Crushing Debt Drove Me to Kosovo — And Then to Iraq
Ten years ago, I was nearly 30 and over $90,000 in debt. I had spent my twenties trying to build an interesting life; I had two degrees; I had lived in New York and the Bay Area; I had worked in a series of interesting jobs; I spent a lot of time traveling overseas. But I had also made a couple of critically stupid and shortsighted decisions. I had invested tens of thousands of dollars in a master’s degree in landscape architecture that I realized I didn’t want halfway through. While maxing out my student loans, I had also collected a toxic mix of maxed-out credit cards, personal loans, and $2,000 I had borrowed from my father for a crisis long since forgotten. My life consisted of loan deferments and minimum payments.
Like so many other lost children, I had fallen into a career in IT. The work was boring, but led to jobs with cool organizations—a lot of jobs, because I kept quitting them. As soon as I had any money in the bank, I’d quit and go backpacking in Southeast Asia. My adventures were life-changing experiences, but I was eventually left with a CV that was pretty scattershot.
My luck securing interesting jobs dried up. In 2001, I ended up living with my dad for four months and working at a banking infrastructure company in suburban Pittsburgh. I should have taken that as a warning that I needed to get it together, but I thought it was just an aberration. It was not.
A year later, I was living in a one room Brooklyn apartment with a cat that compulsively peed on my bathmat. (This was a questionable upgrade to living with Dad.) I was trapped in a low paying IT job that I hated, I was in a relationship with a woman who hated me, and I was barely getting by, never mind getting control over my financial situation.
I was finally reckoning with the fact that I was facing decades of unaffordable minimum debt payments. Any career ambitions I might have had would be put on hold indefinitely, possibly permanently. Travel was over. The full amount that I would have to pay off at the end of it all was too awful to contemplate. I felt trapped and hopeless. I was in a dark place.
And so like many people in dark places, I looked for an escape hatch. I came up with two options: going back to graduate school or getting a job with a non-governmental organization (NGO) overseas. Graduate school would be the ultimate escape—it was better than working, and it would allow me to continue to defer my existing student loans (notwithstanding, of course, the small fact that I would potentially be doubling them). But while school was attractive in the short term, the financial implications were absolutely insane.
Working for an NGO was more appealing. My wanderlust was overpowering, but traveling for its own sake had lost its appeal. I wanted to live in a new place. I wanted to do something worthwhile. But I also needed an income. I applied everywhere, in Asia and Africa, for any job for which I was remotely qualified. There were not many.
After nine months of applications passed without even a sniff of interest, I reluctantly faced the reality that inexperienced landscape architects were not in high demand in Sudan or Afghanistan. I refocused on a glorious return to academia, and by October 2002, I had four unfocused applications for four unaffordable graduate schools just about ready to go. Then, on Halloween, I got an unexpected email with the subject: “OSCE Interview.”
The inelegantly named Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) is an intergovernmental organization composed of and funded by European member states, the U.S. and Canada. It is active in Eastern Europe and western Asia, focused primarily on human rights monitoring, elections assistance, and democratization projects. I was invited to their headquarters in Vienna, to interview for a middle management IT job in Pristina, Kosovo, the site of their largest mission. (The OSCE, the UN, and NATO formed the tripartite mission to stabilize and rebuild Kosovo after the war.)
Of course, all I understood at the time was JOB INTERVIEW and VIENNA. Prior to my application, I had never heard of the OSCE, and I knew next to nothing about Kosovo. My IT skills were rudimentary and my management experience nonexistent. I was mystified why I got a call. I was so completely unqualified for this job, I might have treated this like a mini-vacation but for one significant fact: the salary. The job paid $85,000 a year, tax-free (due to the glorious Foreign Earned Income Exclusion). This was an incomprehensible amount of money. It would fix everything. The pressure to do well in this interview, just for this one small chance at a dream life and the magical solution to all of my problems, was intense.
I flew to Vienna two weeks later and interviewed the next morning in a small yellow room. It was 10 a.m.—4 a.m. EST. There was a panel, chaired by my would-be boss, a taciturn Austrian man. I was dressed in a garish blue Hugo Boss sport coat that I picked up at Century 21 a week earlier. I was over caffeinated, jet lagged, and clammy. I made nervous self-deprecating jokes, which translated poorly between our cultures. It was a disaster from start to finish. I left the interview thinking, “Thanks for the free trip to Vienna.” I spent the rest of the day squandering my remaining per diem on beer and meat, refusing to think about what might have been. The next morning I flew home.
Three weeks later, I received an email from that taciturn Austrian with the subject: “Welcome on board.”
I was stunned. I was to start on January 5, one month later, leaving me less than five weeks to completely shut down my existing life, such as it was, and start a new one in Kosovo.
With enormous satisfaction and barely suppressed joy, I immediately quit my horrible job, broke up with my contemptuous girlfriend, and started packing up my apartment and saying my goodbyes. Over the course of an appletini-soaked evening with D.D., a coworker, we discovered that we had harbored secret crushes on one another for the past year. I walked her home, kissed her on her doorstep, and we had a brief, but intense, fling during my final weeks in Brooklyn. The day before Christmas Eve, we drove a U-Haul packed with all of my things and my vomiting cat to my dad’s house in Pittsburgh. And then I was off.
A week later, I was in Kosovo. Pristina, never the most beautiful city in Eastern Europe, was particularly grim in January. It was grey and bitterly cold. Lengthy and unscheduled blackouts were frequent. There were NATO Kosovo Peace Implementation Force (KFOR) checkpoints everywhere. Borders were closed either by weather or politics. The food was uneven and occasionally poisonous. The pollution was bad enough some days that you could taste the air.
But I was in heaven. For years I had fantasized about packing up all of my stuff and living out of a suitcase. I came to Pristina with two duffle bags and the clothes on my back. Or, more accurately, since my luggage had been lost, with only the clothes on my back. I spent the first few days living out of the optimistically named Grand Hotel and the same pair of underpants, but within a week I was settled into an apartment two blocks from work with a refrigerator stocked with unfamiliar flavors of yogurt.
I remember my first operations meeting, held at the Mission’s logistics compound. It was the first of a hundred banal meetings, probably focused on photocopier repair and carpet installation, but I looked around the table at my colleagues (Dutch, Romanian, British, American, Austrian) and it felt like the most important place to be in the world. I felt like I was doing something important. I still don’t know if I was, but I’d never been happier.
My job, as is it turned out, was a lot of fun. I managed an IT support team composed almost exclusively of Kosovo-Albanian computer geeks in their twenties (with one beleaguered Serb to round out the group). Many of them had hidden in their apartments with the lights off for the past few years, or fled to Sweden or Albania. They were a bunch of affable young guys who were as happy to have their jobs as I was to have mine. Some of them supported their entire families, including their parents, on a fraction of my salary. We became quick friends and they toured me around the villages and towns during the weekends, occasionally getting stranded on mountain passes. We drove to McDonald’s in Skopje, a four-hour round trip.
And critically, I was getting paid. My wages were divided between a relatively modest salary of about $42,000 a year, and a “basic living allowance,” or more accurately, the “please work in Kosovo allowance” of 108 Euros a day. While I would have happily worked in Kosovo for the salary alone, I quickly realized why the extra allowance was provided. Once the euphoria wore off, life in Pristina was boring and lonely. I watched a lot of BBC news, when there was power. I did a lot of ironing, when there was power. When there wasn’t power, I wrapped myself in sweaters and a pea coat and lay on my bed and looked at the ceiling and tried to remember why I was there. It was a long winter. Many of my expat colleagues drank their way to June.
The bleakness was alleviated when, that spring, I got a visitor. D.D.— beautiful, wonderful, awesome D.D.—flew to Pristina in March. I picked her up from the airport, watching her eyes as she observed the tanks, barbed wire, and burned out neighborhoods, wondering whether she was wondering if she had made a terrible mistake coming to this place. She planned to visit for two weeks, but she stayed for four months. We fell in love. And we splurged a bit, traveling to Croatia, Montenegro, and Greece. I turned 30 on a beach in Budva, Montenegro, D.D. by my side, marveling at how things had worked out.
Despite these modest indulgences, I had to get creative to spend more than a 1500 Euros a month in Pristina, so all of my salary and most of my living allowance went to the bank. I was dutifully paying off my debts at a rate of $4,000 a month without fail, without excuses. First came my dad and the credit cards, then the student loans. I hadn’t hit the lottery. This was better. At this rate, I would have everything paid off by June 2005. If I could stay in Kosovo and survive two more winters, I would return to the States with a clean slate.
But then something unexpected happened. I went to Iraq instead.
I had only been in Kosovo for a couple of months when the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003. This was the second episode of American adventurism in four years, and many of my colleagues began discussing their eventual move for the reconstruction effort. Nearly everyone shelved their plans when the UN Headquarters in Baghdad was bombed in August 2003 and things quickly spiraled out of control. A few remained however, mostly Americans, as billions in aid and reconstruction money were still flowing into the country.
A former OSCE elections director would infrequently send out recruitment emails for elections jobs in various countries—Kenya, Afghanistan, Iraq. While I wasn’t interested or qualified for most of the jobs, my contract was year to year, and I thought I should get my name out there, so I often applied. It worked.
In July 2004, D.D. was back in Kosovo at the time and we were planning a long weekend in Greece. The day before we were going to leave, I got an email from someone working for an NGO in Baghdad. He had seen my CV and was interested in my qualifications for an opening on their elections project. We had a pleasant conversation, and I sent an email responding to some of his technical questions. Then D.D. and I hit the road.
When we got back, I had a number of emails from D.C., including a contract for a one-month consultancy. I wrote to my new friend in Baghdad asking if I was being offered the job. I was. I said I couldn’t do anything without talking to my boss. He responded, “Talk to him tomorrow morning.”
(What I should have said: I can’t do anything without talking to D.D. who, I should mention, was first generation Iraqi-American with family still in Baghdad. She turned out to be fairly hostile to the idea of having another loved one in the line of fire.)
They offered slightly more than I was making in Kosovo, but since I took vacation time to go, I effectively doubled my income for a month. But I didn’t take the consultancy for the money—I took it to see Baghdad for myself, to see how things were going after a war that I had vehemently opposed and thought would never happen. I would check it out, do a job, and go back to Pristina with a story or two. Had I known what was waiting for me, I might have negotiated for more money.
I agreed to the contract terms the next day, I had airline tickets and a hotel reservation in Amman 24 hours after that, and at the end of the week my boots were on the ground at Baghdad International Airport. I was met at the airport by a Blackwater personal security detail, a group of heavily armed psychopaths that would shadow me everywhere for the following four weeks. I was shuttled into the Green Zone to meet the team, which was composed of just two other guys.
Accommodations were free, if spartan. We bunked in a single room at a Blackwater team house in the Green Zone. Those guys were scary enough that I didn’t leave our room except to the use the bathroom. (Even this was a mistake; during one trip to pee, I was intercepted by the “house leader” and literally dragged around the facility by the scruff of my neck to underscore how dangerous absolutely everything was.) Most of our meals were free as well, courtesy of the military dining facilities in the CPA palace headquarters and the Al Rashid Hotel, though, for the sake of variety, we would take the occasional meal at the “Back Chinese” restaurant or the Green Zone Café. Mostly, we just worked.
My job was ostensibly to plan the IT and communications infrastructure for the newly established Independent Electoral Commission for Iraq (IECI). Nationwide elections were scheduled for January 2005, only five months away. Given that no one had a firm grasp on how any of this was going to work, my job was initially little more than an intellectual exercise, but concepts had a disconcertingly rapid way of becoming reality in Baghdad. By the end of my second week, I was asked to stay on through February to build what I had planned.
I demurred, finished my contract, and returned to Kosovo. I was ambivalent about taking on the project, I was tired of being separated from D.D., and it was, of course, exceedingly dangerous. The Green Zone had been mortared frequently, and one had landed close enough to where we were having dinner that I could hear the shrapnel ricocheting in the street.
Still, I never actually said no. After all, this was a chance to do something on an enormous scale, in an extraordinarily challenging environment, with potentially historic consequences. It was, quite literally, a once in a lifetime opportunity. Plus, I liked the guys I was working for. They weren’t zealots or ideologues; those guys had packed up their bags when Bremer left. These were smart people trying to make the best out of a tragic farce, and a little camaraderie is a valuable thing when you’re working on an impossible project with ridiculous deadlines surrounded by people that want to cut your head off. How could I say no?
I said that I could return in November, but now that I had a clearer sense of what I was getting into, I asked for a little more money this time around. They quickly responded with a 50% raise, a preposterous $50,000 for four months of work. Instead of paying off all my debts in a year, I would pay them off before Christmas, and have some money left over.
D.D. was apoplectic. I had smoothed over the hurt feelings from the first trip when I returned with a ring and a proposal, but those good vibes were quickly undone when I announced my intention to return. She ultimately relented, and in exchange she extracted a promise that I would never leave the Green Zone. (D.D. would later get a job of her own on a related project in Amman, which was probably just as dangerous as mine.)
While I was back in Kosovo, the security situation in Baghdad, already very bad, deteriorated exponentially. In October, two suicide bombers blew themselves up at the Green Zone Cafe and the outdoor market. Mortars and rockets were constant, landing multiple times per day. By the time I got back, we had our own house in the Green Zone and a less terrifying security detail, but we never went anywhere without them, and we never went anywhere except work.
If I had felt any unease that I was potentially exploiting a horrible situation for personal gain, it was short-lived. The next four months were the most stressful, difficult, and dangerous of my life until that point, and probably—hopefully—ever.
My tasks were daunting. My August plans assumed a large implementation team would form, but by November I was still flying solo. I had to arrange for the delivery and distribution of 100 tons of IT and communications equipment, but I lacked a warehouse, a warehouse staff, any warehouse equipment, or any kind of distribution network for that matter. (We unloaded the first five of 30 semis essentially by hand, at night.) This equipment had to be configured and integrated with a couple of dozen regional satellite offices located throughout the country. I had to hire contractors and manage a team of local Iraqis, only one of whom spoke English, and only one of whom had any IT experience (and they were not the same person). And I had three months to do it.
There were a considerable number of obstacles. Getting equipment and personnel into the Green Zone was extraordinarily difficult, sometimes impossible. Semis arrived unexpectedly four and five at a time, having spent the entire day waiting to be X-rayed, and then the drivers demanded additional bribes to unload their cargo. The American contractors hired to refurbish the IECI’s headquarters turned out to be spectacularly corrupt, and installed substandard materials throughout the building, including counterfeit network wiring, rendering over a third of the offices effectively useless. Four days before the election, our satellite company unexpectedly recalibrated their entire network, knocking the HQ and all of our satellite offices offline.
And then there was the small matter of the people trying to kill us.
Compared to many other civilian workers, we were well protected. We had a dedicated security detail, armored vehicles, and a lightly fortified house. It was remarkable how quickly we all adjusted to the omnipresent danger. It became a mild annoyance and a source of dark humor. A few snippets from my journal:
November 13, 2004: We were sitting in the living room playing on our computers and watching CNN when a mortar came in and hit very close by, close enough to feel the impact. Another followed immediately afterward, slightly closer (boom). We all looked at each other. Another two followed then, closer still, (BOOM! BOOM!) and we all dashed into the dining room which, you see, has no windows. The PSDs [private security detail] all dashed outside. H said, “Are they nuts?”
D came in from outside, talking on the phone. H asked who he was talking to. D mouthed, “My mom.” We all started laughing. He said to his mom, “Sorry Mom, there was a lot of traffic outside. Traffic is terrible here. A car was backfiring.” He actually said that. I think she actually believed it.
November 18, 2004: Today, I stood outside our new HQ discussing the logistics of transporting the 100 tons of IT equipment that I had ordered that would be arriving on 4 DC-8s and, evidently, 30 semis. Our discussion happened over the sound of small arms fire that sounded even closer than yesterday. While we were talking, there was an explosion that was powerful enough that the blast wave rocked the warehouse door next to which we were standing. My companion and I looked at the door and continued talking.
November 27, 2004: I stood outside the Al Rashid this afternoon listening to a mortar barrage that continued longer than any I’d heard before. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. They were far enough and loud enough that they sounded like a giant’s footsteps. I stood outside and just listened. Boom. Boom. Boom. Boom. Someone muttered, “They’re finding their range.”
Our lead PSD said that there were seven RPGs and five IEDs along the airport road today. The attacks have gotten bad enough that the MNF is considering putting T-walls along the entire route. Ten kilometers of 20 foot tall concrete blast walls. Mission accomplished.
December 4, 2004: I was working alone today in the new building. A huge explosion went off very close by, the biggest I’ve ever heard, clearly a car bomb, and I swear the building rippled around me. I hit the deck and then waited. Nothing followed, so, like an idiot, I went up on the roof to see what was happening. A huge column of smoke was billowing up about 100 yards from the Al Rashid. There was a lot of gunfire. My phone rang and D asked where I was. “The new building,” I said. “Where exactly?” he asked. “On the roof,” I replied. “GET OFF THE ROOF!” he screamed.
Far more stressful was the threat that our Iraqi colleagues faced, traveling out of the Green Zone every day, afraid to tell anyone where they worked, literally risking their lives on every commute. Even the truck divers hired to transport my equipment faced potential death if they were intercepted. I could have gotten a man killed for delivering toner. It was not a comfortable position to be in.
Despite all this, I still kept an eye on my bill paying. On December 31, 2004, I achieved a couple of significant milestones: I made my final student loan payment, and I had a positive net worth for the first time in my adult life. Mortars, rockets, and car bombs aside, that was pretty satisfying.
Election Day finally arrived on January 30, 2005. Somehow just about everything I had to do got done. Well, not everything, but enough. How everyone else got their jobs done, which were a lot bigger and more complicated than mine, I will never understand.
I spent the last few days setting up the tally center, but I had nothing to do on the big day itself, which was weird. I wandered around the headquarters, completely idle for the first time in months. The Iraqi staff started to trickle in, their index fingers stained purple after voting. I was unexpectedly overcome with emotion. Then my staff started to arrive, the sweetest, hardest working bunch of nerds you could ever ask for, and they proudly showed me their purple fingers. As conflicted as I may have been about this entire endeavor—and I still don’t know if any of it mattered—it was a sweet day. I must have cried a dozen times.
I stayed on through the end of February to wrap things up. We had a lot of time to spare. I shot big guns with the PSDs. (I will never understand why people like guns so much.) I broke my promise to D.D. and rode a Blackhawk around Iraq dropping off duffle bags of cash. I invented a game called “orange baseball”, in which you hit oranges with a shovel. And, inevitably, I received another generous offer to extend my contract through the next election. This time, I turned it down. I had pushed my luck far enough. I wanted a vacation.
D.D. and I got married that May in New York. We have lived in six countries since then. We have two boys, one born in D.C., the other in Brussels. D.D. has never completely forgiven me for the Blackhawk ride. I have never been in debt again.
The author and his family currently live 11,285 miles from Brooklyn. They move again in January 2013.