Saturday, September 25

Interpreters who worked for Spain in Afghanistan await their evacuation in a desperate countdown

No one expected the Taliban to take Kabul so quickly. The US government estimated, in its worst forecasts, that the capital would hold out for at least a month after its departure. So did the Afghan population, who took refuge in the capital as the country’s most important cities fell one by one.

But on Sunday, the Taliban took Kabul without fighting or opposition. They simply went to the presidential palace and began to negotiate the transfer of powers with the Government of President Ashraf Ghani, which a few hours later I left the country on a plane, heading to Tajikistan, without looking back.

With the fall of the capital, the evacuation plans of the United States and the allied countries, including Spain, have been precipitated and panic has been unleashed among some sectors of the Afghan population. People who have worked with Westerners, women who held political positions or worked outside the home, journalists or entire families who fear the future that awaits them under sharia, began a desperate flight.

This is also the case of Afghans who have worked for the Spanish Army and for the Spanish Ministry of Foreign Affairs for the last twenty years. Some served as interpreters for the Spanish troops or the diplomatic corps. But there are also personnel hired directly by the embassy, ​​from translators and drivers, to assistants.

More desperate with each passing hour

At least 12 of these Afghan collaborators are, right now, sheltering in their homes awaiting the call that takes them out of Kabul along with their families. Although several voices – including that of Minister Marlaska – have assured that they were already at the airport, it is not true. And precisely the biggest challenge they face is getting to the terminal, which is completely collapsed at the moment.

Inside the airport, on the other hand, there are the six Spanish civilians who still remained in the Asian country, Ambassador Gabriel Ferrán, his police escort and Consul Paula Sánchez. She is the one who maintains communication with the Afghan staff, to whom she writes daily on WhatsApp to report news (and delays).

Although the 12 families are aware that Defense has already started the operation that has to get them out of there, right now they see “impossible to access the airport, and even more so with children, with the thousands of people crowded around. They will not let us pass. And if the call finally comes and they summon us there at a certain time, we won’t be able to get there, ”says one of the embassy workers.

This agony could have been avoided if their requests had been heeded first. And it has not been for not insisting, as this worker from Kabul recognizes. “I started asking for asylum in Spain in December 2020, when it was announced that Spanish troops were preparing to return home, but they told us no at that time. In June we insisted much more, because we were convinced that the Taliban were not going to respect the agreements and would enter the capital before they evacuated the foreigners … but they did not pay attention either, “he laments.

On the way

Meanwhile, the ministries of Defense and Foreign Affairs of Spain issued a joint statement last night, announcing that the operation to evacuate them was beginning.

“Two A400M aircraft of the Armed Forces will depart in the next few hours from Spain to Dubai to cover the first phase of repatriation of embassy personnel, of the Spaniards who remain in that country, as well as of all those Afghans and their families who for years they have collaborated with our country ”, the note read.

The first of the A400 planes (which has a capacity for about 120 people) took off this Monday night from the Zaragoza Air Base, after 11:30 p.m. The second was scheduled to take off this morning.

However, the US Army is struggling to maintain control of Hamid Karzai International Airport, and all commercial flights to and from Kabul are suspended. The decision was made on Monday, when a crowd of Afghans desperate to flee the Taliban invaded the runway. And according to local information, air traffic will also remain cut throughout Tuesday, so repatriations will be delayed.

Leave a whole life behind

“The day the Taliban entered Kabul and began to remove the Afghan flags from all buildings, while disarming the police, I saw it from my car … and I could not stop crying all afternoon,” says one of the interpreters, who asks that we not mention their name for safety reasons and that the interview – telephone – be done at a busy hour, so that no one hears that a foreign language is spoken inside their home. His fear reaches that point.

“For the moment, Kabul is calm. The Taliban are not bothering people, and have only collected the cars and weapons of the Afghan police. Now they are the ones doing the patrols on the street. But in cities like Kandahar, they have already started door-to-door identifying people who worked for the government, for Westerners and also journalists. And maybe tomorrow will start to happen in Kabul ”, he continues.

“If they don’t take us out of the country, they will come after us. According to their law, we are spies for having worked for Spain, and that is punishable by death ”, he assures. Many government or police workers have gone over to the Taliban side, and can easily identify people who worked for NATO countries.

“I have changed my phone number several times because I received threats,” he explains. They called me from unknown numbers, and asked ‘are you so and so?’, And when I answered ‘yes’, they threatened with ‘well we’ll see’. This is how my life has been for the 18 years that I have worked for Spain ”.

“There are no words to explain what it means to leave your house, with all your belongings inside, with all your history and the history of your parents, to go out with what you are wearing and save your life.” His voice breaks before continuing. “It is very hard, it is very difficult to leave the country you love… but I feel in the spotlight every time I see them patrol. [a los talibanes] from my window. I don’t want that future for my children: girls will not be allowed to go to school, and boys will only study religious subjects. What education is that? I don’t want that for my children ”.

The Biden threat

This Monday, US President Joe Biden asked his citizens to take refuge in their homes until they receive instructions from the State Department, and don’t go to the airport under any concept. And he also took advantage of his speech to the nation to warn the Taliban that if they sabotaged the evacuation or attacked an American, the reprisals would not wait.

The United States has sent 1,000 more soldiers in recent hours (now totaling 7,000) to successfully complete the repatriation of nationals and Afghans who have worked with its personnel or need immediate assistance. The United States originally sent a contingent of 3,000 troops.

Despite Biden’s reassuring words, rumors circulate through the streets of the Afghan capital that are not at all flattering. Some of the interpreters who are waiting to flee to Spain have come to hear in the last hours that, given the impossibility of controlling the population’s access to the airport, the Americans are going to evacuate their staff “behind closed doors” and go to abandon the rest. Comments that increase the uncertainty of those who wait.

This idea would be in tune with the statements of the British Defense Minister –Ben Wallace– who, on the verge of tears, acknowledged in a television interview that they will not be able to repatriate all their collaborators, as would have been their obligation.

The movements of Europe

Italy, by contrast, has already driven all its people out of the country. It was a very quick operation, although it is true that it was a very small number. The Italian Government chartered a plane that left Rome, and evacuated the 70 people who depended on Italy (50 Italians and 20 collaborators) in less than a day.

Germany, for its part, is working to remove some 2,000 people from Afghanistan (it would have repatriated as many previously), including Afghan collaborators and their families, as well as journalists who would be in clear danger under the Taliban regime. . France is also preparing its own evacuation mission.

It is expected that some 100 Afghans (12 families) will arrive on the flights that Spain has chartered, but there have been more asylum requests that have not received a response from the Foreign Ministry.

Although they were people who had also worked for the Spanish mission, they had to find other ways to reach other countries, such as Turkey, Pakistan or Iran.