CRISIS IN AFGHANISTAN

‘I can’t control my tears’ – The Afghan interpreters left behind by Spain

Four collaborators who used to work with the Spanish government describe their despair at learning the evacuation operation had come to an end

Afghan interpreter Rashid (squatting), in an image provided by the AECID Spanish international cooperation agency.
Afghan interpreter Rashid (squatting), in an image provided by the AECID Spanish international cooperation agency.Rashid

Malik is shut away inside the apartment that he has rented in Kabul with his siblings, his wife and their three children. He admits that he does not know what to do. “I’m confused. I’m in a situation where I don’t know how it’s going to end,” he explains to EL PAÍS anxiously via WhatsApp, after receiving the news a week ago that Spain was bringing its evacuation operation in Afghanistan to an end. The former interpreter for the Spanish armed forces was traveling to and from the airport in Kabul in an attempt to board one of the flights leaving the capital. He never managed it, and was left waiting outside the airfield for whole evenings and nights. “We want to leave Afghanistan because it isn’t a safe place for us and we can’t expect a better future here,” he says.

On Monday, the Spanish secretary of state for foreign and global affairs got in touch with these former collaborators to assure them that they were still studying how to get them out of the country. That has given Malik certain hope, but he is still very stressed. His only solution, for now, is to wait for a call or an email that brings his odyssey to an end. “I’m scared that they will leave me here again,” he confesses. Until Thursday, none of the former collaborators contacted by EL PAÍS had received more news.

Malik worked with the Spanish armed forces between 2010 and 2012. On August 21, he and his family caught a bus from his province, Nimruz, and traveled the more than 700 kilometers to Kabul. He wasn’t carrying any documents with him for fear of the Taliban checkpoints. The journey was dangerous, but he opted to make it anyway, in the hope that he could get on a plane and leave his country behind.

He spent five days trying to get into the airport. His children, aged 10, six and three, slept on the floor on a pile of garbage, next to the Abbey Gate entrance, while Malik waited to see if anyone would let him in. They had no food or water. But going back was not an option. “I can’t control my tears,” he writes via text message.

Malik‘s children in a photo taken by him on one of the nights they slept outdoors at Kabul airport.
Malik‘s children in a photo taken by him on one of the nights they slept outdoors at Kabul airport.Malik

Frustration, exhaustion and the state of his children forced him to return home. It was 12pm local time, and just an hour later a terrorist attack at the airport killed 183 people. “I have seen the video of the explosion,” he explains. “It’s the same place where we were the night before. I’m in shock.”

The risk of another attack was of great concern to Malik. Because of this, on August 27 – the last day of the Spanish operation to evacuate former collaborators and their families, as well as diplomatic and security staff – he tried to return to the airport alone. “All of the streets were blocked,” he explains. “They didn’t let anyone enter. I came home.”

Malik and another few dozen former collaborators have created a WhatsApp group to discuss their situation and to contact the Spanish authorities. They are unsure whether they will be able to leave the country. “For now, I will wait here,” he explains. Returning to his province will be dangerous, but neither is it safe to stay in Kabul.

While the mission is officially over, after the evacuation by Spain of 2,206 people, Prime Minister Pedro Sánchez and the foreign minister, José Manuel Albares, have insisted in recent days that Spain will continue with a “discrete task” to continue to help its collaborators to get out.

Like Malik, Rashid was also unable to get out on one of the evacuation planes. The interpreter, who worked for seven years with the AECID Spanish international cooperation agency, explains via messages that they were left behind. “I presented all of my documents at the Spanish embassy and I received a letter for the evacuation of my family and me. I was there for five days and nights, but because of the crowds and the shots fired near the airport I couldn’t enter to take my flight,” he explains, sending a copy of the document from the Foreign Ministry with his name and those of his wife, daughter, two sons, sister-in-law and nephew.

I was there for five days and nights, but because of the crowds and the shots fired near the airport I couldn’t enter to take my flight
Rashid, who worked for seven years with the AECID Spanish international cooperation agency

“I called out three times to the Spanish military coordinator, showing my certificate, and he told me that he was sorry, but that we had to wait because first the military interpreters had to be evacuated and then they would start with the civilians,” he explains. This 35-year-old Afghan and his family are in danger not just because they cooperated with the Spanish authorities, but also because of the work of his sister-in-law, who is a former member of parliament. “We are in the worst situation in Kabul and the last flight has gone. Please help me, what should I do?” he asks.

That same day, Ahmed was waiting in the same area. He was an interpreter for the Spanish armed forces in 2010 and 2011, and now he is hiding along with his wife and four children. “I’m not living in just one place, I’m living in different areas. I can’t live in just one place,” he explains. He recounts the horrors that he saw after the attack by the so-called Islamic State at the airport. “I saw the smoke and I approached,” he says. “I saw that there were people who were still alive and the injured on the ground. There were women and the children were crying. I decided to leave,” explains the translator, who studied Spanish at Kabul University. The day after he stayed away, given there was another bomb threat.

Adel has also stayed away from the airport. This interpreter and civil servant at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Afghanistan worked for the Spanish forces in Badghis and Herat. He still cannot believe that the evacuation has come to an end. “I don’t know what to do,” he writes. He spent five days outside the airport in the hope that he could board one of the plans with his wife and three children. He had the documents, but he never managed to get inside. “I’m very concerned,” he says. “I want to live in Spain and serve in Spain, I’ve spent enough time in Afghanistan already.”

English version by Simon Hunter.

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