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Meet the Afghan Interpreters Who Have Been Abandoned by the French Army

Despite risking their lives, Afghan interpreters who worked for the French army have been denied visas to emigrate and now face death threats from the Taliban.

by Matthieu Jublin
Apr 10 2015, 9:20pm

All images come from the personal archive of the Afghan interpreters we spoke to. They are reproduced here with their kind permission. For security reasons, all faces have been blurred and names have been changed.

In October 2001, weeks after the 9/11 terror attacks, the US and its close allies invaded Afghanistan, with the aim of removing the Taliban regime, which was accused of providing a safe base to al Qaeda. Following a 13-year war, security responsibilities were handed over to the Afghan armed forces.

In November 2012, France withdrew its combat troops from Afghanistan, and in late 2014, the last of the French contingent left the country. At the height of operations, 4,000 French personnel were deployed in Afghanistan, relying on Afghan interpreters to communicate with locals and to conduct their operations.

Despite being toppled by the coalition, the Taliban have re-emerged in recent years and have multiplied threats against those who collaborated with foreign forces during the war.

Some of the Afghan interpreters who worked with the French army during the war have been granted visas, but many others have been denied asylum, and remain in Afghanistan, where they are often viewed as traitors, and live their lives in fear.

Related: The Afghan Interpreters. Watch here.

'I very rarely go out — once a week, at most. I always wait for the sun to set, and I wear a scarf and sunglasses.'

Jamal, 25, and Ismat, 27, [not their real names] live on the outskirts of Kabul, the capital of Afghanistan. According to documents they forwarded to VICE News — including work contracts and recommendation letters highlighting their years of good service — both men were employed as interpreters for the French army for several years.

Today, they are hoping to emigrate to France, to escape persecution in their own country, where they have received death threats. VICE News spoke to them on the phone on Friday morning.

VICE News: When did you start working for the French army?
Jamal: In 2005, I graduated from the French high school in Kabul. All my brothers and sisters went there, too, but I was the only one who decided to work for the French. After I graduated, I worked as a tourist guide. Then, in 2006, I went to see the French army. I was the youngest in my family, so I had to find work. The French soldiers were based at Kabul international airport. I showed up with my resume and several days later, they called me. I became an interpreter for the army, when they placed orders with Afghan companies. Then I worked on a training mission for Afghan soldiers. I worked for the French until they left, in July 2014.

Ismat: I learned French at a private school, and in 2002, I went to see the French troops at the airport in Kabul. I worked with the infantry, with intelligence and with the military police. My job was to accompany them as they patrolled the areas controlled by France. For this, I was equipped like a soldier, with a rifle, a helmet and a bullet-proof vest.

Did you take any risks during your missions?
Jamal: When I was on the Afghan army training mission, a mine exploded just 10 feet from me during a live-fire exercise. I was with the French training officers. Luckily, no one was injured. The mine was detonated remotely, probably by the Taliban in one of the neighboring villages. That was in January 2013. The situation has gotten much worse since 2010, 2011. But even before that, they would attack the base camp. We would seek refuge in the bunkers when that happened. And Taliban spies would also infiltrate the local population: When I went to talk to Afghan companies, I didn't always know who I was dealing with.

Ismat: In 2009, I was in an all-terrain vehicle, traveling to a French army camp, when a dozen Taliban attacked our convoy. One of the Afghan soldiers who was traveling with me was killed by gunshot. The insurgents were 20 yards away from us. One of them fired a rocket that hit the vehicle. Thankfully, it didn't explode. I lay on the ground, with shots being fired above my head. Then, a French helicopter arrived and caused the Taliban to flee. After that, the Taliban would attack the camp every three nights or so, and sometimes, they would launch mortar attacks.

'I received a death threat in a letter that was sent to my home address.'

What kind of relationship did you have with the French troops?
Jamal: Our first interaction was very good. In Afghanistan, most interpreters prefer to work for the European soldiers. They're much nicer than the Americans. I'm still in touch with a French chief warrant officer. But today, the soldiers can't help us, or they might get fired. We were working side-by-side back then, but when I filed my first visa request with the military chief, in March 2013, I never heard back. The chief came back to me the day the French soldiers left, in July 2014. All he said was that my request had been denied, and then he left.

Ismat: In July 2014, when the French left, I received a phone call telling me that my visa request had been denied. I thought the French army would protect me. But when I received death threats over the phone, or when they stuck flyers on my front door, the army — like the Afghan police — did nothing. They told me to stay home and lay low.

What is life like today, for you?
Jamal: During those eight years, I never revealed that I was working for the French army. Only my close family knew. Even my neighbors thought I worked for an Afghan company. The Taliban have always been very critical of interpreters who worked for foreign armies. The Taliban have gotten stronger since 2010. Today, they're 15 miles outside of Kabul and sometimes, they carry out attacks in the center of town. There have always been spies and telephone threats, but since 2012, I've had to move five times. The last time was a few months ago: I received a death threat in a letter that was sent to my home address. It was slipped under the door. I left that night, [I went] 15 miles from there.

Ismat: When I worked at a French army checkpoint, the Afghan villagers, who were searched every time they came through, really didn't like me. They called me an infidel, a spy, a traitor. For them, I was a soldier. Now that the French have left, they've stepped up the threats. They'll call me, from an unknown number. They'll post a flyer, like the last time. On that flyer, there was my picture and the promise of a reward for whoever killed me. I moved that night. It's happened seven times in twelve years. They also threatened my family on the flyer. I have a wife and two kids.

Do you ever go out?
Jamal: I very rarely leave the house — once a week, at most. I wait for the sun to set and I wear a scarf and sunglasses. It's mostly my wife who goes out, but I had to buy her a burka so she wouldn't be recognized in the street.

Ismat: I haven't left my house since the last demonstration outside the French embassy. [On March 5, 2015, some 20 former French army contractors gathered outside the French embassy in Kabul to protest the government's freeze on visas.] Every day, I think I'm going to die. When I need something, I often ask my mother-in-law to pick it up for me.

What are your hopes for the future?
Jamal: Only France can save us. Other countries will always deny us visas because we didn't work for them. We hope that the French people, French politicians and the French president will be able to change our situation. If they can save us, life will go on.

Ismat: We have to re-open the process that allows interpreters to be granted visas — it's the only way. Death could come today or tomorrow.

***

Attorney Caroline Decroix, who is part of a group of lawyers defending the rights of foreign nationals (Avocats Pour la Défense du Droit des Etrangers — ADDE), has been lobbying the French government to support its former interpreters in Afghanistan.

Decroix and a collective made up of 35 attorneys are currently trying to secure a total of 200 visas for 56 Afghan interpreters and their families.

In a letter to French president François Hollande published Wednesday on French news site Mediapart, the group describes how many of the interpreters were denied visas "abitrarily," and that many did not even receive a formal response to their request, but were just told by their bosses that their claim had been denied.

Speaking to VICE News on Thursday, Decroix said it was "for the president to decide, because he was the one who gave the go-ahead for the issuing of the 73 visas that have been granted to this day." The attorney said that "several hundred people" were still hoping for relocation.

Decroix explained that, while she hopes Hollande will intervene on behalf of the forgotten interpreters, the collective is prepared to take the matter to court if no solution is found. So far, she told VICE News, the group had received "no answer from the presidential office."

When contacted by VICE News, the office of the French president was unable to comment at present.

Follow Matthieu Jublin on Twitter @MatthieuJublin

Additional reporting by Étienne Rouillon @rouillonetienne

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