The Taliban views interpreters who served the US military as traitors. Thousands of translators now fear for their lives at home in Afghanistan, while they wait in vain for residence visas promised to them by the US.
The prospect of death bound their fates together. First, an Afghan translator saved an American army captain's life, and then the captain saved the translator by helping him make it to the US.
"I wouldn't be sitting here telling you the story if it wasn't for the guy saving my life," says American Matt Zeller, while seated on his sofa in a Washington D.C. suburb.
Sitting next to him is interpreter Janis Shinwari, who had to leave his home country after killing two Afghans in order to save Zeller's life. On that day five years ago, Zeller's convoy had been lured into an ambush in the heavily embattled province of Ghazni in Afghanistan. A grenade's blast hurled Zeller into a trench.
"I thought: OK, this is it. I die on April 28, 2008. There is no tomorrow," Zeller recalls. He was trapped as 50 Taliban fighters surrounded his small team.
"I felt someone land in the grave with me, and before I had the chance to turn and see who it was I hear the unmistakable sound of an AK47 going off next to my head, " Zeller says. "My initial thought was: Oh my God! Because American soldiers don't carry AK47s. So who in the hell is next to me?"
It was Shinwari. The local translator had noticed two snipers behind Zeller. Although it wasn't part of his duty as a translator, he didn't hesitate and pulled the trigger.
Once the two men made it back to camp, Shinwari recalls Zeller asking him why he had done what he did. "I told him: look, brother, you are our guest in Afghanistan. All Americans in Afghanistan, they are our guests. You guys are here to fight for our freedom. And this is our responsibility to save our guests' lives," Shinwari says.
Zeller began waiting for the day when he could pay Shinwari back for his deed. It came quickly.
An Afghan officer warned Shinwari that he had been placed on a Taliban death list.
"When the Taliban found out that I saved an American life - not one, but a couple of lives - and that I'm supporting the American mission, they added my name. They have to kill me if they find me," Shinwari says.
In late November, a former interpreter for the German armed forces in Afghanistan was murdered in Kunduz. Dschawad Wafa's corpse was discovered in his car just over a month after the last German troops had left the northern Afghan province. Reports followed that the translator's name had stood on a list of local Afghan workers for whom Germany's federal government was set to provide entry visas due to threats of retaliatory attacks from the Taliban.
The Taliban views those who assist Western troops as the tools of the enemy, and many locals contracted to work with the foreign troops have already been killed as a result. Their living colleagues have occasionally received chopped off body parts coupled with threatening letters.
But Shinwari's love of country and hope for freedom outweighed his fears - not just for his own life, but also for those close to him. At the outset, the 36-year-old says he knew, "If you work for the Americans, your whole family will be in danger - your brother, your mom, everybody."
A fight against bureaucracy
After numerous warnings, the father of two ultimately applied for a visa to enter the US. That move was encouraged by his supervisors, who warned that American forces would not be there forever to ensure the translator's safety.
A special visa program was arranged with the intention of allowing local employees supporting the US troops in Iraq and Afghanistan a way to safety - in theory, at least. Zeller and Shinwari quickly learned how the program works in practice. After their combat mission in Ghazni, Zeller and Shinwari had to fight with US government agencies. The dispute went on for years and included complicated internet forms, medical evaluations and lie detector tests. At times, there seemed to be no end to the hurdles for refugees.
Zeller says there are three things refugees must prove in order to stay in the US: that they served the American military loyally for at least one year; that they now face threats on account of that service; and that intelligence officials have zero suspicions of terrorist links. The third criterion is often the most problematic, he continues, explaining, "Nobody at the State Department or in the US intelligence community wants to be the person who actually lets in the next bin Laden."
Shinwari's visa ultimately went through, only to be retracted without explanation again shortly thereafter. Meanwhile, Shinwari had already quit his job and sold his belongings, and the Taliban had caught wind of his plans to emigrate. The former translator had to change his residence regularly, making his dealings with the bureaucracy on visa matters that much more difficult.
Once Shinwari began to lose hope, Zeller sounded alarms in Washington. He visited politicians and set up a petition. His campaign had success. In October, Shinwari landed with his family in the US, two years after initially applying for residency.
Even that was rather quick, says Katherine Reisner of the Iraqi Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), an aid organization founded to help Iraqi refugees at the Urban Justice Center in New York. IRAP now works with Afghan refugees, as well. But there's been very limited success actually securing residency permits, says Reisner, "In Afghanistan, the issue there is that up until this past year almost no Afghan special immigrant visas have been issued. The agencies did not implement the program until over two years after Congress passed the law."
Of the 25,000 visas intended by law to be set aside for Iraqis, fewer than 6,000 have actually been given out since 2008. And there are even fewer for Afghans at just 9,000 available visas. That number was calculated on the basis of 40,000 American troops serving in Afghanistan, but the level of troops would go on to be more than double that.
Just 1,200 Afghans have received visas to date. But the US Senate voted in May with bipartisan support in favor of making an extra 5,000 visas available annually, says Reisner. The bill still has to pass in the House of Representatives.
Without loyal translators, many well-trained soldiers would be in a bind, says Rucker Culpepper, who is stationed in Afghanistan as a Marine infantry captain.
"Because they have so much experience - sometimes 5 or 6 years - in this war," Culpepper says, "They can really advise not only on cultural matters. I have even seen that platoon commanders get tactical advice from linguists."
Culpepper has seen how his own interpreter has failed to make it through bureaucratic obstacles with his own visa application. He, too, is under massive pressure from the Taliban. Their threats can take various forms, Culpepper says: "One of my interpreters, his little brother was on his way home from school, walking home, and a man rode up next to him on a motorbike and tried to get him to come with him."
In contrast to Iraqi translators, Afghan applicants are not allowed to bring along their extended families to the US, even when relatives are being threatened. As in Janis Shinwari's case, former translators are permitted to enter only with their wives and children - and the children must be younger than age 21.
"That means that an Afghan SIV-recipient (Special Immigrant Visa - the ed.) has to decide between coming to the US and leaving their family members under the threat of death, or staying in the country to hopefully protect the family members," Reisner says.
"Any military veteran of Afghanistan will tell you of stories of interpreters of being killed or threatened," she says. That's why her organization, along with other activists and members of Congress, are pushing for a simpler visa application process. Reisner describes the current system as desperately in need of reform by Congress.
Zeller and Shinwari are also fighting together once more. They're advising members of Congress on how to make the visa program serve its purpose: saving lives.
As Zeller puts it, "The way that the laws are written that make these visas even possible allows the State Department to essentially get away with murder."