Afghan interpreter: ‘Taliban don’t wait to kill you’
Hiding in Afghanistan, a former translator for the US military describes what life is like for those left behind.
Wahdat worked as an interpreter for the US military in Afghanistan from 2010 to 2014, beginning the job when he was 17. Now unemployed, he lives in hiding in Kabul, fearful of the Taliban, who have threatened his life multiple times because he worked with American forces.
He applied for a special visa for Afghan citizens who had worked with the US government during its occupation of the country. According to law, Wahdat’s application should have been processed within nine months, but nearly three years later, he’s still waiting to find out his fate.
Fault Lines visited Wahdat in a room he rents at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. This is his story in his own words.
Working as a translator for the Americans was the right thing to do. I’m the only breadwinner for my family. The pay was not that good, but still I was running a family.
I’ve witnessed the Taliban killing people. Over time, something grew inside me – hate. I hate them.
I’m not sorry that I worked with the American forces. But I’m sorry for what the US government is doing to me.
The Taliban sent a letter by a seven-year-old, telling me that I should stop working [for the US military]. It’s in Pashtu and says: “We know you have been working with the US special forces, and you must stop working and helping these infidels. You must know we have spared and have forgiven those ones who did surrender and obeyed us. So like others, you must also obey and surrender yourself to us. But if you reject and do not obey our directions and rules, your death will be eligible to us according to Islamic Sharia, and we will never let you live in peace in any part of Afghanistan.”
It was not a good feeling, honestly, but I was thinking, “Well, as long as I work here I’m good, and then I can go to the United States.”
The interpreter's job was not just about talking and translating, he was an active soldier.
But that didn’t happen and things got worse.
When my granddad went to see our land and my house back where I used to live, he was caught by them [the Taliban] and they threatened him. They gave him another letter for me that said, “We’re going to kill your granddad next time, and you’re added to our blacklist.”
I’m under pressure, honestly. Because when you’re in this kind of situation, you’re away from society. It’s been like seven or eight years since I have been [back] to my home. My land is just like no one’s land. My house is collapsing, and there’s no one to take care of it.
I started smoking, so I could be awake during the nights. When I start shaking, I smoke. Sometimes it’s like a nightmare, and sometimes it’s normal. But still, sometimes you will have to take the risk and sleep.
So, normally I sleep during the day, since I’m jobless, and then I stay awake during the nights. During the day, I sleep from 5am until 11 or 12, and then wake up. If I really have to, I go to the city just to get goods for my family and then I come back right away. That’s all I do now.
During the night I have some sort of routine. If I hear something strange, I go up and down and check what’s going on, with my gun ready. Once, when I was living in another house, someone was in my house during the night, and I had to pull my gun out and try to find out what was going on.
It was like in a terrible movie: Someone is trying to hurt you. Someone’s trying to hurt your family. And then you’ve got no choice, even if you’re not a brave person, you have to act brave so the others won’t hurt you. But they escaped.
The Taliban know what they are doing. That’s how they turned this country into hell. They know how to track you, because they are everywhere. No matter how long you hide, how long you sneak around, or how many times you change houses; even if you fly from one province to another to avoid getting killed – finally you will do something wrong. And they’re everywhere. They could be in the street, they could be in the shop, they could be your friend without you knowing. That’s why it’s very hard for the interpreters to trust someone.
Ears and eyes for the military
The Taliban believe that interpreters are ears and eyes for the military, and the first target during every ambush was the interpreter. Interpreters were not only translating, face-to-face to locals. They also tracked radios, they tracked their abbreviations and then warned the military teams that if they went, like, a kilometre from this place, the Taliban had planted IEDs (improvised explosive devices) for them. Interpreters would tell them they have an ambush waiting for you.
In every country they have their own rules, they have their own culture.
So if an interpreter didn’t advise a US military guy, he could have made a lot of mistakes when contacting people, during the missions. And that could have increased the casualties a lot.
The interpreter’s job was not just about talking and translating, he was an active soldier. The only difference was he was not trained back in the US for the military, he was just a guy who started working for the military.
I’m still not sorry for what I did. I did what I had to do, for what was right. But then, when you come back to this kind of situation … I feel sorry for my family because they were stressed because of me, because of what I’ve done.
My case was denied because the US government said that they couldn’t find my contract. “We can’t find your contract, so you didn’t work [for the US].” Even having the emails and a recommendation letter from the US supervisor, they said no. So my case was denied.
After that, a law came out that I can appeal, and I did appeal. I sent the same documents, but the only thing which helped me was the duty letters, letter of authorisation, saying I could carry guns and weapons. Normally when you apply, you will have to do a brief statement of how you’re facing threats, and this is what I did. Then I had my interview in February 2015.
I am now in “administrative processing”, which is normally an FBI background check, Homeland Security – these agencies are involved in checking my background. But they have given me a specific case number to put on the US website. Normally when a case is being checked, the status is “updated”. My case had not been checked for one year, and then on January 28 this year, it was finally updated.
I check the website like five times a day, 10 times a day. It says, “Your visa case is currently undergoing necessary administrative processing, and the processing can take several weeks.”
Several years, it should say. It’s like someone is dying, and you tell them, “I don’t know when but I’ll help you – one year, two years, three years, something like that.”
I spent seven years working for the US government – four years with the military and after that still with the US government. And this is what I get now – administrative processing.
All this doesn’t let you live the life that you want. Also it doesn’t give you what you need and what you keep waiting for, for years. You’re just someone who is stuck in a process which they call administrative processing, but really it’s interpreter-killing processing. Because the Taliban don’t wait to kill you.
Watch Left Behind: America’s Afghan Translators here.