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Afghan interpreters for French army stuck in limbo
Of more than 800 interpreters and other support staff who worked for the French army when it was in Afghanistan from 2002 to 2013, only about a third have been able to get to France - and to safety. In a new book published this week, two journalists conclude that the interpreters slipped through the cracks of a system that did not take their plight as seriously as they should.
Zainullah Oryakhail, 30, arrived in France with his wife and three young children at the end of January. They are still getting used to being outside of Afghanistan - and especially, out of danger.
“I'd been shot by insurgents, in my leg and hand from very close range,” he explains. The assailants were people who targeted him for the work he did with the French army.
In 2009, he became an interpreter for the troops stationed in the area around his village, Qarabag, north of Kabul. He was recruited because of his English skills, and he worked with the French for six years, until 2012, when the troops left the area.
“I became jobless. I became an English teacher, in one of the private English courses,” he says. Then threats started coming, first as phone calls and text messages.
“I didn't take that too much seriously at first,” he says, though as they got worse, he made a first request for a visa to France in 2013, which was rejected.
In June 2017, two attackers on motorbikes shot him at close range. A few months later, in November, Oryakhail was targeted as he was speaking with a Nato patrol going through the village.
“The insurgents thought that I was still working for the coalition forces as a spy in the village, he says.”
Oryakhail said a suicide attacker killed a Georgian soldier, a civilian, and wounded many others, including him.
“I decided to leave the village, because I was the target too, not just the coalition forces,” he says, explaining his decision to go into hiding in Kabul at the start of 2018 and press France to grant him a visa to leave Afghanistan.
High court reverses visa refusal
Oryakhail’s original visa request had been re-examined in April 2015, after pressure by a French group formed to help former Afghan interpreters. But of the 252 files, only 103 were accepted; Oryakhail’s was not one of them.
Once in Kabul in 2018, he reached out to the same group and it helped him appeal. In December 2019 the Council of state, France’s highest court, ruled that Oryakhail must be granted protection.
“16 December was day of the decision and it took a month to get out of Afghanistan, to get the visa and everything that went with that,” he says.
He was met at the airport by a member of the defense group, who brought him and his family to Strasbourg in the east of France.
Listen to Zainullah Oryakhail tell his story
First of its kind
“He was victorious with the Council of State, which is pretty historical. He was the first one to win,” says Brice Andlauer, a journalist and co-author with Quentin Müller of a book out this week about the fate of the Afghan interpreters working for the French army, called 'An Investigation into a French Betrayal'.
They started looking into the subject after seeing reports of interpreters protesting outside the French embassy in Kabul and in front of the French parliament in Paris in January 2017.
Some 800 Afghans worked for the French army between 2002 and 2013, when the last of the troops left the country. They worked as cooks, suppliers and interpreters.
“Just looking at their files and all the congratulation letters they had from really high ranked [soldiers] , their photos and videos of them on the field, you could see they were taking lot of risk,” says Andlaur.
“And then you see a letter from the French embassy of just two lines saying you can't have your visa for France. This was the most shocking thing.”
No one cared
Since 2012, some 227 interpreters have been brought to France, in a process that Andlaur says has not been clear or objective. Muller and he worked for two years on the subject, gaining access to confidential emails and classified documents and interviewing former military officials to find out why so few interpreters were granted protection, and why the process was so slow and opaque.
“To sum it up, basically no one cared,” says Andlaur. “Nobody really took these cases as seriously as they should have been taken.”
“Each ministry always said, it's not my job, it's the other ministry... and then it just fell into limbo for years and years and years. And then it was too late for many: some interpreters were killed, some interpreters disappeared. And then nobody knew what to do.”
This is in contrast to the United States, which since 2007 has put in place a Special Immigrant Visa programme for interpreters who worked for the US army in Iraq and Afghanistan.
More than two-thirds of those visas have gone to Afghans, about 48,000 of whom have been relocated to the US, though reportedly 17,000 to 19,000 are still waiting for an answer.
Andlaur says the US learned from its mistakes when dealing with the interpreters from Iraq. But, in France, he says, there appears to be no will to put in place such a visa programme.
“There was a failure from the French state to see the moral responsibility that it had,” he says, adding that the French authorities appeared to treat the Afghan interpreters like any other migrant.
“Working for the French army was never enough. They had to prove that they didn't want to come for France just for money, or stuff like that. This has led to very subjective judgments,” he says.
The Council of State’s ruling on Oryakhail’s visa application, along with another in February, raises hope for the remaining interpreters that the tides may be shifting in France.
“Justice is definitely doing its job, and this should set a precedent,” says Andlaur. “And it could also set a precedent for future conflicts. Now we're in Mali - the context is different, but there might be similar cases, and this decision of justice could lay down the groundwork.”
When he first heard about the interpreters, he thought of the Harkis, the Algerians who fought for the French army during the Algerian war of independence from 1954-1962, who were left behind when France left.
“We have a history in Algeria for not helping those who helped our army, with the Harkis. Of course it's a different story,” he says. “The Harkis were French. But the issue raises questions about the responsibilities France and other countries have when they send soldiers into other countries.
“Many foreign countries go overseas and count on some people to help them there, and there should be something to protect these people. When journalists or humanitarian workers go overseas, they have a protection, they have a legal status. So now there should be a legal status for these people who risk so much to help us.”