An Afghan interpreter’s escape.
Who can ever forget the frightening and shocking images that went viral, of Afghan people trying to hang on to fuselage of a huge US Airforce C 17 as it sped down the runway. Some appeared to fall off. Others it was reported were found dead in the landing gear when it landed in Qatar. It was noon, the day after the Taliban had taken over the capital city, Kabul, August 16, 2021.
For Jamil Hassan and his family, the past twenty-four hours had been a nightmare. After eight years as an interpreter at the highest level working for NATO, the US and Afghan forces, he was terrified. Months previously, like many employees of the coalition forces, he had the opportunity to apply for a special visa so he could emigrate to the USA. But he was newly married, had a beautiful wife, a two-year-old daughter, a well-paying job, and no desire to leave his country. He was also assured that despite the drawdown and reduction of troops, his employment was secure. It came as a shock when on July 15 his employment was unexpectedly terminated. One month later on August 15, he received a frantic phone call from his brother-in-law, telling him to “Turn on the TV. The Taliban are taking over Kabul. Do not leave your house.”
Jamil was born during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan in Paktia, an eastern, Pashto speaking province, about 100 miles southeast of Kabul. Having lived under the terror of civil war during the Mujahideen chaos followed by the first Taliban regime, he was a young teenager when the US invaded the country, October 7, 2001. (His two older brothers would later work for coalition forces and eventually find their way to Concord. His father, younger brother and sister currently remain in Kabul unable to leave.) Forced to relocate to a Dari speaking region due to his father’s work, he attended grade school, and became fluent in the language, the second most commonly spoken in the country. Urged by their uncle who had incredible foresight, the boys attended a private school with an intensive English program.
Later Jamil landed a job as an ESL teacher and managed an English computer training center. He was twenty years old. Then in 2008 against his families wishes, he passed all the tests and obtained work as tri-lingual interpreter speaking Pashto, Dari and English with the NATO/Italian forces.
“Those early days were chaotic,” he explained to me, “there was so much confusion and lack of understanding of the country, its culture, and languages. Often interpreters who spoke Pashto were assigned to a Dari speaking region and vice versa.” The screening of interpreters was haphazard, and Jamil recounts the case of a US officer telling his Afghan soldiers to carry extra ‘magazines’ in case of an ambush. It was translated as ‘brochures in case the men got bored.’
In 2010, wanting to graduate from high school, he took a job with US forces which enabled him to go to school during the day and work at night translating documents. Accepted into university, he was forced to give up work and focused on obtaining a degree in Law and Political Science. From 2017 after graduation, until 2021, he was employed as a senior translator by the NATO led ‘Resolute Support Mission,’ responsible for advising and training long term security units.
Like all personnel who had worked for the ‘infidels’ Jamil knew he was now a marked man, that his life was in danger and that Taliban door-to-door searches would take place. His one thought was to remove as much incriminating evidence as possible. He had already submitted papers to obtain an SIV (Special Immigrant Visa), but his interview at the US Embassy was not scheduled for another two weeks. Cleaning out his computer, he eliminated his Coalition profile and deactivated his accounts. But it was impossible to completely remove ten years of posts on Facebook and social media. Bit by bit he tore up documents and asked his wife to burn them in the kitchen, then flushed the ashes down the toilet. It took ten hours to dispose of everything.
A former colleague texted from Italy advising him to get out of the country as fast as he could. He suggested he try to obtain clearance with the Italians, due to having worked with them. Basic essentials were squeezed into two backpacks and a suitcase. A smaller handbag contained passports and his SIV application, plus dozens of letters of recommendation including one from 4-star General John Nicholson, and a photo with 4 star General David Petraeus. At 8:45 AM the family took a taxi to the airport Eastern Gate. Thousands of shouting, screaming people were pushing, shoving, struggling to gain entrance in a disordered mass. After a two-hour search, he found the Italian representative, but it took almost three hours to fight their way back to the Eastern Gate. A phone call to the Italian Coordinator advised that they were done for the day! There was no more room in the airport, that they should “go home or sleep outside the gate. The next flights were at 6:00 AM.” Opting to stay in line, another phone call just after midnight announced that all Italian morning flights had been cancelled!
After fourteen hours of waiting outside the airport, being crushed, trampled on, without any food or water, having lost his wife and child for a number of hours and his wallet stolen, Jamil fought his way through the crowd towards the US Military section. His passports and SIV papers were finally accepted by a US Marine and the family crossed the line and through the gate. Another three hours in line for security checks and finally they were left crammed into an aircraft hangar where they were given water and MREs (meals ready to eat). At 4:00 AM and not having slept for thirty-six hours, they were seated on the cargo deck floor of a C 17 together with 450 other Afghan refugees. Their next stop was Qatar.
Part II. To be continued.