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Spain's hunted Afghan interpreters

Dozens of translators who worked with Spanish troops now on the run as government leaves visas in limbo.

Last updated: 15 Jan 2014 13:22
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Madrid, Spain   - Gulam wore the uniform of the Spanish Army as a translator for more than three years. But since Spanish troops pulled out of Afghanistan in 2013, this 23-year-old remains in hiding for sheer survival.

Such is seemingly the fate of 40 young Afghan interpreters who also worked with Spanish forces.

"We are terrified due to the constant threats from the Taliban. They say they'll kill us all for collaborating with the invaders," Gulam, who has a degree in Spanish language and literature from Kabul University, told Al Jazeera. He and his colleagues preferred not to disclose their full names for security reasons.

The Spanish Ministry of Defence dismissed its first Afghan interpreters in February and March 2013 when Spanish troops withdrew from two combat outposts in Moqur and Ludina in the restive northwestern province of Badghis. Most are young men in their early 20s from Qala-e-now, the provincial capital. They learned Spanish in courses taught by the Spanish military, which was in desperate need of translators during military operations.

Over the past four months, we have showed up at the Embassy dozens of times to gather information about the status of our application ... The answer is always the same, that they have not received any notification from Madrid.

- Gulam, former Afghan interpreter for Spanish troops

The UNHCR guidelines for 2013 label interpreters who have worked for foreign armies as a group "under highest risk of prosecution and direct attack". Given their status as former interpreters for Spanish troops, the Afghan translators formally requested visas to Spain for humanitarian reasons on September 25 of last year.

Spain's embassy accepted their applications, but refused to provide a receipt to each of the interpreters - giving them no way to prove they ever submitted the required documents.    

"Over the past four months, we have showed up at the embassy dozens of times to gather information about the status of our application but so far, we've been only allowed to talk to their translator," said Gulam. "The answer is always the same, that they have not received any notification from Madrid."

Repeated calls and e-mails to Spanish embassy officials did not receive any response.

Stubborn silence

In September 2013, Spanish media reported on the situation and in just two weeks more than 66,000 signatures were collected asking the Spanish government to grant the translators asylum. In response, Spain's Ministry of Defence claimed to have a plan to help host those former Afghan workers at risk.

The 40 translators only knew about such plan through the media. However, on October 19 they submitted a letter to the Ministry of Defence office in Kabul, so they could benefit from the programme.

So far, the anxiety generated by Madrid's seemingly stubborn silence has led two of the former translators to flee the country. Mumtaz and Sanjar have asked for asylum at Spain's consulate in Istanbul. "We have submitted all the documentation, but we are still waiting for a reply," Mumtaz told Al Jazeera. The 23-year-old's most immediate fear is to fall into legal limbo when his Turkish visa expires.

Mumtaz was born in Logar province, in the east of the country. It's a war-torn area from which he says his father has told him not to show up "by any means" given the Taliban's strong presence. The young Afghan said he worked with Spanish troops between 2010 and 2013, including helping to evacuate a wounded Spanish soldier in 2012. Mumtaz's brother, an interpreter for US troops, has been in Washington since last December thanks to a US visa granted to him and his wife for his work and the risks he faced.

On December 18, Pedro Morenés, the Spanish defence minister, was questioned in parliament on the status of the Afghan translators. Morenés stressed that the "host plan" had been in effect since March 2013.

Diego Mazón, communication director at the Spanish Ministry of Defence, told Al Jazeera that more than 1,000 Afghans had worked in different areas for the Spanish mission in the Central Asian country. Mazón said the Defence Ministry had forwarded a "recommendation" to issue 28 visas and 22 compensation packages in December 2013 to the Spanish Foreign Ministry, stressing the decision was under the latter's jurisdiction.

But Alfonso Barnuevo - deputy director of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs' Diplomatic Information Office - refused to make any statement, only telling Al Jazeera the translator issue "is driven exclusively by the Ministry of Defence".

Die 'like a dog'

While Madrid takes its time to decide what to do with its former Afghan employees, the United States announced that 2,500 Afghan interpreters and their families will obtain US visas.

I lost everything I had after the Taliban set my house ablaze ... They say they will kill me like a dog as soon as they find me.

- Rahimi, former translator

The United Kingdom will follow suit with 600 visas and payments worth 55m pounds ($90m), so former employees who remain in Afghanistan can access training courses to find their way into the labour market.

Norway granted asylum to 21 of its 50 translators and New Zealand to 19, although it only had 150 soldiers deployed in Bamiyan, the country's safest province.

As a former student of English language and literature, Rahimi would likely have had the chance to work for almost any contingent deployed in Afghanistan. But he saw a "unique" opportunity to learn a new language with Spanish troops and worked with them between 2008 and 2013.

In 2014, his Spanish is perfect but that new line in his curriculum vitae won't help him solve his most pressing problems in the short term. Today, Rahimi is on the run in Afghanistan, forced to switch homes constantly.

"I lost everything I had after the Taliban set my house ablaze. They also sent me several letters accusing me of being 'an infidel who had worked for the enemy'. They say they will kill me like a dog as soon as they find me," the 25-year old told Al Jazeera.

On November 24, an interpreter working with German troops was killed in Kunduz province, in northern Afghanistan. His body was found inside a vehicle with a plastic bag over his head and his hands tied behind his back with wire.

As one of the 184 local employees granted asylum by Berlin, he was soon to travel to Germany. But his visa arrived too late.

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Al Jazeera
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