Afghan interpreters of the Greek army appeal for protection

Armed with assault rifles, the guards shut the iron gate behind the two young Afghans walking hurriedly through the garden to the last table near the back wall. They produce the certificates they received for their service as interpreters for the Hellenic Army in Afghanistan along with their old, wrinkled security clearance badges for the NATO bases they once worked on.

After ordering a drink, 23-year-old Rameen lowers his voice to a whisper. “Many of the interpreters from areas outside Kabul have been assassinated. Many of their families have been threatened,” he says. He tells me about Mustaba, a friend who worked on the same base as him as an interpreter for the Americans. He traveled to the city of Kunduz one day and never returned. Friends said he had been murdered.

“Two months ago I received a call on my mobile phone at around 12.30 at night. ‘Are you Rameen, the translator?’ I asked who it was. The man said: ‘Don’t ask. Just tell me if you were the translator or not.’ I asked who it was again and he hung up. I received the same phone call several times over the next few days, always late at night, until I changed my number,” says the 23-year-old.

Like Mustaba, Rameen is also from Kunduz, and has good reason to be afraid. He worked as an interpreter for the Hellenic Army’s Operational Mentor and Liaison Team (OMLT) in Kabul under the command of NATO and the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) from 2010 until the Greek team’s departure in the summer of 2012. The mission was to train members of the Afghan National Army. Now Rameen is trapped in the Afghan capital.

“I am afraid to go back to my city. It is only 500 kilometers away but I am scared to travel even 100 kilometers from Kabul,” he says. “We don’t feel safe. We don’t feel secure for our lives or for our families. Too many people know that we worked for ISAF and the Greeks.”

A total of five Afghans worked for the Greek OMLT and all of them are in the same position as Rameen today, in the cross hairs of the Taliban, which has threatened reprisals against anyone who collaborated with NATO. And the terrorist group has made good on its threat, especially in the past two years as NATO gradually pulls out of the region with the aim of disengagement by end-2014.

Zahir is 28 years old. He listens as Rameen speaks beside him, then tells me how just a week ago his family had warned him not to attend a wedding in the province of Kapisa, less than an hour from Kabul. “Things are not good,” they told him. “Some people know you worked for the Greek army.” Zahir had not told anyone other than his family about his involvement with ISAF.

“I remember the Greeks every day,” he says, smiling as he takes a USB stick out of his bag. “I put the USB in my laptop and look at the photographs we took together. I told my mother and sister about it. Those were good times. They think so too, because I supported my family with the money I got.”

Major Evangelos Salabasis was the fourth and final commander of the Greek OMLT, which was renamed the Military Advisory Team during his time in the country. His team traveled to Afghanistan in March 2012 and his first contact with the locals was with the five Afghan interpreters, with whom he formed an instant rapport.

“Throughout our association we had a very close relationship. They were not our right hand but the left hand that had to do all the work for the right hand,” Salabasis says. “They were with us everywhere we went and it was essential to our mission that we had their cooperation – and an excellent cooperation it was too.”

Compared to other Afghan workers, the five interpreters were very well paid, making around 465 euros a month, or six times the average salary. Only Rameen and one other of his former colleagues have managed to find work since then, for wages of under 80 euros a month.

“We are proud to have worked with the Greeks. We both worked for our country’s army, to show them the right path,” says Rameen.

I met Wais in another part of Kabul. He was also an interpreter for the Greek OMLT and those days meant more to him than his colleagues. He had lived in Greece from the age of 17 until he returned to Afghanistan with a voluntary repatriation program in 2006 to find his family, who he had lost in the war when he was a child. Wais was the only one of the interpreters who spoke Greek and communicated with the Greek personnel in their own language rather than in English. Salabasis says that he was an excellent asset to the team.

Wais misses the Greek soldiers and not just because they helped him remember his Greek.

“They helped us. They understood how life was in Afghanistan. We were not interpreter and boss; we were friends,” says Wais.

Looking for a way out

The five interpreters knew that NATO would not stay in Afghanistan forever but reality came as something of a shock when the Greek OMLT mission ended two months before the scheduled date. That was when they began to worry not just about how they would make their livelihoods but also about their safety.

The interpreters appealed to the departing Greek soldiers to find out whether they could be granted visas as counterparts working for other countries had.

“When they left I told them they were abandoning us,” says Zahir. “They said that their country had economic problems and there was nothing they could do.”

A few months later, Salabasis received a message from Rameen asking him to help so that the Afghan could come to Greece.

“Unfortunately it was not within my jurisdiction. I advised him to approach the Greek Embassy in Pakistan and to present the authorities there with all the certificates he had from my team and the other commanders he worked under and to ask for help,” says the major. He told Rameen to try Greek embassies in other countries as well if Pakistan failed.

Rameen told the others what Salabasis had advised and all five interpreters made repeated efforts in 2013 to contact the Greek Embassy in Pakistan. They say that whenever they called, the Pakistani operators would refuse to arrange an appointment for them when they heard they were calling from Afghanistan. They also tried to get into a visa program through a Canadian government website, but failed.

Meanwhile, another five Afghans – among them Rameen’s father – who had worked with a different Greek military team in Kabul that departed a few months before the OMLT team, were also looking for ways out of Afghanistan. They had more experience of the challenges than Rameen and his colleagues and explained that for al-Qaida and the Taliban, all the allied forces are one and the same – enemies.

In contrast to many other Afghan interpreters who worked for ISAF, Rameen, Zahir and Wais decided to reveal their identities and use their real names for these interviews. They say they have nothing left to lose.

“I know the situation in Greece but it is still a European country,” says Rameen. “I don’t think it’s such a big deal for them to give out five visas. They could at least give us a simple entry visa. We can take care of ourselves once we get there.”

Things are more complicated for Wais, who is reluctant to give up the family he found again just eight years ago. He wants to continue living in Afghanistan – if possible – but would like to know that he has a way of escape if things get worse. He has even more reason to worry than the others as he is the only one with children.

“I am not living for myself anymore. My life is my children, my wife, my family,” he says. “I am much more cautious. That is why I want a visa for Greece. It’s not about me. What happens to me doesn’t matter. But I am very afraid for my children and my family.”

Wais says that while a visa to any other country would provide a solution for his former colleagues, he feels Greece is the only place he wants to go.

“If I can’t live in Afghanistan, I want to live in Greece. Greece is my second home,” he says, in perfect Greek.

ISAF countries split over visas, asylum

A number of the 51 countries with troops in ISAF have to issue special visas to the Afghans who worked with them, particularly to their interpreters, to protect them from Taliban reprisals.

The United States was the first to announce such a measure in 2009 and has approved more than 3,000 visas as the situation in Afghanistan deteriorates and demand rises.

Canada and New Zealand are among the other countries that have taken similar steps after their respective defense ministries reached the the decision to protect military associates.

In the European Union, countries appear divided on the issue.

The German Defense Ministry rejected a proposal to grant interpreters asylum, deeming that they are not in immediate danger, while Denmark and France have already approved an asylum and settlement program.

Italy is currently processing 30 applications.

In May 2013, when Denmark first proposed protection measures for its Afghan interpreters, Defense Minister Nick Haekkerup had said, “We do not have a judicial responsibility but a moral obligation to help.”

At the same time Britain decided to grant at least 600 such visas to former personnel after campaign group Avaaz gathered more than 80,000 signatures supporting such an initiative and submitted the petition to Prime Minister David Cameron.

That same year, 40 Afghans who had worked as interpreters with the Spanish Army tried and failed to get visas from the Spanish Embassy in Kabul.

The Spanish government accepted their applications after the story went public in Spain and a petition for their protection gathered 66,000 signatures.

The Greek Defense Ministry had no comment on the subject when contacted by Kathimerini and referred me instead to the Foreign Ministry.

There I was told that the ministry had not received a briefing on the issue but would be examining it after learning of this publication.

* Filio P. Kontrafouri is a journalist. She has traveled extensively in Afghanistan.