The Afghan interpreters left behind by Australia
It's been 17 years since 9/11 but the war in Afghanistan is still raging
Since the 'war on terror' began, the country has been left ravaged by the conflict
When Australia ended its military mission in 2013, the Australian government launched a Special Protection Visa program for Afghan interpreters and drivers who served with its forces
Under the scheme interpreters who qualified, together with their families, would be fast-tracked to safety
But SBS Pashto finds that four years on, many interpreters are living in hiding, still waiting to hear from the Australian government
“Well let me put it this way. If my kids get back a bit late from school or elsewhere, I start worrying for their safety,
"I get thoughts of someone kidnapping them or even shooting them dead as a punishment for their father working for foreign armed forces in the country.”
Abdul began working for the Australian military as interpreter in 2009 and applied for his protection visa in 2014.
He's one of an unknown number of interpreters waiting in limbo after international Coalition forces withdrew in 2014.
Australian forces had been deployed in Afghanistan since 2001, after US President George W Bush declared his 'war on terror' after the Sept 11 attacks. They were based mainly in Uruzgan Province but they also worked together with Coalition forces in Kandahar
But the Taliban have since returned, more powerful than ever, regaining almost all lost territory.
"We are living our lives under immense stress and fear,” says Abdul, who has found it hard to get work.
“There’s no future for us here. We meet all kinds of people who ask uncomfortable questions. People know about my job with the Australian army as an interpreter. Nothing is hidden from anyone. Everyone knows about my past and the work I’ve done.”
Noor, who began working with the Australian army in 2010, says initially only his wife knew about his work.
“It was when I returned home after their (Australia’s) exit that one day some friends saw my documents and certificates that I had kept away in a bag, and got to know that all this time I was not working at a factory, but with the Australian army as an interpreter.”
He says threats followed, not only from strangers but also some members of his family, with tragic consequences.
"Some unknown sender posted a threat letter to my home address which my wife found. She was pregnant at the time and because of those threats, we couldn’t leave the house.
"Due to a medical emergency, my wife gave birth to a stillborn baby. It was an extremely testing time for all of us.”
Abdul says the Australian soldiers were regarded as honest and positive.
“They trusted us with our information and interpretation when we would be out on missions and would act on our information.
"They respected our opinion and were respectful towards our culture and traditions and this raised them to a very high level of admiration and respect in our eyes as well.”
Noor, too, describes amicable relations with Australian forces.
“I am still in touch with some of them through the internet. The Australian army personnel at the camp had never differentiated us from them. There was no prejudice, no separation.”
“Once we were out patrolling. One of the Australian army men twisted his foot. Everyone was already carrying a lot of stuff and so no one was able to carry him. I went forward and picked him up and brought him back to the camp.
"When he went back to Australia he still remembered me and brought me a lot of presents when he came back after his leave. His family, too, also called me personally to thank me for helping him out. I was very moved by this gesture; I told them we are all a team and it was our responsibility to have each other’s back.”
For Abdul, who applied for his protection visa in 2013, the Coalition’s exit was premature.
“People are very clear that the international forces left Afghanistan way before time. The situation is still unstable. There’s no peace, no resolution and no harmony.
“The Australian forces used to run a program called the Provincial Reconstruction Team through which they helped ordinary citizens. This also included projects such as building schools and hospitals, but with their withdrawal, all these projects and progress stopped altogether. So, with security problems came economic difficulties as well,” says Ahmed.
Majeed worked as an interpreter for Australian forces in 2010 but now lives in hiding because of threats to his family.
“I was under the impression that they will only leave when there is absolute peace in Afghanistan,” he says. “I had never even imaged a life where I would be receiving threats, and I had no plan B.”
Jason Scanes was deployed to Afghanistan in 2012 as an intelligence planning and information officer and mentor.
He's now raising awareness of interpreters who worked with Australian Forces and have not been granted the protection visas they were promised.
The security situation, he says, has deteriorated significantly since he left.
“They’ll be more than likely changing vehicles every couple of days, changing the routes they travel, basically a lot of them are in lockdown, like they’re in a prison; they can’t communicate with family and friends for fear of putting them in danger and also themselves being targeted; they struggle to find jobs because nobody wants to employ an interpreter that’s basically classified as a spy or having worked with coalition forces because then that business then becomes a target as well."
He says a number of ex-service and current serving members of the ADF have contacted him with concerns for their interpreters who have still not been resettled in Australia.
“I think a lot of people have the misconception that interpreters are just standing there interpreting the spoken word, but it's a lot more involved than that.
"These guys are facilitating relations, reading atmospherics, they’re advising, they’re listening to chatter in the background, they’re doing a whole range of things. Then they place themselves, and their families at considerable risk by putting their hands up and aligning themselves with coalition forces.
“I think a lot of those untold stories and the real dangers these guys have faced isn’t well-known among politicians or the Australian public.”
“I applied in 2014. I received a reply from the department that they will conduct an inquiry into my case. They sent me a 10-12 page form and asked me to fill it in. The form had questions about my job with the Australian forces as an interpreter, about me and my family. I sent that through and after a long time, I received an email again, asking me about a police report as a proof that I had been feeling unsafe and that there were threats to my life and that of my family. I was in Kabul at that time so it took me a month to collect all the letters.
“But before I could send the documents, I received an email from them stating that I was not eligible for the protection visa, but they had not mentioned the reason of rejection.
“Anyway, I still went ahead and they reopened my case in 2016 and told me that they will hold an inquiry again. During this time I was in touch with them and had informed them about the Taliban and Daesh in my area and the threats to my life; and expressed my concerns. I was told to wait. Sometime later, they wrote back asking for translations of the documents that I had provided as proof. I got them translated and certified and sent them the documents.
“The last I heard from them was in December 2016, asking me to inform them of any changes that may occur in my contact details or if my email address changes. Since then they just keep informing me that the inquiry is still underway
“I sent my documents in 2015. I received an email stating that those who had worked less than six months were not eligible, but I informed them that I had worked for over a year.
"Since then, I have been receiving the same reply every time I send in an inquiry, and it says that the case is in process and will take some time.
"I have not been informed about the length of the process. It has been three years now and I am still waiting. Personally, I think four years is enough time for any case to be processed.
"Either we should be informed that this cannot be processed or take it ahead. They keep asking us to stay in touch and wait.”
“I submitted my application to the Australian government in 2013. This means it has been almost six years. Since then, I have sent them numerous emails, and each time they write back that my case is under investigation and that I should stay in touch with them and that the Minister has yet not made a decision on my application.
"They just keep telling me to wait.”
According to the Department of Home Affairs, the government has granted visas to more than 940 Afghan nationals (locally-engaged employees and their families) under the Special Visa Protection program.
While Home Affairs is responsible for all necessary character, security and health checks it’s the Department of Defence’s role to verify that an applicant has worked for the ADF and assess whether there are ‘valid reasons’ to believe they are at a risk of harm.
“Defence’s assessments are based on several factors including the applicant’s role, location, employment period and status of employment with the ADF,” the Department told SBS Pashto.
It admits ‘some applications contain claims that require investigation and are difficult to verify, and these assessments can take some time,’ but also points out that many interpreters who worked for Australian forces in Afghanistan also worked for other Coalition forces such as the United States and the UK under pool arrangements.
"Such employees may also apply to those countries' resettlement programs," the Department stated.
For five years Jason Scanes has been campaigning to bring his interpreter, Hassan, to Australia.
He recently met with Home Affairs Minister Peter Dutton and opposition leader Bill Shorten to press his case.
“I remain hopeful that if we keep raising the issue, at some point the politicians will take note that this is a significant issue.
"It doesn’t just affect the applicant - it affects our veterans that are waiting to make sure that those people who provided loyal service to them in areas of conflict – that Australia keeps its promise - these guys are waiting for their interpreters to be resettled and provided safety here in Australia.”
"I’m more worried about my children," says Abdul who says he last heard from the department in 2016. "If I had the slightest idea about where this life and job would bring me, I would have never married,”
Yet he still has hope.
“I am very hopeful that the Australian people and the government will not let us down, and that they want the best for us in these times. I am hopeful for their support.”