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Friday, October 22, 2021

How a Canadian interpreter escaped Kabul, with little help from Ottawa

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TORONTO — When I answered the phone, all I heard was the staccato of rapid gunfire. The call was from a Canadian I’d been corresponding with in Afghanistan. I’ll call him Hamid, because even publicly mentioning his actual first name could get him killed by the Taliban.

The Taliban have been waiting to pounce on the capital city of Kabul for two decades, ever since American and allied forces — including more than 40,000 Canadians — beat them out of the city in the Washington-led War on Terror.

It was a war that rose out of the ashes of the September 11, 2001 terror attacks, with then U.S. President George W. Bush vowing to strike back at those who used American passenger planes as deadly missiles. 

Hamid played a role in that war. He was a translator, helping Canadian troops throughout their 12-year mission. Not just helping our soldiers communicate with locals, but efforting to keep them safe in the cities and rough mountainous terrain only those born there could know so well.

Interpreters, or “terps” as soldiers like to call them, often become very close with those they help. Every soldier I spoke with who’d done a tour — more often several — in Afghanistan, spoke incredibly highly of the terps who worked side by side with them. Not only did they remember their names so many years later, many worked hard to help bring their interpreters back to Canada.

The Canadian soldiers who were aided by their interpreters were now giving back, helping to save their colleagues’ lives. Because, like Hamid, anyone in Afghanistan who helped the west now had a Taliban target on their head.

It was Aug. 21, six days after the Taliban entered Afghanistan’s capital of Kabul, when I first met Hamid on email, then a flurry of WhatsApp messages and phone calls ensued. He, his wife and four small children were stuck in Kabul and couldn’t find a way out. Not for lack of trying — Hamid was pretty resourceful. Not for lack of paperwork — he and his family now had Canadian passports. It was a lack of help from Ottawa. The same government whose war effort Hamid had supported. The same flag Hamid put his life on the line for. The same country he now called home. Because Hamid was in Kabul on a family trip, visiting relatives before flying back to Toronto. His timing couldn’t have been worse.

When U.S. President Joe Biden announced the planned withdrawal of American troops in Afghanistan, his defence officials expected Kabul to fall in 90 days. It took less than 10.

Aug. 15, the Taliban entered Kabul.

Those now under extreme threat of being targeted included anyone who helped Canadian soldiers. Hamid was already in the city with his family. The Taliban started leaving “night notes” — letters put on doors of homes they knew interpreters like Hamid were in hiding. One note, left on the home of a man whose brother worked as a terp for the Americans, read:

“you have been previously warned … to stop your servitude to the invading crusaders … (you) provided security to your brother XX who was an interpreteryou shall be sentenced to death.”

It was signed by the Taliban’s head of military affairs.

Aug. 21, Hamid starts corresponding with me.

Hamid has been trying to get out for several days. We start calling, texting and emailing and he tells me about the serious danger he and his family are in. Taliban are trying to target anyone speaking English. There are reports of Taliban shooting in the air and “accidentally” shooting people in the crowd. I’ve gotten video from other people on the ground showing body bags and bloodied faces. There’s very limited food and water, and it’s nearly 30 degrees Celsius. Here are some of his emails from our first day:

5:49 pm Kabul time

“IRCC (Immigration Refugee and Citizenship Canada)told us to go to NE (north east airport) gate and we do that  … they did not let us in …. We are here for two days.”

9:29 pm

“IRCC sent me an email … letter and I print it and go to (north east airport) gate but there was not Canadians to let us enterYes  

IRCC … told me to go to Baron Hotel gate and now we are here … they said that they will send Canadian forces … to take us to airport but it did not happen … there are Talibans and … if they find that we worked with Canadians they will kill us.”

Aug 22, Hamid’s emails drop off.

7:47 am Kabul time

“We can’t wait another day”

Then, nothing. I didn’t hear from Hamid overnight which made me quite worried for him and his family. And I’d only chatted with him for a couple of days — I couldn’t imagine what Canadians with family in Afghanistan were going through at this time.

Finally, many hours later he responded. Hamid’s email simply said It’s ok. We enter at airport now and we are at Canadian Camp inside airport now.

Curious about how it happened, I called him. No sounds of gunfire this time. But he did tell me it was a British soldier who got him into the airport. At that time he hadn’t heard from IRCC again. But since then Hamid has let me know his wife and four young children are in quarantine, near Pearson airport in Toronto.

Watch W5’s ‘Escape from Kabul’ on CTV, Saturday at 7 p.m.

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