This is one of a series of Life Junctions posts. Each tells a story from my life that illustrates a wider human issue. This tale concerns trust and security. If you’re interested in writing or publishing stories from your own experiences or from family and friends, I can help you. Just get in touch.
It was the death threats scrawled on a bit of paper and tucked under the windscreen wipers that signalled the beginning of the end for the team. It meant people were watching them come and go. They were known and started to be afraid. Their fear made them question what they were doing and how little they were paid and the daily security hardships they faced travelling from Basra City to the office at Basra Airport. Their productivity declined and so did their reputation in HQ which we had carefully nurtured for months.
For 5 months in 2005 I managed the local translators team at Basra Airport, then HQ of Multinational Division (South East). Two years after the invasion, an insurgency was gathering strength and security was deteriorating but was not yet as severe as it would become in 2006-7. The team was an interesting cross-section of educated Basra society: honourable middle class men, Sunni and Shia, who needed a job and – at that stage – broadly believed in Iraq’s future following Saddam Hussein’s demise. All ages from 20 to 60, English teachers, engineers, students were represented.
My job was to keep them paid and motivated, help them do good quality translation work and represent them inside HQ, where they weren’t allowed to set foot. The dialect of Arabic I spoke in 2005 was no good for Basra, and I learned a lot from them about the region’s dialects and culture. Relations between the team and HQ required a great deal of tact and diplomacy on my part, particularly as incidents mounted and temperatures reached 50 degrees in the Summer.
I inadvertently slighted Abu Ibrahim, a distinguished but taciturn man of about 40 who had been jailed by Saddam’s forces. I learned he had two wives he took care to treat equally by spending three evenings with each and one evening at his parents’ house. Both wives were pregnant at the same time but about this time one sadly miscarried. It took a lot of diplomacy from the rest of the team to repair relations over a throwaway remark.
The security office told me it had doubts about an inoffensive middle-aged man named Abu Amjad, and I pleaded his case while I was there. After I left I learned his local neighbourhood militia had pressured him to inform to avoid difficulties for his family and he had lost his security clearance, and thus his job.
After I left in early 2006, the pressures on the team members and the impact on their work became too much for them and HQ, and the team gradually dwindled away. Many of them eventually found safe refuge in the UK and the USA.
It is important to remember that sometimes the career junctions you are dealing with are not your own. It’s your job to understand that the people, the colleagues and friends you’re working with are each wrestling with their own decisions and career junctions. If in doubt, find out and give them some support.