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Rights + Justice

Canada Has Left Afghan Interpreters Out in the Cold

The chaotic end to the long military presence has endangered them, and triggered veterans still struggling at home.

Judy Jackson 11 Nov

Judy Jackson is a filmmaker whose documentaries about issues of social justice have won more than 60 international awards. Learn more at Judy Films.

As Canadians mark Remembrance Day, Afghan interpreters who worked with our military and are at risk of Taliban reprisals feel forgotten and abandoned by Canada.

They’ve had to leave the safe houses where they were sheltering since the Taliban took power after privately raised financing ran out. They have nowhere to go. Winter is coming, and Afghanistan is undergoing a humanitarian collapse following the withdrawal of remaining American troops at the end of August.

“We asked those who worked with us to put their lives on the line, on the premise that we won’t leave them behind,” said Tim Laidler, president of the Vancouver-based Veterans Transition Network.

“All we can do as veterans is to try and get as many of those who stood with us, along with their families, human rights workers, NGO staff and women activists, out of the country. Then the veteran community can feel we departed with some dignity.”

On a rainy day in Vancouver, I met with Laidler in the Veterans Transition Network’s Yaletown office. As the U.S. military withdrawal ended with chaotic evacuations from Kabul airport, the network became the clearing house for money raised by a cross-Canada volunteer coalition of four-star generals, veterans, human rights workers and journalists.

Frustrated by the government’s lack of action, they’ve worked around the clock to finance safe houses and evacuations for interpreters — and their families — who worked with our military personnel on the ground in Afghanistan.

Ordinary Canadians, too, leapt in to help, sending what they could.

“Dear veterans, hoping my small contribution of $100 helps a family to safety. Keep up the excellent work and I will continue to pray.”

“I wring my hands while watching the news this past month. I’m a pensioner so cannot give more, but truly hope you can bring all back to a safe place somewhere. God bless you, thanks for the service given.”

Banks, businesses and foundations also contributed to the Veterans Transition Network’s efforts. Scotiabank said it is “an important moral and humanitarian duty to support those Afghan interpreters and civilians, who served alongside the Canadian Armed Forces during Canada’s mission in Afghanistan” and donated $250,000. Retired Cpl. Trevor Street, who served two tours of duty in Afghanistan with the Seaforth Highlanders, gave a gift of $100,000 in memory of his interpreter, who was killed by a car bomb.

“I decided to donate after realizing Canada would abandon these people,” he said.

While the Canadian government was able to rescue about 3,700 people from Afghanistan, the numbers should have been “a hell of a lot more,” said retired Maj.-Gen. David Fraser, who in 2006 commanded NATO coalition troops in the Afghan province of Kandahar.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau called the 2021 federal election on Aug. 15, the day Kabul fell to the Taliban, so as the crisis escalated campaigning politicians were mostly missing in action.

Retired Canadian Armed Forces general and former chief of the defence staff Rick Hillier told CBC’s Power and Politics that Canada’s rescue operation was “cluttered by bureaucratic clumsiness and bureaucratic inefficiency” — including complicated forms for Afghans to fill out and complete silence from the government after the paperwork was submitted. Many were turned away in the chaos at the airport.

No one anticipated the safe houses would have to be supported for so long. Now that the money has run out, and without help from the Canadian government, they’ve had to close, leaving 1,700 Afghans, who are terrified of the Taliban, to somehow cope on their own.

Interpreters a lifeline during conflict

As an award-winning documentary filmmaker who has made many films about human rights in dangerous places — from Latin America, to Somalia, to Rwanda, to Kosovo — I know how much filmmakers, journalists and the military rely on interpreters and support workers.

Once, in a favela in Rio de Janeiro, where I was documenting the police killing of street children, a police officer put his gun to my head. I am only here to tell this story because my translator and driver were able to convince my would-be assassin not to kill me. Interpreters know where danger lies and how to avoid it, as well as guide you through difficult situations when they do arise.

Since evacuation flights ended, Laidler and the volunteer coalition have managed to help 300 Afghan interpreters and their families who received the necessary papers navigate dangerous drives through multiple Taliban checkpoints and across borders. But 1,700 others are still stuck, some still waiting for visas.

The day I met with Laidler at the network’s office in Vancouver, Sahal, an Afghan interpreter whose name has been changed for his protection, was there. He came to B.C. in 2014 as part of a limited relocation program when Canada withdrew its troops. Now he’s a vital link to those left behind in Kabul.

Sahal told me he recently went back to Afghanistan to bring his own family to safety. But in the chaos at the Kabul airport, only his siblings were allowed to come.

“My sister had to leave her three-year-old behind,” he said. “My brother had to leave his wife, and they’d only married a week earlier. Last night my father messaged me that she is very sick. It’s probably trauma. No one can leave the house.”

He showed me a photo of Capt. Nichola Goddard, the first female Canadian combat soldier to die by enemy fire, that he keeps on his phone.

“I was there when she was killed,” he said. “It was May 17, 2006. I was about to step into her LAV [Light Armoured Vehicle], when I heard a big explosion. Then the fighting started, and she fell down. I think she was dead before she was evacuated.”

He pointed to a man standing beside her. “That’s her interpreter, Ahmed. He was my roommate. Later he and another interpreter were ambushed by the Taliban and killed as they were driving to work. Six of my 10 roommates were killed. The other four all sustained injuries.”

Sahal explained that Canadian soldiers served a six-month tour of duty, and only a small number were going “outside the wire” to fight. Yet interpreters worked full time “outside the wire” for six years.

“You must have wished you were Canadian,” I said.

Ahmed smiled. “I am Canadian now, I am home. The next mission is to somehow bring the rest of my family here. When I see people like Tim and the others here working so hard, it helps ease the emotional burden.”

While we talked, Laidler was busy on a Zoom call with coalition members from across the country. He reported grim news: The Taliban were searching districts in Kabul, looking for women’s rights activists and others.

Sahal’s phone pinged. Another message from his father. It was the first day of the school year in Afghanistan, but the Taliban won’t allow girls to attend.

“My father told me the children said, ‘Let’s go to school,’ but he had to tell them that the boys can go, but the girls can’t. The girls were crying. My father said, ‘I have never cried in my life, but today I cried.’ I don’t blame him. How can you explain that to a little girl?”

Afghan abandonment retriggers PTSD

I first met Laidler nine years ago, when I was making War in the Mind, a documentary about soldiers who return from active duty with post-traumatic stress disorder. He and a “band of brothers” — Dan, Wayne, Richard and Chris — were brave enough to allow me to film as they participated in a treatment program developed at the University of British Columbia by psychologist Marv Westwood.

All of the participants were startlingly young. Some had signed up for the war in Afghanistan when they were still teenagers. Together they confronted PTSD symptoms — rage, flashbacks, substance abuse, suicidal thoughts — by re-enacting dark moments that had changed their lives: explosions, ramp ceremonies and comrades killed in front of them.

”A vehicle was on fire with the driver trapped inside,” recalled Wayne. “We were the first on the scene, but we were told to stand down. I had to sit there and watch a friend burn to death. It was horrible just standing there watching, without being able to do anything.”

In one session, Laidler broke into tears: “The acceptable emotion for a man is anger — you express that by fighting or yelling. As for the rest of the emotions, the military context is, ‘That’s your problem. Bottle that up inside. Don’t go telling other people, you are weak if you do.’”

The program helped them undo the wiring that military training had drilled into their brains.

“It turned the idea that men aren’t supposed to feel on its head. I’ve learned not to shut down my feelings,” Laidler said.

He went on to earn a master’s degree in counselling and psychology. In addition to his role at the Veterans Transition Network, he teaches at UBC.

Now, however, his PTSD symptoms have returned — triggered by the frustrating struggle to save those in danger in Afghanistan.

“It’s triggering all the memories. I feel like I’m back overseas on high alert,” Laidler said. “With trauma, we know that if you can take action and do something about a stressful situation, it can be a big mitigator. But when you feel stuck and helpless like this, it’s hard. And it’s so much worse for the Afghan families. We’ve asked them to fill out so many forms and put their names on so many lists, and then we come back to them and ask them to change things. I told my wife I feel like I’m back in the thick of a mission… my mind is racing, focusing on the next task, the next need for money, the next letter to the next person in government. I think everyone is triggered. We’ve had a lot of soldiers reaching out for help.”

Veterans such as Fabian Henry, from Nova Scotia, who is still in treatment for PTSD following two tours in Afghanistan.

“It’s sickening to watch how it ended,” Henry told the Globe and Mail. “It was a nightmare over there. To look back now and feel like it was all for nothing — just makes my stomach turn. We’ve still got guys taking their own lives because of Afghanistan. We are fighting our own war at home.”

Silver Cross mother Sheila Fynes’s son committed suicide after tours in Bosnia and Afghanistan. “What is happening now is the worst ever and breaks my heart, but it doesn’t diminish what our soldiers did. There were many Afghans whose lives were positively impacted,” she told me. “You can’t erase what the young generation gained.”

Recently, Afghans desperate to come to Canada have experienced even more government snafus. Canada’s early announcement that it would welcome 40,000 refugees from Afghanistan has been quietly changed. Applications from those in danger inside the country will no longer be accepted by Canada. Those in refugee camps outside the country can apply, and they will be processed by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, not by Canada.

Interpreters who have papers for Canada are not affected. At the end of October, Laidler flew to Qatar to hasten their evacuation. Then there was more bad news. Several hundred names had been leaked in emails sent in error by Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, putting Afghans who worked with Canada’s military in grave danger. In some cases, faces of those already living in fear could also be seen. The Conservatives have called for an investigation and for government funding for the safe houses.

This Remembrance Day, as we pause to honour the sacrifice of so many, we must not forget the urgent need to save the interpreters, women’s rights activists and others who worked for Canada who remain in peril in Afghanistan.  [Tyee]

Read more: Rights + Justice, Politics

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