(BBC) From Iraq to Afghanistan – a journey few would want to make. But James Mathai, a 44-year-old chef from India’s southern state of Kerala, says the chance to make money would take him anywhere. “Without risk we can’t earn much,” says Mr Mathai, one of around 50 Indians who are willing to take the risk and re-locate themselves at an American base in Afghanistan.
Many of them say it is far better to work in a war zone than suffer the fate of being unemployed in India.
Most have experience of working in a hostile environment in the Middle East: James Mathai worked there for 12 years.
Until a month ago, he was at work in Iraq’s infamous Abu Ghraib prison.
He left Iraq just a few weeks before three Indian lorry drivers were dramatically taken hostage.
The crisis has convulsed much of India, but for people like Mr Mathai, it is no reason to stay at home.
So now he is off to Afghanistan, is it an adventure akin to being between a rock and hard place?
Mr Mathai says it is all a question of elementary arithmetic.
“If I were to take up a job in India I would get between 10,000 and 15,000 rupees ($200-$300) a month,” he says.
“But I earned $1,200 a month plus perks in Iraq and will get a similar amount in my new assignment in Afghanistan.
“What I would make in 10 years in India I would earn in one year abroad.”
It is Afghanistan’s intense cold that worries him, not its security situation.
“I am aware there are possible dangers in Afghanistan, where the government’s control outside Kabul is weak. But I have worked in Iraq, where bombs are exploding every day.”
Mr Mathai and other Indians bound for the badlands abroad insist they can keep safe by working in heavily-guarded camps.
He says his now-notorious Iraqi outpost was in fact a haven of security.
“In Abu Ghraib prison, I didn’t feel frightened, because it was well guarded by the American soldiers and I mostly stayed indoors,” he said.
While the fate of the three Indian hostages in Iraq remains uncertain, a stream of unskilled Indian workers is still bound for Iraq via Jordan and Kuwait.
The Indian government has banned travel to Iraq, but several unregistered recruitment agencies continue to despatch workers there.
ER Khan, president of the Indian Personnel Export Promotion Council, the umbrella body of Indian recruitment agencies, says action will be taken against those violating the ban.
“One has to have a code of ethics. These people know they are recruiting for Iraq, but give the impression they are doing it for Kuwait or some other country. It’s really wrong. They are fly-by-night operators,” he says.
A Bombay (Mumbai) based recruitment agent, MR Veghese, says the demand for jobs in the Middle East is tremendous.
“We have selected 51 people for Afghanistan – some of them have already gone and some are being interviewed,” he says.
Mr Khan spent a week in Iraq last month and heard from Indian embassy officials there that an estimated 6,000 Indians were hard at work on Iraqi reconstruction and catering services.
Only 300 of these were sent through official channels.
Mr Mathai was one of those who arrived in Iraq via Jordan.
“From Jordan I was taken to Baghdad in a car,” he said. He worked for an Italian company, which looked after Abu Ghraib’s catering needs.
He was the prison camp’s main chef, and has vivid memories of the time spent there.
He says he never saw Americans ill-treating the Iraqi prisoners.
On the contrary, he says they were very particular about hygiene and cleanliness in respect of prison catering.
But he did offer an interesting personal insight into what has since become an international scandal involving depraved photographs of American soldiers maltreating Iraqi prisoners.
Little to fear
He says every American had a digital camera, and photography seemed to be one of their main hobbies.
“In May about 5,000 American soldiers were dining when an explosion happened. They all ducked under the table and yet some of them kept taking pictures.”
As the Indian hostage crisis shows no sign so far of an end, Mr Mathai insists Indian workers have little to fear in Iraq.
“In my experience, Iraqis were very fond of Indians. They love Indians and Indian movies.”
He recalls a case of kidnapping.
“Once seven Indian and Pakistani workers were kidnapped. But they released them the following day after they learned the hostages were Indians.