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The Afghan interpreters cut adrift by French army

Signs showing the distances to French towns from France's military's base in Tora, Afghanistan, on October 14 2001
Signs showing the distances to French towns from France's military's base in Tora, Afghanistan, on October 14 2001 Aymeric Vincenot / AFP

Abdul Raziq returned home to his house in the western outskirts of the Afghan capital Kabul at the end of January 2015 to discover a threat nailed to his door.

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Like those before it, the letter was anonymous and filled with insults, but this time it spoke of beheading.

Previous threats, made by phone, had called Raziq a “traitor” a “spy” and "a foreign dog”, after which he had spent a month in hiding.

Death threats for Raziq and others like him are a common occurrence. The reason: the 24-year-old was one of hundreds of Afghans employed as interpreters by the French army during its 13 years of operations in the country.

Growing up with the French army

When France withdrew its combat troops in 2012, these interpreters were left behind to face the consequences of their time spent serving a foreign power. Many see fleeing to France as their only chance of safety but, as Raziq found, the country they spent years serving has often been less than welcoming.

Of the 258 former Afghan auxiliaries in the French army who have requested visas to live in France, only 73 have been granted permission.

“When France refused my application, I was told there was no other solution,” says Raziq.

Raziq was just 14 when he began working for the French army back in 2001 as the first battalions under the tricolour flag began arriving in Afghanistan. He got the job thanks to his mastery of French, learnt at the private school he attended in Kabul.

“I grew up with the French army,” says Raziq.

Some, like 23-year-old Ahmad*, have fled the country despite being refused a French visa.

Having worked for the French army for a little under a year -- between September 2011 and June 2012 -- Ahmad quit when he began receiving death threats.

Fearing for his safety, he applied for a visa at the French embassy, without success.
Desperate, he left his home country and travelled to France where he applied for asylum. Again he was rejected.

He spent the next two weeks braving the autumn cold on the streets of Paris before travelling to Stuttgart, Germany, where he has spent the past five months. Speaking just a smattering of German, he is currently living at a hostel as he waits for the authorities to decide his fate.

“Sometimes, I regret having chosen to learn French,” he says.

Taking action

For those like Raziq and Ahmad, however, there is at least some source of hope. It all stems from a small and little-noticed demonstration held on the streets of Kabul earlier this year.

Pushed by fear -- the threats nailed to his door in January proved to be the last straw -- and concerns for the welfare of his wife and two daughters, aged one and three, Raziq rallied his fellow interpreters and on March 5 marched on the French embassy in Kabul.

“I knew I had no choice. I decided to act,” he says.

“The day of the event, there were around 30 to 35 of us. Some did not live in Kabul, others did not want to risk exposing themselves. I did not have a choice.”

They began the march in a park a 15-minute walk from the embassy. They made it half a kilometre before being stopped at a military checkpoint. After some questioning, Raziq and two others were given permission to continue to the embassy.

An “angry colonel” greeted them at the door, said Raziq, but became calmer when he learned of the presence of two journalists with the interpreters.

His response to the demonstrators’ demands was firm and final, however.

“He told us that the visa procedure was over, that there was nothing more we could do and that France had made its decision,’ says Raziq. “He just wanted us to leave.”

That probably would have been the end of it, if a French journalist named Thibault Jouzier had not come across an AFP wire on the demonstration.

Jouzier got in touch with Raziq and the day after the demonstration published a story for the website of the French newspaper La Croix, where he was working as a freelancer.

The story then appeared 12 days later in the print version of the daily.

“We had to react immediately on the site,” explains Nathalie Lacube, deputy chief of the newspaper’s world and economy service. “Eight days later, things hadn’t moved, so we decided to publish it in the paper to give the article more visibility.”

Government turnaround

A copy of the paper found its way into the hands of Caroline Decroix, a lawyer specialising in the rights of foreigners in France.

“Deeply shocked”, she contacted Jouzier.

“I told him that if he could manage to repatriate the Afghans’ files [proof of their visa requests, of their service in the French army and of the threats made against them] then I could look into it legally,” she says.

In a short time, Decroix was in possession of the documents of no less than 54 Afghan interpreters who had seen their visa requests denied.

She asked for assistance from other lawyers with relevant expertise and before long had put together a volunteer force of 35 lawyers working on the case. They put into action a media campaign designed to pressure the French government into action.

“I didn’t want to get into a legal battle straight away,” explains Decroix. “France’s honour is at stake and we wanted to give them a chance to solve the problem themselves.”

The strategy seems to have worked.

On April 21, French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius announced that the refused visa applications would be subjected to a review, within the next two months, upon request of the interested parties.

It was an unexpected and potentially pivotal turnaround by the French government.

“The open letter [to French President François Hollande] and protest outside our embassy in Kabul show the dissatisfaction this issue has provoked,” said Gaël Veyssière, deputy director of press relations at France’s Foreign Ministry.

“The government wants to re-evaluate the question of Afghan visas to give a response to those who have applied but not received a response and to review the applications that have been refused and contested.”

‘Quality of services rendered’

The review process will take into account three criteria, ostensibly the same used in the decision to reject the applications the first time around: the “seriousness of threats” to the interpreters, their “capacity to integrate” in France and the “quality of services” rendered to the French army.

In a show of good faith, the Elysée received five representatives from Decroix’s team on April 22 and assured them that the applications would be dealt with as a matter of urgency.

For Ahmad, the government’s turnaround could mean an end to his exile in Germany, where he currently spends his days at the local library reading novels in French and Persian, watching films and going to the free gym with the three countrymen with whom he shares his room.

For Raziq, meanwhile, what happens next could well be a matter of life and death. Since the March 5 demonstration, he has been too scared to even show his face in public.

“If it’s necessary, I go out at dark, wearing a scarf and sunglasses,” he says.

“Death can come every day but I do not want it, neither in weeks nor months. I still fear that France will refuse the visas.”

He must now wait and see if France judges that the assistance he gave the French army meets the criteria for “quality of services rendered”.

*Name changed to protect identity

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