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The interpreters who worked for American forces during the recent Afghanistan war — and the many still working — are among America’s bravest and most loyal allies. So that you don’t have to take my word for it, I asked several US Marines I’d met in Afghanistan — not the easiest people to impress — to share their thoughts.
“We are quite simply blind without them,” said one. “They played the most important role in any unit operating in today's dangerous and complex combat environment,” said another. None of them had anything but the highest praise. “They put more on the line for our country than the average American ever will.” “They are themselves American veterans.”
As well as translating for American troops attempting to build relationships with Afghans, the interpreters played an essential role educating foreign forces about the local culture they so badly needed to understand. They were also key sources of intelligence, able to keep an ear out not just for information about the Taliban, but also about the Afghan army and police, who sometimes posed as much of a threat as the insurgents they were supposed to be fighting. The interpreters, or “terps” as they became affectionately known, did this for years on end, going out on every patrol and operation with American forces. It’s no exaggeration to say that the interpreters saw far more combat than the vast majority of American veterans.
Most didn’t take the job for money. The only interpreters who were well paid were those who had long ago become American citizens and spoke English fluently. They were sent to Afghanistan for the duration of their contract and could then return straight back to the United States. The Afghan interpreters who still lived in Afghanistan were lucky if they got paid more than $1,000 a month, and faced as much danger on the rare occasions when they went home as they did on the battlefield. They also had the extra burden of putting their families at risk because the Taliban often target interpreters’ relatives too. And as I was repeatedly told, many other Afghans also despise those who worked for the foreign forces, who are considered by many to be “invaders” and “infidels.”
Some interpreters took the job because they were explicitly promised a US visa after at least 12 months’ service. But most took the job because they believed the Taliban would be defeated and their country would be rebuilt. After more than three decades of war, they felt that at last the outside world was coming to help and that they should do all they could to support that process. Of the two dozen or so interpreters I interviewed over five months, and the many more I had gotten to know over the last seven years of covering the war, all said that if they knew how our endeavor would end up — with the Taliban resurgent, rapidly declining security, and a downward-spiraling economy plagued by spectacular levels of corruption in all aspects of daily life — they would not have volunteered. And they certainly wouldn’t have volunteered if they knew they would be abandoned as soon as American forces started heading out the exit door.
As the West withdraws, the outlook for many Afghans, and in particular the interpreters, is bleak. And while it’s predictable that our leaders in Washington, DC cannot admit that the situation they are leaving behind in Afghanistan is almost the exact opposite of what was promised, it shouldn’t be too much to ask that the tens of thousands of Afghans who put their and their families’ lives at risk because they believed those promises would be fulfilled, should now be offered safe haven. Instead, a majority of the interpreters (approximately 70 percent) are being either denied transit to the United States, or left in limbo for years on end. Demonstrating once again their good faith, many I interviewed told me that even after waiting for years, they still believed that America would do the right thing and look after them.
Because they had to speak both of Afghanistan’s official languages — Dari, the language of the northern ethnic groups and the Afghan National Army, and Pashto, the language of the southern Pashtun population and the Taliban — the interpreters are a diverse group, representing Afghanistan’s various ethnicities. The multi-lingual tend to come from the cities, so when they were sent to work in the war-torn, mostly rural southern provinces, what they saw upset them deeply. They ranged in age from teenagers to men in their 50s who had seen the Russian occupation, the civil war, and the rise and fall of the Taliban. I met very few who were staunchly anti-Taliban or pro-government; most just seemed to believe that the war would eventually deliver their country from a seemingly endless cycle of violence. Most of them spent years on deployment, while US troops never did more than six- or 12-month tours. The job was so dangerous that the interpreters often lied to their families about what they were doing. If their neighbors suspected they were interpreters, it was assumed that the Taliban would soon be told and might come knocking. Three interpreters from the relatively small group I interviewed had relatives killed because of their work.
Because the withdrawal is already well underway, many of the interpreters have lost the protection that US forces and their bases offered them. Those who have been denied visas, or are still waiting, are already in mortal danger. The Taliban have repeatedly shown that they can attack anyone, anywhere, at any time. They have killed a number of interpreters and their family members (no one knows how many have been killed, but a 2009 UNHCR report estimated that an interpreter was killed every 36 hours) in gruesome murders that are then posted on Facebook and YouTube. In a recent interview with the Taliban’s official spokesman, Zaibullah Mujahid, I was told that the interpreters will be “targeted and executed like the foreign soldiers and other foreigner occupiers. They will be put to death.” Even members of the Afghan security forces, who are trained and funded by the United States, have threatened to kill interpreters, simply because they worked for “the foreigners.”
In short, these Afghans were not only astoundingly dedicated, but they now face the very real prospect of being slaughtered because they supported the intervention, believing that it would result in a Taliban defeat and the rebuilding of Afghanistan. But instead of doing everything possible to offer them safety, as would happen if Americans were stuck overseas and in danger, the United States has created a program that is so dysfunctional that it seems to have been designed to fail.
The program is called the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, and the interpreters I interviewed who applied have been waiting years to be approved. To be fair, the process has improved recently, but at the time of writing, thousands of interpreters are still waiting for visas that they will never get. This includes the interpreters featured here. Only 3,000 visas were available for this year, but there are an estimated 8,000 applicants (or more) waiting, a number that will grow as withdrawal continues; as of this writing, the State Department has already issued almost all of the available visas. Unless new legislation is introduced, the majority of those applying will not be granted visas and will be left to the mercy of the Taliban.
What follows is the story of those interpreters, told almost entirely in their own words. I have sometimes combined quotations, and changed names and locations to protect those who spoke to me. Any other changes I made were purely grammatical, as English is often the interpreter’s third, fourth, or fifth language.
AfghanistanHamid came from Mazar-i-Sharif, the fourth-largest city in Afghanistan, famous for its beautiful mosques, archeological sites, and relative peace. I spent five weeks with him in Sangin, the most violent district of Afghanistan’s most violent province, at the end of 2010. US Marines had just taken over from British forces, which had lost more men in Sangin — 109 — than they had anywhere else in Afghanistan. Casualties caused by IEDs (improvised explosive devices) were hideously high, and we all had to watch every step we took to avoid stepping on one. Rather than clearing IEDs by hand, as the British had done, the Marines blasted themselves new paths every day, mostly using long explosive belts called A-POBs. Sometimes they simply bulldozed their way through villages. When we were away from the Marines, Hamid was often tearful when he saw what life was like for the villagers of Sangin. He later told me that after I left, he was allowed to interrogate a Taliban prisoner about the meaning of Islam. He was so offended by what the prisoner said that he beat him “badly.” He later had to take a few months off and seek treatment for stress.
I worked for the US government as an interpreter for more than 11 years. The US Marines I was with really liked me a lot. All of them were my friends. “We stand shoulder to shoulder,” they said. We went out on patrols, helping each other; they let me carry and fire weapons. The people who came from the US, they don’t know anything. They don’t know about Afghanistan. So this is my country, I know what is going on inside here, so my responsibility was to help them understand.
I was in Sangin, in Helmand province. Wow. Every day I saw my friends get blown up. I was making friends and then seeing their dead bodies. I don’t want to see any more of my friends die. I always remember this one day when a good friend, a US Marine, was blown up and killed by an IED. Why? He’s coming from far away to help the people of Afghanistan, why did it happen?
There was another US Marine officer who was on a patrol, and an Afghan National Army (ANA) officer was looking at him in a very bad way. I heard that he was going to try to shoot the American because he really didn’t like him.
I had filmed the American officer, who had been tasked with training the Afghan army. It was a task he clearly hated and thought was utterly futile. The Marines and Afghan soldiers often seemed on the verge of attacking each other.
When I heard that, immediately I went to the Marines and told them, “Hey, guys, I heard something very bad. That guy, he’s suspicious, he’s talking to other friends, and he’s going to try and kill Lieutenant Robertson.” So they moved the ANA officer away. I saved the life of a Marine. I have the document proving it. I have a recommendation from that lieutenant. I have lots of letters like that.
After a few years, I started receiving threats. My mom called me from our home province. “They’re looking for you,” she said. “All your relatives are hearing it. The bad people are looking for you. Please run away.” They have already killed three of my family who worked bringing logistical stuff to the foreign forces with a big truck they had. The Taliban knew about their work and killed them two weeks ago. So I decided to go to Pakistan; right now I’m living in Islamabad.
I thought that the Taliban were going to be finished and this country will become peaceful. But day by day, the Taliban is getting more powerful. This country is the worst country in the world. I’m afraid of that day when NATO and the US forces leave Afghanistan. It means we are done.
Two of my friends were interpreters and they were shot by the Taliban. They called them traitors. One was killed near his house. One survived and escaped from Afghanistan. I don’t know where he is now.
If I go to the police station and say, “My life is at risk,” what will they do about it? They’ll say, “Okay, the government’s life is at risk too. We can’t do anything for you.” We are poor people, we don’t have enough money to go to another country and stay over there with our family. So the only chance we have is to go to the US Embassy; they should accept us because we helped them. This is the time the United States needs to help us. I really respect the US people, especially the military people; those families lost a lot of their boys inside Afghanistan.
I don’t regret my work as an interpreter. I’m proud that I worked with the United States forces, and my father is proud of me too. They came here to rebuild, even though people think they came here to destroy. So it was my responsibility to help them and rebuild together. I’m really thankful for the US forces because they’ve done lots of good. They’ve done everything for us in Afghanistan and we really appreciate them.
Hamid’s story was similar to many others I heard. What follows is a composite of my other interviews, so details are sometimes contradictory.
I was also a soldier with those guys. If they were upset, I was upset. If they were happy, I’m also happy. I was never estranged from those guys. We were always together, like, we are using the same towel, the same shower. We were living together. They gave me the nickname Bruce Leroy. Whenever those guys went outside, they never went without me. The majority of their work depended on us. They trusted me 100 percent. And I trusted them.
The Americans we worked with are really sad; they try to help us but there is no way they can help us. They cannot take me and my family to the United States. They told us, “We’re fully responsible for you guys.” The Americans I worked with, they came to my wedding. They circled it so I had full security.
We spent months in these very dangerous places, with just one day to go home. One day I came home on leave with another interpreter and the Taliban surrounded us. There were American Special Forces in the area and they saved our lives. We showed them our badges to prove we worked with Americans and told them the Taliban followed us.
All of the patrols were walking patrols, so I had to patrol with them day and night. Like three days, four days, we were walking for 24 hours or 72 hours and only eating one MRE [meal ready to eat] and we didn’t have any training like the Marines. We were not professional. We faced ambushes and IEDs. One day one of the team members walked on an IED. He died and I was injured. My injury is so bad — in the private part of my body — that I cannot have children. I need additional surgery that costs a lot of money, but I don’t have it.
I went to Kabul and got some treatment. But when I went back, the team that I was working with had already finished their tour and left. There was another team. They didn’t pay anything. They said, “Our hands are tied, we cannot help you financially. We cannot pay for your surgery.”
In the beginning, in 2002 and 2003, when I was working with the US military, I really didn’t even think of going to the United States, or even out of Afghanistan. I just thought this was the chance to rebuild my country.
I was told that if I worked for three years, I would be able to go to the United States. That was a promise. The supervisors, all the US soldiers, they told me, “It is good pay and you can get a visa to go to America and live a better life.” It was a guarantee. They promised us that they would take us to the United States one day. Every single American we worked with, they told us this. “Your life will be saved one day.” When we started, we actually believed that.
Right now, the Americans need to help us. Take our hands and bring us with them to save our lives. We are human also. We need protection. Nobody wants to stay for this life in Afghanistan.
After 2008 and 2010, the situation was getting worse. We are first in the line because we are interpreters. We are the first targets. If they do not kill us now, they’ll kill us soon very easily. For how long can we hide from these people? One day we will die. We are in a very bad situation. We lost our destiny.
I was working on the gates at the jail in Bagram, so we were face-to-face with the Taliban who were detained there. Their families were coming once or twice a week, to the same gate, back and forth, so we were always seeing each other. They would look at us like they were hating us. And that was the start for me. We were covering our faces, trying to ignore them, but they know us from our work there. Many of them just got released — 700 or more — and it’s a big threat for me.
The Taliban say we are not human. They are saying that we are spies for America. And now we are blamed for everything. The problem is we have lots of uneducated people. They just think that if somebody works with Americans he is a spy, he is not good, and he should be killed. If he is a Talib, if he is not a Talib, he just thinks that. Even my cousin, he doesn’t like me. For seven years since I started working with Americans, he didn’t come to my home. He says, “Your life is haram [forbidden] because you work for Americans.” My cousin is not a Talib, but he does not come to my home because I worked with Americans. I can’t trust my neighbors. I can’t trust some of my relatives.
We cannot go to our mosque. People say, “He is an infidel. He is a spy for America.” Whenever I just go to the shop, the shopkeeper says, “Are you Muslim? Do you pray? How can you be a Muslim? You work with Americans. You are a spy.” People think I am behind everything that the security forces do in my area.
Normal people also say things like this because they have a lot of ties with Taliban and they’re not happy with the government because of all the corruption we have right now. Even if they don’t have connections, the Taliban will torture them and force them to say who is helping the Americans. They will have to tell the truth to save their lives.
One day they just attacked our family, my house. I have lots of pictures of the bullet holes in my house. They attacked during the night. They came and knocked on the door. I had to jump out the window and hide in the neighborhood. My father, he just yelled, “Who is that?” They said, “We need to talk to Bilal.” My father said I was not home, that I was at work. They said, “Tell him, ‘One day we will catch you and we will cut off your head.’”
I’m Hazara and I have worked for America so I am like a devil to the Taliban. It’s very hard for me. I cannot travel back and forth. I cannot go anywhere. I cannot visit my family in our home province. My cousin got married a few months ago, and I couldn’t go.
Even Kabul is dangerous; in the night nobody can walk around, because of the Taliban, because of thieves. I’m sure that if the Americans leave Afghanistan, there will be fighting in every street like before, like when the Russians left.
One place I worked was on a big base. Outside, the first checkpoint was an Afghan army checkpoint, and this Afghan soldier stopped me and pointed to his friend and said, “This is our guy, take him to the base because it’s a long way.” And our company policy is, like, do not pick up any strangers… so I said no. They started beating me up and then locked me in a bathroom for more than two hours. Nobody from my company knew where I was. They took my phones, ID, everything. They were telling me that the day will come when you have nobody — these Americans are getting out from Afghanistan and what will you do?
The international police mentor for the American military contractor we worked for wrote me a letter of recommendation. In it he says, “It was not uncommon for some of the Afghan National Police we trained to have ties to the Taliban. Because of this, some would threaten interpreters with death for helping coalition forces.”
The corruption has increased a lot the past eight to 10 years. It is now very high. That’s why the Taliban can easily have influence inside our security forces. And they’re not influencing the small people, they’re influencing high-ranking officials.
If I knew that after this job I’d stay in Afghanistan, I would have never taken the job. During the three years’ working, I only made about $14,000 or $15,000. I’m not crazy. I wouldn’t put myself in danger for $14,000. The only privilege was to get the visa and go to the States, to get out of this misery.
I had been working in the same place for over six years. During that time, I was known in the villages and districts because of my work with the Provisional Reconstruction Team (PRT). It was a nine-mile drive from my home to my work location. We were helping the people who were visiting the villagers, so I was known in the area. Therefore I was also known to the Taliban, so they attacked me in 2007. In the morning when I left my home going to my job, they attacked me. I was a mile away from my home, and the insurgents started shooting me in my car. My brother was killed. Me and my coworker were injured very badly. I went to Bagram for recovery. I was under treatment for about three months. When I recovered from these injuries, I continued working for the PRT for a while, but since there was a very serious threat I decided to move somewhere else and just be away from this very serious risk. I had to quit my job.
I really believed that what I was doing was the right thing for the country. We needed to stand up, not just give up. I wanted to go forward not backward, and not lose our achievements.
I got threats before the attack and afterward especially. They were calling my father, they were saying they would target my family next as I was still working with the military. They said they would target my whole family, not only me. And after they attacked me, the threats got even more serious.
Even before, but especially after that time, everything that the Afghan security forces do in my village, in my district, everyone thinks I am behind it. The people in that area really think that I am the one who is telling the security forces to search the houses, and do some operation in the area, so it is even more risky for me now than before. They think I am providing information to the ISAF forces and the Afghan security forces for their operations. They think that when houses are searched, it is because I provided information. This is what they believe, especially the Taliban.
What will happen to us? Oh, my God. I can’t imagine this. Everybody knows the situation of the interpreters. It’s caused us to not be with people, to not be with our neighbors, to not be with our friends, even close friends. We can’t tell our location to anybody because it’s really dangerous for us.
When the Afghan people are talking about us as spies, the first action they’ll do is to kill us.
Even right now, here in Kabul, I hide a lot. I won’t show you my home, where I live, just in case there are other bad people who will target my family again.
Because of this risk, I applied for a visa to relocate to the United States. Right now I feel like it is time for me to leave Afghanistan. As everyone can see right now, the security situation is getting worse, especially with the troops withdrawing from Afghanistan. Security here will be difficult for everybody. We don’t have the personnel to help us. The Taliban are all around Afghanistan.
My family and I moved twice from one place to another. Then finally, at midnight, some unknown people came inside our house and they stole everything. There were more than 12 of them. They came with rifles and bayonets, and they treated us like animals. They said, “We know you, you are working with the United States and you have a lot of money. Where is the money? Give me your account number. We want all the money you have right now.” They took my two computers, my camera, my iPad, my Motorola cellphone, and some jewelry. They took all the things. The people that came to my house were Hazara, so they were not Taliban.
Our house also got robbed, less than two years back. And they were all uniformed with police badges. And they had guns and flashlights and their faces were wrapped up, and they got in the house, kicked the door in, broke the lock, and put us all in one room. They took everything they could find and threatened to kill me, saying, “I know where you work and if you still keep on working with the US government, we’re going to come back for you.” So we had to change houses after that. And we couldn’t inform the police because the robbers themselves were wearing the uniform of Afghan border police.
I can’t trust my neighbors. They say that my job with the United States means I am no longer a Muslim, that I am an infidel.
There was a day, two months ago. There was a notice in the window of a shop and I asked this guy, “This house is for rental?” And the guy told me, “Yeah, it’s for rent.” And he said to me, “Hey, I know you. So you have been in Kandahar, right?” [One of the biggest foreign bases was located at Kandahar.] I was like, “No, I’ve never been in Kandahar.” Then he said, “You’re an interpreter, right? With the United States?” I was like, “No, I’ve never been an interpreter.” Then he said, “All right, we have all the info on linguists. They are living in the tent district in Kabul. We found out about those guys. We hate those guys.”
It is scary for me. I’m really, really concerned about my relatives, my neighbors, and all the people around me, the people that have contact with the Taliban. I’m so afraid that I’m not going outside, I’m not playing football. I don’t have any amusement. I’m just staying all the time in my house and I’m not able to apply for a job.
The SIV programThe Special Immigrant Visa program was created for both Iraqi and Afghan interpreters, but for reasons that aren’t clear, the Afghans are offered far fewer visas than their Iraqi counterparts, and fewer people are eligible. No one knows the exact numbers, but tens of thousands of Afghans worked as interpreters and only approximately 9,000 visas have so far been offered (as opposed to 25,000 for Iraqis), and many of those have expired. So only 2,799 interpreters (as of March 31, 2014) have been given visas. And it’s common to hear about the process taking three, four, or even five years. Although they have already been vetted thoroughly and regularly (they were, after all, living, sleeping, and patrolling alongside American troops, often while carrying weapons), to receive a visa interpreters have to prove themselves all over again. For starters, they have to demonstrate four basic things: that they are Afghan, that they worked for the US, that they provided “faithful and valuable service,” and that they are now facing an “ongoing and serious” threat because of their work.
They all carry around files full of laminated letters of recommendation, ID forms, letters from the US embassy, medical certificates, and photos, all of which they have had to collect and pay for themselves. (The medical forms alone can cost $1,500 and are valid for only six months, so they often have to be bought several times.) Seeing the interpreters clutching their little folders as if their lives depend on them — which they do — is one of the most heartbreaking things I’ve seen in Afghanistan.
If they do get an answer, and many don’t, it’s often a rejection. So far, fewer than 30 percent of applicants have been granted visas. All of the applicants I interviewed had collected far more letters of recommendation than they actually needed and a few had already been attacked. Even then, they still needed to somehow demonstrate to the US that they faced a serious and ongoing threat. The fact that any of them had to prove that such threats exist is particularly disgusting. I don’t know anyone serious who would claim that an interpreter still living in Afghanistan isn’t facing a serious and ongoing threat.
What follows is again a composite of interviews with many interpreters who are now in hiding in Kabul.
This is the only chance for me: It’s life or death.
I’ve got all four requirements. I was approved for the SIV nine months ago. I applied in 2012. After a long process I got my interview. Then I got the medical. Got the passport. Everything is done. After that they gave me a card: “You will not be re-interviewed, in several months you will receive your visa.” After a month my visa was denied. I just received an email from the US embassy: “Your visa is denied.” For what? The guy at the embassy had actually told me, “Congratulations, you have passed.” I don’t have any idea what the reason is. If they told me the reason, I will find a solution.
Everyone knows about it, that we face danger every day working with Americans, and danger now. But how am I going to demonstrate that? How? The Taliban just kill people right on the spot.
I got a bunch of certificates and recommendations from lots of people — from a general and a captain in the US Army. I even have pictures of me working with the defense secretary of the United States, Robert Gates.
I have a letter from the commanding officer saying, “I enthusiastically endorse this recommendation of approval for a special immigrant visa.” Another wrote that I showed “unwavering service and faithful and valuable service. I’m confident he will face threats and potential harm or death as a result of his work with the mission forces, I don’t believe he’ll pose any type of threat to the security of the US.” And again someone says, “He went far beyond what an interpreter is expected to do, he maintained an infectious positive attitude, an explosive work ethic, he never tired, was never negative, always willing to work.” And another: “His dedication, drive to succeed, honesty, and integrity are undoubtedly in keeping with the standards that we would like to believe every American has the responsibility to uphold.”
I applied for the SIV in 2010. The process took all the way to 2013. At the beginning of 2013, I was informed that my SIV would be issued and that I need to make arrangements to go to the United States. Now they’re telling me I’m denied for “unknown reasons.”
I’m asking the entire American people and their government, to please focus, please concentrate on the interpreters who have been refused visas. We are good people. We did a really valuable job for the United States armed forces.
I saw American people for over 11 years, and I really believe that somebody in the American government will see my case, review it, and reconsider. I know the US government is not corrupt. Maybe it takes a little bit of time because there are lots of interpreters. But I am really asking the American government to please reconsider my case and other people’s cases in Afghanistan facing the same situation. After serving the US government for over 11 years, the Taliban and al Qaeda will not let someone live in Afghanistan if they don’t get their visas. They will be targeted by the Taliban until they are eliminated.
If I could speak to the soldiers I was with now, I’d like to say hi to everybody and please know that I really miss you guys. I’d tell them, “Please give me the visa. I’m hiding all the time in Kabul. I lost my destiny. Please renew my case for the special immigrant visa. If I get the visa, I will never lose my life. If I’m not going to get the visa, I’m going to die. Some people will kill me, they will kill my family.”
If I don’t get this visa, I’m going to die. I’m 100 percent sure. I’ve seen a lot of people, they’re smirking at us and they’re staring at us. They change their behavior with us. They will find me and they will kill me.
Many of the interpreters I spoke to complained of suddenly failing one of two tests — a counterintelligence (CI) test or a polygraph test. Not only would neither be admissible in a US court, the interpreters had usually passed the tests — which always involve the same, simple questions — many times before, and had given exactly the same answers to exactly the same questions.
I had done the CI and polygraph tests many times and passed. How come I failed the last time? The questions were normal every time: How many brothers do you have? I have one brother. What is his name? His name is this. Where does he work? He works there. More than 10 times I got it all right because I worked with them for seven years. I never failed. But then the last time, they failed me. They said that I could not come on the base again because I had failed. I was really sad that day. I said, “Why?” She said, “They didn’t tell us the reason.” It made me more sad. I said, “At least if I know the reason I can tolerate it, if it was my fault.” But they said they didn’t know the reason. We had worked for them for many years and there was nobody to listen to what we have in our hearts or what things we have to say. There was nobody.
The polygraph test is something that I don’t think is accurate. It is not something that can really clarify whether or not you’re a bad person. They would ask a really easy question and I would wonder why they’re asking me this question. It was not for security purposes. But then some questions were really difficult. If someone asked these questions of an American, they would not feel very comfortable. For example, they will ask you, “Are you related to al Qaeda?” They will ask you, “Are you a member of a terrorist organization?”
One day, it was our last CI test, there were 40 people there and all 40 failed the test. Everybody. The place we worked was a forensics lab that was closed down soon afterwards. Nobody remained there. This needs to be reviewed.
This is just one single, small part of it, just the very first step. It’s like the baby step, you prepare all these documents and your company approves it, and you write all these truths about yourself and you send it to the embassy and they send you this approval. Then you have to go through some two or three more steps to get to the interview and get a visa. We didn’t just do this one step, we did everything: medical checkups, which cost more than $1,000; we sent many letters, our ID cards, our passport, our marriage certificates and birth certificates.
If you are the person to give me the visa, I’d tell you to please give me the visa, and if you are not going to give me the visa, you are responsible for killing a person. It’s not like something hidden. They kill people and videotape it and put it on YouTube.
One weekend I spend in a friend’s house; the next weekend with another interpreter, a trusted person. The people in my neighborhood, they have contact with the Taliban. They have to think I’m still away at my job. If they know that I’m at home, released from my job, and that the Americans do not support me anymore, they will kill me.
We just avoid going out a lot. We prefer to stay at home all the time. Even on our holidays, our weekends, we don’t go out. We just stay at home and spend time with family, not outside. It’s like we are in prison in our own country.
These days they put these magnet bombs under the cars, and of course I drive my own car going to work and coming back because I can’t take taxis or buses. You never know who’s the driver in another car or a bus. So if they find out that I’m driving my car and I’m an interpreter for the US government, they’ll definitely put a magnet bomb on my car one day and blow me up because these days, these things are increasing. We cannot park our car anywhere that isn’t secure.
When I go to work, whenever I get there, I will call my mom to let her know I got there. When I finish work, I wait until it gets dark, I will call her and say, “Okay, Mom, I will be home in an hour or half hour.” Still, my mom is always calling me, “Where are you? Where’s your location? Let me know your location.” I leave when it’s dark, then I come home when it’s dark, and the other times I just stay at home.
I just ran away from Afghanistan, I ran to Pakistan because my life is at risk. They’re looking for me. They’re very bad people. I don’t have any choice. I love my country but I can’t stay here. My country, Afghanistan, is the best country, the people are good people, but I can’t stay there anymore. They’re going to catch me, they’re going to do what they want to do against me. Probably cut my head off, you know? I saw it on YouTube: They got the interpreters and they cut their heads off.
It’s really hard to go to Iran, Russia, Pakistan, or Uzbekistan, countries around Afghanistan. They really don’t like the US government. So if we go over there, our life is at risk. We can’t stay in Pakistan, there are no jobs. Even if I go to a hotel there, whenever they see my passport, they say, “Afghan people are not allowed.” Why? What is the reason? We are not human?
The US Embassy has seen all of this. They know the situation. But still, they just deny my visa. I have 40 letters of recommendation. I have one saying I was employee of the month — and in our company there were 300 people. The American soldiers we worked with, they were happy with us, they know we are not bad guys, they’re grateful that we worked with them.
The way I have been treated, it really broke my heart. For seven years, we helped them, really honestly worked with them. We weren’t absent one day. We thought that we had a mission together. We thought that if my American friend, if my brother might die on a mission, I am going with him. I’m not more than him. If I might die too, it’s not a problem.
If I take a risk of going on the ships and going illegally to Europe, there’s gonna be a 50 percent risk I will die. But I prefer to take the 50 percent risk instead of taking the 100 percent risk and staying here. I just have to leave. Borrow money or be a refugee, just take myself out of here. I have no other way. If I sit here, I will be killed.
For one interpreter, just one person, going from Kabul to a foreign country is $25,000. I only made $600 a month. How can I find $100,000 to take my whole family with me to Europe? If I had that much money now, I would never leave my family behind, but I don’t have that much money. That’s huge money. We cannot find that.
Every day the situation is getting worse. For that reason I told my father, “If you just stay here with my family, I will move somewhere else like the other interpreters.”
Just imagine yourselves in our place, how hard this could be to live a very scary life. You’re scared of everyone. If the situation was good in Afghanistan, if there’s no Taliban, after the work with Americans, I would stay in Afghanistan. I would continue my higher education, I would do something, I would be an engineer, a doctor, or something. Now, when I leave my home, I don’t have the hope that I am coming back.
Read "The Interpreters, Part 2: Athens" here.
Follow Ben Anderson on Twitter: @BenJohnAnderson