Today, I spoke with Ehsaan who came to Australia in December 2013 as a refugee from Afghanistan. He worked as an interpreter first for the Americans, then the Dutch and finally for Australian forces from 2009- 2013, He was ultimately resettled to Australia with his family due to an increasing threat to his life. He joins me today to discuss the reality faced by many of those who have worked with Australians and other coalition forces over the past 20 years. Ehsaan is someone who has personally experienced the fear and uncertainty that many are going through in Afghanistan today. During our chat, I use only his first name and do not talk about where he is from directly, as he still has family on the ground, whose safety remains uncertain.
Listen to the podcast here
Ehsaan – The Life of a Coalition Interpreter in Afghanistan
In this episode, I’m speaking with Ehsaan. He came to Australia in December 2013 as a refugee from Afghanistan. He worked as an interpreter for Australian forces from 2009 to 2013 and was ultimately resettled here with his family due to an increasing threat to his life. He joins me to discuss the reality faced by many of those who have worked with Australians and other coalition forces over the past many years. Ehsaan is someone who has personally experienced what many are going through now in Afghanistan. During our chat, I will use only his first name and not talk about where he’s from directly, as he still has family on the ground whose safety remains uncertain. Ehsaan, thank you for joining me.
Thank you for having me.
Before we delve into your experiences getting out of Afghanistan, maybe we can start with a little bit of background about you and the work you’ve done. What work did you do with the Aussies on the ground?
As an interpreter, I started working with Aussies in 2009 in Uruzgan province. Our job was mostly focused on training of Afghan National Army and attending meetings on a daily basis about the security of the area, the corporation from the book to the Afghan Army, and providing any planning help or any help, which basically Australian mentors would say were providing to Afghan Army. We were the middle person to translate these whole things.
One of the things that perhaps many Australians and others across the West who haven’t been to Afghanistan and worked with interpreters may not realise how essential the work is. Can you talk about that a little bit because that will give some context and why your role, in particular, was so important?
As an interpreter, when you compare interpreting or translating in Australia to when you are on the battleground in Afghanistan, it’s completely different because, first, it’s cultural differences. Secondly, you are translating in a way that you have to use some words that don’t sound inappropriate or disrespectful. Besides the translation, you would also think about both sides of using the proper cultural advising tool for the mentor, even for the Afghan side too. Something we knew about the Aussies, as an interpreter and as an Afghan, knew about my culture. I would say that the Australian officers or soldiers that we can approach will be more polite or these sorts of things.
That’s an important point because one of the things that we are learning, particularly now as the situation has rapidly changed and the war supporting the Afghan national government with the coalition has been lost to the Taliban because they now have full control. That’s something that’s important because many are now saying, and analysts are making the conclusions.
Through my own experiences, I tend to agree that we didn’t always understand the cultural context. We didn’t always understand who the key players were or how Afghanistan functions as a country or even the tribal affiliations, the cultural connotations. What was your experience? How did you help the Aussies you worked with understand those cultural nuances, and how receptive were we generally to your knowledge?
As I mentioned before, as an interpreter, it’s an important job. You are the connection of Afghan and Australian culture, the people out there who are there to help and who need help. You have to give the right message. You have to say that in the right way. It was very important, as an interpreter, that you give proper awareness to both sides.
As an Australian soldier or whoever the soldiers were during my employment time, the target was very clear to help Afghan Army to a level that they can have better security and give stability to the Afghan people. Their role as a soldier was very clear. We were here to help Afghan people and soldiers to keep the country stable. In the situation, as I see right now, what happened to Afghanistan is a bit different. All the sacrifices, the hard work we did, and the intentions we had went opposite.
You were never a trained soldier. You were quite young at that time as well. What were the risks that you faced when you were on the ground? This might be obvious for some in my audience, but perhaps not everybody, you were unarmed and spent your days with the Australian soldiers. What did that mean to your security?
It was always a threat from the first day you joined as an interpreter. From the first step of coming to them, most of those interpreting jobs and companies were towards the Southern part of Afghanistan. Compared to Southern Afghanistan, in the Northern part, at the time I was working, it was a bit stable. There weren’t much of job opportunities. A person like me who come from the Northern part of Afghanistan had to travel about thirteen hours in a car with full risk on the way if the Taliban caught me or they asked me where I was going. In Afghanistan, cloth-wise and culture-wise, language accents are a bit different from the South and North.
They get the idea from talking to you that you are not from that area. There was always a risk involved. What if they catch me? What will happen? The message was pretty clear if they would’ve caught any of the interpreters during their initial phase of joining as an interpreter. They will kill straight away if you’re joining infidels. That was their clear message at that time. Still, some audience would be thinking, “If you knew that risk was that high, why would you join?”
It was very clear at that time that I couldn’t do anything else to serve Afghanistan or help my country build another profession rather than being an interpreter. I could join Afghan Army, but my knowledge and ability at that point was like, “I want to do a bit better.” I feel that interpreting would’ve been a better chance to make Afghanistan in a better way. That was the whole point. As I said, that was the first step of being an interpreter. You accept all those risks. Once you become an interpreter, that’s another risk.
We were not trained and not proper soldiers, but we were in one room. All the soldiers were sleeping in another room. Interpreters were sleeping in the same base. Most of my employment was in operation bases or patrol bases, which are frontline areas. I spent the most 5 to 6 months of my employment in Uruzgan. When I was going back home, I had to fly from Uruzgan to Kabul because it was very risky to travel by car from Uruzgan to Kandahar and then from Kandahar to Kabul, which was about nine hours of going in the car facing the Southern part of Afghanistan. It’s Taliban risk.
That’s why the easiest way was by flying. It’s a compromise. Still, I had to go six hours of driving in a cab or a passenger car where you have 3 or 4 strangers sitting with you. As a passenger, when you are travelling with someone for six hours, someone would ask you. Not even personal, but still, in a general talk, someone asks what your profession is. What do you do for work? Even in that part, you must make a story because you can’t trust anyone. What if someone is a spy of the Taliban? What if they catch you? What if they chase you or see where you live? You don’t only think about yourself. You think about your family, your relatives, your whole area. It was a bit risky.
For the audience who doesn’t have experience with this, what happens to those people like yourself who were interpreters, who were caught by the Taliban, and what happened to their families?
There were a few incidents that happened. In 2013, we were the second or third family of those Afghan interpreters who came to Australia. After us, there were hundreds of them coming in a month’s time. Every second month, there were interpreters coming from Afghanistan to Australia. During that process, I remember one of our colleagues had a visa ready. We were waiting for a call about when you should come for the flight, but he got killed at his house even before coming to Australia. His family was left without any support or anything. He lost his life because the Taliban realised he was working as an interpreter.
The one who is waiting in Afghanistan has a Facebook and WhatsApp group of all those interpreters on a daily basis. Desperately, they go to the airport and have those documents and appreciation letters which say how good they have served Australian Army and how good they have done their job. However, they still wait for days because of the way the Taliban is saying, “We are not touching anyone. We won’t be saying anything to anyone, even if that is an interpreter or Afghan soldier or anything like that.” We don’t trust their words. We have seen their betrayal a few times before. That’s why everyone is in a rush, especially those interpreters who are in Kabul Airport waiting for their approval letter or visa or flight information. A few different categories right now are in a pending situation.
We have heard reports of the Taliban not keeping their word of the amnesty for anybody who worked for foreigners or the NSA. In a particular note that has been around Kandahar, what have you heard about what’s happening on the ground at the moment?
Kandahar has been a battleground for many years of this whole war. Kandahar has been a battleground for NATO or ISAF versus the Taliban. The interpreters were always the main target for them. The killings happened to those interpreters. When I was there, a Taliban sniper killed an Afghan interpreter during a patrol in the area, or one of the interpreters was leaving the base and got shot. One of the interpreters was going home and got kidnapped, killed, or beheaded. That way, how full of revenge they are for interpreters, will you think that will be forgiven just like that? It’s hard to say that they will spare those interpreters.Kandahar has been a battleground for many years for NATO and ISAF versus the Taliban. The interpreters were always the main target for Taliban killings. Click To Tweet
You made an interesting point before about how they’re perceived as ultimately worse than the infidels and foreigners because, in the eyes of the Taliban, they have betrayed their own people and sold themselves out to the infidels. That’s a very difficult thing to forgive, regardless of what amnesty promises have been made. That’s on a higher level, and we also know that the Taliban do not really want a cohesive body.
There are multiple different factions that don’t all necessarily listen to the same leaders. It’s one thing to say at the leadership or at the top, amnesty will be afforded, but on the ground, that doesn’t necessarily translate to that. We are hearing reports, and this may be something you’re not aware of, but I read it time and time again. Taliban intelligence is looking for interpreters. How do they do this? What does that mean?
I remember when we were working as an interpreter, there were a few things we were being extra careful with. It may sound funny or a bit weird, but it was true. When we were leaving or thinking of going on leave as an interpreter for 15, 20, or 30 days before, you wear a half-sleeve T-shirt or a V-neck T-shirt. Usually, when you were working on the bases as an interpreter, we were wearing proper full-sleeve shirts. What if the Taliban catch us? Sometimes, they were telling the people to take off their shirts. If you wear a T-shirt, your hands are a little bit more tan.
If your skin colour was tan on your arms or around the shoulder, they thought you were the interpreter. That was enough for them to kill or realise this was an interpreter. That was one clue. The other one was the cab drivers or those the people who work in the main points. There were some cab drivers who were specifically working as intelligence for the Taliban. A friend was telling me a story. He came out of the Kandahar base. He sat in the cab and wanted to go to his province. He goes to the main centre of the station, like a bus stand or the cab stand. In between that 15-minute trip, he started to chat. I don’t remember the exact words, but he was saying they were using the code word.
It’s a made-up code word. It’s like, “I have a sheep with me. I’m on my way. I’m ten minutes away. I’ll be there,” or something like that. That interpreter realised that there was something happening. He jumped out of the car before reaching the destination to save himself because he realised that the cab driver was going to take him to the Taliban. You were being extra careful with every part of it. There are some there.
The other important point to mention here is that it’s not how careful you yourself must be, but also your family. As we talked offline about this, you’re away for extended periods of time, and your family will get asked questions. How did you overcome those challenges?
When you are 5 or 6 months away from home, people ask questions, “Where is he? What does he do? How come he’s not home all the time?” You have to do a proper unofficial non-government job that doesn’t have to do anything with ISAF, NATO, or even Afghan officials. You have to say something. My parents always said, “He worked for one of the construction companies in Kabul. He does a lot of the administration work and is mostly busy there. That’s why he’s 5 to 6 months away from home. He comes home for leave for 10 or 20 days or a month.” They were always lying about my job.
Your cover was blown ultimately. Can you tell the story of that?
As an interpreter with Australia, I started in 2009. Even before that, I was an interpreter for Americans in 2006 and then in 2008 with the Netherlands forces. During this whole time, the same story was used, but in 2013, a few months before coming to Australia, one of the Afghan soldiers saw me in Chora District, Uruzgan, where I was working in the operation base. He saw me, and I was shocked. I couldn’t say anything because my whole truth was revealed. He was like, “He was lying all the time.” I could see his face. He’s like, “You’ve been lying to us. You said you work as an administrator in Kabul for a construction company. What are you doing here?”
I couldn’t lie to him. I was like, “I’m an interpreter. Please don’t tell anyone at home.” He told his parents, and his parents told some relatives. Some relatives told some other people. The rumours or the news went to some bad people. After a few months, I came to Australia. My parents started to receive calls like, “We know now that your son used to work for infidels.” For them, they mentioned infidels. They don’t care about Australians, Americans, or any other forces. “Your son did a sinful job. We want him back, or you have to come and meet us.” That was the message from them. My father first didn’t take it seriously. He’s like, “My sons are gone. Maybe some people are trying to scare us.”
After a few weeks, my brother was on his way home from the gym, and he got chased by a car. They were trying to get him in the car. According to my brother, when he went out of the gym, he walked for a minute. Suddenly, he saw a car on the road stopping. When they opened the door, he saw they already had weapons. He didn’t take any interpreting or anything like that, but he realised that something was wrong. He saw a home next door. He went inside a stranger’s home to save himself. It was in the middle of the city where people were crowded. Taliban didn’t go inside a stranger’s home. Luckily, that stranger’s home saved my brother from being kidnapped or killed.
For context, your brother also worked as an interpreter, right?
No. That was my younger brother. My other brother, yes. My younger brother and I were both interpreters. Even my cousin was an interpreter for Australians. We were all here. That was my other younger brother who got chased. He wasn’t an interpreter. He was a high school student. I can’t say he had nothing to do with my job because, as I mentioned earlier, when you join as an interpreter, you take your whole family to risk. You accepted that risk.
For a little bit of clarity, the NSF soldier was from the same province as you. He wasn’t necessarily a Taliban supporter or anything like that. He couldn’t keep a secret as most of us can’t help but gossip. He wasn’t ill-intended. He didn’t want you to get caught. He just merely told his parents, who then told someone else, who then told someone else, so the word got out. I’m clear on that.
He wasn’t a bad person. He was a good friend. He was working in the same base as us. His whole thing was because I lied to people around, so he had that laugh on me. Why would I lie or something like that? I told him, “Of course, I would lie. Why wouldn’t I lie? I’m an interpreter. You know how interpreters are.” He went home and had a normal parent-son talk. He must have told his family. He said, “His son is working as an interpreter.” His parents must have told other family members or relatives as a general talk. That general talk became general knowledge and went to the bad people. That’s how it went.
He was also at risk, anyway, being a member of the Army.
He would use the same path as me when going home. As an interpreter, you get a chance to have a flight from where I was working, but he was also at more risk because he had to go in those 13 to 14 hours of passenger cars or those commercial cab-driving cars to go home. He also had to make some stories and wear some proper clothes according to the area where he was.
To come back to the point of your departure from Afghanistan because you have received some credible threats to your safety, which prompted you to apply then to come to Australia. Is that right?
Can you tell us a little bit about that? What happened? What was the risk that you faced in your family and that journey of coming to Australia?
It started in 2013 because the news of Australia withdrawing from Afghanistan came. If I remember it properly, it was in 2012 or a year before that. We made a request to Australian Defence that because of the risk we are going through every day, we need help. We can’t stay here anymore. Our families are also at risk, so you guys have to do something. We can’t stay in Afghanistan right now. After talking to her, some VIP generals and politicians were coming. There were inconsistent efforts and trying after such hard requests. I remember the politician’s name was Julia Gillard that worked at that time. We received the good news that Australia is happy to accept those Afghans who worked as an interpreter, but only with immediate family, and the rest of the family were left behind. That’s how it happened.
Since you left in 2013, you talked about your parents because of the threats they started receiving after you departed. They ultimately have to leave. Is that right?
They ultimately have to leave. They had no choice of staying in Afghanistan. I mentioned the story about my brother when he got chased. When they told me the story, I told them it was risky for my younger brother to stay there. At that time, my brother, the one who got chased, was about 17 or 18. I said he’s young enough in a manner that he can leave the country. I had no other choice but to send him somewhere else. Also, I couldn’t afford to send my whole family to other countries. I told them to send him to Dubai. Dubai was the best choice.
UAE was the best choice at that time because it was easier to get a visa for him and he could stay safer there. I sent him there, and then after that incident, my parents never lived in their own home. They always kept moving from one place to another. They stay for a few weeks or days in one trusted family or relative’s place and then a few weeks or months in another family or relative’s place. Eventually, I was like, “This is not working.” Me and my younger brother, who is in Australia, came to a decision because Australia doesn’t have anything for our parents or extended family.
This is the only option that we can do. We told them, “You guys should go to India. We’ll be relieved that you are a bit safe there.” That also comes with sacrifices for my mother. Me and my brother are here. We’re married and have kids. Most of the family is here. Only 1 brother and 2 sisters are there. They always talk and message emotionally. She’s not very stable right now. Every time we talk, she cries because all her grandchildren are away from her. She’s like, “I miss you guys.” It is heartbreaking sometimes when your parents talk to you. Sometimes you can’t do video calls with them because they may cry and become very emotional. We try to distract them. Luckily, I could take them out.
I couldn’t take my wife’s side family out because I didn’t have much time. Financially, I have enough work that I can feed my family and kids here and enough that they can live in India and pay the rent and the grocery money. My wife’s family back in Afghanistan is still at risk. I lost my 16 or 17-year-old brother-in-law. He graduated from school and was selected for Civil Engineering. He was ready to go on a scholarship to Turkey, but we lost him because of the Taliban. He got attacked by the Taliban in Kunduz. I have to distract my wife in a way that she doesn’t think much about him. You have social media, friends, and relatives who still can’t forget that innocent boy.
That’s your wife’s younger brother, who was sixteen years old. You said that was only recently. That was in this recent takeover.
Yes. This happened in mid-July 2022. After losing him, I have only two brothers-in-law. Their parents were shattered. They kept thinking about him. I’m begging and insisting so much, like, “Please, go somewhere safer.” Afghanistan is not safer at all right now. The best option was to come to Kabul. They came to Kabul two days before the Taliban took over.
Now, they’re under the Taliban’s control. They’re stuck at home. Every day I talk to them and tell them, “Please, don’t go out because I don’t trust these people. No matter how they say, ‘You’re free to go. You don’t have to worry about this and that,’ I still don’t trust them.” My parents and siblings, emotionally, are not stable in India. Physically and emotionally, my parents-in-law and my brothers-in-law are not safe in Afghanistan. It’s hard sometimes.
Australia is trying to desperately get as many interpreters out as possible. We know that that’s not going as smoothly as we’d like to. Far too many are falling through the cracks and getting rejections of visas for various reasons. How are they all feeling at the moment? You said you’re in WhatsApp and Facebook groups. What is the general sentiment amongst those who are waiting for news?
They’re eagerly waiting for news. As I mentioned before, they’re in the same fear that one day, I’m not sure how long this whole evacuation will go on for. Americans are there at the airport. They can go to the airport and say, “I’m at risk. Please take me out of here.” Australia doesn’t have any fixed plan for those interpreters. Those interpreters who are in the WhatsApp group are following the news every day. I don’t have anything to tell them, but I read their words and hear their voice messages. Every day, they go to the airport and stand there with their letters, their certifications, and their recommendations that we need help.
They’re using their emails to tell the Australian government that they are in trouble, but there are some rules. There are some processes or procedures they have to follow. Still, they’re waiting for it. There are only 1 or 2 evacuation flights that happened. The majority of them were Afghans, Australian citizens, or permanent residents. I’m not sure how many. I haven’t heard anything from those interpreters. No one said that they’ve got approval from the Australian Defence or Australian Immigration and been called to come to the airport.
No interpreter in the WhatsApp group has said anything in the last few months. They’re in trouble and in shock. They’re not sure how long they’ll be staying alive. I’m not a politician. I’m not something that I can predict properly, but I’m predicting in a way that once all these evacuation soldiers leave, there’s no future for those people. You never know what will happen to them, their families, and their relatives because the Taliban never leaves people when they want to take revenge.Once evacuation soldiers leave Afghanistan, there is no future for the people there. The Taliban never leaves people when they want to take revenge. Click To Tweet
Ehsaan, I’m conscious of your time. I would like to finish on a positive note of your story. This is something I also want to stress. You came to Australia as a refugee. I myself was a refugee. As many of my audience will know, I fled the Bosnian War. I lived in Germany for three and a half years before then migrant to Australia. One of the things that we don’t necessarily discuss often enough is the lives of those refugees who then come to Australia. More often than not, they end up being very productive members of the Australian society. You are no exception. You’ve been working. Tell us a little bit about your life since coming to Australia and what you are up to now.
When I came to Australia, on the first day, I was trying to be productive. I start to find some work and try to do something better. I tried to study, but I had a few family troubles that I couldn’t focus properly, so I had to leave the studies. I started working in various jobs, all those retails and cleaning. I did those jobs. I’m studying part-time. I’m also an Uber driver and working on one of those essentials. In this COVID situation, I’m working in one of the service stations. That is busy enough for a refugee who’s tried to be productive in this community. I’m studying Bachelor’s in IT. Once I finish this, I will try to serve the community here because Australia is my home now. I want to be as productive as I can to serve people here.
I can certainly empathise with that. That’s probably a message that is important for people to realise. Those who haven’t lived through things have a second chance at life that Australia does give people like yourself and me. It’s a debt we carry for our whole life. At least most of the people that I know try to do their best to serve the community and have welcomed us with open arms. Ehsaan, we’ll finish on that note. I really do appreciate your time.
The message you gave and the insights you’re giving in this conversation are important for people to understand, firstly, the closeness between interpreters and our troops on the ground and how important and critical your work was. Secondly, how genuine the threat that you have lived with and the many like yourself live with now. I hope that this conversation opens up further discussion on what can be done and what should be done and more people understand that the grave situation interpreters find themselves in at this very moment. Thank you very much for your time.
Thank you for having me. I hope my message gives some positive energy or feedback to the people who think that refugees are a burden. We are not a burden here. We are a part of the community, and we want to do better. For those interpreters and families who are waiting, I hope they will be here one day and doing the same as I’m doing here to serve this community and country, which I’m very thankful for.
Well said. Thank you very much.