Artist Club
Val M in Baghdad
(by Wilfredo O. Pascual, Jr.  10/5/2006)

(Val at seventeen, wearing a red cap, Mount Olivete, Bongabon, Philippines, 1993; That's me in the middle, wearing shorts, turning away from the camera.)

The first time I met Val was in the early nineties in the Philippines when I began leading a ragtag band of university students in climbing mountains, hiking and spelunking activities as part of a program I initiated for my province’ local historical and cultural council. Val was only seventeen then and after I left and moved to Thailand, he and his friends continued our activities; their group has since grown to a strong organization with over 1,500 members from all over the country.

In 2005, I got a call from him. He said a friend had offered him work abroad so he quit his job (doing auto cadd design for a construction firm in Manila), married his girlfriend and three days after their civil wedding, flew to Bangkok where I met him again after thirteen years. At thirty, Val is among those who continue to defy the Arroyo administration’s travel ban to Iraq after a Filipino worker got kidnapped and was saved from beheading. Unable to obtain a visa in the Philippines, they wait in Bangkok for a couple of weeks while their Iraqi visa is being processed in Jordan.

Flying from Jordan to Baghdad, Val is now one of the hundred or so Filipinos working in a camp for a US contractor that serves the US Department of Defense’ training of Iraqi soldiers. I talked to Val recently on Skype. Like his friends, all Filipino engineers, they assist the contractor in estimating the costs of food supplies and management of dining facilities. In short, they help make sure all the American-trained Iraqi soldiers are fed in the different sites. Mostly, it’s lamb and beef for the 3,000 soldiers; two boiled eggs and kubus bread for breakfast.

For Val, it’s still sinigang and adobo in their barracks where cooking a local dish is prepared and served with the usual fare of weekly bombings. Sometimes six a week. Situated in the camp’s perimeter, Val says that their barrack’s location is safer compared to the usual target, the main buildings at the center. Security has tightened since the attack early 2005. Also, Val said, their barracks are close to where the Iraqi soldiers live (although casualties have also involved the ambush of ten security forces, one Nepali and nine Iraqis).

Unless it’s work-related or a request is approved, they are not allowed to go out. And when they do, they are accompanied by armed men. One worker has a personal bodyguard of six men. Most of the time, they just stay in their rooms and offices, located in a barracks consisting of nine rented houses, their world enclosed by a five to eight meter concrete wall.

(Val in Bangkok, 2005, shortly
before his flight to Jordan)


VAL: Sorry Kuya Willi, offline ako kanina.
ME: Anong tawag niyo sa camp niyo?
VAL: Life support. Nagpapakain ng Iraqi soldiers.
ME: Pero kumpanya ang may hawak at nag-hire sa inyo?
VAL: Oo. Isa lang iyong company namin sa mga American contractors na nagpapakain ng mga Iraqi soldiers.
ME: Nandyan ka na ba nung may casualties sa camp?
VAL: Iyong casualty, security namin. Sa labas namatay. Inambush. Pero three or four months bago kami dumating dito, napasok ng sasakyan mismo itong camp. Nagbarilan dito mismo.
ME: Ilan ang bahay sa kampo niyo?
VAL: Siyam. Rentals. Including offices and rooms. Etong address namin: XX XXXXXXX, Baghdad, Iraq. I-Google Earth mo.
ME: Bakit sa computer ka madalas kung nagpapakain kayo?
VAL: Bidding kasi trabaho ko Kuya. Kami ang nag-eestimate ng gastos. Mga engineer, naka-assign sa iba’t-ibang sites.
ME: Bidding kung kanino bibili ng pagkain at supplies?
VAL: Oo. Tapos makikipag-compete kami sa ibang contractors.
ME: Gaano katagal kayong magsyota ng misis mo bago mo siya pinakasalan?
VAL: Almost two years. Mukhang kasama ako sa sinusulat mo Kuya Willi ah. Yun lang maganda ang isulat mo ha.
ME: Oo naman. May mga sundalo na bang sumalubong sa inyo pagdating sa airport?
VAL: Hindi sundalo. Personal bodyguard.
ME: Natakot ka?
VAL: Noong una. Puro AK47.
ME: Ngiii. Gano katagal iyong biyahe mula airport hanggang diyan sa pinagdalan sa inyo?
VAL: Mga 45 minutes.
ME: Anong una mong naging trabaho?
VAL: Nag-manage ng mga workers sa dining facilities. Dapat sa field ako pero napull-out ako at dinala dito sa office for special work. Noong nasa field ako, anim na bomba sa loob ng kampo ang bumabagsak kadalinggo. Pero malayo sa barracks namin.
ME: What do you think about the war?
VAL: Naku Kuya Willi, got to go na ako. May meeting kaming saglit ng mga Pinoy. Minsan share photo tayo para makita mo ang Iraq. Install mo Yahoo beta.
ME: Okay.
VAL: Bye Kuya. Tomorrow uli. W8 na nila ako.


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