After five years of service as an interpreter for the United States military, and another two years working for a company supplying it, Ahmad (not his real name) did not feel safe. The Taliban, who had not been wiped out from from Afghanistan as the US had pledged, were threatening and kidnapping people they considered traitors. Those who had been the very eyes and ears or American troops were a natural target. The Taliban kidnapped his best friend Mati for 30 days and only released him after he promised not to work for the US military again and his family paid a hefty ransom.
Ahmad applied twice for a Special Immigration Visa (SIV), part of a program set up to give asylum to former interpreters in Iraq and Afghanistan as a recognition of their service to the U.S. He had dozens of letters of recommendation from former commanders and certificates of service, but twice he was denied on security grounds, having failed a polygraph test. His friend Mati says he applied for an SIV last year after receiving death threats for his continued work supplying the US army, but he hasn’t heard back. So together they fled what were otherwise privileged, middle class lives, and joined the swell of migrants heading for Western Europe, hoping first to seek asylum in France and then to bring over their family members. Ahmad left behind a pregnant wife and his first son (he has never met his second son, who was born four months later).
They thought it would be easy. But after there months being smuggled through Pakistan, Iran, Turkey, Bulgaria and into Serbia, they arrived at the doorstep of the EU, and found the door shut fast. So they ended up in the Serbian capital, Belgrade, in a squat with over 1,000 others, enduring arctic winter temperatures and medieval conditions. The visual comparisons drawn between the squat and Germany’s concentration camps reflected shock that people could still live in conditions like this in 21st Century Europe.
I met Ahmad and Mati in the squat, and produced a short doc for the Guardian on their situation, their history with the U.S. and their enduring friendship, which has been so important throughout their long journey.
Ahmad especially talked about feeling betrayed by the U.S., a sentiment made particularly bitter by the fact that much of the blame for the current mess in Afghanistan can be fairly attributed to the US’s war and subsequent withdrawal. “You work seven years for a country, and they leave you behind. You will feel kind of broke. But then I realised, these people just want to use you,” he told me.
The US has granted many former interpreters from Iraq and Afghanistan visas. There are currently 13,000 Afghan interpreters and their families waiting to hear whether their visas will be approved. But many have also been refused without explanation, and some former commanders feel that rejections can be arbitrary, or the result of personal conflicts, or a small mark on a record that sticks when allocated visas are limited.
Bradley Lovin, a former defence commander in Camp Clark, worked with Ahmad on many occasions and could not understand the denial. "He meets the qualifications for working with the US military, is a good character, and is not a security threat, from my perspective. The risk to his life in Afghanistan if he remains is certain. Those individuals who helped US military will be the first best examples for the Taliban or the Haqqani network or any other insurgent group to make an example out of.”
When I was making this piece, Ahmad and Mati had been waiting for days for their smuggler to give the go ahead to cross the border. Each day he would tell them again that it would happen the next day, and then again he would postpone, saying the way was too dangerous. We waited several days for them to leave and they never did, so we returned to start the edit. A couple of days after the piece came out, they did cross the Croatian border successfully, but were caught near Zagreb and deported back to Serbia. At the time of writing, they are still in Serbia.
President Trump’s disputed temporary immigration ban does not include Afghanistan (which many find puzzling), and what will happen with Afghan interpreters going forward is unclear. But it seems fair to assume that things are not gong to get easier under his presidency. With the US out of the question, they look to Europe, but Afghan men are pretty low in the pecking order for asylum. When I look at these two young men, both highly educated (Mati has two degrees), with excellent English who move easily in ‘Western’ culture, who have some financial resources and an honest desire to be productive members of society, I can’t imagine what ageing country wouldn’t want young people like them. But of course these are complicated times. I for one hope that at very least, they wont have to endure these conditions any longer.