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Afghan Interpreter Escapes Taliban Only To Face Russian Invasion Threat In Ukraine

Afghan émigré Jawed Ahmad Haqmal (right) in central Kyiv with his brother.
Afghan émigré Jawed Ahmad Haqmal (right) in central Kyiv with his brother.

KYIV -- Born during the Afghan-Soviet War, Jawed Ahmad Haqmal lost five relatives in the 1979–1989 conflict that turned his homeland into a smoldering ruin of a country.

But now the 33-year-old former interpreter for the Canadian military in Afghanistan is horrified by the possibility of a Russian invasion of Ukraine.

That's where Haqmal, his wife, four children, and six other relatives have been stranded since the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in August.

And given the White House's recent warnings that Russian could invade invade Ukraine any day, Haqmal is quite worried about his fate because of his work with NATO in his homeland.

Haqmal told RFE/RL in a central Kyiv hotel where he awaits the decision of Canadian immigration authorities to let him and his family enter that he is worried how Russians might view him -- if they invaded Ukraine -- because of his ties to the transatlantic security alliance.

Jawed Ahmad Haqmal and his family in his Kyiv hotel room.
Jawed Ahmad Haqmal and his family in his Kyiv hotel room.

He showed documents proving they had already been approved for immigration and said there seems to be a bureaucratic backlog preventing him from getting the final papers he needs.

“There are no security concerns [about me or my family]…they just don't have the ability to process this case,” Haqmal said sitting cross-legged on the floor of his hotel room amid the smell of Afghan spices and saffron tea.

Officials with the Canadian Embassy in Kyiv and in Abu Dhabi, where his application was initially processed, refused to comment on his situation.

“The Canadian Privacy Act ensures that there are appropriate safeguards in place to protect the personal information gathered by the government of Canada,” they said in an e-mail in response to RFE/RL.

All that is left for the family to do is wait in idle desperation, as the Canadian Embassy evacuates its staffers and nationals, including military instructors that have trained thousands of Ukrainian soldiers.

But the Haqmals are not among those being evacuated.

“I feel my family is not being treated humanely because no one seems to care about us,” he said.

After the fall of Kabul, Canada pledged to accept 40,000 Afghans, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's government has so far allowed fewer than 7,000 to enter the country.

The Haqmals left Kandahar in May and spent five agonizing months in Kabul, where they received emergency Canadian visas.

But departing Canadians couldn't evacuate them. Instead, they left Kabul aboard a Ukrainian military plane on August 28 amid harrowing terrorist attacks on the airport and received 15-day humanitarian visas to stay in Ukraine.

Those visas have long expired.

Haqmal and his two brothers leave the hotel -- which is paid for by the Globe and Mail, a Canadian daily newspaper -- only late at night fearing a police check that may trigger their detention and deportation back to Afghanistan.

Haqmal's children, who are aged between 2 and 10 years, have no winter clothes and can't play outdoors. His wife, Waranga, is five months pregnant, and his elderly mother and sister-in-law suffer from tuberculosis.

He has used up his limited savings, has no work permit, and depends on donations to survive.

“An interpreter for Canada has become a beggar,” Haqmal said bitterly.

The entire family spend their days and nights in three tiny rooms living “like prisoners,” he said.

“Everyone is worried; everyone is getting crazy [about the possibility of war],” he said as twilight thickened outside the hotel.

Passersby walked to nearby Independence Square, where violent months-long protests prompted pro-Moscow President Viktor Yanukovych to flee for Russia in 2014.

The uprising, known in Ukraine as the Revolution of Dignity, created a power vacuum that Moscow used to illegally occupy and annex the Crimean Peninsula and back separatists in the southeastern Donbas region.

The resulting war has claimed more than 13,200 lives and uprooted millions. The Kremlin has refuted claims it has a hand in the conflict that it calls a civil war despite evidence of Moscow's involvement.

In recent months, Moscow has amassed more than 130,000 servicemen near the Russia-Ukraine border, on occupied Crimea, and in Moscow-friendly Belarus northwest of Ukraine.

And Haqmal knows all too well how a Russian invasion can change a country.

Growing up in Kandahar, Afghanistan's second-largest city that once hosted a huge contingent of Soviet troops, he witnessed the civil war that ended with the first Taliban takeover of most of Afghanistan.

Kandahar was the Taliban capital in the 1990s, and the terrorist group Al-Qaeda established one of its largest training camps, Al-Faruq, near the city.

When U.S. and NATO troops invaded in 2001, ending Taliban rule, Haqmal became an interpreter. But his duties were far more important than just translating.

“He was a cultural adviser,” Jeremie Verville, a platoon commander who carried out counterinsurgency operations in Kandahar in 2009, told RFE/RL.

“We didn't know all the details and subtlety of the culture, [so] he was able to guide us through different situations that could have escalated if we didn't have this information,” he said.

Haqmal also deciphered coded phrases the Taliban used when radioing commands to ambush or attack NATO soldiers.

He said he saved the lives of Canadian soldiers on several occasions, including one when Haqmal impersonated a Taliban commander in a radio conversation to cancel an attack on Canadian forces.

But all of those long-ago events seem to be irrelevant for Canada now, Haqmal said.

“They just used us and now they've forgotten us,” he said. “I am totally broken. There is no hope left.”

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    Mansur Mirovalev

    Mansur Mirovalev is a Kyiv-based correspondent and television producer who has worked with the AP, Al-Jazeera, the BBC, CNN, the Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, The New York Times, RFE/RL, and Vice News, among others, in most of the former U.S.S.R. He covered the 2008 Russian-Georgian war and 2014 separatist uprising in Ukraine. His investigative reports include forced sterilization of women in Uzbekistan and corruption in the Chernobyl Exclusion Zone.

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