What’s a soldier to do when the war is over? Head to Baghdad, of course

Review: Vivien Horler

In the Kill Zone – surviving as a private military contractor in Iraq, by Neil Reynolds (Delta Publishers/ Jonathan Ball)

kill zoneNeil Reynolds describes himself as “a military man through and through”. In 1980 he was called up for national service and after basic training was posted to what was known as the “operational area” in Namibia.

He says after his first contact he “was hooked”, and by the end of that year Reynolds had joined Permanent Force, and was serving in the reconnaissance wing of 31 Battalion at Omega in the Caprivi Strip.

After eight years in Caprivi he was transferred back to South Africa. In 1999, five years after the first democratic elections, he took an early retirement package.

He then became one of hundreds of highly trained and skilled soldiers for whom South Africa no longer had any use. And so, like many of his ilk, he opted for private security work. Two years later he was providing security for a diamond mining company in Angola, a job that entailed working on an isolated mine miles from anywhere for six months at a time, allowed a single five-minute phone call home once a week. There was no internet.

The upside was good food and a monthly salary of more than 12 times his SANDF pay. But it was a lonely existence a long way from his family in KwaZulu-Natal, and in 2003 he left.

The trouble was, there were not that many openings for a man with his skills and contacts, and so he ended up even further from home, based in Baghdad. The company he worked for, called OSSI/Safenet, was founded by a former South African soldier and later member of the private military group Executive Outcomes, and a former American soldier who had also served in the CIA.

These two men had heard of the opportunities offered in private security in Iraq, and so they recruited a team including Reynolds and a handful of former South African Recces.

In those days it was far from easy for a group of South Africans to get to Iraq. The country had been invaded in March 2003 by a multinational coalition led by the US as part of the “war on terror”, and leader Saddam Hussein was caught in December of that year.

A lot of business was being done in the country, including reconstruction, and all these companies needed security. The South Africans were in the right place at the right time.

They left with three trunks of equipment including body armour, radios, helmets, medical supplies and weapons cleaning kits, and were nervous  every time they crossed an international border.

But eventually they arrived in Baghdad, and set about acquiring arms, ammunition and vehicles.

Over the years their numbers increased and their mission was broadly successful, although there were some pretty terrifying moments. In one convoy up to Kirkush four South Africans and five Iraqis were ambushed, and while the locals were later released, to this day no one knows what happened to the four ex-pats.

Reynolds says there was nothing glamorous about being involved in private security in Iraq. The work was both dangerous and tedious. On most of their missions they were little more than a taxi service, driving a client to a location and then waiting for hours, or days, until they had finished their work.

There was not much to do when the men were off-duty, and the long periods apart put a strain on many marriages. But the men did it because they needed to provide for their families and put food on the table.

To get the best out of this book you really need a keen appreciation of the finer points of various weapons such as MP5s and PKMs, and how they hold up against AK47s.

Reynolds goes into detail about the relative merits of using armoured vehicles and “soft skin” vehicles in security work

It is sobering to think of the many thousands of South Africans on both sides of the political divide who became efficient fighting men and then battled to find meaningful lives after democracy was achieved.

The book is clearly and engagingly written by a man who discovered his options at home were limited. If you’ve ever contemplated private security work in an often-hostile foreign country, then In the Kill Zone is certainly worth reading.

Otherwise, not so much.

  • This review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on July 15, 2018.


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