Some of the most memorable experiences I had as a photographer covering the conflict in Afghanistan were my evenings spent with Afghan translators over tea. Our conversations usually focused on the patrol or battle of the previous day and the dreams they had of one day arriving in the United States or Canada.
With countless tea supplements, I learned about their lives. They came from almost every province in Afghanistan, and most were in their early twenties, growing up in a country that changed after the overthrow of the Taliban. As a photographer who wanted to understand the perspective of Afghan civilians, I had to spend a lot of time with these translators in their places with Canadian and American troops, and over the years I met many of them.
We slept together in trenches, in fields and under armored vehicles. We were shot at, shelled and bombed, and sometimes we even provided first aid to the victims together. They did not carry weapons in the patrol and hid their faces for fear that they or their families would become a target. Despite all this, they have always had a great sense of humor, a prerequisite for emotional survival in one of the most cruel conflicts in the world.
These interpreters were the voices of American and Canadian troops. These were some of the few connections that allowed us to communicate with the local population or train Afghan soldiers, most of whom did not speak English. They were more than translators of words; they also interpreted the culture and daily life of civilians trapped between the Taliban and the coalition.
And now, as the United States emerges from Afghanistan, this important force in the daily lives of all Western soldiers, diplomats, journalists, and NGOs hopes it will not be left behind. Last week, faced with growing calls from military leaders, Canada unveiled a new resettlement program for some of them, but the process has become an administrative nightmare for many. In the United States, the Biden administration plans temporary accommodation about 2,500 people – interpreters and their families – in Fort Lee, Va., with another 4,000 people relocated to other parts of the world.
As the Taliban grew stronger, I only hope that the translators I have met over the years spent in Afghanistan will be able to come to safety.
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