The Voices of War

21. Dr. Kay Danes - On Interpreters And Locally Employed Staff Stuck In Kabul

VOW 21 | Evacuation From Kabul

Before reading the rest of the show notes, keep in mind that, as of 21st of Nov, Kay and her team have successfully assisted over 3500 Afghan-Australian visa holders from Afghanistan. Keep this amazing feat in the back of your mind while you read the notes and listen to the episode.

My guest today is Dr. Kay Danes, OAM. She is the recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia for her service to the international and Australian community in human rights and social justice. 

Kay has a PhD (Law & Justice) and her thesis explored the evolving professionalisation of the Australian Humanitarian sector. She also holds a Master’s degree (Human Rights), and varying professional qualifications in Business Administration, Security and Law.

Her 25-year security and humanitarian career has spanned across Australian and foreign government departments, humanitarian, and private sector organisations in armed conflicts, disasters, and other complex emergencies.

Kay is also extensively connected to the ADF. She is the spouse of a SAS Veteran who has served 43 years in the ADF/SOCOMD and was Regimental Sergeant Major of two Special Operations Task Group rotations in Afghanistan.

More recently, Kay’s work in Afghanistan has been recognised by Australian and Foreign Officials as an integral part of a national debate on Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan. 

Today, she advocates for the 196 Australian Embassy staff seeking protection and evacuation from Kabul. Given the current situation in Afghanistan, hers is an important voice representing those who helped the Australian effort over the past 20 years. 

Listen to the podcast here

Dr. Kay Danes – On Interpreters And Locally Employed Staff Stuck In Kabul

Given the unfolding situation in Afghanistan, I’ve decided to put out another episode as soon as it was recorded. I spoke with Dr. Kay Danes, who is seeking representation for 196 locally employed staff and interpreters who work for the Australian Embassy in Kabul. This is our conversation.

In this episode, my guest is Dr. Kay Danes, OAM. She’s the recipient of the Medal of the Order of Australia for her service to the international and Australian community in human rights and social justice. Kay has a PhD in Law and Justice, and her thesis explored the evolving professionalisation of the Australian humanitarian sector. She also holds a Master’s degree in Human Rights and varying professional qualifications in Business Administration, Security and Law.

Her security and humanitarian career have spanned across Australian and foreign government departments and humanitarian and private sector organisations in armed conflicts, disasters and other complex emergencies. Previously, Kay was an advocate for The Centre for Public Policy Analysis in the United States and has given numerous representations on humanitarian issues before US Congressional forums.

Kay is also extensively connected to the Australian Defence Force. She’s the spouse of a SAS veteran who has served many years in the Australian Defence Force, particularly in Special Operations Command. She was the regimental sergeant major of two special operations task group rotations in Afghanistan.

Kay’s work in Afghanistan has been recognised by Australian and foreign officials as an integral part of a national debate on Australia’s commitment to Afghanistan. She advocates for the more than 196 Australian embassy contractors seeking protection and evacuation from Kabul. Given the situation in Afghanistan, hers is an important voice representing those whom many of us stood side by side with throughout the past many years. Kay, I know your schedule is specially packed, so I appreciate you taking the time to speak with me. Welcome to the show.

Thank you, Maz. I appreciate the conversation.

We had a rather lengthy chat before this, and I realised that this conversation will be perfectly inadequate to explore all of the topics of relevance to this show that you bring, given your extensive and amazingly interesting life and experiences. Our focus naturally must be on the unfolding situation in Afghanistan and those locals who have worked with Australians for many years. While we’ll touch other subjects, undoubtedly while we talk, maybe to set us off, can I ask you what your connection is to Afghanistan? How did you become involved with Afghanistan?

In a nutshell, my husband and I had endured torture in a communist state, which left me with this debilitating illness called post-traumatic stress.

It’s one of those many tangents that we must touch on shortly because, much like myself, I’m sure my readers would want to know what you are referring to, but please go on.

It was a horrific experience, but the thing that came out of that horrific experience was an opportunity to go to Afghanistan some years later. About eight years later, I went on a humanitarian mission in Afghanistan. Unlike some of our veterans who have come out of Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress, I went into Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress and came out a rather different person. I embarked on a career then of humanitarian response. It’s quite interesting.

Unlike some of our veterans who have come out of Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress, I went into Afghanistan with post-traumatic stress and came out a rather different person. I embarked on a career in humanitarian response. Click To Tweet

There are so many questions there. Firstly, to not leave that thread entirely loose, you said you were in a hostage situation for quite a long time. Where was that? Maybe you can give us the wave tops of that, and then I want to zero in on the fact that you went to Afghanistan with PTSD and came out a different person. That’s an important thing to set the context of who Kay is before we then go into the more contemporary issues.

My husband was in the SAS, and he’d served many years in the regiment. After Kuwait, he decided to seek permission from his employer, the Defence Force, to ask them if he could take his long service leave, which had accumulated to two years and undertake a civilian job in Laos in 1999. They gave him permission. They said, “Go try before you buy.”

We worked there for Jardine Secure Corps, which is G4S and is soon to be gobbled up by GardaWorld. We were security managers there, providing security to the international community, foreign investors, embassies, you name it. In our second year, we got sent towards the end of when he was coming home to return to the Army. The secret police kidnapped him and said to him, “Would you assist us?” They were gobbling up foreign investors’ assets, and they needed a witness to make it look legitimate.

They asked Kerry if he would sign a statement to say that one of his clients had done bad business. With that evidence, they could then seize control of their gem mine. Kerry couldn’t do that because that would be illegal. The secret police took him away. After four hours of beating him, they still couldn’t get him to comply. That’s when they came and got me and the children, and we were on our way out of the country.

The Australian Embassy was trying to evacuate us across the border, and the secret police had phoned ahead and put a stop on my passport. When we arrived at the border, we had secret police detain me. The children went with the embassy after much discussion. I was taken to a holding room in the centre of town. I didn’t know where Kerry was.

A Canberra official was on the mobile phone that got handed to me and said, “Don’t worry. We know where you are. We’ll come and get you.” That didn’t exactly happen. In the meantime, the Secret Police Colonel put out a dodgy story about us being involved in sapphire smuggling because our client was one of the largest sapphire mining concessions in the country at the time. It all got murky.

Shortly after, I went to this secret prison inside of Laos and eventually found out that Kerry was in there. We were separated the whole time for the whole duration, subject to torture and mock executions and watched other people being tortured. There were 58 political prisoners in that prison, people that had disappeared from the face of the Earth. It was a horrendous experience. During that time, I learned that we can resist interrogation and mental illness to enable us to survive. We did that effectively for close to a year until the Australian government was able to secure our release.

VOW 21 | Evacuation From Kabul
Evacuation From Kabul: We can resist interrogation and mental illness to enable us to survive.

You were separated from Kerry for one year. Even though you were held in the same prison, you hadn’t seen each other.

More importantly, separated from our children because we had three children. Kerry had the advantage of having resistance to interrogation because his speciality in the defence in the SAS was counterterrorism and hostage rescue. I didn’t have that experience, so I kept drawing on images of Richard Gere in Red Corner thinking, “You can’t torture me. It’s against the Geneva Convention.” I had no idea what the Geneva Convention meant, but I’ve since learned.

How old were your children at the time? If that’s not too much to ask.

That’s all right. Nathan was 7, Sarah was 9, going on 10, and Jessica was 14. You could imagine both parents disappearing. They’d been used to their dad going on what we used to call the very long day. That was a military deployment, not to have both parents go at the same time

Also, not knowing where they are, what’s happening or if they’re ever coming back alive. That’s got to have been quite traumatic for them. I won’t necessarily focus on them out of their privacy because I’m sure they have scars from that experience that I’m sure you’ve worked through. Now having heard the broad outlines of that story, it makes absolute sense why you are who you are and why you have become so actively involved in representing those people in Afghanistan who worked with Australians who face the very same, if not worse, if caught by the Taliban.

You have a personal experience of what such trauma is. You are lucky enough to be able to tell the story. Whether they would be and will be, that’s something that unfortunately remains to be seen. You then went to Afghanistan, and I find it interesting. You went in with PTSD, why you had PTSD is understandable. You said something interesting that you came back out of Afghanistan as a changed person. What do you mean by that?

You’ve got to look at this from the context that even though I was a military spouse, I did not undergo the same training that military guys and girls undertake. I didn’t have that exposure. When I landed at Kabul Airport, I remember turning to one of the people on our mission, on our team and saying, “This is like another world. If I can survive this, I might be okay.” To survive a communist prison and torture and then lose my mind for several years through that trauma, it was hard to find my way back to some normality.

I kept thinking I was living my life and that the communists were hiding in the bushes coming to get me. I fortified my house. I was afraid all the time, and I needed something to get me back into life. That’s something that had to be quite dramatic because of the world that I’d lived in security. Going to Afghanistan, I thought, “That’s going to be quite extreme but I’m going there to help people. I can get healing for myself by helping.”

Going to Afghanistan, I thought, “That’s going to be quite extreme, but I'm going there to help people. I can get healing for myself by helping.” Click To Tweet

I was traumatised on occasions, don’t get me wrong, because I was taken in the afternoon and into the night. When we were driving along this road at night and going through various checkpoints, I had this feeling that I was transported back to Laos. Going along the bumpy road reminded me of the bumpy road in Laos when I drove that to go home to my house or when I went outside the prison to meet the embassy, and then they drove me back. It dredged up these feelings that made me feel sick and scared again. I had to remind myself that I was safe. I was in Afghanistan, not Laos.

That’s an experience, and I like the link you made that many of our veterans have come out with PTSD, but that experience of how you’re describing that trauma and the emotional connection to one’s experience of trauma is something that resonates with many veterans. One of the things that at least I’m hearing, while I might be living in a bubble as many of us are, many of my peers are almost getting an emotional reaction of the sort you describe when they hear what’s happening to those interpreters, members or staff who worked for the embassy and so on. It does trigger a lot of emotions and perhaps even a lot of shame. Have you seen that?

Yeah. This is affecting ADF veterans and everyone. It’s affecting me even, and people in the ADF are questioning, “Was it worth it? Was going to Afghanistan worth it?” Families are saying, “What price did my son pay with his life?” Having been in the country and then my experiences, my response to that is that you gave people an opportunity to better themselves. Even for a short time, twenty years, that gave people hope and awareness of what they can have.

It’s yet to be decided how much of that will remain or will be taken away. We don’t know that yet. We know that the Taliban have their way of doing things, but a lot has changed in twenty years. We have to wait and see. Even having twenty years of experiencing the way that life can show people that there is more to life. When you are in that situation and have so much suffering around you, those moments of happiness, learning and being in a stable environment, even for one day, impact you. They give you hope, strength and courage to endure what may follow.

When you are in a situation where there's so much suffering around you, those moments of happiness, learning, and being in a stable environment, even for one day, impact you. They give you hope, strength, and courage to endure what may follow. Click To Tweet

I say that to the ADF members. Try not to beat yourself up emotionally about this situation because you’ve given them an idea of how to be resilient in the sense of what they can be resilient for. They’ve seen the world as you’ve shown them an opportunity, and they’ll work hard to try and find a pathway to that opportunity again.

As a veteran, I thank you for saying that because that’s an important message for our veterans to take to heart. Many would be asking those questions.

I’ll put one thing in there, and I’ll relate this to that. There was a young girl in the communist prison. She wanted to kill herself, and she did attempt to in our cell. I got so angry with her because I said, “Why are you giving up your hope?” While you have breath, you have hope, an opportunity and a chance. What I say to our veterans is, “If you are carrying something, post-traumatic stress or some problem, whether it’s not even related to combat, whether it’s related to a problem you’re having at work, and it’s causing you moral trauma or professional harm, while you have hope and still breathing, you have to fight. You have capacity.” One of the guys that had been imprisoned for twenty years told me, “Never give up your hope because once you do that, then there’s nothing less for you.”

If I’m predicting what you’re likely to say, I’m guessing that’s also the message that you’re sending to the multitude of people in Afghanistan that you are in touch daily. We’re recording this around lunchtime Monday, August 16th, 2021. Kabul officially handed over power to the Taliban. For us, it was in the evening that Ganis went out of the country. It’s a great place of uncertainty. While it might be eerily quiet, as some are saying, many are wondering what is going to happen once the Talibs have taken all their seats and bettered down their power.

Can we maybe focus on those because they are the ones that, if I understand correctly, you have been quite vocal about and also galvanising support but also doing a lot of research to provide to the Australian government about the more than 196 staff members who work directly with the Australian Embassy on their backgrounds and so on? Can you maybe give us a little bit of background on that to set the context?

We call them the Australian Embassy Cohort, 196 people. Since May 25th, 2021, neither the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade nor Minister Marise Payne has given them any commitment to protecting their lives. They have fallen into a bureaucratic process of paperwork and visa applications that, in my opinion, do not meet Australian standards for procedural fairness or show any sensitivity to the cultural and language barriers that these cohorts have.

DFAT has all their documentation, but somehow these people are still falling through the cracks. We are desperately trying to engage the government, but the government is not reciprocating. One of the guards got a response from DFAT and asked him if he could submit a statement of threat. “What is the threat to you? Is it real?” They also want some of the guards there to complete another form to do with this visa application. They’ve already submitted their visa applications, and the form is 35 pages long. How are they supposed to download it and print it? The Taliban is outside their door.

Just so people understand, unless someone confuses the issue, their paperwork is already in. This is not people knocking on the door saying, “We work for the Australians.” These people have been in the process or system for quite some time.

Some for years. How much more do they need to provide? Minister Dutton, respectfully, has been on the media saying, “We don’t want to let the wrong people into Australia and things like that.” I understand that. I agree. Our defence intelligence forces and security people behind the scenes do a marvellous job. God help us if we didn’t have them, but we’re not talking about those people.

We’re talking about security guards and embassy staff that have a documented, unbroken employment history from 2010 to the day that they closed the embassy. It’s those people that are sending me messages, crying out for help, “Is the Australian government coming? Is the Australian Defence Force bringing the plane to take us and our family to safety?” What do I tell them? Everything’s gone to hell in a handbasket. I’ve got messages on my phone saying, “Do we run to the airport even though we don’t have the ticket and the Taliban are right outside?” The neighbour is going to tell on me to save themselves. What do I do?

Therein lies the great uncertainty. While the Taliban is saying at the moment that they will not be looking for people or prosecuting people who worked with international organisations, they haven’t exactly proven trustworthy in the past. Certainly, there are a lot of young angry Talibs who are not part of the Doha crowd. I explore this at some length in an episode with Dr. Mike Martin as the actual composition of those various Taliban elements.

There’s nothing to say that the voice of those Talibs in charge will carry to the fighters on the ground. A number of letters are circulating from various people at the moment, certainly in my social circles. Many of these interpreters and staff have already received death threats, night letters and phone calls from unknown people. Is that what the people that you are speaking to have experienced already as well?

We’ve sent reports to the government of actual footage of photographs. We’ve had security guards shot at while they’re driving along with their families. We’ve got the night letters. They’re fairly common. Anyone who’s worked for the Allies usually gets one. We’ve been able to provide some pretty clear and validated intelligence on the actual threat. It is real. I don’t know who in Canberra can read some of these things that are coming out and not be affected by them.

We’ve known men that have been killed, and their wives have been laid out on the street and had their eyes taken out in front of their children, and then their daughters are handed around to the Taliban and gang raped. Their other children are being beaten like animals. It’s difficult for me to remain optimistic. I am desperately trying to think that the Taliban have evolved over the last twenty years and understand that there’s a lot of waste in trade relations and all those things.

It’s very hard when there are some that are in the group that are doing things that they shouldn’t be doing. You factor into it. All the prisoners have been released. There’s no one in any of the jails. You’re talking about men that were convicted of rape, all sorts of sexual assault, crime and murder. These are all people that are roaming the streets.

That’s an important point to realise. Taliban is not a Taliban. Mike calls it the Taliban franchise because there are various groups that declare affiliation to the cause but out of their interests and motivations, they have their leadership, architecture, decision-making processes and so on. As we know, certainly in Afghanistan, sides change rather quickly because of the circumstances. Someone who has been on the receiving end for the past many years and whose group allegiances have perhaps been liberated. The culture of revenge in Afghanistan is also well known. It’s certainly not a stretch to think that a lot of revenge killings or torture and so on are around the corner.

An opportunity as well. Opportunity in an environment where the economy has fallen through the floor. You can dub your neighbour in and make some easy money.

Many in the Taliban will say that the tables are turned because that was one of the critiques of the West. To zero in on the actual issue, where is the hurdle? What is the problem? That is probably a bigger question than I anticipate. Why haven’t we been able to, as a society, a government and a nation do something?

If I look at this objectively and try to take the emotion out, and I apologise for any emotion, we needed to get informed relationships and not just our inner circle relationships. No one from the Australian Defence Force, aside from yourself or the Australian government, has been reaching in and asking those of us that have worked in this space for twenty-odd years and had relationships with farmers on the ground to the most senior politicians in the president’s palace. It’s those relationships that we have.

VOW 21 | Evacuation From Kabul
Evacuation From Kabul: We need to have informed relationships, not just our inner circle relationships. When there’s no communication with people who have longstanding relationships on the ground, that’s a real failure.

Patrick Ryan is a perfect example. He’s a former facilities manager of the embassy in Kabul. He went with these guys out for tea and dinner and sat around talking to the Embassy guards. He formed those tight relationships with them. He gets a lot of information from them on the ground every hour. This is information that would have been beneficial to the Australian government, the Australian Defence Force and other agencies, only they shut the door on us, and they wouldn’t let us give them that information to help them make an informed decision about how best they can work contingencies to mitigate the risk to those people that they intended to evacuate.

Why was that door shut, Kay?

I honestly don’t know. It makes no sense because even myself, I’ve worked in embassies. I was a Special Projects Officer at the Australian Embassy in Saudi Arabia. I worked with a team of people to write contingencies for the evacuation of Australians from six countries in the Middle East. You would think that the government would put me in someone’s circle of trust, and maybe because of my experiences and my work in the Middle East and Afghanistan, they would have reached out, but they haven’t. This is the problem. There’s no communication with people who have longstanding relationships on the ground. That’s a real failure.

It suggests a lack of foresight. I’ve discussed this on the show on a number of occasions. Our strategy doesn’t necessarily align with operations on the ground or what’s happening on the ground. That strikes me as another one of those examples, which, for many veterans, also inspires a sense of shame. That is the word I’m hearing across every network that I’m a part of. This is shameful for Australia and Australians that we haven’t been able to do something for those who’ve helped us out so much.

When the embassy closed its doors on the 28th of May 2021, without any notice to those working inside, that sent a message about what the Australian government was postured for. We should be ashamed. I don’t put this on the Australian Defence Force by any means. I’m talking about us, the people. We should be ashamed that we are not rising and demanding that this government start acting to fulfil its moral obligation and duty of care to those people that protected them.

When they went on those missions to Kabul, those diplomatic representational postings, these people put their life on the line. They were shot at. They were intimidated. Their families were intimidated and threatened to be kidnapped. All the while, our diplomats went and continued to operate safely in Afghanistan because of them, and then they’ve been left behind. If we’re talking reality, they probably won’t even make it on the list because they have to go in behind AusAID embassy workers. What they’re up to are the subcontractors of NGOs who were not even directly employed by our embassy.

Our cohort of embassy guards and other mission essential personnel come behind those people. The US Embassy has closed. All the US Embassy people are already at the airport boarding planes and leaving and we haven’t even got ours out of their houses yet. Where is our responsibility? This is so wrong. I make no exaggeration. This reminds me of what happened in Rwanda when people were left. These are people that risk their lives for us. It’s disgraceful, and it does make me ashamed to be an Australian.

The planes that our government has said are going to fly in to get people out, are those planes intended to take those embassy staff in any way? Has that even been a discussion? Have you heard those discussions? Are they on any of those lists? Who are those planes taking out?

Information is a little bit difficult to get from Kabul at the moment because the Taliban interrupting the lines of communication. I don’t even know what the arrangement is to get our planes, in particular, in there because everything’s closed. I believe they’re either still in Kuwait or may be arriving. There’s no transparency around that. You might be able to find that out. I’m not sure. Those people that are on that list to get on those planes don’t include ours.

I can’t give away sources, but we’ve been told that those planes have been reserved for 500 people. That’s individuals and families that DFAT has identified for processing. Among them will be AusAID and embassy workers, not directly employed but are subcontracted and have worked for AusAID programs via NGOs in Afghanistan. They’re Afghan nationals and their families. While I’m happy that someone’s going to get rescued, hopefully, if we can get our RAF planes in there, I’m super worried about the 196 that’ll be left behind, plus their families who were contracted to the Australian Embassy and provide unlimited service and our terms as well.

Some people undoubtedly will say, “They knew the risks they took.” Arguably some might say that Afghanistan are better paychecks than other people who were working in the domestic market. What do you say to those people? I’m sure there will be some resistance to this intention to get these people out.

I say, “Go into Afghanistan and have a look at what they’ve had to deal with.” We promised them a better life. We promised them that we would stand by them until their country was stable and that there would be opportunities through trade and bilateral relations. We were going to make their life better. We told those that worked with us that they could rely on us and we wouldn’t leave them.

We would make arrangements for them to be repatriated to safety if it came to that. We didn’t think that would happen because we were pretty convinced that we’d win that war. We then told our defence force that they were engaged in a winnable war when any of us who have ever worked in Afghanistan or anyone who’s ever read about Afghanistan would know that the war was never winnable.

Wake up. Let’s not let Hart, GardaWorld, Sodexo and the others off the hook because they contracted these people on $30 a day and told them that they would have job security. “You are like our family. We will look after you.” This is what happens with security companies. They leave people in the lurch. They take $40 million contracts. When the going gets tough, they get going and leave everybody behind. There are a lot of people here, Australian companies, that have made a lot of money out of the war who are fine. They’ve moved on to the next country to make more money but what about their duty of care to their contractors?

I refer to it as the post-violent conflict industrial complex. I’ve spoken about it on the show previously. I’ve done eight months in Iraq as a civilian contractor, and the wool was lifted from my eyes. The amount of money that is involved in these types of contracts the mind boggles. To bring us to a close, what can still be done, Kay?

The Australian government can call us. Glenn Kolomeitz is a retired major in the ADF. He works for GAP Legal Services. The government can call us. We can give them access to the database that has all the validated information on it, and we can work with the government to get that expedited. Our people on the ground in Kabul can be at the airport at a moment’s notice. They have their grab bags and documentation ready if they want more documentation.

They can call Glenn Kolomeitz. Honestly, they can pick up the phone and save lives. They’re not people that need to be any further vetted. They’re already being vetted. Get them to safety. Work out the rest later. These people are not begging to come to Australia. They want to be anywhere but where they are because what fate awaits them is not going to be pretty. We’ve seen what the Taliban can do. We’ve seen what ISIS and Daesh can do. We want to get these people that helped us to safety. Call GAP Legal in the ICT, and let’s make this happen.

VOW 21 | Evacuation From Kabul
Evacuation From Kabul: These people are not begging to come to Australia. They want to be anywhere but where they are because what fate awaits them is not going to be pretty. We’ve seen what the Taliban can do. We’ve seen what ISIS and Daesh can do. We want to get these people who helped us to safety.

That’s a perfect note to leave this on as well. Apart from me saying that, I take my hat off to you for tirelessly doing this type of work for no financial reward. You do this out of your sense of duty and loyalty to those who’ve helped us when we worked hard in Afghanistan. We collectively, the ADF, DFAT and so on. Thank you for doing that on our behalf. You are right. It is a shameful episode that hopefully we can rectify in some small way. I’ll certainly be pushing this out as far and wide as I can. Fingers crossed for all the 196 in their families that are stuck in Kabul at the moment.

My heart goes out to the veterans. I love our ADF. I would give my life to our ADF members. Hopefully, it’ll never come to that. There’s a difference between bravery on the battlefield and moral courage when you need to stand up. I say to all the boys and girls out there, “Please get on the phone with the Australian government and demand that they contact us.”

We’re trying to do this to respect your legacy. It’s worth every minute of my time and everybody else’s time that is putting the hours in at no reward for themselves. Gap Legal is not getting paid. Glenn Kolomeitz is not getting paid. None of us are getting paid. We’re trying to do the right thing here and respect the legacy that our ADF sacrificed in the name of Australia and the Anzac spirit.

Wonderfully said, Kate. I’ll be in touch. Thank you for your time.

Thank you very much.

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