Meet G4S, the Contractors Who Go Where Governments and Armies Can’t—or Won’t

Meet G4S, the Contractors Who Go Where Governments and Armies Can’t—or Won’t

In the April issue of Vanity Fair, William Langewiesche embeds with warrior/investigators from G4S, the world’s third-largest private-sector employer—men and women overseas who are keeping you safe, even if you don’t know it. In this excerpt from his profile of G4S, Langewiesche watches as contractors from the security behemoth clean up after an explosion in a crowded souk in South Sudan—and learns that even small victories, in the face of horror, can be cause for encouragement.

G4S explosive experts at work in South Sudan. From left: Sila Jopa Mathew, Pierre Booyse, and Adrian McKay. With strife all around, the task they face seems endless.

I. Death on the Nile

Late last fall, at the start of the dry season in the new country called South Sudan, a soldier of fortune named Pierre Booyse led a de-mining team westward from the capital city, Juba, intending to spend weeks unarmed in the remote and dangerous bush. Booyse, 49, is an easygoing Afrikaner and ordnance expert who was once the youngest colonel in the South African Army. He has a full gray beard that makes him look quite unlike a military man. After leaving the army he opened a bedding store in Cape Town, where he became the leading Sealy Posturepedic dealer, then opened a sports bar too, before selling both businesses in order to salvage his marriage and provide a better environment for his young daughter. The daughter flourished, the marriage did not. Booyse returned to the work he knew best, and took the first of his private military jobs, traveling to post-Qaddafi Libya to spend six months surveying the munitions depots there, particularly for surface-to-air missiles. It was dangerous work in a chaotic place, as was the next contract, which took him into the conflict zones of eastern Congo. From there he came here to South Sudan to do minefield mapping and battlefield-ordnance disposal for G4S, a far-flung security company engaged by the local United Nations mission to handle these tasks.

G4S is based near London and is traded on the stock exchange there. Though it remains generally unknown to the public, it has operations in 120 countries and more than 620,000 employees. In recent years it has become the third-largest private employer in the world, after Walmart and the Taiwanese manufacturing conglomerate Foxconn. The fact that such a huge private entity is a security company is a symptom of our times. Most G4S employees are lowly guards, but a growing number are military specialists dispatched by the company into what are delicately known as “complex environments” to take on jobs that national armies lack the skill or the will to do. Booyse, for one, did not dwell on the larger meaning. For him, the company amounted to a few expatriates in the Juba headquarters compound, a six-month contract at $10,000 a month, and some tangible fieldwork to be done. He felt he was getting too old to be living in tents and mucking around in the dirt, but he liked G4S and believed, however wearily, in the job. As he set out for the west, his team consisted of seven men—four de-miners, a driver, a community-liaison officer, and a medic. The medic was a Zimbabwean. All the others were soldiers of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, the S.P.L.A., now seconded to G4S, which paid them well by local standards—about $250 a month. At their disposal they had two old Land Cruisers, one of them configured as an ambulance with a stretcher in the back.

Four miles out of town, Booyse’s car broke down, and Booyse radioed for help. Juba is a dirt grid on the Nile, a mega-village of several hundred thousand. It lacks municipal water, sewers, and electric power. The company’s compound stands near the center. The radioman there once showed up in a pink suit and tie. He informed Booyse that a mechanic would be dispatched to solve the problem. The arrival time was another matter, and Booyse did not ask. For hours he waited with his team beside the road. Then suddenly the radioman called again—this time about a deadly explosion in a local street market said to be littered with dangerous munitions. The United Nations asked G4S to intervene fast. Booyse commandeered the ambulance and rushed back to town.

The market is called Souk Sita. It occupies a junction of footpaths and dirt tracks in a neighborhood known as Khor William—a garbage-strewn district of shacks and mud huts inhabited largely by impoverished soldiers and their families, and centered on decrepit military barracks belonging to the S.P.L.A. Some of the children there—maybe homeless, and certainly wild—spend their days collecting scrap metal to sell to Ugandan dealers, who occasionally show up in a truck to buy the material for penny-on-the-dollar cash, or for ganja, a potent form of marijuana, apparently laced with chemicals. Routinely the scavenged metal includes live ordnance. That morning the Ugandan traders had arrived as usual, and—in the likeliest scenario—a boy perhaps 10 years old had accidentally detonated a medium-size device while trying to dismantle it. The explosion had killed him and three other boys of about the same age, along with one of the Ugandan adults.

Booyse arrived at Souk Sita at 3:30 P.M., five hours after the explosion. By then the bodies had been taken to the morgue, and all that remained of the carnage was a small crater and some bloody shoes. Booyse’s immediate problem was to remove the visible ordnance before dark, only three hours away, because the place was obviously dangerous and could not be cordoned off. Treading softly among the munitions, he counted three 82-millimeter mortar rounds, two 62-millimeter mortar rounds, seven 107-millimeter rocket warheads, one complete 107-millimeter rocket (fuzed and fired and therefore rigged to blow), seven 37-millimeter anti-tank high-explosive incendiary projectiles, a hand grenade with a sheared-off fuze, and a heavily dented rocket-propelled grenade. He instructed his crew to take a thin-skinned metal box from the ambulance and fill it initially with a few inches of sand to create a stabilizing bed for the ordnance. Over the next few hours he gently laid the items into the box, cradling the pieces and snuggling them into periodic supplements of sand. He drove off with the load at dusk, taking care not to jostle the box on Juba’s atrocious streets, and deposited the lot in a purpose-built bunker at a G4S logistics base on the north side of town.

In the morning he returned with his team and continued with the surface cleaning, gathering scrap metal into piles, and finding plenty of small-arms ammunition. Two days later, when I first met him, he was still at it—a bearded figure in sunglasses and bandanna working with one of his de-miners in intense heat while the rest of the crew went door-to-door to ask about other munitions and to try to establish the identities of the victims. Booyse invited me into the work area, saying, “It’s probably safe—just please don’t bang your feet on the ground.” We stood by the crater. He guessed it had been made by a medium-size mortar. His de-miner swept a patch of ground with a detector that squealed loudly. Booyse raked the patch and uncovered a spoon, a nut, a nail, a twisted wire bundle, and several AK-47 rounds. Leaning on the rake and sweating, he said, “Ach, you just get more and more the more you go down.” But the chance of finding anything large was small. The door-to-door search was hardly better. That morning the team had found five pieces of unexploded ordnance, but two had disappeared before they could be collected. Most of the residents questioned had professed ignorance, and a few had demanded cash. With more fatigue than humor Booyse said, “Because, you know, the African five-point plan is ‘What’s in it for me?’ ”

Four days after the accident, the names of the dead remained unknown, and the South Sudanese government could not be roused to care. This was now high on the list of concerns, because for the U.N. no job is finished until the paperwork is complete. With Booyse busy securing the market, G4S managers decided that someone should go to the morgue to see what could be learned directly. For this they enlisted the company’s indispensable man, a typically tall Dinka named Maketh Chol, 34, who first went to war in 1987 at the age of 9, and now—in street clothes, as a serving S.P.L.A. lieutenant—works as the chief liaison officer and fixer for G4S. The Dinka constitute the dominant tribe of South Sudan, whose men are born to rule and taught to disdain menial labor, but Chol is not just one of them—he is also a member of LinkedIn. On his page he lists G4S as a recreational company, but that is merely a mistake. Feel free to contact him directly if you have a good commercial idea. Beyond his duties at the headquarters compound he is an energetic entrepreneur. Among his ventures already, he owns a sewage-trucking company that empties the septic tanks of certain establishments in town and disposes of the waste somewhere somehow. And he would be a good partner in other affairs. He speaks at least four languages. He is reliable. He has a wife and three young children whom he supports in Kenya because the schools are better there. He spent 20 years in a particularly brutal liberation war—two million dead among huge populations uprooted—but he seems not to know that he should be traumatized.

He invited me to accompany him to the morgue. It occupies a small building behind the so-called Juba Teaching Hospital, a facility overwhelmed by needs. We parked our Land Cruiser a short walk away and approached a small group of people waiting somberly on a concrete veranda. An old ambulance waited beside them with its rear doors open, exposing an empty interior and a battered steel floor. Chol quietly got the story. When word of the explosion spread through Juba, it caused no immediate concern, because so many children are wayward now, and in recent memory so many went to war. But after four days without sight of two young cousins, a family in Khor William began to fear the worst and sent two emissaries—an uncle and aunt—on a trip to the morgue. These people were Nuer, traditional adversaries of the Dinka, who had been nominally integrated into the government—some of them as members of the presidential guard—but were increasingly marginalized. The aunt was 20, the uncle somewhat older. At the morgue, the uncle left the aunt outside and went inside alone.

There he found—his nephews lying dead in front of him. He recognized the other boy too. He was a kid from the neighborhood, but the uncle did not know his name. The shredded remains of the fourth boy—the one who apparently triggered the explosion—had been taken away, as had the Ugandan man. The uncle arranged for transport of the remaining three back to the neighborhood for immediate burial. The morgue lacked power and refrigeration, so decomposition had set in fast, and the stench was strong. Chol collected names from the staff. The dead Ugandan was Malau Daniel, maybe 24 years old. The boy who had been shredded and taken away was James Fari Lado, about 10, a Mandari from the cattle country north of town. The two cousins were Garmai Biliu Ngev and Lim Sil Koh, both 13 and from Khor William. The name of the last boy, their friend and neighbor, remained unknown.

A door opened. Workers in surgical masks carried out the dead boys on metal stretchers, and flopped them into the back of the waiting ambulance. The corpses were naked, hunger-thin, and younger-looking than 13. Their blood had smeared the stretchers and dribbled red trails across the ground. They lay loosely intertwined with their mouths stretched open in ghastly screams, their teeth contrasting sharply with the color of their skin. The driver shut the ambulance doors and prepared to leave. The aunt began to sob, her shoulders heaving. The uncle stood by helplessly, holding his hand over his heart. Chol offered them a ride, assisted the aunt into the front seat, and followed the ambulance as it set out through the city traffic. The uncle and I sat in the back on benches along the side. In Khor William, out beyond the S.P.L.A. barracks, the ambulance climbed a hillock and parked in the shade of a tree for the burial; we climbed another hillock to the Nuer encampment. As we arrived at the huts the aunt began to wail. A crowd of women rushed from their households, shrieking and crying around the mothers, who collapsed to the ground.

It was a rough scene. Chol was still missing the name of the cousins’ dead friend. He asked women standing near the grieving crowd. They indicated a cluster of huts a short distance away and said the men there might know. Leaving our vehicle behind, Chol and I walked to the huts, where the men came out to meet us. These were the Nuer presidential guards. Only a few were in uniform, and several were drunk. They were wary of Chol, this Dinka who towered over them asking questions that might have been traps. Finally one of them volunteered that the dead friend was known only as Gafur, and that his mother had been missing for days. That was enough for Chol, and we started back toward the vehicle. The men kept pace with us and the group grew larger. The mood turned ugly, subtly at first, then with accusations that we had allowed the boys to die. Chol calmly kept explaining his role, even as we got into the Land Cruiser and, after several tries, got the engine to start. The men had surrounded the car, but eventually they parted, and we rolled away slowly, down past the S.P.L.A. barracks and toward the center of town.

On a main street we passed a convoy of ambulances moving in the opposite direction. They were carrying victims from villages attacked by insurgents the night before. The insurgents were from a despised group called the Murle, and led by a former political candidate named David Yau Yau, who was angry because he had lost a rigged election. The men under Yau Yau’s command were perhaps less interested in politics than in the chance to capture women, children, and cattle. Merely two years after official independence, South Sudan was fracturing as a country, but the names of the Souk Sita victims could be inserted into the U.N. forms, and for G4S the day had been a success.

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