Throughout the Canadian military’s years on the front lines in Afghanistan, local Pashtun interpreters were the voice of Canada. We rarely saw them on the news, but without them, soldiers couldn’t relay orders to the Afghan soldiers under their command, communicate with civilians and village elders, or interrogate detainees. These key roles fell mostly to young men who risked their lives every day, venturing into battle and on patrols in the volatile districts outside Kandahar City with no combat experience and no weapons. On a daily basis, these interpreters – “terps” for short – provided essential services without which the military could not have functioned, all while trying urgently to keep their identities a secret to protect themselves and their families from Taliban retribution.
I witnessed their indispensability firsthand in 2008, when I photographed these 11 interpreters at a forward operating base near Kandahar. I spent the summer there as fighting escalated, unleashing a new wave of violence, chaos and casualties.
I was covering a Canadian medical unit, and every day, Afghan civilians and police would arrive missing legs, riddled with bullet holes or torn apart by bombs. All communication between the patients and the doctors went through the terps. One day, a man arrived at the base’s gate with his son in a wheelbarrow. The boy’s legs had been shredded by a grenade and were seriously infected. The military’s Afghan interpreter translated the man’s desperate pleas for help to the guard and accompanied them to a trailer used as a makeshift trauma room. Throughout the ordeal, the interpreter calmed and reassured the terrified boy, while relaying instructions to his father about how to keep him alive and when to bring him back to the base for further treatment.
Some interpreters possessed not just endless reserves of compassion, but also an intuition that saved the lives of military personnel. At the same base a year earlier, two men and a boy were brought to Canadian medics with severe injuries. They claimed they’d stepped on an improvised bomb, but the interpreter was suspicious. He kept poking, and it turned out the men weren’t victims but insurgents who’d accidentally set off their own bomb intended to target Canadian soldiers.
Canada left Afghanistan years ago. But now, with American troops all but gone, the situation there is deteriorating fast, putting in danger the lives of any interpreters who worked for the military, non-governmental organizations or media outlets. If they don’t get to safety soon, they’ll be hunted down and murdered by the Taliban. After months of pressure, the federal government announced a program to resettle these Afghan nationals in Canada, and the first planeload arrived last week. (Their identities and locations are being carefully guarded for their own safety and that of any relatives still in Afghanistan.) Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino says it’s the first flight of many – he expects Canada to eventually resettle thousands. But for now, many of them continue to live in fear, waiting for their former employers to rescue them.
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