(Image: AP/David Guttenfelder)

Nasir Sabiry wishes he never became an interpreter.

For four years between 2009 and 2013, he worked for the Australian Defence Force (ADF) as a translator in Kabul, part of a team of locally engaged employees whose help was crucial to the coalition military campaign in Afghanistan.

Sabiry was young, the money was good, and the work felt important and exhilarating. But by the time Australian combat troops withdrew late in 2013, he realised he had a target on his back. For the Taliban, anyone who worked for Western forces was a traitor. And traitors, and their families, deserved to be killed.

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The Taliban has just put translators on a kill list as it surges through the war-torn country, emboldened by the coming Western withdrawal. And for Afghan interpreters here in Australia, there’s a sense of frustration and anguish that a government that helped them is abandoning their friends and family back home.

“When we started working, we didn’t know it would come to this. It was like walking into a trap,” Sabiry said on the phone from his home in Newcastle, NSW. “I never had plans to come here to Australia, but it got too dangerous. If I knew this would happen, I never would have done this in my life.”

By 2014 Sabiry was resettled in Australia. He’s one of about 600 Afghan interpreters who received locally engaged employee (LEE) visas over the last eight years. But now, with the Australian embassy in Kabul closed, and the last troops set to leave by September, there are hundreds more like Sabiry who face a terrifying, uncertain future.

At a press conference this morning, Prime Minister Scott Morrison provided little clarity about the government’s attempts to resettle translators:

“We are very aware of it, and we are working urgently, steadfastly and patiently to assure that we do this in the appropriate way,” he said.

The long wait for safety

Sabiry was one of the lucky ones. Within months of applying for a visa, he’d been resettled in Australia. But the process, which involves a complicated bureaucratic triangulation between Defence, Home Affairs and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, has seen many fall through the cracks.

Ahmad Shah spent seven years working for the ADF as a translator. He then spent another seven waiting to get his visa approved. Even now, he can’t say why it took so long.

“For me, it was very difficult,” he said. “They just said, ‘we’d received lots of applications’.”

There are up to 1000 Afghan support staff — translators, security guards, fixers — who assisted the ADF and are trying to get out of Afghanistan. Interpreters say spending years vetting visa applicants makes little sense given the intense security screening they already went through back home.

According to Sabiry, interpreters would be interrogated by intelligence personnel and hooked up with lie detectors every six months. They’d be questioned about their family six generations back as security forces tried to work out any potential Taliban link, however fleeting.

Many of these people are well known to the ADF. But back in Australia, there seems to be no real urgency to follow the example of our coalition partners like the US and UK and fast-track the resettlement of translators. At Senate estimates last week, Foreign Affairs Minister Marise Payne suggested Australia would continue its current process of resettling translators under the locally engaged employee visa. She wouldn’t commit to a target number of applicants, or a new, expedited process to bring interpreters to Australia.

“Afghanistan is not somewhere people can wait as long as they want,” Sabiry said.

“In Afghanistan, time is very important.”

Left to die

Interpreters’ work was always dangerous. Shah told Crikey they’d regularly face the risk of death threats, targeted attacks, kidnappings and beheadings by Taliban fighters. But things are far more uncertain and dangerous ahead of the Western withdrawal.

“Everybody is always in danger. But before, when we were in danger, at least there was some protection. Now, we have nobody.”

Translators here say their friends back home have been abandoned by an indifferent government. Sabiry says he knows of two friends, also translators, who were killed while waiting for their visas to be approved by Australian authorities.

“The Taliban knocked on the door, and when [my friend] walked out they emptied the whole magazine into him. Another was killed while he was sleeping,” he said.

They’re also fearful about the safety of their families back home. The LEE visa allows Afghans to bring their immediate families — spouses and children. That excludes other relations, like parents and siblings, who might also be at risk by association.

Sulaiman Shojaie, a former interpreter resettled in 2014, worries about his father back in Kabul, who worked with American forces.

“He’s always saying, son, if the Taliban come back, you won’t talk to your dad any more.”

Sabiry has family who have fled to Iran and Pakistan that he wants to bring over but can’t. There’s the family of his cousin, killed alongside Australian troops on the frontline.

“If the Taliban get their hands on my family, and anyone is left behind, they’re not going to take a second before finishing them off,” he said.

But Canberra seems to be twiddling its thumbs. Unless the government dramatically escalates its process by September, translators, guards and their whole families — thousands of people all up — will be left at the mercy of the Taliban, who have vowed to kill them for working for “infidel enemies”.

“The army said we’ll never leave anyone behind,” Sabiry said.

“[But] they’ve left so many people to die.”

Does Australia have a moral obligation to help Afghan translators? Let us know your thoughts by writing to letters@crikey.com.au. Please include your full name to be considered for publication in Crikey’s Your Say section.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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