Safa (left) worked as an interpreter for the French army in Afghanistan. FRANCE 24 blurred his face out of concern or his safety. All phoos courtesy of Safa.
Over the past few months, several dozen Afghans who served as interpreters for the French army have arrived in France. Many more, however, have not been granted visas, and remain in their homeland, where they are now treated as pariahs and targeted by insurgents.
As French troops gradually pull out of Afghanistan, those who served as their interpreters are losing their jobs. And since they are often viewed as traitors, former interpreters now live in fear. After reviewing about 800 visa applications from Afghans that had been employed by the French army – the vast majority of them interpreters – the French authorities recently approved visas for 70 of them, as well as their immediate family members. No new batch of visas has yet been planned.
Meanwhile, the British government has announced that it will grant visas to about 600 of its former Afghan employees. It had intended to issue much less at first, but three young Afghans, former interpreters who had already fled to the United Kingdom, successfully campaigned for more. Many Afghans who worked for the US army are caught up in a bureaucratic nightmare; the process for them to get approved for a visa to the United States can take about two years.
Afghanistan has discouraged these schemes. Government spokeswoman Janan Mosazaï recently said that as “qualified professionals”, former interpreters should stay in Afghanistan “during this crucial transitional period.” Their qualifications don’t seem to be helping them much, however, as many of them have been unemployed since losing their interpreter jobs.
“On the street, people call me a spy”
Safa, a Kabul native, spent more than six years working as an interpreter for the French army.
I worked for an Operational Mentoring Liaison Team (OMLT), which served as a liaison between coalition troops and battalions from the Afghan national army. The team organised training for Afghan troops and helped them out when they requested ground or air support. A big part of my job was to translate during meetings between French army officials and Afghan army officials or local elders. We worked in Kabul, but also in many different provinces, including Kandahar, Wardak, and Kapisa. In 2009, I was shot in the leg during a battle in Nijrab, but quickly recovered and returned to work.When I first started working as an interpreter six years ago, there was still hope that the country would find peace. So I told everyone about my line of work. I was proud of it. Now, I regret telling people. Today, as a result of all the resentment that has built up as the situation in the country has gone downhill, former interpreters are hated by many. The OMLT’s mission ended in the fall of 2012, and since then, I have been out of work. All my friends who worked as interpreters are unemployed, too. Nobody will hire Afghans who worked with the coalition forces.“All former interpreters are at risk for their lives, so I don’t understand why some got visas and others did not”But worse than being unemployed is the fear I live in. I changed my phone number recently, but before that I got frequent calls from insurgents telling me they knew where I lived. Since I’m unemployed, I live with my family; I’m very afraid that if insurgents come after me, they could hurt my family, too. It wouldn’t be very hard for them to find me – everyone in my neighbourhood of Kabul knows I worked as an interpreter. On the street, people often call me a “spy”. I can’t even go to a local mosque because the imam there says “spies” aren’t allowed. I spend most of my time at home.Kabul is my prison. I can’t leave the capital – not even to go to the suburbs – because it’s too dangerous; the insurgents would easily catch me. My friends from other provinces who worked as interpreters don’t go home to see their families anymore. They know they would be killed. (In December, an interpreter was attacked while home on leave; two of his brothers were killed. In February, two more interpreters were gunned down.) We’re not safe in Kabul, but we’re safer than anywhere else in the country, where insurgents carry on as they like.A few of my interpreter friends were given visas to France; we talk on Skype and they tell me they are very happy there. They can finally breathe easy. I envy them. All former interpreters are at risk for their lives, so I don’t understand why some got visas and many others, like me, did not. When our employment was terminated, French army officials told us to head to Kabul and go to the French embassy with our passports so that we could get visas. The embassy staff took down our information, and told us they would call us. Some got the call; others waited and waited.“If I don’t get a visa, I’m going to have to try to somehow leave this country on my own”I finally received a letter last month saying I had not been selected for a visa. I went to the embassy to protest, along with friends who had also received this letter. The embassy staff told us the letter came from the French army, and that we would have to call a specific phone number to reach those in charge of this decision, but that phone is always off. We’ve tried going to a French army camp that’s nearby, but nobody there will talk to us.I still hope to receive an explanation, at the very least to know if there is any logic as to why they gave visas to some of us and not others. [The French authorities have indicated that visas were given to applicants who faced immediate danger.] But if I don’t get any answers within a few months, I’m going to have to try to somehow leave this country on my own.
FRANCE 24 has asked the French authorities for more details on selection criteria for attributing visas to Afghan interpreters who worked with the French army. We had not received an answer at the time of going to press; however, we will update this article as soon as we do.
Article by Gaelle Faure.