Afghan interpreter must be rescued from Taliban, says retired N.L. military officer

·5 min read
Retired brigadier-general James Camsell with Afghan interpreter
Retired brigadier-general James Camsell with Afghan interpreter

When news broke that coalition forces were leaving Afghanistan this summer, James Camsell feared his friend "Joe" might be dead.

The Taliban has tried to kill Joe before, and Camsell, a retired Canadian Armed Forces brigadier-general who served in Afghanistan between 2008 and 2009, hadn't spoken with him in more decade.

"I never thought I would hear from him again," he said.

But then in August, Camsell got an email from the Afghan man who had worked alongside him as an interpreter in Kandahar province. Camsell calls him "Joe" to protect his real identity.

"He contacted me looking for help to immigrate to Canada," Camsell said. "I gave him some information, and then didn't hear from him for a few weeks."

Then Kabul fell.

"I assumed he was on the run or he had been killed," he said.

I'm not staying in one location more than two or three hours. Three times [The Taliban] came to my house. - Afghan interpreter 'Joe'

In early September, another email arrived. It was Joe, now desperate, who disclosed he was in hiding with his family.

"He's scared," Camsell said. "He's frightened about feeding his family because he can't get to a bank ... the Taliban [are] questioning people in lineups. He was saying, 'Help me. I need Canada to help me.'"

Wali Sabawoon/Associated Press
Wali Sabawoon/Associated Press

Camsell put CBC News in contact with Joe, who remains in Afghanistan, through a video call, in which Joe described the increasing danger to him and his family under Taliban rule. CBC has agreed to protect his identity.

"They are the government of Afghanistan but they cannot feed themselves. They don't have food. They don't have money for themselves. How are they going to run the government?" Joe said, upbeat in spite of his situation.

"Everybody is trying to get out of Afghanistan because their kids, their wives, their families want food, everything — all the facilities — from the Taliban, but they cannot provide it."

Submitted James Camsell
Submitted James Camsell

Joe also confirmed that he's constantly moving and hiding to avoid the Taliban.

"I'm not staying in one location more than two or three hours. Three times they came to my house. They are asking where is he? We want to talk with him. We want to give him a job. They are making excuses. After that, they are making a target," he said.

[The Taliban] said 'You are working with high ranking Canadians. Therefore, you are a target. You should be killed.
- James Camsell

Camsell says the Afghan interpreter has good reason to hide. He has no doubt why the Taliban wants to find him. Members of the group have tried to kill Joe before.

"He was helping what was considered a foreign enemy," Camsell said. "He was at risk all the time."

In 2010, Taliban fighters attempted a targeted assassination on Joe, shooting him in his vehicle on his way home, according to Camsell.

Joe was wounded in that attack, and hounded with calls from the Taliban days later.

"They said, 'You are working with high ranking Canadians. Therefore, you are a target. You should be killed'," Camsell recalled.

Submitted/ James Camsell
Submitted/ James Camsell

Camsell helped train the Afghan National Army in Kandahar province, travelling on operations with them and working to offer safe education for girls. Camsell says those efforts wouldn't have been possible without interpreters like Joe.

They were more than co-workers, he said.

"He became a close friend of mine. Without interpreters in Afghanistan operations wouldn't occur, because they know the local customs," he said, and often serve as the sole link between Canadian and Afghan military staff, who often didn't speak the same language.

The Taliban consider working for coalition forces treason, leaving interpreters at great risk. Because of that, Camsell says Canada owes interpreters a huge debt, believing it unconscionable for Canada to abandon Afghan nationals like Joe and his family.

CBC
CBC

"We have a moral obligation to him. You know, he shed blood for this country. He was wounded. Other interpreters, journalists have been killed over there. So, the [Canadian] government needs to do work to get them out," said Camsell.

Camsell, now a teacher at Holy Heart of Mary High School in St. John's, also works with a group called the Veterans Transition Network, which advocates for Afghan nationals who helped Canada.

With their help, Joe has applied to Canada's special immigration measures program. Acceptance would give him a travel visa to leave Afghanistan. Joe says he's made contact with Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada, but he's waiting for them to respond.

CBC News asked the IRCC for an interview, but its officials replied instead with a statement.

"We recognize the urgency of the situation, and we will continue to work as quickly as possible to get as many people as possible to Canada. The Government of Canada has been able to get approximately 3,700 evacuees, including Canadian citizens and permanent residents, out of Afghanistan," the department said.

"We are working to process applications as quickly as possible. Our network of visa officers throughout the Middle East and in Ottawa are processing applications remotely and digitally, and are working around the clock."

The statement says Canada is committed to resettling about 20,000 vulnerable Afghan nationals. It also says Canada is focused on Afghan nationals, and their family members, who supported the Government of Canada's work in Afghanistan.

IRCC has received more than 12,000 applications for resettlement from Afghanistan and approved more than 8,000, according to the department.

Joe and his six family members are not yet among them.

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