Away From You – The Story Of The Afghan Interpreters
News

Away From You – The Story Of The Afghan Interpreters

Learn about the Afghans who risked their lives with the British and what campaigners say are the failures of politicians to protect them...

Away From You – The Story Of The Afghan Interpreters

While in Afghanistan, the British recruited about 7,000 locally employed civilians, around half of whom were interpreters.

Working closely on the ground with British service personnel, they became not just interpreters but also cultural advisers and friends to many who served alongside them.

After the withdrawal of the British, some of the interpreters and their families were invited to live in the UK although many remain in Afghanistan.

A defence select committee report into the plight of the interpreters this year acknowledged: "There is a broad consensus that the UK owes them a great ‘debt of gratitude.’"

While grateful to the British, many of the interpreters are ambivalent over whether the Government has fulfilled this debt.

You can listen to the interpreters in their own words in the feature-length radio documentary ‘Away From You – The Story Of The Afghan Interpreters’ below.

 

For several months, journalist William Warren has been speaking with multiple Afghan interpreters, the people who served alongside them and the organisations campaigning for their wellbeing.

The names of the interpreters [with the exception of Hares] have been changed to protect their security and as to not jeopardise their ongoing immigration difficulties.

Playing Kite

Throughout the course of producing this programme, I’ve spoken to several interpreters as well as British officers who served alongside them.

I visited a few of those interpreters in a small flat in Manchester to share the popular Middle Eastern tradition of drinking tea over heated conversation. 

Many of the interpreters who worked with the British grew up in Afghanistan in the 1990s and they were keen to tell me what life was like at that pivotal moment in the history of the country.

The end of the 20th Century was a time of great turmoil for the country, after the Soviet withdrawal, civil wars would plague the country and the Taliban would emerge as a dominant and brutal force in the country.

Every one of the interpreters I spoke to remembers vividly how dramatically life changed for them.

One of the interpreters, Hamid, recalls being educated under the Taliban:

“The headteacher of my school was a Taliban commander, from grade four you had to have a turban when you went to school. There was a guy about ten years old he had jeans on… and he was brought up in front of 400 people, the teacher said look how bad he looks, he looks like westerners, like infidels."

"That was a bad situation. When you go to school it needs to be somewhere peaceful, not like a war.”  

Rashid says he only has “violent and negative memories” of the Taliban from his childhood:

“I wasn’t even able to play kite under the Taliban, people had no freedom, women had no freedom. I remember women in our streets were beaten by whips. Everything was extremely restricted and radical.”

Polish Soldiers Help Afghan Children Experience Kite-Flying Joy
Polish Soldiers Help An Afghan Child Set Up His Kite - PICTURE US Army Spc. Micah E. Clare 2007

Each interpreter had a different motivation for wanting to work with the British and had their own story of how they got to meet the Armed Forces.

Some were initially motivated by self-interest, others felt a sense of duty. However, the consistent underlying reason was their hatred of the Taliban.

Seeing “white people with blond yellow hair on the streets of Kabul” was a humorous experience for Rashid and he remembers it filled him with a sense of hope.

Many made immense sacrifices to apply to work as recruiters, including Mujeeb who was a medical student at the time.

He put his education on hold to become an interpreter:

“There was a day when I finished my classes and I realised the political situation was not good, the economy was not good, the security situation was not stable so I just decided to submit my CV.”

The interpreters came from all over Afghanistan to aid the fight.

Those who came from the big cities like Kabul say they found it easier to come up with a cover story for their absence while they worked with the British.

Mujeeb told me he didn’t even tell his family he had made the decision:

“Back in 2009, Helmand Province was one of the most dangerous places in the world. I couldn’t tell my family because I knew if I told them they wouldn’t allow me to go.

"I just told my older brother that either I do this or we just live in the same situation that we are in, so somebody had to take the risk.”

Sweets From Overseas

Ed Aitken was one the blond soldiers Rashid was speaking about.

The former army captain completed two tours of Afghanistan and served with The Royal Lancers.

He remembers meeting his interpreter Hares very clearly and speaks passionately about the impact interpreters played in the conflict.

“Hares very much became part of the family … interpreters became a lifeline; they became the guys we relied on. They would be able to intercept the insurgencies communication and so we would have that significant advantage to a commander of being able to understand what the enemy was saying. Very simple things like being able to negotiate the price of us staying overnight in a compound … and being able to buy some bread at the local bazaar.”

Hares says the first few months serving alongside Ed was difficult as it was quite hard to understand British accents (several interpreters mentioned that the Scottish accent was particularly hard for them to comprehend).

“Every regiment was coming for six months and we were making good friends. I probably now know about 1,000 soldiers. It wasn’t difficult dealing with the British as they knew what they were doing and we knew what we were doing. To convince the locals, that was the big challenge.”

Some of the interpreters spent as long as six years in a hostile situation alongside the British. Being around the soldiers for so long meant that they formed strong bonds. Rashid told me that he found the British “quite animated and funny.”

“I became close to some of my Army colleagues became we were in forward operating bases and life was very tough. I became friends with so many people, one of them is still my friend.

"His girlfriend even sent me a box of sweets. She must have felt that maybe the friendship between these two people from different countries was quite good.”

Afghan Sweet Shop
An Afghan Man In Front Of A Sweet Shop - PICTURE Michal Hvorecky 2010

Ed can recount several examples of where Hares’ local knowledge became invaluable to him.

Officers are taught about the concept of atmospheric change – where small abnormalities in the environment such as pigeons flying away could indicate incoming danger.

He remembers one time Hares spotted these changes while he was speaking to an elder in a village, warning Ed:

“We need to get back to our vehicle right now.”

Moments later, machine gun came bursting at them. Luckily everyone made it back safely.

Throughout our conversation, Ed told me multiple times:

“There’s no doubt about it, [the interpreters] saved British lives.”

Many of the British soldiers got on so well with the interpreters that Ed had to have private words with them:

“You have to be quite careful and I actually had to have a word with my soldiers sometimes to say, I know these guys make jokes like British soldiers … because of course, they’ve spent years and years with that black British military humour. We must remember that although outwardly they seem like they’re comfortable … actually, deeply rooted, they come from a much more conservative culture.”

Frozen Fish

In June 2013, then Secretary of State for Defence, Sir Michael Fallon first announced a Redundancy Scheme.

This meant that interpreters and other locally employed civilians would be allowed to settle in Britain if they met the following:

1. Employed for at least a year. 

2. Were engaged on 19 December 2012 (the date that the UK Government announced the drawdown of British forces in Afghanistan).

3. Were made redundant as a direct consequence of the drawdown decision.

These criteria meant that not all interpreters were eligible to come to the UK. For those not covered, the Intimidation Scheme was intended to provide a mechanism for supporting locally employed civilians.

Six years later, the House of Commons report ‘Lost in Translation?’ would note “The Redundancy Scheme has attracted criticism for the allegedly ‘arbitrary’ nature of the cut-off date; whilst the failure to relocate anyone at all under the terms of Intimidation Scheme has been roundly condemned.”

Those interpreters who did make it to the UK immediately felt the culture shock of being in a new country.

Hares told me he felt incredibly lost when he first moved to the UK:

“We had a completely different understanding of living in England. I went out on my first day to buy something and I lost my way, I couldn’t find my house. That was the first time I used Google Maps, I didn’t know how to use it but I still kind of figured it out.

"The first few days I was desperately trying to find someone just to talk to.”

Hamid travelled to the UK with his family but also feels isolated in his new home:

“No one knows who we are and how we came here ... My wife, she’s unable to speak English and that’s a bit difficult.”

Afghan Feeding Fish
An Afghan Soldier Feeding Fish - PICTURE Sgt. Michael J. MacLeod 2012

The interpreters who did come over the to the UK under the Redundancy Scheme were invited to bring their wives and families along with them provided they travel to Britain at the same time.

Some families couldn’t come to the UK at the same time due to security or other reasons.

However, some interpreters report not knowing that they all had to travel to the UK at the same time which has resulted in families being split up.

Fazal travelled to the UK with his eldest son. His wife and two youngest children are still home in Afghanistan.

“When I came to the UK with my oldest son who was nine it was really tough. He was missing his mum and my two sons. Even sometime in his sleep, he’s calling out his mum’s name … he’s having problems in school."

"One of his teachers even told me he’s worried he’s going to harm himself.”

Fazal’s son speaks with a thick Mancunian accent – a product of spending around a third of his life in the UK.

When we spoke it happened to me his 13th birthday, he told me how he’s struggling to settle into life away from Afghanistan:

“I have no friends here… it’s hard to be without your mum and brothers, to be here alone. My dad’s here with me, he’s supporting me all the way."

"I think one day my mum will come.”

Hares and his friends tell me Fazal isn’t the only interpreter suffering away from his family.

They chatter among themselves intensely about one interpreter who is currently living rough.

He became deeply depressed being so far away from his family.

The conversation then moves onto others who’ve had their parents beaten by the Taliban, an attempt to try and trick interpreters to return home.

Hares tells me that interpreters separated from their families are like:

"Fish that have been frozen."

Another, Mujeeb, tells me his life has been on hold since he arrived in the UK.

I Will Join The Taliban

The societal difficulties the interpreters faced were very real. However, it was the immigration issues that were the most pressing for the interpreters as Ed found out when he contacted his old interpreter for the first time.

Through WhatsApp group chats with interpreters, the concerns of the interpreters became apparent.

This so outraged Ed he decided to form the Sulha Network (meaning resolution or fixing) to lobby for the rights of interpreters.

“It all started when I visited Hares and it became clear no one else was doing it,” Ed tells me.

“We kept at it for at least a year, if not two, banging this drum and not getting anywhere until we were prompted to write a letter to the Home Secretary on the back of the Windrush scandal to say these are not the only people suffering because of a hostile immigration policy.”

Hares and Ed are still in regular contact and have been publicly campaigning for other interpreters ever since.

Now retired, Colonel Simon Diggins, who served as Defence Attaché in Kabul 2008 -2010, has also become a key campaigner for the rights of interpreters.

As the conflict in Afghanistan was drawing down, Simon started to become concerned over what would happen to the interpreters employed by the British after we withdrew from the country.

Simon remembers at the end of his time in Kabul in 2010 one particular case that made him feel ‘very disturbed’:

“I was asked by our amazing team down in Bastion to look after an interpreter who had been really badly injured. In fact, he was a triple amputee … and I said 'why isn’t he being evacuated and treated exactly the same as one of our service personnel?'

"The answer that came back was because he was an Afghan and people were concerned about him claiming asylum.”

Simon worked with his successor to get the interpreter care in India but he says the experience has ‘stayed with him’ and has motivated him to lobby on behalf of the interpreters ever since.

A Medical Emergency Response Team
A Medical Emergency Response Team Extracts A Member of the Afghan Uniformed Police - PICTURE MOD 2011

The strict criteria set by the Redundancy Scheme meant that according to campaigners around two thousand interpreters were not initially covered by the scheme.

These interpreters have either remained in Afghanistan or have tried to leave the country by other means.

In June 2018, Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson announced he would extend the qualifying period for the relocation back to May 1 2006.

He wrote in the Daily Mail ‘we owe interpreters more than just warm words.’

Campaigners say that other interpreters who served alongside the British and were not initially covered by the redundancy scheme have tried to travel to the UK with other refugees and are now trapped in Greece, Germany and other European countries.

Ed says several interpreters travelled to the UK on the back of a truck because they weren’t initially offered a visa to the UK.

Despite these changes, not all interpreters are not covered by the Redundancy scheme.

Rashid was not covered by the scheme and travelled to the UK after being accused of spying in his own country. He was offered a five-year visa which is set to expire soon. 

He believes that if he is sent back to Afghanistan he will be targeted by the Taliban and be killed.  

“The Home Office overall has been very difficult, difficult because it has failed to recognise the services and the values interpreters have offered to the whole British mission in Afghanistan. The Home Office has been short of meeting its moral responsibilities towards the interpreters.”

In a moment of anger and fear, Rashid made the following comment (which he later told me he regrets) that if he were sent back home his only option to stay alive would be to join the insurgents he spent so many years fighting.

“If I go back to Afghanistan the likelihood of me being alive is low, very low and I might possibly get killed by the Taliban immediately … I might even join the Taliban if I go home.”

Mud Slinging

Ed Aitken believes the reaction by the British public to the interpreters coming into the UK has been broadly positive although some aspects of life in modern Britain have been harder for the Afghans to comprehend.

He recalls having to speak with some of the interpreters who responded to angry comments of the media coverage around the Sulha Network.

“I tried to tell them… the people who leave comments, particularly negative comments on online articles are not representative of British society and they should not be listened to… In the UK we allow different opinions to be voiced and this is just part of what it means to be living in British society… After my little pep-talk, we turned off any of the online mudslinging that could have happened.”

Not all the interpreters believe they’ve received a warm reception when they arrived in the UK.

Rashid has become more and more despondent since moving country.

“I’ve experienced racism. I’ve experienced discrimination … I’ve felt disinclined and in despair. I wish I still had my army friends with me … this isn’t the value we worked for. These issues aren’t the type of narrow issues which we cared about when we were in a battle with the Taliban.

"We fought to keep the streets of London safe but coming here to face these issues is very disappointing.”

F Company (Fire Support) 1 Royal Welsh
F Company 1 Royal Welsh Greet Afghan Locals - PICTURE MOD 2010

Some of the interpreters have reported experiences of hostility from Asian immigrants already living in the UK who object to them working alongside the British Armed Forces.

Most of the interpreters I spoke to don’t tell other British Muslims they meet about their background as they fear being ostracised or beaten up [this has been the primary motivation for protecting their identities].

The interpreters served continuously for several years and saw the horrors of the conflict first hand.

They argue that this has had a profound impact on their wellbeing. Mujeeb says many of the interpreters were working with the British for five or six years, a long time in comparison to the six-month tours of the soldiers he worked with, and that they don’t feel they’ve received enough support since they’ve left.

“We are hearing things. We are seeing things. A lot of our colleagues are suffering from mental health issues.”

As we draw our conversation to a close, Mujeeb turns to me and told me in hushed tones:

“The things I've experienced in Afghanistan will stay with me for the rest of my life.”

Hostile Environment

Many of the interpreters who were recruited by the British were young and intelligent men.

However, after years of uncertainty, many of them are struggling to find good jobs.

Fazal is having a “tough time” at an Amazon warehouse and Hamid is currently unemployed.

Mujeeb has had to give up his dream of becoming a doctor after coming to the UK. He was a medical student in Afghanistan but put that on hold when he decided to work with the British.

He tells me that he’s too old to pick up his studies again in the UK, his life has been on hold since he arrived.

The uncertainty he personally feels over his immigration status means that he feels it’s been impossible to plan ahead.

Hares has been more fortunate and is happily employed in an office job.

Ed Aitken who served alongside Hares never misses an opportunity to tell me how bright he is and say he’s glad he is doing well.

Despite Hares’ relative success, Ed believes that the majority of interpreters are underemployed:

“They are Uber drivers, they work in the local ‘chippy’. These are both educated guys but also guys who’ve shown extraordinary loyalty to our country. And of course, the Army has wonderful retraining opportunities, a wonderful social welfare network. We would ask that they extend that support to the Afghan interpreters.”

Hostile Environment
Protesters Demonstrating Outside The Home Office Against The Hostile Environment - PICTURE Global Justice Now 2018

Ed is leaning on his many army contacts to try and open up opportunities for the interpreters. He tells me he knows interpreters who are keen to join the reserves but cannot do so because of their immigration status.

He thinks allowing them to join would be a ‘no-brainer’ and would offer the MOD an easy win.

He jokes with a serious undertone in his voice:

“They have more combat experience than most of our soldiers do.”

Ed points out to me that the military really struggles to recruit BAME (black and ethnic minorities) in the forces and these guys are already ‘wilco’.

Ultimately the difficulties the interpreters and their families report are a result of uncertainties surrounding their immigration status.

Thanks to campaigning by the Sulha Network the Home Office has recently agreed to commit more resources to help the interpreters and to offer ‘a bespoke service to ensuring the wives of some of the interpreters can now come to the country.’

Retired Colonel Simon Diggins holds a critical opinion of the government and believes the ideologically motive hostile environment policy was responsible for the reasons why more interpreters weren’t originally invited into the country.

“My sense at the time [2010] was the MOD were trying to respond to the hostile environment policy by saying what’s the minimal protection we can provide to as few interpreters as possible and that’s what they did. It sounds horribly cynical but I’m left with that view. I’m delighted that they’ve now crawled back a bit from that position and that’s what left me with that view.”

Simon says it was his encounter with the triple amputee that changed everything for him. 

"They were more concerned, in my view, with ensuring he couldn’t claim asylum in this country than they were with making sure he was looked after properly.

"I was horrified by that, it’s one of those things that sticks in your mind it absolutely rankles that someone could so have completely lost their moral compass that that’s what they thought was more important.”

Despite the undeniable progress and media attention, many of the interpreters are still concerned about their future.

Hares told me the situation in Afghanistan has become considerably worse since ISAF forces left the country in 2014.

He worries about his country, the people he has left behind and the future political stability of the homeland he is now so very far away from.   

Both the Home Office and the Ministry of Defence have been contacted for comment on this story and both have declined.

You can listen to the interpreters in their own words in the feature-length radio documentary ‘Away From You – The Story Of The Afghan Interpreters’ below.