Fault Lines

Afghan Translators: Out of Hiding

An insight into the lives of Afghan translators who risked everything to work with the US military and were left behind.

Wahdat worked as an interpreter for the US military in Afghanistan for three years. Now unemployed, he lives in hiding in Kabul, fearful of the Taliban, who have threatened his life numerous times because he worked with the American forces.

“Taliban thought that the interpreters are ears and eyes for the military … you’ll have to be killed. They don’t kill you the easy way if you worked as an interpreter. They will try every maniac punishment first to hurt you,” he said.

Interpreters coming new to the US have all big dreams, and think that this is the end of my trouble, I'll have a better life, but I think it's the start of another big trouble. There will be challenges.

by Wahdat, former translator for the US military in Afghanistan,

During more than a decade of US operations in Afghanistan, thousands of Afghan civilians like Wahdat signed up to work for the American military as translators.

In exchange for taking these jobs, the US government promised them a degree of protection through a special visa programme giving them safe passage to the United States. But applying for a visa is a lengthy process. Many interpreters have waited years for approval, in the meantime facing death threats at home.

In early 2016, Fault Lines went to Afghanistan to investigate the lives of Afghan translators who qualify for these so-called “special immigrant visas” and to find out why so many of them have been left behind. Later this year, we followed up on their stories.

Sakhidad Afghan was one of the many interpreters who tried to escape death threats by applying for a special visa to live in the US. He met all the requirements for a visa, but the process took far longer than the promised nine months. When the Americans pulled out of the base where he worked, Sakhidad had to find a new job, and living off-base put him at a greater risk.

In March 2015, Sakhidad Afghan was kidnapped, tortured and killed by the Taliban – while still waiting for his visa. 

US State Department officials declined to comment on Sakhidad’s case and said they don’t keep track of how many interpreters have been killed while waiting for their visa approval.

“The only difference between me and Sakhidad, or people like me and Sakhidad is our chances. That we still survived … by chance. I mean we can take precautions, we can take security measures, but for how long?” says Wahdat.

Weeks after we met Wahdat in Afghanistan in the spring of 2016, officials from the US government contacted us to ask for more information about his case. A month later, his visa was approved.

“I still remember, it was May 12, 2016, at 02:32 o’clock. I was at the top of the roof and I checked it, I just yelled and I started running to my mom, jumping up and down and said, here is my visa it’s approved and it’s issued. Everyone was so happy and cheering, and my mom was almost crying … it was the happiest day of my life,” Wahdat recalls.

But once they’ve managed to escape their life in fear and hiding, what next? What is life in the US like for the former translators? And what are the new challenges facing them?

Fault Lines follows Wahdat during his first few days in the US, documenting his journey from Kabul to Texas, as he adjusts to a new life in a new home.