Fareed Ahmad Kabeer is not sure how old he is, but he thinks he’s probably 25. Born in western Afghanistan’s Herat province, he became an interpreter for the international ISAF security forces after studying English and finance at the University of Kabul. He then accompanied the ISAF forces around the country for the next four years.
But in 2011, while on a training mission with ISAF and the Afghan National Army (ANA) in Germany, he absconded and travelled to Denmark, where he claimed asylum. His life was at risk, he explained, and it was his only opportunity to be safe.
“I left because of threats from my relatives,” Kabeer told The Copenhagen Post. “My cousins threatened my father over the phone by telling him they knew what I was doing and that we should all stop co-operating with the international troops. I knew that if they got the opportunity they would harm me and kill me.”
In the past year, the Taleban has stepped up its targeted killings of collaborators with the international forces. According to the UN mission in Afghanistan, UNAMA, 698 civilians were killed and 379 were injured in assassination attempts in 2012 – a 108 percent rise from the year before.
Kabeer is lucky to have made it out. But many others will remain in Afghanistan after international forces pull out in 2014, at which point organisations, such as Amnesty International and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, say the interpreters are at a high risk of reprisal.
Pressure on Denmark to act
The Defence Ministry is now under pressure to offer Afghan interpreters the opportunity to travel to Denmark and apply for asylum. This would mirror a deal made with Iraqi interpreters in 2007.
But the defence minister, Nick Hækkerup (Socialdemokraterne), has ruled it out, arguing the Afghan interpreters are at less risk of reprisal because they are not made to work in the local communities they are drawn from, as they were in Iraq. He also says that the interpreters were hired through a private company rather than directly by Denmark.
But Kabeer says it’s hard to keep the identities of interpreters a secret because the ANA is riddled with informants that pass on information to the Taleban.
“It’s really simple for any group to get information about me or other interpreters or officers that help [the ISAF forces],” Kabeer said.
The night letters
Kabeer also explained how the Taleban would post signs and distribute leaflets at night – so-called ‘night letters’ that would threaten locals and discourage them from co-operating with the international forces.
“[The Taleban] would post and send the night letters in the city close to our compound. The letters would have the names of interpreters and warnings to locals that they should not work with the ‘infidels’.”
Despite the threats, Kabeer chose not to cover himself up or try to hide his identity. As a small child, he remembered his family had experienced the terror of the mujahedin, and now he thought he could help bring stability by co-operating with the international forces.
“Most interpreters are highly-educated people, like doctors and engineers, who are independent and have their own opinions, which is why they want to act as a bridge between the ANA and ISAF,” Kabeer said. “We wanted a country free from terrorism and extremists.”
The future safety of many interpreters now depends on whether Hækkerup decides to offer them the chance to apply for asylum in Denmark. Over 70 percent of Danes support this move according to a recent poll by Rambøll/Analyse Danmark for Jyllands-Posten, and so too does Amnesty International and the far-left government support party Enhedslisten.
“We have an enormous moral responsibility to protect the interpreters who have given Danish soldiers valuable help understanding the conflict,” Nicolai Villumsen (Enhedslisten) told Jyllands-Posten.
In an interview with Information newspaper in February, Hækkerup acknowledged that interpreters could be at risk of reprisal attacks from the Taleban, but that the Taleban also had many others in their sights.
“The problem is not limited to interpreters,” Hækkerup said. “If we give interpreters asylum, it won’t help the schoolteachers and other public employees that the Taleban is targeting.”
Wants to go home but can’t
Kabeer’s asylum application was recently rejected, and while he awaits the outcome of his appeal he is attending the further education college KEA, where he is studying multimedia and design.
“My goal is to be in a safe environment and be helpful, no matter where that is,” he said. “I want my country to be safer before I return, but it’s obvious that my country still has massive problems.”