Many people in Afghanistan risked their lives and their families to help foreign journalists. But foreign correspondent John Martinkus says after the West has no need for such people anymore, we often leave them to be killed.
The phone rang the other week, it was a number I didn’t know. I was reluctant to answer. The voice was unmistakable. “John it is————. I am in Australia”.
The voice was the heavily accented Afghan English of my old translator and journalist in his own right I had worked with on my many trips to Afghanistan as a reporter in the mid to late 2000’s.
“I am just so happy to be alive” he said. So many times over the last eight years I had read with dread the reports of another Afghan journalist killed by the Taliban, by coalition forces or fallen victim to crime, extortion and murder expecting to see his name.
We had covered the deaths of his colleagues together, killed by both sides in that interminable war. We had covered the back and forth flows of the war against the Taliban, the deaths of civilians at the hands of both sides, either by mistake, or targeted assassinations.
I hadn’t heard from him for a long time. No calls, no emails. In a way I had written him off as dead. The life expectancy of those Afghans who work for the foreign media in the area where he did is very short. The constant flow of reports detailing the deaths of local journalists made me think the worst.
Like the many translators who worked with the foreign community he had been my eyes and ears. My way to access the complexities of the society I was trying to report on. He would brief me before I arrived. Tell me what to wear, tell me who was who in the archaic structure of local government, police and religious figures who dominated that society in flux.
He’d explain how not to offend local leaders.
He’d tell me when it was ok to film, when it was ok to speak English and ask questions, and more importantly, when it was not. He’d organise the car and the driver who could be trusted and crucially provide the judgement that would dictate when and where we could go with any degree of safety to report that chaotic conflict outside of the restrictions of being embedded and beholden to the coalition military. But essentially, on numerous occasions, it was his ability to read the dynamics of a situation that made the difference between being kidnapped, killed or driving into a firefight. The simple truth is on an almost daily basis in the field he watched my back and saved my life.
There was one time I saw him truly rattled. We had driven out of town to visit an Afghan police post where fighting had been reported. I wanted details, footage, usual stuff, how many dead, how many wounded.
When we arrived at the village the market was deserted, the shops shuttered, a bad sign. Pulling up outside the police station his face went white. “Oh my god the Taliban have taken the post”, he said. Men with the Kalashnikovs and heavy machine guns, ammunition belts draped over their shoulders, stood on the verandah of the police station. We had to get out of the vehicle, to not would have invited gunfire. They were expecting a Taliban attack and had changed from their uniforms to civilian clothes in expectation of fleeing if they attacked again. On the deserted road back to town my translator indicated a lone man on a motorbike who started following us. I could see the tension on———-,s face.
This was bad. It could be an ambush. Presuming we were locals in our battered taxi the motorbike peeled off into a side road. When we got back to town and our hotel we were laughing with relief. The hotel of course was hit by a suicide bombing months later, but I was gone by then, leaving my translator to deal with the consequences of his association with me and other foreign journalists and live in a community where there were people determined to kill him as a result.
Years later I was getting desperate emails from him. He had to leave Afghanistan. His colleagues in the local press were getting killed. The details were horrible. Throats slashed, dumped in sacks by the side of the road, families targeted, the list went on. He contacted me telling me he was going to go to leave by plane.
He said he was going to then get a boat. I replied saying no, no, no, wait we’ll get you a visa.
Do not get a boat they will lock you up. He was desperate. Other friends, journalists who had worked with———- signed forms, wrote statements and basically tried to get a visa organised. He had saved our lives and as a consequence his was now under threat. I kept writing, “do not get a boat…wait”. Then communication stopped. I feared the worst. I thought he was dead.
This translator was not a stupid man. He knew that if there was any chance for himself and his family to survive the situation they were now in he had to lay low. The foreign troops began their drawdown, the Taliban reasserted their influence and the killings of those who had identified with the foreign forces or foreign community were targeted. The very people who enabled not just journalists but humanitarian workers and yes the foreign militaries to try and carry out the work they had been sent to do were being killed. It wasn’t just the Taliban, it was local criminals.
The reason was they were perceived to have money. Kidnappings for ransom of family members were and are increasingly common in Afghanistan. Just two weeks ago an Australian and an American Academic were kidnapped in Kabul on their way home from the Kabul American University. There is no word on their fate. This week the University was attacked again, a car bomb, then the gunmen, usual pattern.
The guards shot dead the two surviving Taliban attackers but not before fourteen people were killed in a gun battle that lasted for hours. It gives us a glimpse of life now in Afghanistan. This attack happened at the university in the middle of town in the capital Kabul. I can remember foreign aid workers and diplomats in Afghanistan saying to young Afghans – do not leave, rebuild your country. These are the challenges they face – and it is also why they leave.
That is the reason why I have not identified this translator. He doesn’t want his name published. There are still too many threats, too much danger for being identified for his extended family in the fractious community they live where the situation is deteriorating on a daily basis. Assassinations, almost daily bombings and a very limited avenue to escape the inevitability of a violent death.
My friend, the translator, was lucky. Eventually after years the visa came through. He was able to leave, by air, and come to Australia. I won’t say where but he is happy. He says Australia is an amazing country and feels very welcome.
His desperation a few years ago could have seen him and his family among those now stranded in Manus or Nauru. When your life, and probably more importantly your family, is at stake you would take desperate measures.
Thankfully he got the visa. He is now building a new life, free of bombs, threats and the daily fear of death. He later wrote: “I was thinking that I may get kill today, may be tonight some thing like that…luckily I am not thinking more like that. Change! Big change and good one”. After getting that call I was happy, relieved but also reflecting how hard can it be to facilitate this for those in limbo, in camps that we put them in. Seeking asylum can be a good story and I am overwhelmingly relieved for my friend that it has been a good story with a happy ending.
John Martinkus has covered conflicts in East Timor, Aceh, West Papua, Iraq, Afghanistan, The Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, Burma and Sri Lanka for the last twenty years. He has written three books and A Quarterly Essay, first hand accounts of the wars in East Timor, Aceh, Iraq and West Papua. He currently lives in Hobart.