This week's departures will bring to 440 the number of Sierra Leoneans in Iraq under a contract signed by the Sierra Leone government with a private US supply company.

The Labour Ministry's overseas employment officer Ismael Kargbo declined to reveal the name of the company, but said the government had contracted a wage of roughly $100 per month for each of the workers, plus perks such as free international telephone calls.

The recruitment programme is not confined to Iraq, Kargbo said, but includes the supply of blue-collar skilled workers to Jordan, Afghanistan and Kuwait.

Waiting list

Labor Minister Alpha Timbo said Nigeria, Ghana and Guinea also were supplying recruits.

"I personally feel good about the venture, and the recruits are happy to go and work in a foreign country," he said, noting there were 2000 people on the waiting list, vying for fewer than 400 more spots.

"Everyone is eager to go as, in its present stage, the Sierra Leone economy cannot provide jobs for many people locally."

Children were both victims and
recruits in Sierra Leone's civil war

Though $100 seems a paltry sum for braving the hazards of Iraq, the fate of many in Sierra Leone is comparably dire.

Emerging from a decade of brutal civil war marked by the maiming and mutilation and rapes of thousands of civilians, Sierra Leone is the world's least developed country, with soaring unemployment, little infrastructure and extreme poverty.

Aminata Sesay was one of many mothers who saw off their children on Saturday, proud that her son Amadu Turay, 24, was among those chosen to work as a cleaner in Iraq.

"I fully support my son's decision to travel," she said. "I just need him to call me when he arrives to tell me that things are good for him."