When Ali heard that the Taliban had entered Kabul on August 15, he thought himself a dead man. He burnt documents that confirmed his connections and contacted his former superiors asking for immediate evacuation. People like him, who used to work with NATO forces, had long been targets of the Taliban, which characterized them as traitors.
Ali, whose named has been changed to protect his identity, and his colleagues worked as interpreters for the Turkish Army stationed in Kabul as part of the Train Advise and Assist Command-Capital (TAAC-C) mission, a multinational military formation under NATO’s Resolute Support Mission in Afghanistan. They knew that evacuation to a safe country was the only chance for them to survive.
They tried to make sure that they would be brought to safety. Several months ago, when the Taliban started making advances in the northern provinces of the country, Ali and his colleagues contacted their superiors asking for assurances that in the case of a Taliban takeover, they would not be left behind by the Turkish Army.
“We’ll be first for evacuation, you’ll be the next,” Ali recalls his superior saying.
But two months after the Taliban takeover became a reality, Ali and other interpreters who worked for Turkey are still in Afghanistan. Seventy-two interpreters and their families, along with 26 service workers who took care of the Turkish base at Hamid Karzai International Airport, are still struggling to get out of the country.
Following the fall of Kabul, foreign forces stationed in Afghanistan since the beginning of the U.S. invasion in 2001 began a hasty evacuation of their staff and citizens. For two weeks, thousands of people occupied the Kabul airport hoping for last minute evacuation amid clashes with the Taliban, who controlled the capital.
But by August 31, the official deadline for the foreign withdrawal, not everyone was taken to safety. Some countries, such as the Netherlands, left their local embassy staff behind, without any promise of evacuation. The local employees of GIZ – the state-sponsored German Agency for International Cooperation – after initial promises of swift evacuation, were also left behind.
But in many cases, those who worked directly with NATO forces, seen by the Taliban as a foreign occupier, boarded planes as part of the evacuation efforts together with embassy staff and foreign citizens. The glaring exception: those who worked with the Turkish Army.
Ali, 31, has worked as an interpreter with the Turkish Army since 2018. His contract expires at the end of December 2021, but his employer has not been eager to get him out of the country. In the beginning of September, Ali realized that staying in Kabul with the new Taliban government will be dangerous.
“Four people with guns came to my house, but I had already burned all documents. They told me to go out and they pulled out all my books and clothes. They said they were looking for people who worked with foreign forces. I then decided to go into hiding, blocked my phone, and got rid of the sim card. But my identity can be easily confirmed,” Ali told The Diplomat.
“That day I left my house. I didn’t take almost anything, just my phone, laptop, some clothes. The door is locked and I sleep at my friends’ homes, changing my location every day. It’s the same for all of us who worked with foreigners. It is very hard.”
Ali is not alone. Jawad, 36, who refused to give his surname fearing repercussions, has worked as an interpreter with the Turkish Army since 2009. The father of three never expected that his employer would leave him behind after 12 years of service. His wife, a mathematics teacher, recently lost her job as the Taliban are against allowing women to work. The family has thus been left without a source of income.
Jawad did not go into hiding. Shortly after the foreign withdrawal, the new police called him and asked whether he worked as a translator for NATO. He confirmed. The same day, two people came to his house asking him to go with them to the police station.
“One of the Taliban members asked me if I am a translator and I said yes. ‘Give me your gun,’ he said, and I answered that I don’t have one. They beat me and asked me to bring it. I said I’m a translator and I don’t have a gun. They asked some more questions but they didn’t get the answers they wanted,” Jawad said. He also showed The Diplomat pictures of his back following the beating.
“They gave me lashes. Many. They hit me with the handle of AK-47. Then they beat me with a double wire. At least three other interpreters were beaten, too. Now they slowly start searching homes, looking for evidence against people, checking mobile phones.”
Both Jawad and Ali have been in contact with the Turkish Army and asked for evacuation numerous times. The Diplomat saw copies of emails and WhatsApp messages both men sent to their superiors. They have so far not received any confirmation of an evacuation plan.
“We’ve been working [for] years as translators with the Turkish Army and the coalition forces. Right now the Turkish military has left us behind. They gave us hope that they would evacuate us to Turkey or Qatar but now they’ve gone silent. At the beginning of the evacuation they gave us a letter confirming that we belong to the coalition forces. They didn’t say that they would leave us,” Jawad said.
“When the evacuation ended they told us to go to the Turkish Embassy, but no one allowed us in. They don’t answer to our questions and accept our applications. Most of the translators are from the north, Mazar-e-Sharif, Faryab, Jawzjan. They cannot go back to their homes because of the threat from the Taliban. In Kabul we are also under threat.”
The Diplomat has reached out to NATO and the Turkish Army for comment, but had not received any reply by the time of publication.
Ali, Jawad, and the remaining 98 interpreters and service workers employed by the Turkish Army have not been paid since the coalition forces’ withdrawal from Afghanistan. It is also unclear whether they will be able to leave the country as the number of foreign embassies in the country is limited and neighboring states have made it increasingly difficult for Afghans to receive visas.
“Our dreams are buried; we can’t sleep at night. We worry about our future and our families,” Ali said. “We need immediate action but nobody hears us.”
“We just want to be safe and for our children to go to school,” said Jawad.