The Wages of Peace and War
The Wages of Peace and War
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the duality of prosperity and precarity experienced by Bosnians who have worked for the U.S. military and various contractors over the past two-plus decades. It begins by describing the economic and social significance of participation in Bosnia's postwar “peacekeeping economy” in the 1990s, with companies providing logistics support for peacekeeping forces, or employment with one of the myriad international organizations involved in peacebuilding projects during this period. This chapter provides details of the shift to employment in warzones in the Middle East and Afghanistan as the relatively privileged direct hires with Logistics Civil Augmentation Program (LOGCAP) prime contractors. It also describes the shift to working for contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, which often led to a dramatic upgrade in pay and status—at least initially.
To tell you the truth, Bosnia should be grateful for George Bush. Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan there’s around 10,000 people working there.
It is a beautiful July afternoon in northeast Bosnia. I am sitting in a fashionable café in Tuzla preparing for an interview with a former KBR employee named Goran. After a few minutes he arrives, wearing an expensive Oakley watch and a big smile. We order drinks and he starts telling me his story. Goran worked for KBR in Iraq for four years, beginning in 2006. Before this he was in law enforcement, but “it was barely a survivable salary. Like six hundred [Bosnian] marks a month. … I was 28 years old and I didn’t have my own car, I didn’t have my own apartment.”1 Like so many others he saw little chance of his situation improving if he stayed in Bosnia. When he heard that KBR was in Sarajevo recruiting, he leapt at the chance. “When they came and [were] like, ‘You want to make $56,000 or $60,000 dollars a year?’ Fuck yeah, man! And if they offer me anything … I mean, I didn’t go there to pick a job. I’m going to take whatever they find suitable. So I went there as a labor foreman.” The reason for Goran’s excitement is not difficult to understand. Working for KBR in Iraq offered the opportunity to make roughly twenty times his Bosnian salary.
In a country with a GDP per capita of less than $5,000 and an official unemployment rate that hovered around 30 percent in 2006, Goran was not alone. Since 2002 thousands of Bosnians have worked for military contractors in the Middle East, Afghanistan, and Africa. Thousands more also worked in support of U.S. peacekeeping forces in the Tuzla region in the latter half of the 1990s, many employed by Brown & Root as cooks, cleaners, drivers, administrative staff, and construction laborers. Indeed, it is no exaggeration to say that for the past two (p.50) decades the U.S. military has—directly and indirectly—been the most significant source of employment opportunities for people in Bosnia. This reflects both the country’s moribund postwar economy and the scale of logistics contracting by the military, beginning with its peacekeeping missions in the Balkans.
Military labor undoubtedly pays well compared to most work in Bosnia. But the experience of those who have chosen this path is also marked by precarity, both in relation to the work itself and the marginalization of one’s social and economic position in Bosnia. This is especially the case after the contract ends and people return home. Goran, for instance, was able to buy an apartment and car, help pay for his sister’s university expenses in the U.S., and support his parents, who live on a small pension, but he was unable to return to his previous position with the police. After months of searching he found a job with a local travel agency, working for commissions. However, few in Tuzla can afford expensive vacations, especially now that the money flowing in from the Middle East and Afghanistan has slowed to a trickle. Gradually all of his remaining savings melted away. “I remember the exact day when I hit the last hundred dollars on my account,” he recalls. “I already started working for the [travel] agency, but didn’t have any work [commissions]. Even now I’m not making any money. It’s just making ends meet. That’s it. When I saw my last hundred dollars in the account I had an anxiety attack … How am I going to live? Yeah, that’s when you think about going back.” As I describe below, the struggle to readjust to life in Bosnia, coupled with thoughts of finding another job abroad, is common among Bosnians who have done this work.
This chapter traces the impact of military contracting on the social and economic fortunes of individuals and communities in Bosnia over the past twenty years. I begin by outlining the employment of Bosnians as LN labor for U.S. peacekeeping forces in the late 1990s and early 2000s, explaining why this was concentrated in the northeast of the country. I also argue that this phenomenon needs to be situated within an analysis of the broader peacekeeping economy of postwar Bosnia. Following this I describe the shift to working for contractors in Iraq and Afghanistan, a shift that often led to a dramatic upgrade in pay and status—at least initially. Finally, I explore the duality of prosperity and precarity experienced by Bosnian workers, with a focus on how the latter has been profoundly shaped by social, economic, and political conditions in Bosnia.
The Peacekeeping Economy in Postwar Bosnia
In December 1995 U.S. Army soldiers serving as part of the multinational Implementation Force peacekeeping contingent crossed the Sava River into Bosnia. (p.51) They were accompanied by Brown & Root which, as noted in chapter 2, was the company contracted under the LOGCAP program to provide logistics support. The primary motivation for using LOGCAP, according to one of the chief planning officers, was the force reduction caps imposed on the military “JCS [Joint Chiefs of Staff] and the President defined some force caps on the number of troops we could have. That posed our next dilemma because our troops-to-task estimate was well above the 25,000 troop cap for total U.S. commitment. … LOGCAP was immediately identified as one of the methods by means of which we could reduce the dependence on uniformed service members and meet our construction and service requirements within the force caps we were being asked to accept.”2 Brown & Root was charged with providing a broad range of support, including base camp construction and maintenance, laundry, showers and latrines, food service, bulk fuel storage, and transportation of supplies into the country and among dozens of camps.
To carry out these tasks Brown & Root relied heavily on local labor. Almost immediately upon arrival in Bosnia it started recruiting as it scrambled to set up and manage three initial “force provider” camps in Tuzla and the nearby town of Lukavac, which would become the primary logistics depot in the region. Thus from the beginning one’s chance of getting this work was shaped by the contingent fact of where you lived. Sanja, a college student from Lukavac with little more than knowledge of English at the time, illustrates this dynamic:
Everybody has a different story. My story wasn’t nice. My mother got sick. I was in the first year of college and she got sick, breast cancer. It was ’95. It was almost the end of the war. The situation was all bad. No money, nothing. You know how it was. Actually you don’t know. You weren’t in the war. But anyway, we needed money and I had to find a solution. KBR was here [Lukavac]. The military was here. So I applied—actually it was not KBR it was Brown & Root at that time—and I got a job in the coke plant [in Lukavac]. So they had a camp in there and I started to work for the MWR [Morale, Welfare and Recreation center]. They had a library in the MWR and that’s where I started.
Another successful applicant, Djenan, met two Brown & Root human resources employees in the lounge of the Hotel Tuzla, where his uncle worked. They told him to come to their office in Lukavac if he was interested in a job. Speaking with a southern Texas twang and colloquialisms picked up during nearly fifteen years’ work with U.S. contractors, he describes the chaotic scene at the office in early January 1996:
It was a small office where all the small shops [in Lukavac] are. I was like, “This is the company?” I didn’t really realize the magnitude of it (p.52) yet. There were a shitload of people out front. Everyone in Lukavac knew [they were hiring] by then. Somehow I managed to get through the people and knock on the door. I was waving some resumes of mine. They let me in and I went upstairs and had an interview with these two guys. It went on for like 20 minutes. They asked me all sorts of questions. My English wasn’t near as good as it is today, but it was ok, and they said “Ok, we’ll give you a call.” I was walking away and thinking, “What is going on?” You see they had all these [Bosnian] rednecks coming in too. I didn’t realize they were plumbers and what have you. … Sure enough they called me a few days later. It was like, “Be in Lukavac at 7 a.m. [tomorrow] at the cultural center.”
Within months Brown & Root, Navy Seabees, and Air Force Red Horse engineers built a network of more than two dozen camps across northeast Bosnia (figure 4.1). The center of this network was a series of bases scattered around the Tuzla region, anchored by a former Yugoslav air base southeast of the city. In a short period of time this would be transformed into Eagle Base, the main base of operations for U.S. forces in Bosnia. A second cluster of camps were established north of Tuzla in the Posavina region to enforce the demobilization of the armed forces of the Federation and Republika Srpska (RS) along the Inter-Entity Boundary Line (IEBL) that divided Bosnia’s two substate political entities. The Posavina region contained some of the most bitterly contested territory of the war, especially the corridor running through Brčko that connected the two halves of the RS, which was considered one of the most likely potential flashpoints for renewed conflict due to its strategic importance and still-unresolved status after the war.3 A third, southern band of camps stretched along a strategic road connecting Vlasenica in the RS and Kladanj in the Federation, and the road extending south from Kladanj to Sarajevo. Finally, U.S. forces and Brown & Root contractors set up logistics hubs in Hungary and Croatia, and were based at Butmir, the multinational peacekeeping headquarters in Sarajevo.
The location of U.S. bases in Bosnia was a product of the decision to divide peacekeeping responsibilities in the country into three zones. In addition to the American zone in the northeast, British troops led operations in northwest Bosnia, and French troops were based in the south. Nordic, Russian, and Turkish peacekeepers also manned sites to the west and east of Tuzla in the American zone. After the first year of peacekeeping operations most of the small outlying camps were closed, leaving U.S. forces even more concentrated around Tuzla.
As noted in the introduction, the peacekeeping missions in the Balkans in the 1990s (Bosnia and Kosovo) were the first time when the number of contractors are estimated to have reached parity with deployed troops. The majority of these (p.53) were local hires. According to one study commissioned by the military, Bosnians made up 80 percent of Brown & Root’s workforce in the country.4 In addition to this they worked in base post exchange (PX) offices and as interpreters for the Army, with 300 employed in the latter role by the end of 1996 according to former interpreters I have interviewed. Brown & Root and the military also contracted with local firms for supplies of construction materials like gravel and lumber, transportation equipment, and the completion of various infrastructure and reconstruction projects. In April 1996, for instance, the military’s regional contracting office in Tuzla signed a contract worth 2 million deutsche marks with the firm Tuzla Putevi for repair work on the road between Tuzla and the Croatian border.5 In short, though there is no hard data on the total number of Bosnians in the Tuzla region working for the U.S. military and the various contracting firms supporting it in the years immediately following the war, I believe a conservative estimate would be more than 10,000.6
It is useful to view this workforce through the lens of what Kathleen Jennings calls the “peacekeeping economy,” which she defines as “the economic multiplier effect of peacekeeping operations via direct or indirect resource flows into the local economy.”7 According to Jennings, there are several elements that constitute the peacekeeping economy. The first is formal employment with international organizations and peacekeeping forces. Following the war, thousands of Bosnians were hired as project officers, interpreters, or support staff by major international organizations operating in the country such as the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), the Office of the High Representative, and the UN. Like work for military contractors, this constituted a significant and distinct employment sector in the country.8 In addition to formal employment, the peacekeeping economy also consists of informal work for international staff; the development of industries that cater to internationals like restaurants and bars, hotels and apartments, and the sex industry; and investments in postwar reconstruction of infrastructure and housing.9
The peacekeeping economy constitutes a significant portion of economic activity in the immediate years following a war, especially in small countries like Bosnia that host a sizable international presence. At the same time its effects are also highly uneven spatially, as they tend to be concentrated in the national capital and cities where international organizations and peacekeeping troops are located. Consider the impact of the peacekeeping economy on Tuzla in the late 1990s. The first thing to note is that the city and its surrounding region is relatively small, with less than 500,000 people living in Tuzla Canton. Tuzla itself is one of the oldest inhabited settlements in Bosnia, due to its saline lakes that have been utilized for salt production for centuries. During the time of socialist Yugoslavia it became an industrial city known for coal mining, chemical production, (p.54)
and metal working. These jobs offered security in employment and housing. Following the war, many of these industries struggled to regain their footing due to a combination of wartime destruction and theft of infrastructure and equipment, disinvestment, and lack of competitiveness on international markets. As a result, industrial centers like Tuzla faced especially difficult economic conditions. Thus it is difficult to overstate the impact that the rapid recruitment of roughly 10,000 people working in support of U.S. forces, as well as thousands more employed (p.55) by international organizations, and the burgeoning service economies offering food, entertainment and housing for international staff—including the emergence of a large sex industry catering to international civilians and peacekeepers—had on the local economy.10
Going to War
Significantly for those in the Tuzla region, just as the peacebuilding intervention in Bosnia was beginning to wind down in the early 2000s U.S. military activities in the Middle East were ramping up. So the transition from work in Bosnia’s peacekeeping economy to a distant war economy was, for many individuals, made without a significant break in employment. One-third of those I interviewed in Bosnia, for instance, started out as Brown & Root employees in the late 1990s. Several more served as military interpreters or worked for organizations like the International Committee of the Red Cross and OSCE before finding positions with military contractors in the Middle East and Afghanistan.
Brown & Root employees who followed the company (then known as KBR) to Iraq and Afghanistan in the early 2000s experienced a distinct upshift in pay and status. In Bosnia they had been classified as LNs and paid wages that were linked to local salaries. According to those I interviewed, depending on skills and job category wages with Brown & Root in Bosnia ranged from one and a half to three times the average salary in Bosnia. This pay range roughly corresponds with Catherine Baker’s research on local military interpreters with the British Army in Bosnia, who earned two to three times the going wages.11 Salaries paid by KBR in Iraq and Afghanistan were much higher than this, where even individuals with no previous experience, like Goran, were able to earn more than $50,000. Longtime employees recruited for positions requiring technical skills and/or experience, like quality assurance/quality control (QA/QC) supervisor or procurement officer, could make up to $80,000.
The increase in pay was also accompanied by an increase in status. As LNs, Bosnians working for U.S. peacekeeping forces were not able to shop at the PX stores or use MWR facilities during off hours.12 They were also subject to repeated security screening procedures by the military, with one worker recalling that these occurred “every six months, for three to four hours.” And when entering and walking around bases their movement was closely monitored and circumscribed. To give one example, in May 1997 an article titled “Be Not Afraid” appeared in The Talon, a weekly newspaper produced by the Army’s public affairs office at Eagle Base, describing a demonstration of military police dog capabilities. The (p.56) purpose of this demonstration was to reassure local Brown & Root employees who found the dogs “frightening” and “aggressive” during searches and patrols on bases.13
In Iraq and Afghanistan the military classified Bosnians as TCNs, but as KBR employees they stood apart from and above others working for the company’s subcontractors. When I asked Elvis, a former military interpreter in Bosnia who began working for KBR in the 2000s, whether the label TCN was ever applied to KBR’s Bosnian workforce in Afghanistan, he replied, “In KBR I heard the term OCN [Other Country National] or TCN, which is the same shit, maybe like three times in four and a half years. … You were a KBR employee and you were treated as such, unless your point of origin was a matter of statistics.” As a KBR employee Elvis enjoyed a variety of privileges, including possession of a Common Access Card (CAC), issued by the DoD or badges that allowed access to military dining facilities (DFACs), MWR centers, and PX stores.
The 2008 decision to split the LOGCAP IV contract among three firms—KBR, Fluor, and DynCorp—stimulated a second wave of hiring in the Tuzla area. Under this new contract KBR retained logistics support in Iraq and the Gulf states but Fluor and DynCorp were given responsibility for operations in Afghanistan. Both companies faced a need for labor, especially following President Obama’s decision in favor of a troop surge in Afghanistan in 2009. Fluor and DynCorp quickly set up recruiting offices in Tuzla. The response was remarkable, as illustrated by the following vignette from Larisa Jasarevic, an anthropologist who studies debt, divination, and informal markets in postwar Bosnia, about a 2011 visit to a well-known fortune-teller in Tuzla:
I have been casually visiting Zlata since 2006. In 2011, I found the cups [used for divination, reading Turkish coffee remains or ‘mud’] much larger and the scope of her vision extended to keep up with the migration of economic opportunities, from regional, largely informal market trade to more transnational pursuits of fortune with American defense contractors (KBR and Fluor International) in Afghanistan and Iraq. Among those who seek her out … many work for or are applying to Fluor International or else dating, desiring, marrying, and otherwise caring for men employed or seeking employment in Afghanistan and Iraq. A young woman, anxious about her protracted engagement, walked out of Zlata’s room with assurances about the date for her wedding and, just as exciting, news of her future husband’s job offer in Afghanistan.14
One Bosnian magazine described the phenomenon another way in 2009 when it claimed that the “mass departures to Afghanistan” of people from Lukavac represented their “answer to the recession” in Bosnia.15
(p.57) At the same time, jobs with Fluor and DynCorp were usually accompanied by a reduction in pay and status relative to U.S. contractors and other TCNs. The reason is that for the new contract (LOGCAP IV) the Pentagon directed its prime contractors to bring salaries for direct hires more in line with prevailing wages in countries that they come from—or at least a more reasonable premium to prevailing wages than what had been paid by KBR under LOGCAP III. DynCorp, for instance, classified its employees according to four categories: 1) Expats (Americans), 2) Foreign National United Kingdom (FNUK), 3) Foreign National European (FNE), and 4) Foreign National Asian (FNA).16 Pay and privileges were roughly equivalent for expats and FNUK employees. My interviews suggest that DynCorp paid FNE workers (which were primarily from Bosnia, Macedonia, and Kosovo) less than KBR, with salaries for most positions between $30,000 and $50,000. This, of course, was still far more than one could earn in Bosnia—if you could find a job. Fluor also set up a tiered classification system that distinguished between company staff, Americans hired on contract, West European employees, East Europeans, and workers from Asia. Under this system Bosnians and other workers from the Balkans (tier IV) earned 45 percent of what Americans and West Europeans were paid for the same jobs.17
Fluor’s and DynCorp’s classification schemes did not just govern pay, they also reflected company cultures that set their American and West European workers apart from Balkan and Asian employees. According to Elvis, who also worked for Fluor in Afghanistan, “Fluor was very insensitive toward that. It was OCN this, OCN that.” Damir, who also worked for both KBR and Fluor, highlighted the difference between the two companies with the following story:
I think in KBR all guys were the same, you know. Americans, Bosnians, Macedonians. Some guys from Europe. All were the same.
Do you mean same in terms of money or same—
The rules were all the same. Rules. For Americans, for me. In Fluor it was not the same.
Can you explain?
The first time I went with Fluor and landing in Bagram, some HR [Human Resources] guy from Fluor come pick us up. And that flight had some American guys, some Bosnians, Macedonians, some Filipinos, some countries from Asia. And that American guy [in HR] came and said, “American guys go on that side. And some Europe guys—from Germany or France—go with American guys.” And then he said “Bosnians, Macedonians, and Asians, go on the other side.” And first bus came to pick up American guys and second bus came to pick us up. And at that time I see it is not the same as KBR.
The greatest decrease in pay and status was experienced by Bosnians who were recruited on “Asian” contracts with DynCorp. This practice began in 2010 according to several former DynCorp employees I talked with. The typical Asian contract paid between $900 and $1500 a month—less than many who worked for KBR as local employees in Bosnia in the 1990s made. Recruiters also falsely promised that Bosnians would be able to switch over to a “European” contract when they arrived in Afghanistan. One applicant, Diana, was told, “After three months, you can change the position. You’re not going to stay on this position. I can guarantee you that.” It took her two years to obtain a European contract. Another Dyncorp employee, Edin, recalls: “When I finished one Asian contract, I asked them, ‘Are you going to give me now European contract, because I’m from Europe? Maybe Bosnia is not in European Union, but it’s still in Europe.’ They said, ‘No way. If you’re going to sign this one, sign. … If you don’t want to sign, we’re going to buy you a ticket [home].’ I said, ‘Ok, buy me the ticket. Put me on the first plane. I want to go home.’ They said, ‘It’s no problem. Just go in your tent. They’re going to call you tomorrow and give you your ticket.’” Despite the dramatic reduction in salary, DynCorp did not find a shortage of applicants willing to work in Afghanistan on Asian contracts. In 2010 a Bosnian magazine estimated that more than 5,000 people from the Tuzla region were working in Afghanistan and Iraq, with thousands more looking for the chance to join them.18 For many, clearly, the opportunity to work abroad—even in a warzone for as little as $900 a month—was preferable to struggling to survive in Bosnia’s depressed postwar economy.
The Duality of Prosperity and Precarity
The intersection of well-paying but precarious work and the more general condition of precarity in postwar Bosnia has produced a paradoxical duality of prosperity and precarity for Bosnians involved with military contracting over the past twenty years. One sign of prosperity is the construction of several new apartment buildings in Lukavac and Tuzla that are informally called “Iraq” and “Afghanistan” due to the large number of people who have worked in those countries who have purchased flats, often with cash. Another is the consumption of luxury goods like the watch that Goran wore to his interview. Expensive watches seem to be especially popular status symbols with Bosnian men. One individual I talked with spent three months’ salary on a Tag Heuer watch in (p.59) Dubai during his first leave from Afghanistan. His wife, he recalls, was less than pleased. Vacations to the Adriatic coast are also popular among workers, who receive a month’s leave from KBR and Fluor three times a year.19
The conspicuous consumption of goods like cars, vacations, expensive watches, and clothes is frequently remarked upon. Indeed, one does not need to spend much time in the Tuzla region to pick up an undercurrent of resentment toward those who have worked in Iraq and Afghanistan, mixed with criticism that many have squandered their money on frivolous purchases. Yet most people I talked to spent the bulk of their earnings on more prosaic things such as housing, helping their children attend university, supporting parents who live on meager pensions, or giving money to siblings and extended family members who are struggling to get by.
For those like Sanja and Djenan who joined Brown & Root shortly after the Yugoslav wars and then followed KBR or other firms to the Middle East and Afghanistan in the 2000s, this work essentially constitutes a professional career, spanning the majority of their working lives. After finishing his contract with Fluor for the Ebola mission in West Africa in 2015, Elvis, for instance, had spent nearly two decades working for the military or one of its logistics contractors. In addition to amassing career earnings far larger than possible for all but the most fortunate—or politically connected—in Bosnia, nearly all of the longtime KBR employees that I spoke with also appreciated the chance to earn promotions and pay increases, as the following exchange with Esad illustrates:
The company [KBR] was great to us. It is very hard to find a company like that here.
In what ways was it a good company to work for?
Giving us an opportunity to prove ourselves. To—how to say—you had a lot of opportunities working with that company. Where you started and where you finished. There was no discrimination. If you are smart and can do your job you can move up.
So how many times did you apply?
How many times did I get promotions?
Hmmm … five or six. And I applied for maybe ten or fifteen jobs, I can’t remember exactly.
Esad began working with Brown & Root as an “assistant truck driver with SST, trash.” Basically his job was to hook up the “shit-sucking trucks” to latrine tanks and make sure they did not hit equipment or buildings when backing up and navigating the main camp in Lukavac. By the end of his time a decade later he (p.60) was working in KBR’s administrative center in Kuwait “putting reports together” on the company’s operational activities in Iraq and Kuwait. This type of career trajectory is not uncommon among Bosnians who began working with military contractors in the 1990s.
On the other hand, there are several aspects of the peacekeeping and war economies that fuel precarity, both in relation to the work itself and the marginalization of one’s social and economic position in Bosnia. The first, obviously, involves the risk of severe injury or death while working in an active warzone, as evidenced by the death of multiple individuals from the region. Another factor is the highly contingent nature of employment—both in regard to the ubiquity of short-term contracts and the fact that workers can be immediately terminated for violating any one of myriad rules regulating life on military bases. This leads to a situation that Catherine Baker, who has researched the position of military interpreters in postwar Bosnia, aptly calls “prosperity without security.”20 Additionally, salaries paid by both peacebuilding organizations in Bosnia and military contracting firms abroad do not include contributions to state employment or pension funds. This means that workers are not able to build up credits for retirement benefits. Nor are they eligible for unemployment benefits when their job ends.
As important as these factors, though, are other more existential dimensions of precarity linked to the peacekeeping and war economies, especially the ways in which this type of work socially and economically marginalizes individuals in Bosnia, which presents a number of challenges when their contracts end.21 One way this occurs is through a social distance developed through enculturation of the mind-sets and business practices of foreign colleagues, organizations, and companies. Longtime workers like Djenan do not just talk like Americans, they have also picked up different habits and ways of thinking after interacting with U.S. troops and civilians for years on end that make it difficult to reacclimate themselves to life in Bosnia. Tatijana, who has spent her entire life working for international organizations in Bosnia and KBR in Iraq, highlighted this as her biggest challenge.
I’m not even sure if I could function in a work system around here. I’ve honestly never worked for a local company in my entire life. I’m not just talking about the money. It is just the way things work. The efficiency of it. Around here it’s like, yeah, we’ll get to it. You’ll get your money when you get it. I’m used to working a system where I know I have to do this, this, this, and this and do it well to be able to keep my job and get my money at the end of the month. Well, the economy around here sure (p.61) doesn’t function like that. It’s who you know, who you’re related to, and stuff like that. That’s how you get a job and that’s how you keep it. It doesn’t really matter what your qualities are or what you bring to the table with your experience and skills and knowledge. It’s about networking and, basically, it’s obvious. It’s nepotism.
Echoing her, Sead, who worked for DynCorp in Afghanistan, insisted that his relatively brief time with the company was a blessing: “I didn’t stay too long over there. It was only two years and two months. But I know people who stayed more than five years. And when you come home you’re just lost. You don’t have too much contact with your other friends. You don’t have contact with your mom, or maybe with the wife or with your child. Because over there you change as a man, a person, like another person. I think it is bad if you stay too long over there.” Samir, who has worked for several international organizations in Bosnia over the past two decades, put this issue to me most succinctly and poetically when he stated, “After fifteen years with the IC [international community] we don’t belong here [Bosnia] any more. We are an in-between people.”
Another aspect of marginalization people report is that their experience and skills are not valued by Bosnian employers—who also fear that they won’t work for low-wage salaries—making it even harder to return to the local economy. Ivan, who worked for KBR and DynCorp for sixteen years starting in 1996, told me: “The problem is … nobody’s going to employ a man who is 40 years old without any kind of experience. Local experience. There is a kind of, how do you say, I can’t find the word, the locals they do not like people who worked for rich companies. They think, you’re full of money, you don’t need a job, ‘Why [do] you need a job? You just spent 10 years working for KBR earning $7,000 to $10,000 bucks per month.’” After struggling to make a living in Lukavac, he returned to Iraq to work for the logistics services company, Sallyport, in 2016. This perception was also articulated to me by a business owner in Tuzla, who bluntly explained why he tends not to hire those who have worked for PMCs in the Middle East: “You have somebody that spent ten-plus years abroad. He lost the feeling of things in Bosnia. Completely useless. He got used to being paid quite a lot. He cannot get paid a lot here. So the motivation for the job is questionable. … [He] is probably waiting for another project to go off [to].” Esad’s experience after returning home in 2007 illustrates the struggle that many returning workers say they face:
What was the biggest challenge [when you came back home]?
For two years I was applying for jobs in Bosnia. And I didn’t even get an interview. That was the biggest challenge. What kind of jobs were they?
They were logistics, transportation. Even as a truck driver. And I did not get interviewed.
Did people tell you why?
Yes, they tell you. They say because of incomplete paperwork, or say, “You don’t have the experience.”
They don’t count experience with KBR?
No, they don’t … You have to have about a year or two years’ experience in the field you are looking for. But in Bosnia. And I don’t have it. I spent twelve years with KBR.
So they don’t count your work here in Bosnia with KBR [as experience] either?
No, they don’t. I don’t know why.
After years of applying he eventually found work as a cab driver. Nearly everyone he knows is in a similar situation. “Sometimes at coffee when I meet people who were over there, we ask, ‘Have you found a job?’ And everybody is depressed because they haven’t found a job. It is miserable.”
One alternative to working for someone else is to open your own business. But as Enis, who worked for Fluor in Afghanistan for several years, explained to me, in a country like Bosnia this too has its downsides.
I was like, “Ok I am going home and I got some money saved. And I am going to open my own business and live off it, and that’s it.” But [there are] so many risks to opening your own business. From the state—papers, laws, unethical competition. [And then] criminals and security. So it really, the time is so bad that I do not dare to invest in anything. Because if I slip then I am fucked. The other day a friend who runs his own business—printing, making advertisements—said, “Enis, listen to me. I am your friend. If you want to open anything, open a cold beer and shut the fuck up and enjoy it.” Because when he showed me his business, how much people owe him, or how much he owes to his suppliers, it’s a vicious cycle. It’s hard for him just to somehow stretch enough to pay the guys that work for him, or pay the taxes to the state. So I am looking around, applying to local companies.
The challenge of reintegrating with society extends beyond work, as illustrated by the following quote from Srdjan, who has worked for several military contracting companies in Bosnia, Iraq, and Afghanistan since 1995: “The main struggle is to get resocialized back into civilian life. Especially in Bosnia: unemployment, the political situation, missed growing of children, failed marriages. Facing the (p.63) reality of this life here. And some guys just can’t find themselves. And again they apply for another mission. … Because unfortunately there aren’t many options here, to get employed, have a regular life. So people, after some time they get disappointed” (italics mine). The phrase “facing the reality of this life here” is significant for a couple of reasons. The first is that I heard variations of it from multiple people when describing their current struggles after returning from Iraq or Afghanistan—struggles that echo those experienced by returning veterans in the U.S. More important, though, is how the phrase succinctly references the general experience of precarity in postwar Bosnia that is linked to a range of political, social, and economic conditions.22 That is, precarity in reference to not just a postsocialist economy marked by high unemployment and the loss of economic security, but also to endemic ethnonationalist rhetoric, political uncertainty, and the ongoing struggle to return to a “normal life” in the aftermath of violent ethnic cleansing and displacement.23 One example of the pervasive experience of existential precarity in Bosnia is provided by a stunning 2017 news story by the journalist Gordana Knežević that examines the increasingly widespread use of antidepressant and antianxiety drugs. According to medical statistics Knežević cites, in a country of roughly 3.5 million people there now are 4.3 million prescriptions for the antianxiety drug bromazepam and more than a million prescriptions for various antidepressant medications.24
In 2014 protests against political dysfunctionality, corruption, unemployment, and unpaid wages and pensions by publicly owned companies erupted in Bosnia. Nationalist political parties’ offices, and government buildings—including the Presidency Building—were set on fire while tens of thousands marched in cities across the country.25 The initial site and epicenter of protests was Tuzla. Several scholars have argued that this can be explained by the fact that Tuzla is an economically depressed former industrial city that has also been a center of left-wing, anti-nationalist politics in the country since the early 1990s.26
I believe that in addition to their location, the timing of the protests is also explainable, in part, by the fact that over the two years prior to 2014 employment in the distant war economy contracted in conjunction with the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan. While the loss of employment of a few thousand individuals may seem small, the multiplier effect of these jobs in Tuzla is significant. As Enis pointed out to me, “Try to imagine for a city or area like this, when you have one company delivering 5,000 paychecks every week, multiplied with their families. So like 20,000 people directly connected, or earning, putting bread on the table. And it’s gone.” In addition to supporting multiple family members, the earnings and consumption of workers have also boosted a variety of industries in Tuzla, from construction and real estate, to auto sales, restaurants, and travel (p.64) agencies. This injection of money from the peacekeeping and war economies over the previous twenty years masked, to an extent, the degree of economic precarity in the region. As this money has dried up in recent years, frustration with “the reality of this life here” has mounted. In the end, the temporary prosperity presented by military labor has not offered an escape from political and economic precarity in Bosnia.
(1.) In 2006, when Goran quit his police job, 600 Bosnian marks was roughly the equivalent of $375 per month.
(3.) Disagreement over who would be accorded control over the Brčko area nearly scuttled the peace negotiations in 1995. At the last minute a deal was made to have the issue resolved through international arbitration within a year of signing the Dayton Peace Agreement. A final decision on Brčko’s status was ultimately delayed until 1999 when the arbitral tribunal declared that the entirety of the former opština (a Yugoslav unit of local government similar to a municipality or county) would become an autonomous District. For more on this, see Moore 2013.
(6.) A December 1996 paper on privatization from the Center for Naval Analyses claims that Brown & Root alone hired 6,700 workers in its first year of operations, though it does not indicate the source of this figure. See Stafford and Jondrow 1996, 5. Brown & Root was the largest PMC in Bosnia, but it was just one of many U.S. and Bosnian firms supporting the peacekeeping mission, which makes 10,000 a conservative estimate in my view. A similar hiring boom—and subsequent migration of workers to the Middle East and Afghanistan—occurred in towns in Kosovo and Macedonia near the massive Camp Bond-steel base established by the U.S. military as part of the Kosovo Force peacekeeping mission. For more on the Macedonian context, see K. Brown 2010.
(10.) The most notorious examples of the emergent sex industry in northeast Bosnia were the brothels and trafficking operations at the Arizona market near Brčko. For more on sex trafficking and peacekeeping in the Balkans, see Mendelson 2005. For more on the Arizona market, including the relationship between it and U.S. peacekeeping forces, see Moore Forthcoming.
(16.) DynCorp’s classification is evident in multiple company documents I have acquired.
(17.) Fluor’s tier system was explained to me by several former workers. Data on the pay differentials comes from a September 2009 company document titled “FGG Contingency Operations: Salary Structure—Tier II/Tier III/Tier IV.” Copy on file with author.
(19.) Another sign of Bosnians’ lower status while working with DynCorp is that the company allowed workers to take leaves just twice a year, and only paid for the cost of the flights for the first leave—unlike Fluor and KBR, which paid for the flights for all three granted leaves.
(25.) As Asim Mujkić (2016) notes, leaders of the 2014 protests also drew lessons from the JMBG (short for “Unique Master Citizen Number”) protests the previous year, which centered on criticism of politicians’ handling of a dispute concerning whether the country’s identification numbers issued at birth should designate the ethnicity of citizens. The political deadlock lasted for months, resulting in thousands of citizens unable to obtain birth certificates, passports, and health insurance documents. For an excellent collection of analyses of the 2014 protests, see Arsenijević 2014.