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Interpreters give their lives for little pay and no glory Print
The Globe and Mail (Canada) - August 29, 2007



The interpreter shacks sit just beyond the famous "wire" here at Kandahar Air Field, past the gates, the observation posts and the entrance to the sprawling coalition base. As a metaphor it couldn't be more perfect or poignant, for the young Afghan men who wait inside these dusty compounds to be called on by the soldiers of the NATO-led International Assistance Force to Afghanistan remain just a bit
on the outside, too.

In the field, especially but not exclusively on combat missions, the interpreters and the individual soldiers with whom they work often become
close as brothers. The 26-year-old supervisor of the 700 interpreters who work in what's called Regional Command South - volatile and dangerous southern Afghanistan - for International Management Services, Inc., or IMS, says that he recently offered one of his "terps," as everyone calls them, a safe job inside the office, and that the young man replied, "I can't. My [Canadian] captain needs me."

Yet although the interpreters are dying at a faster rate than either Canadian or British troops - 64 terps have been killed in RC South this year
alone, compared with 25 Canadian soldiers and 29 British ones - they remain faceless and nameless, even in death. Last week, for instance, when a light armoured vehicle, or LAV III, hit a mine, two soldiers from Quebec's Royal 22nd Regiment were killed, and another, as well a Radio-Canada cameraman Charles Dubois, seriously injured.

The dead soldiers, Master Corporal Christian Duchesne and Master Warrant Officer Mario Mercier, were honoured at the traditional brief but moving ramp ceremony two days later, Mr. Dubois and the unidentified Vandoo were flown to Landstuhl, Germany, for further treatment.
But the 26-year-old interpreter who was killed with them in the blast was mentioned only in passing in news reports and was quietly buried in the same shroud of anonymity in which he toiled.

He died three days from his 27th birthday.
Even had the pace of operations allowed it, his new Canadian friends couldn't have attended his funeral, held the next day as is Muslim custom, for fear that their presence would alert the Taliban that he had been working for the coalition and thus cause his family to be targeted.
For the same reason, even now, the young man's name can't be made public. Single, he was nonetheless the chief, if not the only, breadwinner in his large extended family - his parents, six brothers, an unknown number of sisters, and an uncle.

His supervisor, who says the young man had been working with Canadians for the past three or four months, has told no one in his family, including his wife, what he does for a living. His wife believes, he says, that he is still attending school in Kabul, and although he quit field work a few months ago to become part of IMS management, he has been living and sleeping at the rudimentary shacks 24/7 ever since.

Interpreters, as well as district politicians, Afghan police and anyone seen as helping coalition forces - such as three local men working as de-miners, who were kidnapped then murdered earlier this month - are traditional targets for the Taliban. Canadian army officials say that all interpreters are covered by Defense Base Insurance, the U.S. company that insures most private contractors working in either Iraq or Afghanistan. In addition, sources say a little-known payment is made by the Canadian government, likely a lump sum of about $10,000, to the families of interpreters who are killed on the job while working with Canadian troops.

None of the interpreters interviewed by The Globe and Mail voiced the mildest complaint about how they are treated by Canadian soldiers (or those from any other nation, for that matter) or even about their pay, which is less than they earn working for Americans. General-level terps employed by Canadians earn about $600 (U.S.) a month, while specialists, such as those working with legal mentors or who have acquired a particular expertise, can earn as much as $1,200 (U.S.). But most of those working for the United States earn at least $1,000 (U.S.) a month.
About 200 of the 700 IMS terps in the south regularly work with Canadians, and if anything, they tend to be grateful.

"Canadians have made a lot of sacrifices here," the supervisor says. "A lot of lives. They're shedding blood for someone else's prosperity and peace; it's amazing." The Kandahar office of IMS is headed by a team of Afghan-American brothers who were born in Afghanistan but raised and schooled in southern California; the younger speaks English with a noticeable American accent. Just 23, he has been with the company only a short time and is still reeling a little from the shock of this place.

"In America," he says, "we don't see dead people. I got to see the first dead person in my life here; it's like bodies are everywhere - an explosion
here, an explosion there." He says the care given terps who are injured while fighting with Canadian troops is first-rate, both by medics at the scene and at coalition hospitals, such as the one at the main base in Kandahar. "They really take care of them," he says, "like their own soldiers while they're out on the job."

But unlike him, most interpreters - they usually learn English first at small private schools in Kabul or Kandahar and hone their skills on the job
- can only dream of living in either the U.S. or Canada. For those who work with Americans, that dream became more feasible this June, when U.S. President George Bush amended the National Defense Authorization Act to expand the number of special visas available for interpreters who have worked with U.S. forces either in Iraq or Afghanistan.

This year and next, 500 of the special immigration visas will be available for those who have worked with U.S. forces for at least a year, have a
letter of recommendation from the U.S. chain of command, and pass the usual security checks.

Denmark also recently made special arrangements to take its 60-member Iraqi staff with them when its soldiers pull out of Iraq. But Canada has no comparable program, a spokesman for Citizenship and Immigration Canada said.

The IMS terp shacks at Kandahar Air Field sit in between the main coalition base and Camp Hero, home base for the 205th Corps of the Afghan National Army - like the men sitting inside them, not quite belonging to either place. At the entrance to the shacks, a sad but spirited little monkey on a short chain is the first sight the visitor sees - himself not a bad symbol of the men in the compound, waiting, behind him.
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