IRAQ AND ROLL
Book extract: ‘In the Kill Zone’ by Neil Reynolds
Even buying a car in Baghdad could be a life-threatening experience
In ‘Eye on the Enemy’ Neil Reynolds wrote about his time on the border as part of the reconnaissance wing of 31 Battalion. In 1999 he retired from the army and started working in private security. In 2003 he was part of one of the first groups of South Africans to start private military security companies in Iraq.
Within days of his arrival in Baghdad he started learning the ins and outs of surviving as in a war-torn country. ‘In the Kill Zone’ tells of the numerous challenges he faced. In this extract he writes about how even buying a car could be a life-threatening experience. – Jennifer Platt
Extract from In the Kill Zone: Surviving as a Private Military Contractor in Iraq by Neil Reynolds
After we had been awarded another security project I realised we desperately needed another armoured vehicle. I put out the word through our Iraqi translator and driver Hassan Salam that we were in the market for an armoured car. They seldom came up for sale, but in Iraq anything was possible.
Eventually I was approached by a go-between.
‘There is a problem,’ he told me. ‘This vehicle is owned by one of Saddam’s generals. He is wanted by the Americans but now he is a senior officer in the Mahdi Army [the militia of a hard-line Shiite cleric called Muqtada al-Sadr that spearheaded the first major armed confrontation against the US-led forces from the Shia community] in Sadr City.’
Sadr City was about 10 kilometres outside central Baghdad. The asking price was $25,000.
‘You can look at it,’ said my go-between. ‘It is in very good condition. Blue Mercedes-Benz that even belonged to Saddam Hussein. Made for him in the factory.’
The story was that if I wanted the vehicle I would be taken to Sadr City by one of the general’s bodyguards. No one could follow or they would be shot at the Mahdi Army checkpoints.
‘Do you trust the general?’ I asked. ‘Of course,’ came back the quick response. ‘Very honourable man. Since Saddam’s time I have worked with him.’
This didn’t allay my fears, as I could see my life ending up in an orange jumpsuit prior to a beheading.
That night I discussed the deal with my colleagues Rieme de Jager and Eddie Visser. We had the money for the vehicle, but that wasn’t the issue. The issue was being at the mercy of Mahdi soldiers. The Americans would have a tough time getting me out, even if they knew where I was.
‘I’ll go,’ Rieme volunteered. ‘I look more like a local.’
I shook my head. ‘Not going to work.’
‘Then maybe don’t take all the money,’ Rieme suggested.
‘Ja, that crossed my mind, but then what if the vehicle’s right and everything’s good. I don’t want to do this twice. Anyhow, not having all the money might piss them off.’
I’ve been in some tight spots before but this felt like it was pushing the envelope.
‘I’ll have my phone,’ I sighed, resigned to the inevitable. ‘At least I can phone if things go wrong.’
A meeting was set up and I drew the money. I took a bag to the meeting but the money was stuffed into my underpants. If they snatched my bag, I would still have a bargaining chip. I took two phones, so that if the one in the bag was taken there was a back-up in my sock. Sure, I’d have to take my boot off to retrieve it but this was better than being left without a phone.
I was nervous waiting to be collected. It felt like I was back in the bush war. Except now I had no weapon and I had to rely on the bad guys to look after me. This was playing Russian roulette with two rounds in the chambers.
My lift arrived and the man spoke perfect English.
‘Do you have a gun?’ he asked.
‘Do you have a tracking device?’
‘I believe you,’ he said. ‘I am not going to check. But if the general finds you are lying it will not go well with you.’
‘No worries,’ I said.
We left the hotel and went in a direction that was not towards Sadr City.
‘Where are we going?’ I asked. ‘This is not the right way.’
He laughed. ‘So you know Baghdad.’
‘I’ve been driving around it for the last few months,’ I replied.
‘We are taking a back road to make sure no one is following.’
This, too, caused me concern as it meant that they were going to great lengths to ensure no one knew where we were.
Under an overpass we stopped and changed vehicles, and this time headed for Sadr City.
Entering Sadr City was like entering another country. The atmosphere was tense and people dressed differently, in more traditional clothes. At the Mahdi Army checkpoint we were waved through. At the next checkpoint I was blindfolded.
‘It is not far now to the general’s house,’ I was told.
The blindfold was reassuring, as they would not have bothered if they had no intention of releasing me.
About ten minutes later we stopped and the blindfold was removed.
The general stepped forward to greet me.
‘You are not an American,’ he said. ‘Where do you come from?’
I told him.
‘I like South Africans,’ he said. ‘They have done a good job in Iraq.’
We then had tea, and afterwards I was taken to examine the vehicle. It was spotlessly clean and looked brand new although an old model. I could see it fitting perfectly into our operation. You only knew it was armoured when you opened a door. The window glass, too, was armour-plated. The engine number and the Vehicle Identification Number (VIN) were original. The fan belts were new and the battery terminals clean – always a sign that a vehicle is well looked after. The engine started on the turn and purred like a cat. I could not have been happier.
Now all I needed was to get out alive.
Custom dictated that tea be served again. While we partook the general told me that he had used the vehicle to get home after Saddam’s palace was attacked. He’d kept the vehicle at his house but did not want the Americans to find it or he would be in trouble. I didn’t tell him he was in trouble anyhow.
Then the haggling started. This was expected but it was the last thing I wanted. I wanted to pay the money and get the hell out of Dodge.
I opened by citing the market value of $20,000.
‘This one is in such good condition, people will pay more. There are lots of people who will pay more.’
We both knew this was not true, as the market for armoured vehicles was hardly large.
‘All right,’ I said. ‘I will pay $25,000.’
Which was where we settled. When I undid my pants to take out the money he burst into laughter.
To his aides he said, ‘This is a careful man who does not put all his eggs in one basket.’ He laughed some more, enjoying his own joke.
I gave him the money and he handed it to his aides. Immediately they started counting it, but he stopped them.
‘Where are your manners?’ he asked. ‘This man will not cheat me.’ Then he turned to me. ‘I apologise, my friend, but you will be blindfolded again. This is for your safety. We will drive the vehicle to the checkpoint and then you can take it. You will be escorted out of Sadr City. You know the streets of Baghdad, my people tell me.’
We shook hands.
‘I hope you get many happy miles,’ he said. ‘You will be safe inside because everyone knows it was mine.’
I had to drive back to the hotel with the fuel light on red. All I needed was to run out of fuel and get stuck on the side of the road. However, I was also sure I was being followed, and this was actually reassuring as I knew there would be no issues.
To say that I was relieved when I drove through the hotel gates would be an understatement. The guys were soon swarming over the vehicle in admiration.
‘Where the hell did you get that from?’ asked my American colleague Al Habelman.
I told him.
He stared at me in disbelief. ‘How did you get there and back?’
‘Long story,’ I said, and proceeded to tell it. It would not be the last time I’d buy cars in Sadr City, but of all my buying forays there, it was the most cloak-and-dagger operation.
In the Kill Zone by Neil Reynolds is published by Jonathan Ball Publishers, R280