For over two years, Kohistany served as a combat interpreter for the Canadian Forces in the Kandahar and Helmand provinces of Afghanistan.
He would translate meetings, workshops, trainings and conferences with local elders, the Afghan National Army and the police. He also participated in interrogations and investigations of prisoners and translated documents and intelligence reports from sources on the ground.
When not in combat mode, Kohistany advised his Canadian commanders on Afghan cultural, religious and tribal customs or taught their soldiers the Pashto and Dari languages.
At least twice he and the troops he was with have been attacked by insurgents, most notably in the incident of May 17, 2006, when his convoy commander, Captain Nichola Goddard, was killed in an ambush. by the Taliban. He helped his crew get her out of the turret so the medic could perform first aid.
“I was in a light armored vehicle with about nine soldiers. We’ve all been hurt, some more seriously. I had little shrapnel on my neck and pulled them out right there, ”recalls Kohistany, who worked for the Canadian military in Afghanistan between 2005 and 2007.
Considered “the eyes, the tongue and the ears of the infidels and the occupiers”, Afghans who have worked for foreign governments – and their families – have already been targeted and have received constant death threats.
Now, as the United States and its NATO allies withdraw all ground troops in Afghanistan by August 31, and Taliban insurgents reclaim many territories, Kohistany fears he will be doomed.
“The threat has increased day by day. You can easily see the Taliban slogans on the walls. You can see Taliban flags on the houses, ”said Kohistany, who asked that his full name not be released for his safety. “Targeted assassinations are escalating.”
As he sees other foreign governments such as the US, UK and other European countries making plans to resettle their former Afghan aides, Kohistany said he felt abandoned by Canada.
“If I had known that one day we would be left behind by the Canadian government, I would never have joined the Canadian military to work and fight with them, shoulder to shoulder, against the Taliban and put my life in danger. , ” he sighed.
“I feel very disappointed. “
In a letter last week to Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino, Veterans Affairs Minister Lawrence MacAulay and Defense Minister Harjit Sajjan, three retired Canadian Majors Generals called on the federal government to relaunch a resettlement program for Afghan civilians like Kohistany.
“There is an urgent need to ensure the safety and well-being of Afghan nationals who served alongside Canadian soldiers, development officers and diplomats during our intervention,” said the letter signed by the three. former task force commanders Denis Thompson, Dean Milner. and Dave Fraser.
“Many Canadian veterans come into contact with the Afghans who served alongside them, and their stories are poignant. These people are considered “comrades in arms” and their plight affects these veterans, like all Canadians. “
Specifically, veterans are calling on the federal government to immediately reintroduce a special immigration program that helped resettle 780 Afghans and their families to Canada between 2009 and 2011.
The Afghan-Canadian Interpreters – an advocacy group made up mostly of veterans, serving military personnel, and supporters – have identified at least 115 former interpreters, cultural advisers and local staff who they say are in need of the protection of the Canada.
Volunteers contacted them and compiled a list for Ottawa. Time, they say, is running out.
“The Western presence will no longer exist in the country. Therefore, there will be no protection for any of them, ”said group spokesman Dave Morrow, a retired lieutenant who served in Kandahar in 2010 and 2011.
“We don’t have a plan. We don’t have a list other than the one we created as an organization. This is where we fill the void, to hopefully provide some kind of visibility and awareness of this huge humanitarian issue that is unfolding very, very quickly.
Canada’s initial resettlement program was limited to Afghan civilians who provided 12 consecutive months of service to Canadians between October 2007 and July 2011. To be eligible, they also had to provide testimonials from their Canadian supervisors as well as proof that they were in danger in Afghanistan. .
Immigration Minister Mendicino’s office told reporters that Afghan civilians not eligible for the previous program may apply to immigrate to Canada through other immigration programs or on humanitarian and compassionate grounds.
Morrow says these options are not viable.
“If you were in a war-torn country with no internet access, no cell service, and maybe an iPhone 3 to fill out all your paperwork, no access to printers, paper, or whatever, this statement in itself was disturbing, ”he said. mentionned.
Kohistany went into hiding with his wife and children in Kabul, a relatively safer area where most of the foreign diplomats are located. They moved around several times to avoid detection and threats from insurgents, he said. Just two months ago, two bikers shot at his house with an AK-47.
“There is no option for us. Key roads and borders are all controlled by the Taliban. We are like prisoners. The only option or hope we have is to find or ask someone or a government to come and get us in a safe country, ”said the 36-year-old, a graduate in law and political science.
He was not eligible for the previous Ottawa relocation program because he left the force before October 2007.
“We are between life and death. The insurgents occupied more territory and found more influence in the big cities and created more threats for everyone. Life has become more dangerous than ever.
Retired Corporal Robin Rickards first met Kohistany in 2006 on the first of his three missions in Afghanistan and the two became good friends because they spent a lot of time together on the front lines.
He said the armies would not have been able to do their job without the help of these interpreters.
“The most important thing they did, to save the lives of Canadians, was that they were essential to monitor ICOM radios. All communication between the Taliban elements in the field was by two-way radio, ”says Rickards, who retired in 2010 and now lives in Thunder Bay.
“The interpreters would bring the conversations to us in real time and also add their perspective on legitimacy. … The longer a person is employed by Canadians or Coalition Forces, the better they determine if it is legitimate, but it increases the risk they face in the long run.
Rickards asserts that these civilian employees of foreign governments are considered “apostates” by the Taliban and that Canada has more than a moral obligation to save them. And they should be on the front lines for resettlement in order to save the lives of Canadian soldiers, he added.
Wherever the Canadian military is deployed, they need local translators to serve as cultural and linguistic ambassadors, he said, whether in Ukraine, Latvia or Mali.
“The plight of our interpreters in Afghanistan will be seen by people in other countries,” Rickards warned. “People in these other places where we go in the future will be wary of helping us because they will be wary of the consequences when we go. And that will hamper our ability to be successful in these missions. “
Marcus Powlowski, Liberal MP for Thunder Bay — Rainy River, has been a strong advocate for Afghan civilians.
“They risked their lives for our country,” said Powlowski.
Ottawa has an ambitious goal of welcoming 401,000 permanent residents this year, and in the past the government has resettled tens of thousands of people vulnerable to wars and violence in Syria and Myanmar, he said. he adds. According to him, the Afghan civilians in question are only a drop in the ocean.
Powlowski said his government told him any resettlement plan in Afghanistan was a logistical challenge due to Canada’s limited presence in the country as well as security concerns.
“I don’t think it’s insurmountable at all that we’re doing this in Afghanistan. It could be as simple as sending a plane, letting (in) all the people because a lot of these people are in contact with our office, ”he said.
“Now, I’m not advocating that we do this. But potentially, it could be as easy as sending a plane. There is a source to verify who they are, to make sure they don’t have guns on them, to have them stolen, and to do all the bureaucratic tasks afterward.
Sayed Shah Sharifi, a former Afghan interpreter resettled in Canada in 2012, knows firsthand how the Taliban treat “infidels” and their families. Five of his family members – his sister and his son; his brother’s wife and two children – were killed by insurgents because of their connection to him.
“These are not just threats. These are real risks, ”says Sharifi, who served alongside Canadian troops in Kandahar between 2007 and 2010 and now works as an electrician in Toronto.
With insurgents making significant gains in recent months, he said, there are growing concerns that they will steal internal Afghan government data to track down these former Western government employees with credentials. personal.
“The Taliban may not have found those in hiding yet, but if they are found, they are dead. “