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Tanguma Wanted Us to Come Back to Iraq, Macedonian Contractor Says

March 7, 2005

The following interview, conducted just over a month ago by Balkanalysis.com Director Christopher Deliso, casts further light on the most tragic episode related to Macedonia’s experience of the Iraq war fallout – the kidnapping and murder of 3 Macedonian workers in Iraq in August 2004 by Iraqi terrorists.

30 year-old Ljubco Kuzmanovski, a native of Kumanovo, was one of the 19 Macedonian employees of Soufan Engineering who returned home in October following the slaying of 3 of his colleagues. In this interview, the former contractor tells the story of why and how he decided to go to Iraq, as well what life was like there with the US soldiers. Kuzmanovski also adds some interesting details about the enigmatic Sergio Tanguma, the “human resources” specialist who hired the workers in the first place and who was beaten by angry Macedonians in late October.

Christopher Deliso: First of all, why did you want to go and work in Iraq?

Ljubco Kuzmanovski: For the money, primarily. It is hard to find a job here and they paid much better. It was also something that offered a little adventure.

CD: How did you find out about Soufan Engineering?

LK: From Sergio [Tanguma].

CD: How did you know him?

LK: He worked here for several years for Brown & Root. I would see him often in some of our local bars in Kumanovo. He knew many people here. One of them was a guy from my neighborhood who also had worked for Brown & Root. Sergio found out about Soufan, I don’t know how, and became their rep. He knew Macedonia offers cheap labor and that he could find workers. But, as we all found out later, he had not legally established his recruiting office and got into trouble for that reason.

CD: Did applicants have to fulfill any criteria to get the job? Like, did they have to know English well or something?

LK: No, you needed some English, but it wasn’t necessary to get the job. You just had to be able to work.

CD: Did the company tell you how dangerous a situation you could find in Iraq? Did they mention anything about this in the contract?

LK:In the contract they stated everywhere that it was not the company’s responsibility for anything that happened to us, that it was dangerous. They didn’t lie about the dangers.

CD: Describe your trip to Iraq. When? How?

LK: We went on July 31 2004, at 7 AM – Skopje-Belgrade-Baghdad. It was a charter plane with Greek pilots, only 19 seats.

CD: What happened when you got to Baghdad?

 LK: They put us up for 3 days in a very nice hotel – I think it was called the Royal Coral, where only sheikhs and rich people stayed. In fact, when we got there some Iraqis were having a wedding! For 3 days we waited there, while they decided what bases we would go to.

CD: Was it dangerous? Did you get to go around the city at all?

LK: No, we couldn’t leave the hotel because they said someone could kill us. On the first night there was a big explosion 800 meters away- a real “welcome to Iraq!”

CD: Where were you stationed?

LK: I went with 5 people to Kirkuk, 110 km to the north and we stayed there until the 28th of August. We were at the base of Diala, close to the Iranian border. We soon found out that it was a very safe base. The chief manager from Soufan’s side was a man from Ireland named Kevin, but he didn’t come regularly. There was another manager named Michael, though, and he did.

CD: What precisely was your job?

LK: We were to build accommodations with electrical systems for the soldiers, 200-300 in all before we left.

CD: How was life on the base?

LK: Like I said, this base was very nice. In the morning we had these beautiful breakfasts, 3 or 4 kinds of meat, 20 different salads, fruit, yoghurts, ice cream…

We had a lot of things for recreation – volleyball, ping pong, a sports center. There we met many soldiers. There was a Protestant church on the base, and on the first floor, a library with 2,000 or so books.

CD: How were your relations with the soldiers?

LK: We met many soldiers, most were very nice. Every night they had a party with all different kinds of music. One soldier named Frank was usually in charge of music.

CD: What kind of parties? Were you drinking?

LK: No, no alcohol was allowed. We actually had impromptu dance classes – the guy’s going, “left, right, clap your hands!” and leading us through it. The black soldiers would do these hip-hop dance competitions, like they were in some video on MTV. It was great. And also karaoke. We were just watching the soldiers and laughing.

CD: So how long did this last? When did you leave, when the other Macedonians were killed?

LK: Actually, we were going to leave because we had finished with our tasks and were assigned to another base. We were told the truth 2 or 3 days after the people were kidnapped. They had been assigned to the base at Kalsu. Some people from Lebanon who were our colleagues told us. At first, we didn’t believe them. But one guy from our group went to a marine’s apartment, and he told us this was true. We panicked. But we didn’t call home to say this because we didn’t want to make them worried.

A few days later, on the 28th of August, they [Soufan] sent some cars to take us to our next bases. First we went to Baghdad. There they told us definitely that the guys were killed, but not to call home or tell anyone.

CD: Then what happened? They asked if you wanted to stay or go, yes?

LK: Sergio had been talking by phone with Ilinka [Mitreva, the Macedonian foreign minister] on the 24th of August. When we got to Baghdad on the 28th, there were 18 of us from the two groups. Including me, there were 4 of us who wanted to stay, and 14 to leave. But the other workers who had been put in Ramadi Base still didn’t know anything. That was the base we were supposed to go to, 150 KM from Baghdad to the southwest, now that we had finished work at the first base.

CD: So you went to Ramadi? How was the situation there?

LK: In Ramadi it was much more strict. We weren’t allowed to see the soldiers. For 9 hours a day we worked. It was basically the same job, but now we only were making tents. This was a nice base, with new furnishings. Soufan brought us a TV and DVD player, and we got an extra $100 for staying. We played football with the Iraqi workers in base, and became friends this way. Even though we didn’t speak Arabic it was ok.

We found 22 other Macedonians who had been there since our first arrival in Iraq, when we split into different groups. Then we told them the bad news. They were asked, “who wants to go home?” But no one did. So until October 18 we were working in Ramadi.

CD: Was it more dangerous than in your first base? And what was the reaction of the other Macedonians when you told them the bad news?

LK: At Ramadi we had 2-3 bombings every day. Almost every day there was fighting in the town, which was close by.

Still, I wasn’t scared at all, though many of the other [Macedonians] were. Most were in panic when we told them the news. We sti
ll weren’t supposed to call home. But maybe some did.

CD: Did you learn what led to the kidnapping of the workers, or how it came about?

LK: I understood that they [the terrorists] were able to kidnap the men because on the base they had some spies, Iraqi workers who were angry because they worked for $5 a day while we were getting $1,500-2,000 a month. They were spies and told the people on the outside which cars had “the foreigners,” so they could look out for people to kidnap. That’s how it happened.

Because of all these things and the worse situation in Ramadi, things were much different. The US had learned to watch out after, for example, Iraqi workers on the base who were actually together with the resistance would put their mobile phones as locator devices for their colleagues to target from the outside. Because of that they [the Americans] didn’t want to have so many Iraqis. They didn’t eat like the rest of us; the food was brought to them.

CD: What kind of nationalities did you have working with you on the bases?

LK: Besides us, there were many different people, like Turks, Lebanese, Sudanese, Jordanians. There were Croatian and Serbian drivers. One Croatian truck driver was caught with a camera making videos inside the base, and after 5 minutes American police arrested him. His colleagues said, ‘who wants to drive this truck to Belgrade?’”

CD: What other Macedonian workers were you aware of while in Iraq?

LK: There were maybe 600-800 Macedonians, 400 from Brown and Root alone. A lot of those people from Kumanovo and Skopje. Other people from places like Negotino and Kavadarci are there now. In a different base, I was told, was a German-owned company called Ecolog from Tetovo, which employed Albanians. They drove garbage trucks. And in Al Assad base, from where we would finally leave in October, was a Hungarian company for which many Macedonians worked, cleaning toilets.

CD: So why did you finally come home, if you wanted to stay?

LK: Our state wanted us to come home when the controversy became so big, and almost everyone wanted to come home actually, which made me change my mind too. Of course, the MFA was nice to get us out, and we appreciate that. But we also lost $600 each for breaking our contract before 6 months. Actually it was supposed to be a $1,200 penalty, and the first group that left paid the whole amount. But we didn’t because we stayed longer, and Sergio said that he paid half for each of us.

CD: When did you come? How?

LK: On the 17th of October we came with a convoy to Al-Assad base, where we were for 5 days. This was the biggest, safest base, with many cargo planes. The first time we saw video of the kidnapped workers was in Al Assad.

Here we finally saw Sergio again. We had contact with Ilinka [Mitreva] and, she was talking to Sergio too. On the 19th and 20th at 6 PM we had a call from Macedonia. She asked how we were. One of my colleagues, Boris Popovski, spoke for all of us.

CD: How did Mr. Tanguma treat you at this time? What was your impression of him?

LK: He was always a very free, liberal, relaxed guy, with dyed hair and a goatee. Obviously, he had no money problems. He always wore Dolce & Gabbana, Versace, etc. He even wore his pants low so everyone could see his underwear’s designer label.

When we were getting a little agitated waiting for the plane at Al Assad, he said, “why are you getting worried? I told you, I will pay for everything!” And indeed, in those 5 days, he was giving everyone 2 boxes of Dunhill cigarettes every day, food, a satellite phone to call home.

But because he was so free and relaxed and didn’t worry at all about money, we all wondered that there must be someone behind him. But who? And he had some sort of military ID card, I think. This left a very strange feeling.

CD: But how did he treat the whole issue of your colleagues’ getting killed? Was he glad that you would be leaving Iraq and that he could wash his hands of the affair?

LK: No, actually Sergio told us he already had his own company, on the base. He told us, “OK, you will go home now, but then come back here and work for me at Al Assad.”

CD: But wasn’t his only job with Soufran? What do you mean, he had his own company?

LK: This was what he said, but he didn’t give us any proof of having his own company. A little mysterious, it seemed.

CD: How was your flight home?

LK: This time we went with a charter flown by Bulgarian pilots. At first we were still angry with Sergio, but then we became drunk and were happy. That’s us Macedonians for you – first we talk like we’ll kill him, then he buys us drinks and we are friends with him.

The ironic thing is that if everything had gone OK, we should have come home February 2nd, and then Sergio would have been like a king, instead of getting beaten up and attacked and ridiculed.

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