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The interpreters who worked for American and NATO forces during the recent Afghanistan war are among America’s bravest and most loyal allies. They played an essential role educating foreign forces about the local culture they so badly needed to understand, and sourcing intelligence.
As the US is withdrawing from Afghanistan, the tens of thousands of Afghans who put their and their families’ lives at risk because they believed promises would be fulfilled by the US should now be offered safe haven. Instead, a majority of the interpreters are being either denied transit to the US, or left in limbo for years on end.
I spoke with several interpreters now living across the world about their experiences since ending their work with the US and NATO, and the promises that have not been fulfilled.
Many interpreters can’t afford to wait for a visa and instead pay smugglers — often by selling everything they or their family own — to get them out of Afghanistan before they are killed. Most get smuggled into Europe, but the journey is hazardous and many end up in detention centers, or sleeping in parks and slum-houses.
Many simply walk across Iran to Turkey, or get fake visas and fly directly to Ankara. They then sneak into Greece, usually on tiny, overloaded boats that often capsize in the middle of the night. If they aren’t captured on arrival and locked up for 18 months, they live in overcrowded apartments, or sleep in parks or disused warehouses. They then try to sneak into the friendlier countries of Western Europe. Those who get stuck in Greece live in poverty and are often victims of attacks by the far-right group Golden Dawn or by the Athens police.
No one knows how many interpreters have given up on the SIV process and paid to be smuggled out, but conservative estimates put the overall number of Afghan immigrants at just under 30,000. For many, life is so bad that they decide to go back to Afghanistan. I met one former interpreter named Khaled who was about to do just that, and was hoping to then raise enough money to flee east instead of west, to Pakistan or India, where he believed he had a better chance of a normal life.
I came by airplane to Turkey. I paid $3,500 for a fake Turkish visa. Then I paid someone $1,500 to get me to Mytilene, in Greece. But I was caught and spent seven days in jail. After that, the Greek government gave me papers, but only for one month.
I went to Athens and I stayed there for one and a half months. I spoke to people there and they showed me how to get to Italy. “If you don’t have money, you go to Patras and put yourself on a truck.” People went there because they couldn’t pay the smugglers. You need three or four thousand euros to get to Germany or different places in Europe. But we didn’t have that money, so we went to Patras.
We used to sleep in an old wooden boat there, especially when the rain came. In the summer, when the weather is better, we slept in the park. We spent six months there trying to get to Italy or Germany. We slept near the big car park, where the trucks came. When a ship came in, the trucks would be there to pick up the cargo. They came at 4 o’clock, 8 o’clock, 11 o’clock at night. We would get close to the fence, then run and try and put ourselves inside the trucks, hoping they were going to Italy. Some of the guys made it, but I could never do it. There were always lots of police there and they wouldn’t let me get inside the trucks.
The drivers couldn’t see you. We had to pull ourselves onto the back of the truck, open the doors, and put two or three boys inside. Another boy would stay outside to close the door. Or you could hide yourself on the wheels. Sometimes, two guys can put themselves on the wheels. But it’s dangerous. Too many people have been killed under those wheels. One or two guys managed to hide in the toolboxes — the trucks have a big toolbox — so we tried to do that too.
Those days, in the summer of 2013, all the people wanted to put themselves inside the trucks. But then there were lots of police commandos and they were attacking the Afghans, hitting them and kicking them until they turned back. Too many times the police caught me and hit me with a big club. They kicked my ass.
Some of the people brought food for us. There was also a big church nearby and people brought bread or some food. But it’s only bread and sauce, nothing else. In the last 24 hours, we just ate two pieces of bread. Sometimes some of the guys make some money so they run to the city to buy just bread and water — only bread and water.
I haven’t seen my wife and kids for 13 months. I spoke with them by phone a few times, just saying, “Hello, how are you?”
We slept on these small old ships that are grounded. Not just me, lots of Afghan people slept there. Sometimes I had a blanket, sometimes we just slept in this small space, on the wood. Some Afghan boys put a plastic sheet on top of the boat to try and stop the rain. Too many people slept here, too many. Maybe 20 or 25 people. All Afghan people. Some of them made it to Italy, Germany, France, everywhere. Some have gone back to Afghanistan and some of them are still here. Some of them are in jail here. They get 18 months.
Hundreds and hundreds slept in this old mattress factory. Five or six hundred people at least. There was just one tap for washing clothes, washing ourselves, for showering. Over the last two years a lot of people have come from Afghanistan. Because of the situation there, no one knows what will happen. Everybody there has a plan to leave if things get really bad. They are ready to leave. There is fighting. There is no work, no food, nothing.
One boy was five years old when he left Afghanistan. He was brought here by another family. He went to Iran, then Turkey, and then Greece. After Greece he went to Serbia, then Hungary. Then he came back to Greece and he is waiting to move to another place, anywhere in Europe. His mother, his father, and his young brothers were killed in Afghanistan, in their house. He says he just wants to leave. It’s not important where. He just wants safety and a good job. He says he just really wants to leave Greece.
I met one former interpreter in a café in the middle of the immigrant area of Athens, which is not far from the area where Golden Dawn has its strongest presence. The interpreter sometimes slept on a friend’s sofa, sometimes in the nearby park. The café was full of smugglers, who sat in groups of two or three, sipping coffee, smoking cigarettes, and barely talking. “They are waiting for people now,” said the interpreter. He appeared so hardened by his experiences that he was no longer capable of feeling or expressing pleasure. Acts of kindness didn’t have any impact. He was just tough, and nothing else.
I found a person in Kabul who was a smuggler. I told him I wanted to go to Europe. I told him that I wanted to go to Germany, because I’d heard it was better for Afghan people. I told him I was an interpreter with the Americans and he said, “Yes, it’s cool. If you go there, they will give you quick immigration papers.” I asked how much was needed to get to Germany and he said $18,000, to go direct from Kabul to Germany. But I didn’t have that much money. He told me I’d have to go by walking, by plane, and by truck. He said he’d get me a visa for Iran, and another person would collect me from the airport in Tehran. Then I would cross the border to Turkey. There, other people would receive me and send me to Greece. He said that from there I had to find good people to move me to Italy. But he wanted $2,000 just to send me from Turkey to Greece. He said he could make me a passport there to send me to France. I wanted that but I didn’t have the money.
I was in Kabul for nine months, trying to raise this money, but I couldn’t. I spoke with him again and told him I was sorry but I couldn’t find that much money. I told him I had just $8,000 and I found that by selling my wife’s jewelry and my small Corolla car. He said that wasn’t enough. He said he could make me a fake Turkish visa and after I should go to Greece, then wherever I wanted.
After a few days I told him okay, and I gave him my passport. It was $3,500 for the visa. I said I didn’t want to give him cash because nobody trusts smugglers. We agreed that I would leave the money with a cashier in Kabul’s money market. After 15 days, he brought back my passport with a one-month visa. I gave him the money and he was gone. I got a ticket with Ariana Air for $160, direct to Ankara. After that I took a bus to Istanbul.
The smuggler gave me numbers for his Turkish partner. I called him and he told me to give the phone to a taxi driver. The taxi driver took me to a small house, where 14 people were living, most of them Afghans. The house was too small. It had very small rooms and two dirty beds. I’d never been in a place like that. In the morning I left and found some Afghans in a different place. For five months I was stuck there, and I lost too much of my money there. Every month I was paying 150 in Turkish money for house rental and 150 for food.
Then I found another smuggler. He said he liked me because he was also from Afghanistan. I told him I wanted to go Italy and he said he had sent some people there, but it would cost $5,000. I told him it’s too much. He said, “How much do you have?” I told him, “Just $2,000.” He said, “That’s not enough, my friend. You must go to Greece.” I waited one month more. I called my friends in Afghanistan, my family, and my father-in-law found another $1,000 for me. I don’t know what he sold, but he found the money. I went to speak with the smuggler again and I told him I had just $3,000. “Can you send me right now to Italy?” He said, “No, sorry.” He told me again that I should go to Greece and I finally agreed.
They had a small boat that could send me to Greece, near the border of Turkey. But he wanted $1,800. I told him, “No my friend, that’s too much money.” I had brought another Afghan to him, so he gave me a discount of $300.
Again, we agreed to leave the money with a cashier, an Afghan, until I arrived safely. He demanded $100 more, which he called a commission. I pleaded with him to give me a discount but he said, “No, nothing. If you’re happy to leave your money, do it; if you’re not happy, get out of my shop.”
The smuggler kept me in his house for three days. Then he woke me up one morning. We got a taxi to the bus station. There were just two other people and I thought they were playing games with us. Then we arrived to the place and saw, inside the trees, 18 more people. There were two families, all ladies and children. All of them were Afghan. The sun was still down, so it was dark. We started running until we got to the water. We saw the boat, but when we put everything and ourselves inside it, it was too small. I told the smuggler, “This is no good, man, 20 people inside one small boat. How will you get us there in this?” He said it was not up to me. It was not my business. “Just sit, don’t go making a problem.”
We arrived 40 or 45 minutes later, I don’t know, I don’t remember. We landed at a place called Mytilene. We jumped into the water and saw the mountains, some small roads, and also some lights. We started moving with the children and the ladies. We didn’t know the place. We walked for 18 hours until the next night had passed. Then the police came. I told them we were all Afghan people and we had come from Turkey. A big van came and took us to the police station and then to jail. There were just five rooms there, but there were too many Afghan people living there — boys, men, children, and women. After seven days they gave us some papers and a blanket. They asked me if I had money and I told them yes. I showed him 100 euros and hid my other money. He told me to buy a ticket to Athens, which I did.
I arrived at 8 o’clock in the morning in Victoria Park and I saw too many Afghan people living there. They told me that with food, with showers, with bathrooms, with one blanket, and one mattress, houses cost 250 euros per month. I told them that was too much money. The Afghan people told me to go and sleep in Alexandra Park. There are still lots of Afghans living there now, you can see them, young boys smoking heroin, smoking hashish. It’s a bad life here.
I met some other interpreters who had been smuggled in two years ago. They had been arrested and sent to a detention camp for 18 months. After eventually proving that they were genuine asylum seekers, they were released and given amnesty, but they couldn’t find work and had also run out of money.
The police here are always arresting Afghan people or other peoples — Somalis, Iranians, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis.
We live in one room. Five people sleep in one room together. There is a bathroom but no warm water. Every day I wash my body with ice water, hot water is too expensive. We have no work, no income, and we have to pay $150 a month for this room.
We had a little savings but every day we take a little something away, when we get some eggs, to make a little meal. We didn’t have any problems like this in my country. I had a good life in Afghanistan, a very good life, but I left that life. I sold my car. I lost everything. We had to come here, where there are big problems for us. We don’t have our own place to stay. We don’t have bread for eating. We don’t have money to go somewhere, to buy a ticket for the bus or the metro. Sometimes I call my family in Afghanistan and tell them I’m in a bad situation, I ask if they can send me a little bit of money. Sometimes they do, but most of the time they can’t.
When I left my country, I paid more than $55,000 because I came with my family, my mother, and my brother. Now I have finished my money. I’ve been here more than two years.
I hadn’t committed a crime when I came. I just didn’t have the right papers. They sent me to a place that is worse than prison. Prison is better. In prison there is a place for sleeping, for eating, for meeting people. In prison they have to give you everything. In the camp, they don’t give you good food. You don’t have any possibilities, nothing. I was there for two months and my family didn’t know anything about me. Only after two months did I have the possibility to call them from my mobile phone. They said, “Where are you? Are you alive?"
I had to pay a lawyer to get me released. Then I paid many times for the room and I tried to send money to my mother and brother. Now all the money is gone. Now it’s down to zero. Now I don't know what to do. I think my life is finished. You have no idea how I feel.
My life was in danger. I couldn’t stay in Afghanistan anymore. The Taliban shot me outside my home. They gave me warnings, many, many times. They told me to help them. They are Pashtun, like me. They speak my language. They are from my area. And I didn't do it. They told me, “You must. You are Muslim. You are Pashtun. We need your help. You must give us your car.” My car had a card in the window. It allowed me to go into the big camp of the Americans. The Taliban told me they would pay me for my car and the card. I understood that they wanted to use it for bad things, so I said, “I cannot do that.” They said, “If you don't do that, you will have problems.” I said, “I cannot. This is my job.”
And for that, they gave me three warnings. I have the letters that they sent me. And then finally they attacked me. It was nighttime and I was walking home. They were waiting for me. I saw a man take out his gun, so I ran toward the door. I managed to get into the doorway when he started firing. He hit me in the leg and it was only by chance that I got inside. So I understood that my life is in danger. I was afraid and I escaped, I left the country straight away, I didn’t have time for anything else.
I'm a good person. I have good qualities. I was born in Kabul, I studied and my father was a pilot. I only took the job because I thought it was right and it was good for my country, for me and for my future. But I never thought that this would happen to me.
We walked to Turkey through Iran, illegally. We were walking and climbing mountains for 13 days. In Turkey I was captured twice and deported to Afghanistan. As soon as I got back I left again. My mother, my father, my wife, we all just cried. But I had to leave my country. My uncle's son, he's dead, I have a photo. I have five brothers. Two brothers, I don't know where they are now, because they were also working for the Americans. One of them, I think, went to Iran; the other, I think, he went to Pakistan. I don't know.
I supported the Americans. I really supported them. I didn't do anything wrong. I didn't help the Taliban and for that I am now in this situation — because I didn't do what they said.
The police arrest us here all the time. They say, “Hey, don't speak. Let's go to police station. I check your document, after you can go.” I do this three times with the same policeman, three times in one day, for two, three hours each time. We go inside, they check us, we go out again and on the street they catch me again. I say, “I came from the police station just now. What more do you want from me?” They say they have to check me again. I say, “Again, for what?”
The problem is our faces are foreign faces, you know? When they see us in the road, they understand where we are from and they stop us. Everywhere. And they check our papers.
For many foreigners who come here, it’s a very difficult situation. I feel very sad. I gave them proof that I have the right to be here and get asylum. But I still had to pay. I still got sent to prison. What more do they want from me?
Now I'm very sick. You can see all my hair is going. It’s because all the time I am thinking about my wife, my family, and my life. I never used medicine in Afghanistan, ever in my life. But in this country I use it. I go to the doctor many, many times. Here I have a doctor who gives me medicine for depression, all because of thinking too much about my life. My mother is 70 years of age, and she's in a very bad situation now. My brother is the same. They are crying for me, I am crying for them. They made it to Italy, but they’re in prison. She's sick; many times we spoke and she needs attention. I cannot live like this. I don't have possibility to do something for her.
My mother had to leave because of me. When we had problems, I didn’t have anybody. I had to take my mother with me. Where should I leave my mother in Afghanistan? Who's ready to take his mother of 70 in this way? In Iran, they fired at us many, many times as we crossed the border. My mother accepted this for my brother and me. We understood that really we would die one day and very soon if we stayed. So we left. I didn't have time to try and leave legally or get a visa.
First of all, I trust our God, and then we trust American people. They came to Afghanistan to finish off the terrorists. We thought they’d bring peace; working together with Afghan politicians, with the Afghan mujahideen, with Afghan soldiers, they would make it happen. That’s why we had to help them. We joined them and travelled to different places, dangerous places. We were in many fights with the Taliban. Then I started to get contacted from different people on my mobile phone. They said they’d kill me because I helped the Americans. I don’t know if it was the Taliban; some mujahideen also hate the American soldiers.
After the job, the American soldiers I worked with said they would give me some letters for their government. They said, “We will help every interpreter.” But they gave me nothing. No papers, no recommendation letters. I was alone in Afghanistan. I don’t know where they are. I don’t have any contact with those soldiers. So I couldn’t apply for a visa. They promised all of the interpreters, not just me — everyone working inside the American bases. American soldiers promised these people, “After you leave your jobs, we’ll support you to leave Afghanistan, to go to different countries to save your life.” But now I know, they didn’t give help to those people.
I joined with the Americans. That’s my mistake. But I would request to other Afghan people, please do not help the Americans. Don’t work with them, or the British, because they all lie. They promise anything to any Afghan, but then they don’t help you. If you help the Americans, you’ll end up the same as me, sleeping in parks with nothing, no food and no money. Don’t break your future in this place.
"The Interpreters, Part 3: Washington, D.C." will be posted to VICE News on Wednesday.
Follow Ben Anderson on Twitter: @BenJohnAnderson