TORONTO — Afghan interpreters who helped Canadian troops on the front lines have yet to hear from the federal government on how they plan to extract them, as many desperately try to escape the resurging Taliban.
The Taliban claims it now controls about 80 per cent of Afghanistan after the U.S. began its exodus from the Middle Eastern country, with the full evacuation of its military set for Aug. 31 as per President Joe Biden’s announcement earlier this month.
While the U.S. has begun the process of evacuating some 2,500 interpreters and other support staff to a military base in Virginia pending approval of their visas, Afghans who helped Canada have heard no plan from Ottawa — and Taliban forces are closing in.
“They wanted to target the people who worked with the coalition forces – they called us “kafir” – which means infidels,” said Elyish, who says he worked for the Canadian forces in Afghanistan as an interpreter for a year.
“It’s very scary. We hear 24-hour fighting going on, and the gunshots…and air strikes inside the city.”
Elyish says he is in hiding and has been on the run for years, moving his family several times to keep out of the Taliban’s hands – who he says are hunting him down for being a “traitor.”
“I’m under threat in Afghanistan, they’re not going to let me and my family leave,” he said.
Elyish had a personal note for Prime Minister Justin Trudeau: “As soon as possible, please take us out of this country, it’s so very horrible and very dangerous for us right now. We cannot go anywhere.”
However, the recent rescue mission that spirited Elyish and his family away to a safe house in another part of Afghanistan did not come from federal government, but from Canadian veterans reaching into their own pockets.
Afghanistan veteran Corey Shelson, who is part of a group Canadian veterans trying to use their own resources to help interpreters get to safer parts of the country, told CTV News that his sources paint a bleak picture of what is happening on the ground.
“We’re hearing that the Taliban…have vehicle checkpoints all over the place, to the point now where they’re locking down villages and going house to house, hunting for anybody who served with the International Security Assistance Force,” Shelson said.
Shelson and his group say they are stepping into the void left by Ottawa’s slow response – criticizing the Canadian government for “words, not actions.”
“The group I’ve been working with are a collection of veterans and concerned citizens with a bias towards action…and the action we’ve been taking is trying to do whatever we can to help affected individuals get to a safe place where they can ride this thing out until the government catches up and creates an evacuation plan,” Shelson explained.
“Ten years have passed and this isn’t a new issue,” Shelson said of the interpreter’s plight. “These are people that Canadian veterans fought beside, slept beside, ate with, that we relied upon to come home alive – I’m only here today, able to raise my family because of their collective efforts.”
Trudeau was asked about Ottawa’s plan for Afghan interpreters while touring a factory in Brampton, Ont., Monday, telling reporters that “it is so important that we be there for people that have put their lives at risk to support Canadians.”
“That’s why we are working extremely hard and we’ll have more to say very soon,” he continued.
Trudeau’s refrain of “soon” was echoed by Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland at a press conference Monday, who said that Canada had a “real moral obligation” to the interpreters and other support staff left behind.
“I am very confident that Canada will act appropriately here,” Freeland said.
When asked about a possible timeline for an evacuation plan, Freeland replied that she “was not going to pre-empt the announcement” of her colleagues Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino and Foreign Affairs Minister Marc Garneau, but that “we will act.”
In an emailed statement to CTVNews.ca, a spokesperson for Minister Mendicino’s office referred to comments made last week about the issue, and reiterated that the government “will do right by those who did so much for Canada.”
“We are aware that a number Afghan nationals who previously worked or currently work for Canada are in fear for their safety. These include interpreters and others who worked for the Canadian Forces during the combat mission, and Locally Engaged Staff currently employed by the Embassy of Canada in Kabul,” the statement reads.
The statement said the office is “seized with the urgency of the situation,” and the Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada (IRCC) office is working closely with the Department of National Defence and Global Affairs Canada to “finalize a plan.”
“Operational teams are currently on the ground in Afghanistan to support these efforts,” the statement continues. “Given its complexity, this situation presents unique obstacles, in addition to the regular admissibility checks that are conducted on anyone immigrating to Canada.”
“We know that lives are hanging in the balance. There’s a need to take timely and decisive action to support the Afghans who supported our armed forces, and we will.”
But with the situation worsening in Afghanistan, Ottawa’s lack of timeline and lack of details has spurred veterans and members of the public to take action into their own hands.
Kate Rusk’s sister, Capt. Nichola Goddard, was the first Canadian Forces woman to die in battle in Afghanistan. That’s why she helped create the advocacy group “Not Left Behind,” encouraging Canadians to petition their MPs to bring the Afghan interpreters overseas.
“I’m involved because I have a number of friends and family and loved ones who are currently serving or who have served in the past,” Rusk told CTV News. “I realized that we’ve put our veterans in a position where they’re individually trying to save their friends and colleagues – they are sending their own money and trying to co-ordinate logistics, and…using their own resources to help fix a problem that frankly exists because of our actions and our inactions.”
“There is a really finite amount of time that we have,” Rusk said. “What we’re doing is just trying to get that message out because I really don’t believe Canadians would be okay with this if they knew it was happening.”
Shelson and his group believe there could be upwards of 600 to 700 interpreters, drivers, translators and their families who are at risk in Afghanistan for helping the Canadian Forces.
“This isn’t a surprise, it’s been months and we haven’t done anything,” Rusk said. “I think it’s a shame.”