The phone rang the other week, a number I didn’t know. The voice was unmistakable. “John it is ——–. I am in Australia.” The voice was the Afghan-accented English of the translator (and journalist in his own right) I had worked with on my many trips to Afghanistan as a reporter in the mid to late 2000s.
“I am just so happy to be alive,” he said. So many times over the last eight years I had read with dread the reports of another Afghan journalist killed by the Taliban, by coalition forces or fallen victim to crime, extortion and murder expecting to see his name. We had covered the deaths of his colleagues together, killed by both sides in that interminable war. We had covered the back-and-forth flows of the war against the Taliban, the deaths of civilians at the hands of both sides, either by mistake or targeted assassinations. I hadn’t heard from him for a long time. In a way I had written him off as dead. The life expectancy of those Afghans who work for the foreign media in the area where he did is very short. The constant flow of reports detailing the deaths of local journalists made me think the worst.
Like the many translators who worked with the foreign community, he had been my eyes and ears. He would brief me before I arrived. Tell me what to wear, tell me who was who in the archaic structure of local government, police and religious figures who dominated that society in flux. He’d explain how not to offend local leaders. He’d tell me when it was OK to film, when it was OK to speak English and ask questions, and more importantly, when it was not.
He’d organise the car and the driver who could be trusted and, crucially, provide the judgement that would dictate when and where we could go with any degree of safety to report that chaotic conflict outside of the restrictions of being embedded and beholden to the coalition military. But essentially, on numerous occasions, it was his ability to read the dynamics of a situation that saved us from being kidnapped or killed. The simple truth is on an almost daily basis in the field he watched my back and saved my life.
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There was one time I saw him truly rattled. We had driven out of town to visit an Afghan police post where fighting had been reported. I wanted details, footage, usual stuff, how many dead, how many wounded. Simple journalism. When we arrived at the village the market was deserted, the shops shuttered, a bad sign. Pulling up outside the police station his face went white. “Oh my god, the Taliban have taken the post,” he said. Men with the Kalashnikovs and heavy machine guns, ammunition belts draped over their shoulders, stood on the veranda of the police station.
We had to get out of the vehicle — staying in it would have invited gunfire. They were expecting a Taliban attack and had changed from their uniforms to civilian clothes in expectation of fleeing if they attacked again. On the deserted road back to town my translator indicated a lone man on a motorbike who started following us. This was bad. It could be an ambush. Presuming we were locals in our battered taxi, the motorbike peeled off into a side road. When we got back to town and our hotel we were laughing with relief. The hotel, of course, was hit by a suicide bombing months later, but I was gone by then, leaving my translator to deal with the consequences of his association with me and other foreign journalists and live in a community where there were people determined to kill him as a result.
Years later, I was getting desperate emails from him. He had to leave Afghanistan. His colleagues in the local press were getting killed. The details were horrible. Throats slashed, dumped in sacks by the side of the road, families targeted, the list went on. He told me he was going to go to leave by plane. He said he was going to then get a boat. I replied saying no, no, no, wait we’ll get you a visa. Do not get a boat, they will lock you up. He was desperate. Other friends, journalists who had worked with him signed forms, wrote statements and basically tried to get a visa organised. He had saved our lives and as a consequence his was now under threat. I kept writing, “do not get a boat … wait”. Then communication stopped. I feared the worst. I thought he was dead.
This translator was not a stupid man. He knew that if there was any chance for himself and his family to survive the situation they were now in he had to lay low. The foreign troops began their drawdown, the Taliban reasserted their influence, and those who had identified with the foreign forces or foreign community were targeted. The very people who enabled not just journalists but humanitarian workers and, yes, the foreign militaries to try to carry out the work they had been sent to do were being killed. It wasn’t just the Taliban; it was local criminals.
The reason was they were perceived to have money. Kidnappings for ransom of family members were and are increasingly common in Afghanistan. Just last week an Australian and an American were kidnapped from a university in Kabul. This week that university was attacked by the Taliban, and 14 people were killed.
My friend, the translator, was lucky. Eventually, after years, the visa came through. He was able to leave, by air, and come to Australia. I won’t say where, but he is happy. He says Australia is an amazing country and he feels very welcome. He and his family were almost driven by desperation to Manus or Nauru. When your life, and probably more importantly your family, is at stake, you take desperate measures. I would.
But he is now building a new life, free of bombs, threats and the daily fear of death. He later wrote: “I was thinking that I may get kill today, may be tonight some thing like that … luckily I am not thinking more like that. Change! Big change and good one.” I’m relieved, it’s hard not to think about how hard can it be to facilitate this for those in limbo, in camps that we put them in. Seeking asylum can be a good story, and I am overwhelmingly relieved for my friend that it has been a good story with a happy ending.