Delay I fear is their death sentence: For years, DAVID WILLIAMS has led the charge to give sanctuary to brave Afghan translators. Now, he shares his fears and fury that help has come too late for too many… and the red tape is a noose around their necks
- Defence Secretary Ben Wallace broke down yesterday admitting it was too late to save many of 1,700 former British forces workers and their families
- British ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow working hard at Kabul airport yesterday
- Comes as Taliban take control of Afghanistan after seizing capital of Kabul
The phone at my bedside buzzed all through the night, and sleep was fitful. There were 142 messages: each a tale of human misery, illustrating the desperate plight facing the brave Afghans who helped Britain in its 20-year mission, but who now fear the worst after the vengeful Taliban recaptured the country.
Take Farid. When I reached him yesterday, his sobbing was uncontrolled and heartbreaking. It was not for himself that the former British Embassy interpreter wept, but for his wife and children.
As the insurgents walked triumphantly into Kabul 24 hours earlier, Farid, 37, had received threatening calls. He moved his family to a relative’s home, thus escaping five suspected Taliban who arrived at his house asking for him by name. For now.
‘If they find me, they will kill me — our enemy does not suddenly become our friend,’ he says. ‘If I die because of my work for the British that is one thing, but what about my wife and children? Will they all die as a consequence of my work?
Afghan Interpreter ‘Shaffy’ who worked for the British Army on the front lines in Helmand, and once translated for David Cameron during a visit in 2011
‘Will we ever be able to escape? There are checkpoints on the streets manned by the Taliban, the route to the airport is closed to us, it is chaos there and we are frightened . . . very frightened. What should we do?’
This, exactly, was what the translators and Afghans who worked with British forces had predicted, and it is why the Daily Mail has fought so hard for six years to have them relocated in the UK.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace broke down yesterday as he admitted it was too late to save many of 1,700 former workers and their families who have been cleared to come to the UK to join around 3,000 already here. Call it Britain’s shame.
To his credit, British ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow was working hard at Kabul airport yesterday, clearing the backlog of outstanding appeals. But to most it represented, at best, a crumb of comfort.
Even if a review was successful, how would the lucky recipient get through the Taliban roadblocks to the airport? And what chance of getting on a flight to freedom?
And Farid had a stark warning: ‘The Taliban say they have changed from 20 years ago but they are lying. If they find an interpreter, he is their prize and they will kill him.’
He should know. Just two months ago, Farid survived a suspected Taliban ambush when gunmen stopped him as he drove home, opening fire from close range. One bullet fired from an AK-47 smashed into his arm but he was able to escape by slamming his car into reverse and speeding away.
Incredibly, days later, he was told his application to relocate to the UK ahead of the official withdrawal of UK and U.S. troops had been refused. He was one of 21 Embassy translators rejected because they had been employed through private contractors.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace broke down yesterday as he admitted it was too late to save many of 1,700 former workers and their families who have been cleared to come to the UK to join around 3,000 already here. Pictured: Taliban fighters are seen on the back of a vehicle in Kabul, Afghanistan
His case was one of the hundreds the Mail has highlighted over the six years of our award-winning Betrayal Of The Brave campaign.
This year alone seven Coalition interpreters have been murdered — one beheaded — while it is estimated more than 350 have been killed since 2014.
To the delight of Farid and his colleagues, their rejection was reversed by Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab and they began their wait for a place on what the translators have dubbed their ‘Freedom Flights’ to the UK.
Farid is one of dozens of former translators whose cases were finally — belatedly — approved, but he’s left wondering if they’ll ever set foot on British soil.
Others are still waiting to find out if they, too, are eligible, red tape tightening like a noose as each hour passes. Many have already been rejected.
Among them is Ahmad, 33, a former frontline interpreter. He was told he qualified for relocation, and was placed on standby for a flight. He sold everything, including his home, but was left ‘heartbroken’ last week to find his case blocked by the Home Office on grounds of national security.
Ahmad, a father-of-three, told me yesterday: ‘There was no explanation, no justification and now I am at real risk because of my work. I am being left behind, so my only chance is to ask people smugglers for help to reach Europe.’
Then there are the 1,010 translators who had their contracts ‘terminated’ without right of appeal.
No fired translator was considered for relocation even if they claimed they were Taliban targets. But under pressure from the Mail and the Sulha Alliance, which helps Afghan workers for the UK, Mr Wallace — a former soldier who has done more to enable Afghans to relocate than any of his predecessors — recently relaxed the policy so those dismissed for ‘minor offences’ qualify.
British ambassador Sir Laurie Bristow was working hard at Kabul airport yesterday, clearing the backlog of outstanding appeals. Pictured: Taliban fighters are seen on the back of a vehicle in Kabul, Afghanistan
They are men like Shaffy, 32, who worked for six years with the British, three of which were spent with senior officers and visiting politicians such as David Cameron.
I met him in Kabul eight years ago, since when we have pushed in vain for his case to be reopened, the Ministry of Defence insisting he was terminated for a serious offence involving sexual threats to a female officer.
But investigations by retired Major General Charlie Herbert, a former Helmand commander, who spoke with those involved, including the woman officer, have raised new questions about the case. Mr Herbert says Shaffy may have ‘suffered a significant miscarriage of justice’.
Shaffy, a father-of-four, said yesterday: ‘I am an innocent man who has suffered because of a massive injustice that may cost my life.’
There are many more cases which have worried me. The MoD said it had dismissed Latif Hottak, 36, for providing false test results for Afghan soldiers in January 2011. But we were able to find records showing he was still being paid 17 months later — proving he had not been terminated, and so should not have been denied safe passage to the UK.
Both cases highlight the frustrations of translators that some find out about their terminations only after applying for relocation.
The onus in most cases has been on the interpreter to provide new evidence without being allowed to see what the accusations against them are. Often, they are asked to provide documents they’d been told to destroy as they would show they had worked for the British.
Let’s be clear: had the mean-spirited, narrow, inflexible policy been more generous earlier, many of those scrambling for flights or for their cases to be approved would already be safe in the UK.
When our Betrayal Of The Brave campaign was launched in 2015, only those who were on the frontline and had been made redundant got the chance of relocation.
This year alone seven Coalition interpreters have been murdered — one beheaded — while it is estimated more than 350 have been killed since 2014. Pictured: Afghan Taliban fighters are seen in Kabul
But with years of the Mail’s relentless pressure, which has often been embarrassing to the Government — we highlighted, for example, the murder of ex-translator Parwiz Khan on the doorstep of his home at a time when ministers were playing down the dangers — policy has softened.
In April 2021, the biggest relaxation came — implemented by Mr Wallace. As security worsened with an emboldened Taliban on the advance after the Trump-brokered U.S. withdrawal, it was further relaxed.
It is important to recognise that this has saved many translators and their families — plus many others, including guards, drivers and mechanics who worked for UK forces — and it has been a delight to welcome to the UK men such as Ricky, the UK’s longest-serving interpreter, who arrived with his family after his case was championed by the Mail. He, too, had been rejected, despite being ambushed by the Taliban.
He had waited seven months after approval to travel to the UK. Why so long? Why weren’t Freedom Flights taking off from Kabul in April?
Yesterday, I heard from an old translator friend, Yama, who has a disabled wife, and was told in December that he was eligible for relocation.
He told me he fears it is now ‘too late’, pointing out that his wife’s disability makes her especially vulnerable to the Taliban.
Then there are the 12 wives of translators, who were engaged when they relocated to the UK. The interpreters returned to marry, but the women were refused visas to join their husbands here. One such wife, Mohammadi, 34, told me: ‘My life is nothing without my husband. Britain is a country that believes in the rights of women and hears the voice of women — but it is denying me the basic right of living with my family.’
With the arrival in Kabul of the Taliban, she fears she will now never come to the UK.
And then there are the teachers, 100 of them, who were employed by the British Council to help instill western values such as democracy in schools across Afghanistan.
There are the 1,010 translators who had their contracts ‘terminated’ without right of appeal. Pictured: A Taliban fighter on top of an armoured vehicle loads a gun outside the airport in Kabul, Afghanistan
All of them have been rejected, as we reported last week.
One of them, a 29-year-old mother, worked for three years in 50 schools in the northern city of Mazar al Sharif. She is terrified.
She told me yesterday: ‘I have done everything the Taliban says I should not do. I am a working woman who has taught the word of their enemy to women and young girls. I know I will be punished.’
Along with thousands of others, she escaped to Kabul with her husband and three-year-old daughter, only for the Taliban to arrive shortly afterwards.
She is rightly proud of her work for Britain, but yesterday she cried as she asked me: ‘Why did a country like Britain say “no” when we faithfully, proudly represented them? Is it too late for me and my family — will I be rescued?’
I simply did not know what to say to her. From Farid weeping to her sobs, so many Afghan tears — and it has all been so unnecessary.
‘Even if the call comes, road blocks may stop us’
A former interpreter with UK Special Forces ran the gauntlet of Taliban checkpoints to reach Kabul’s airport yesterday in a desperate attempt to secure a place on a Freedom Flight.
‘There was panic, chaos and confusion at the airport with crowds of people around all five gates,’ Shane says. ‘Some were pushing, others pleading and some just sitting and waiting. There was shouting and crying; some were trying to climb over the gates.
Chaos: Shane awaits his flight to freedom
‘People are afraid and desperate to escape. We are all worried the airport will be cut off by the Taliban, so even if we have a chance for a flight it could be very tough.’
The 34-year-old father-of-five is among those approved for sanctuary in recent days after his case was highlighted by the Mail’s Betrayal Of The Brave campaign.
He was among a dozen translators with a Special Forces’ Task Force based at Camp Juno in Helmand who had been rejected for relocation because they were not employed by the Government.
The decision was reversed and he is now waiting to be told when to fly.
‘Everyone is wanting to get on a plane before the Taliban find us,’ he says. ‘That is why we went to the airport, but the Turkish guards were letting no one through apart from American translators and their families, who had U.S. troops with them.
I asked for British troops, but no one came. It was frustrating. There was a real feeling of fear around us and of suspicion.
‘The Taliban is stopping and searching vehicles, and we have been told they are going from compound to compound, looking for those who worked with the government and Western forces. I have changed my location three times.’
Shane, who worked for three years at the highly sensitive base which ran intelligence operations and Afghan spies — he was once flown to the UK to brief ministers and officials — says: ‘We are all worried that when the call comes to go to the airport, it may not be possible because of road blocks and searches. We are worried, too, that the phone networks or electricity will be down and we will miss the call.’
Remain? ‘It’d be like Hell waiting for their revenge’
The view from his second-floor window in a Kabul suburb was terrifying, Waheed said, as he watched Taliban putting up roadblocks and searching cars.
‘It is worrying as there are many on the roads and they seem to have absolute power, people are very respectful — afraid — so they are answering questions and stepping away from their cars if asked,’ said the 30-year-old former British military interpreter.
Low profile: Waheed is still hopeful he will escape
Waheed, who worked with front-line troops and military spies for three years, is waiting for news of a Freedom Flight with his wife and their two young children.
‘As the day has gone on, there are more Taliban on the streets,’ he told me. ‘Some are not armed but they are all clearly confident and proud of what they are.
‘Some people are greeting them and shaking their hands. I think it is because they are fearful — not because they are really pleased to welcome them.
‘I don’t think there has been any shooting — they seem in absolute control — so the problem for me will be reaching the airport when permission to fly is granted.
‘I am really hopeful that Britain will make this work for us because to remain would be like staying in Hell to wait for their revenge.’
He said social media was ‘alive’ with rumours and stories, saying that government officials were being taken away from their homes.
Some Afghan police and military are now helping the Taliban.
Translators had agreed to keep a low profile, Waheed explained, and await the call ‘to fly’. Some were deleting numbers and pictures from their phones in case they are stopped and searched for anything linking them to the British military.
‘The window for our escape is closing…’
Bashir was anxiously waiting by his telephone yesterday, hoping Britain would finally grant him sanctuary before time runs out.
The 34-year-old worked in Helmand for 14 months, and was wounded in the shoulder by a sniper’s bullet during a daytime operation to capture Taliban targets.
Desperate: Bashir says Kabul is full of fear
He says: ‘Every call, every message I hope is permission to go to the UK.
‘I am desperate to escape. Kabul is full of fear. If I am captured, I will be killed because of my work, and I know the Taliban is searching for us.
‘All my paperwork is ready and with the UK authorities. I served them bravely and loyally, and it is now in their gift to save me and my family.
‘The window for our escape from the Taliban is closing and I do not understand the delay. Why have some been approved and others not?’
Three weeks ago, the father-of-three found a bomb under his car and he claims to have been threatened repeatedly.
‘The fear among us all is very real. People here are nervous — you can feel it,’ he says.
‘Everyone is fearing the worst and wondering if they will live or die.’
Bashir, whose interpreter brother has been approved for relocation, said he moved to Kabul to be ready to ‘escape’ if permission is granted.
He said he first applied for sanctuary three years ago, but did not qualify because he had not been directly employed.
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