Lost in translation: Afghan interpreters fear for future after US troops’ exit

Lost in translation: Afghan interpreters fear for future after US troops’ exit
An Afghan woman walks past the damaged windows of house after a suicide bomb blast in Kabul, Afghanistan April 21, 2021. (REUTERS)
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Updated 26 April 2021

Lost in translation: Afghan interpreters fear for future after US troops’ exit

Lost in translation: Afghan interpreters fear for future after US troops’ exit
  • With Washington’s planned departure from Afghanistan on Sept. 11, dozens fear the Taliban will murder them once forces leave

KABUL: It was in late 2013 when Ahmad Fatah says he openly worked as a translator for the US military and often accompanied the troops during patrols and raids on suspected Taliban insurgents in Afghanistan’s eastern Logar province.

Several residents of Logar, Fatah’s birthplace, knew about his occupation too when he, along with thousands of other Afghan interpreters, assisted and protected American troops during their fight against the Taliban for decades after the September 11, 2001 attacks, treating their safety as an afterthought and living in fear of the insurgent group who consider them traitors or collaborators.

Washington was heavily reliant on the language skills and cultural knowledge of local translators — with many well-versed in English, Dari and Pashtu — to interpret conversations between US forces and the Taliban.

Today, Fatah, whose name has been changed for his own protection, lives in Kabul since moving there in mid-2014 at the age of 24, after receiving a death threat for “betraying the country and Islam by working with US invaders.”

Fatah says soon after receiving that phone call he informed his former employers at the US military in Afghanistan of the warning in the hope of being granted a Special Immigration Visa (SIV) and migrate to America.

He reached a dead end there too.

“I was told that I did not fit the criteria as the SIVs are given to those who have served for at least two years, but they promised to help me,” Fatah told Arab News at a park in Kabul on Saturday where he, along with several other translators, had gathered to protest against the lack of protection offered to them by the US and other countries employing their services during the war.

The military is not giving convincing answers to some of the translators.

Javid Mahmoudi

His fears have increased since the announcement of a planned exit of US troops from Afghanistan on Sept. 11, with Fatah and dozens of Afghan interpreters afraid of being murdered by the Taliban once the forces leave.

Since 2014, No One Left Behind, a nonprofit organization, has cataloged more than 300 cases in which the Taliban and other terrorist groups have killed interpreters or family members — many of whom were waiting for visas to the US — while a 2014 report by International Refugee Assistance Project, a nonprofit based in New York City, estimated that an Afghan interpreter was being killed every 36 hours.

Belonging to various regions of Afghanistan, the protesters demanded that they be resettled in the US through SIVs.

According to the US State Department, nearly 13,000 SIVs have been granted to Afghan nationals since 2014. However, it offers little solace for 19,000 Afghans who are still waiting for the State Department to decide their fate.

“The Americans are leaving, but what about us? What are they doing about our fate? We risked our lives for working with them,” Fatah said.

Esmatullah Faizi, from eastern Nangarhar province, said that he had applied for an SIV in 2018 but had yet to hear back from authorities on its progress.

“They (US officials) keep saying your case is under review, and we will inform you. I do not know what will happen; people (translators) are afraid because America has set September 11th as its last drawdown period,” he said.

Javid Mahmoudi, another translator from Parwan, north of Kabul, said that he was in touch with other interpreters in Afghanistan “who could not make it to the protest, but were afraid about their future.”

“The military is not giving convincing answers to some of the translators,” he told Arab News.

Participants of the protest said that they would begin a sit-in outside the US embassy in Kabul soon because officials were “not responding to their calls,” and they had no access to them to “to talk about our fears and our future.”

When contacted by Arab News for a comment, the State Department said that it takes its role in managing the SIV program very “seriously.”

“We are engaged at the highest levels to ensure we are serving SIV applicants as promptly as possible,” a US embassy foreign officer, who requested anonymity, said.

“Everyone involved in the Special Immigrant Visa process, whether in Washington or at our embassy in Kabul, is aware of the threats our Afghan colleagues face,” he said, adding that the State Department had “prioritized the Afghan SIV program by identifying program needs and directing additional resources toward two stages of the Afghan SIV process.”

Citing US State Department spokeswoman Ned Price, the official said that Washington has also increased “resources to the SIV program” and taken “steps to prioritize applications from interpreters and translators.”

“We have given extra consideration to those who have helped in combat operations. This will remain a priority going forward,” he said.

Aimed at supporting Afghans and Iraqis who came under threat for their work with the US military and other entities, the SIV program involves a lengthy application process with an average waiting time of three years.

It has faced delays since last year due to disruptions caused by the COVID-19 outbreak.

Meanwhile, addressing the plight of the Afghan interpreters, the International Refugee Assistance Project (IRAP), a US-based legal and advocacy organization that researched SIVs in Afghanistan and Iraq, said: “For more than a decade . . . the SIV programs have provided a pathway to safety for Iraqis and Afghans whose service . . . has exposed them and their families to threats, harm, and death.”

“Tens of thousands of Iraqis and Afghans have been safely resettled to the United States . . . The process, however, has not been smooth,” it said on its website.

“Over the years, the SIV programs have been beset by technical, practical, and political obstacles and inefficiencies that have hampered their operation and threatened the promise that the US government made to these allies for their service.”


Afghan translators fleeing the Taliban land in Britain

Afghan translators fleeing the Taliban land in Britain
Updated 23 June 2021

Afghan translators fleeing the Taliban land in Britain

Afghan translators fleeing the Taliban land in Britain
  • In the two decades since the US-led invasion, dozens of Afghan translators have been killed or tortured in targeted assaults by the radical Islamist group

London: Afghan translators who worked with the British military and fear reprisal attacks from the Taliban have arrived in the UK as part of a relocation scheme, campaigners said on Wednesday.
The Sulha Alliance for Afghan interpreters told AFP the first group of translators landed in Birmingham, central England, on Tuesday evening, adding they expected the arrivals would go into Covid quarantine for 14 days.
The government declined to comment on the reports about the departure of the flight over concerns about the safety of the relocating Afghan translators and their families.
At the end of May, Britain announced it would accelerate plans for the relocation of Afghan staff who worked with the military and their families ahead of a planned withdrawal of US-led NATO forces.
Under a relocation scheme for former and current Afghan staff, more than 1,300 workers and their families have been brought to Britain.
More than 3,000 Afghans are expected to be resettled under the accelerated plans, the government said.
Home Secretary Priti Patel has said the government has a “moral obligation” to relocate staff and to “recognize the risks they faced in the fight against terrorism and reward their efforts.”
Retired Col. Simon Diggins, the former British attache in Kabul and now a campaigner for the Sulha Alliance, said the translators would receive four months of support after which he said, “the real struggle begins.”
Afghan translators and other local staff who worked with Britain and other NATO members such as the United States, Germany and France have clamoured to be relocated for fear of Taliban reprisals.
In the two decades since the US-led invasion, dozens of Afghan translators have been killed or tortured in targeted assaults by the radical Islamist group.
Even more have been injured in attacks on foreign troops during patrols in armored vehicles.
Campaigners have criticized what they say are confusing relocation schemes by NATO members, which they claim have allowed many translators to fall through the gaps and will struggle to evacuate all necessary staff before the western alliance’s withdrawal.


What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?

What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?
Updated 23 June 2021

What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?

What is the Delta variant of coronavirus with K417N mutation?
  • Some scientists worry that the mutation, coupled with other existing features of the Delta variant, could make it more transmissible

India said on Wednesday it has found around 40 cases of the Delta coronavirus variant carrying a mutation that appears to make it more transmissible, and advised states to increase testing.
The variant, called "Delta Plus" in India, was first reported in a Public Health England bulletin on June 11.
It is a sub-lineage of the Delta variant first detected in India and has acquired the spike protein mutation called K417N which is also found in the Beta variant first identified in South Africa.
Some scientists worry that the mutation, coupled with other existing features of the Delta variant, could make it more transmissible.
"The mutation K417N has been of interest as it is present in the Beta variant (B.1.351 lineage), which was reported to have immune evasion property," India's health ministry said in a statement.
Shahid Jameel, a top Indian virologist, said the K417N was known to reduce the effectiveness of a cocktail of therapeutic monoclonal antibodies.
As of June 16, at least 197 cases has been found from 11 countries - Britain (36), Canada (1), India (8), Japan (15), Nepal (3), Poland (9), Portugal (22), Russia (1), Switzerland (18), Turkey (1), the United States (83).
India said on Wednesday around 40 cases of the variant have been observed in the states of Maharashtra, Kerala and Madhya Pradesh, with "no significant increase in prevalence". The earliest case in India is from a sample taken on April 5.
Britain said its first 5 cases were sequenced on April 26 and they were contacts of individuals who had travelled from, or transited through, Nepal and Turkey.
No deaths were reported among the UK and Indian cases.
Studies are ongoing in India and globally to test the effectiveness of vaccines against this mutation.
"WHO is tracking this variant as part of the Delta variant, as we are doing for other Variants of Concern with additional mutations," the World Health Organization (WHO) said in a statement sent to Reuters.
"For the moment, this variant does not seem to be common, currently accounting for only a small fraction of the Delta sequences ... Delta and other circulating Variants of Concern remain a higher public health risk as they have demonstrated increases in transmission," it said.
But India's health ministry warned that regions where it has been found "may need to enhance their public health response by focusing on surveillance, enhanced testing, quick contact-tracing and priority vaccination."
There are worries Delta Plus would inflict another wave of infections on India after it emerged from the world's worst surge in cases only recently.
"The mutation itself may not lead to a third wave in India - that also depends on COVID-appropriate behaviour, but it could be one of the reasons," said Tarun Bhatnagar, a scientist with the state-run Indian Council for Medical Research.


New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits

New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits
Updated 23 June 2021

New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits

New Zealand on edge after virus-infected Australian visits
  • The country’s response has been among the most effective in the world and the isolated nation of 5 million people has recorded just 26 COVID-19 deaths.

WELLINGTON, New Zealand: After enjoying nearly four months without any community transmission of the coronavirus, New Zealanders were on edge Wednesday after health authorities said an infectious traveler from Australia had visited over the weekend.
New Zealand has taken a zero-tolerance approach to the pandemic and continues to pursue an elimination strategy.
The country’s response has been among the most effective in the world and the isolated nation of 5 million people has recorded just 26 COVID-19 deaths. But its vaccination campaign has been far slower than in most developed countries, with just 13 percent of the population having gotten their first dose.
Although there were no immediate cases confirmed as a result of the traveler’s visit from Sydney to New Zealand’s capital Wellington, authorities were asking people at more than a dozen locations to self-isolate for two weeks and get tested.
They also imposed physical distancing requirements in the Wellington region and restricted crowd sizes to 100 from Wednesday evening through Sunday.
“I’m confident that if we do all the things we have done in the past, if people do what is asked of them, we will reduce the risk,” said Ashley Bloomfield, the director-general of health.
Bloomfield said the traveler was linked to a Sydney outbreak of the more contagious Delta variant that originated in India.
The outbreak in Australia’s largest city has grown to 31 cases and led to a tightening of restrictions
It began last week when a Sydney airport limousine driver tested positive. He was not vaccinated and is suspected to have been infected while transporting a foreign air crew.
Residents living in the worst-affected parts of Sydney have been told they can only travel outside the city for essential reasons. Authorities have also made masks compulsory outside homes and limited the number of household visitors to five.
New Zealand has stopped quarantine-free travel from the Australian state of New South Wales for at least three days.
New Zealand and Australia opened a quarantine-free travel bubble in April, although it has been temporarily halted several times as Australia has dealt with small community outbreaks.
Health authorities said the traveler had visited New Zealand’s national museum Te Papa as well as a number of restaurants, stores and tourist spots. Te Papa announced it was closed and would provide updates as the situation unfolded.
Health authorities said the traveler visited Wellington from Saturday through Monday before returning to Australia and testing positive for COVID-19. They said four close contacts of the traveler were self-isolating and had all tested negative for the virus.


Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda

Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda
Updated 23 June 2021

Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda

Rights group: Facebook amplified Myanmar military propaganda
  • The United Nations’ office in Myanmar expressed concern about escalating human rights abuses

Facebook’s recommendation algorithm amplifies military propaganda and other material that breaches the company’s own policies in Myanmar following a military takeover in February, a new report by the rights group Global Witness says.
A month after the military seized power in Myanmar and imprisoned elected leaders, Facebook’s algorithms were still prompting users to view and “like” pro-military pages with posts that incited and threatened violence, pushed misinformation that could lead to physical harm, praised the military and glorified its abuses, Global Witness said in the report, published late Tuesday.
That’s even though the social media giant vowed to remove such content following the coup, announcing it would remove Myanmar military and military-controlled pages from its site and from Instagram, which it also owns. It has since enacted other measures intended to reduce offline harm in the country.
Facebook said Tuesday its teams “continue to closely monitor the situation in Myanmar in real-time and take action on any posts, Pages or Groups that break our rules.”
Days after the Feb. 1 coup, the military temporarily blocked access to Facebook because it was being used to share anti-coup comments and organize protests. Access was later restored. In the following weeks, Facebook continued to tighten its policies against the military, banning all military entities from its platforms and saying it would remove praise or support for violence against citizens and their arrest.
“Once again, Facebook shows that it’s good at making broad sweeping announcements and bad at actually enforcing them. They’ve had years to improve their work in Myanmar but once again they are still failing,” said Sophie Zhang, a former Facebook data scientist and whistleblower who found evidence of political manipulation in countries such as Honduras and Azerbaijan while she worked there.
The struggle between the military regime that deposed Aung San Suu Kyi’s elected government and those opposing it has sharpened in recent months.
Soldiers and police have killed hundreds of protesters. Last week, the United Nations’ office in Myanmar expressed concern about escalating human rights abuses after reports that a group opposed to the junta may have executed 25 civilians it captured and allegations that troops had burned down a village.
Myanmar, also known as Burma, had over 22.3 million Facebook users in January 2020, more than 40 percent of its population, according to social media management platform NapoleonCat.
“What happens on Facebook matters everywhere, but in Myanmar that is doubly true,” the report says. As in many countries outside the Western Hemisphere, mobile phones in Myanmar often come pre-loaded with Facebook and many businesses do not have a website, only a Facebook page. For many people in the country, Facebook effectively is the Internet.
On March 23, just before the peak of military violence against civilians, Global Witness said it set up a new, clean Facebook account with no history of liking or following specific topics and searched for “Tatmadaw”, the Burmese name for the armed forces. It filtered the search results to show pages, and selected the top result — a military fan page whose name translates as “a gathering of military lovers.”
Older posts on this page showed sympathy for Myanmar’s soldiers and at least two advertised for young people to join the military — but none of the newer posts since the coup violated Facebook’s policies. However, when Global Witness’s account “liked” the page, Facebook began recommending related pages with material inciting violence, false claims of interference in last year’s election and support of violence against civilians.
A March 1 post, for instance, includes a death threat against protesters who vandalize surveillance cameras.
“Those who threaten female police officers from the traffic control office and violently destroy the glass and destroy CCTV, those who cut the cables, those who vandalize with color sprays, (we) have been given an order to shoot to kill them on the spot,” reads part of the post in translation, according to the report. “Saying this before Tatmadaw starts doing this. If you don’t believe and continue to do this, go ahead. If you are not afraid to die, keep going.”
Facebook said its ban of the Tatmadaw and other measures have “made it harder for people to misuse our services to spread harm. This is a highly adversarial issue and we continue to take action on content that violates our policies to help keep people safe.”
Global Witness said its findings show that Facebook fails to uphold the “very basics” of its own guidelines.
“The platform operates too much like a walled garden, its algorithms are designed, trained, and tweaked without adequate oversight or regulation,” said Naomi Hirst, head of the digital threats campaign at Global Witness. “This secrecy has to end, Facebook must be made accountable.”


Grave concerns raised about China at UN rights council

Grave concerns raised about China at UN rights council
Delegates sit at the opening of the 41th session of the Human Rights Council, at the European headquarters of the United Nations in Geneva, Switzerland. (AP file photo)
Updated 23 June 2021

Grave concerns raised about China at UN rights council

Grave concerns raised about China at UN rights council
  • The statement cited reports of torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilization, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children from their parents

GENEVA: More than 40 countries led by Canada voiced grave concerns at the UN Human Rights Council Tuesday about China’s actions in Xinjiang, Hong Kong and Tibet — triggering a fierce backlash from Beijing.
The widely anticipated joint statement had been in the pipeline for several days and was delivered on day two of the 47th session of the council in Geneva.
“We are gravely concerned about the human rights situation in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region,” Canada’s ambassador Leslie Norton said.
The statement was backed by Australia, Britain, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain and the United States, among others.
Beijing must allow UN rights chief Michelle Bachelet and other independent observers “immediate, meaningful and unfettered access” to Xinjiang, and end the “arbitrary detention” of Uyghurs and other Muslim minorities, it said.
“Credible reports indicate that over a million people have been arbitrarily detained in Xinjiang and that there is widespread surveillance disproportionately targeting Uyghurs and members of other minorities and restrictions on fundamental freedoms and Uyghur culture,” it said.
The statement cited reports of torture or cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment or punishment, forced sterilization, sexual and gender-based violence, and forced separation of children from their parents.
The number of signatories is an increase from the 22 ambassadors who wrote to Bachelet in 2019 condemning China’s treatment of the Uyghurs.
China denies mistreating the Uyghurs, once a clear majority in their ancestral homeland until the state helped waves of ethnic Han Chinese migrate there. Beijing insists it is simply running vocational training centers designed to counter extremism.
Bachelet told the council on Monday she hoped at last to visit Xinjiang this year and be given “meaningful access.”
Tuesday’s statement was bound to further enrage Beijing, which decries what it says is the interference by foreign powers in its internal affairs.
The joint declaration also expressed concern over the deterioration of fundamental freedoms in Hong Kong and the human rights situation in Tibet.
The move came after US President Joe Biden’s first foreign trip, in which he garnered G7 and NATO unity in pushing back against Beijing, with Washington identifying China as the pre-eminent global challenge.
The statement “sends a crucial message to China’s authorities that they are not above international scrutiny,” said Agnes Callamard, head of the rights group Amnesty International.
But countries “must now move beyond handwringing and take real action,” she added.

Aware that the statement was coming, China had responded before it was even delivered.
Beijing’s representative read out a statement on behalf of a group of countries “deeply concerned about serious human rights violations against the indigenous people in Canada.”
Belarus, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Sri Lanka, Syria and Venezuela were among the co-signatories, according to the United Nations.
“Historically, Canada robbed the indigenous people of their land, killed them, and eradicated their culture,” the statement said.
It referenced the recent discovery of 215 unmarked graves at a former residential school in western Canada — one of many boarding schools set up a century ago to forcibly assimilate Canada’s indigenous peoples.
“We call for a thorough and impartial investigation into all cases where crimes were committed against the indigenous people, especially children,” the statement said.
The representative of Belarus read another joint statement on behalf of 64 countries, supporting China and stressing that Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet were Chinese internal affairs.
In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said Canada had acknowledged and was seeking to make amends for wronging its indigenous peoples.
“In Canada, we had a truth and reconciliation commission,” he told journalists. “Where is China’s truth and reconciliation commission. Where is their truth?
“The journey of reconciliation is a long one, but it is a journey we are on,” he said. “China is not recognizing even that there is a problem.
“That is a pretty fundamental difference and that is why Canadians and people from around the world are speaking up for people like the Uyghurs who find themselves voiceless, faced with a government that will not recognize what’s happening to them.”