush sees it differently. ”I am pleased that in less than a year’s time there’s a democratically elected government in Iraq, there are thousands of Iraq soldiers trained and better equipped to fight for their own country (and) that our strategy is very clear,” Bush told reporters in Washington.

In the last two weeks at least 35 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq, with 1,670 killed since the invasion of Iraq in March 2003.

Vice-President Dick Cheney, who used to head Halliburton which has been awarded massive contracts in Iraq, has also offered an upbeat assessment. He said during an interview on CNN that insurgency in Iraq was in its ”last throes”.

But after a meeting with U.S. military commanders in Iraq, Senator Joseph Biden from Delaware said, ”The idea that the insurgents are on the run and we are about to turn the corner, I did not hear that from anybody.”