I’m crossing my fingers that one of these days Tony will be an American citizen. He would fit in just fine, although he might encounter some strange presumptions. With his accent and physical features, I figure that most people would guess him to be a recent immigrant from China or Korea.
The truth, however, is that he is a Hazara, a persecuted minority from central Afghanistan. His native language is Dari, but he also speaks English and Pashto. He’s also one of the bravest people I have ever met. Tony was my senior interpreter and most trusted Afghan confidant, which was somewhat disconcerting to others seeing as he was only twenty-two and looked much younger. The first time I saw him, he was riding a bicycle around my battalion’s main base, and even though he was wearing an American uniform, I thought he was the son of some Afghan dignitary or general.
He was my best interpreter, and the best interpreter I ever knew. It cannot be overstated just how crucially important a role interpreters play, and I owe my life to him.
When Tony was a kid, he lived in a small village. Every person in town was Hazara, and like the overwhelming majority of Afghans, they were mostly farmers. But, as he would inform you, they also had a public library, and more schools per capita than anywhere else in the country. Hazara people believe in education, he’d tell you, because they hardly have any other option. When the Taliban came to power, they arrived in town driving Toyota Hiluxes and wearing black turbans, and behind them came a flood of Kuchi nomads—ethnic Pashtun herders who travel across the region with camels and livestock. They take their animals to summer pasture in Afghanistan and back to winter pasture in Pakistan; they speak Pashto, but almost none of them can read or write, and they live their entire lives in nomad camps. I encountered some of them during a more intense period of summer operations, and while they weren’t bad people, they had about as little in common as possible with an American soldier of solidly Midwestern origin.
The Taliban use the Kuchi to smuggle weapons and drugs, but in the late 1990s, they also used them as a vehicle for ethnic cleansing. Tony told me that the Taliban ordered the people in his village to yield their farmland to the Kuchis as pastureland, and if any of them had a problem with it, they could register a complaint and be killed. The intent was to drive the Hazara out, and he told me that he had heard stories of wholesale slaughter of Hazara villages.
The Taliban had a joke to taunt the Hazara. “Listen,” they’d say, “We just want everyone to go back to their own country, where they belong. We Afghans belong in Afghanistan.” This was a loaded statement because they were implying that Pashtuns were Afghans, and that everyone else was a foreigner. “And Tajiks belong in Tajikistan, and Uzbeks belong in Uzbekistan, and Turkmen belong in Turkmenistan. And Hazara belong in qabiristan.”
It means “graveyard.”
The Taliban enmity towards the Hazara was twofold: first, they were Shi’ites, and therefore heretics and unbelievers in their eyes (the Shi’ite / Sunni split is otherwise nonexistent in Afghanistan), and second, their Asiatic features are mythologized among Afghans as being the result of their Mongol origins. According to Pashtun and Tajik Afghans, Hazara are supposedly descended from the armies of Genghis Khan. It may not be relevant anymore, but the degree of prejudice and racism in Afghanistan is unbelievable. Stories like these—the artifacts of ancient rumor and innuendo—are some of the ways that people justify why they don’t like other Afghans. The destruction of the Bamyan Buddha statues in 2001 wasn’t just a strike against supposed idolatry—it was also an effort to erase the heritage of the Hazara, who are the traditional majority in Bamyan province.
It’s sometimes ironic, too—for Americans, the differences in Afghan race and ethnicity are unobservable in comparison to other facts about them: their manner of dress, their foreign language, their ever-present facial hair and decorative headgear. The racial differences are subtle, if not entirely muted. However, this is a matter of extreme importance to Afghans. They’re not just distrustful of each other; often times they are outright contemptuous. Tony told me that, even when he wore sunglasses to hide the shape of his eyes, people had only to look at him to know that he was absolutely a foreigner in our city. In fact, he said, were he to wander out of the downtown area and into some of the surrounding villages, within a short period of time, he would most likely be lynched. If anyone discovered his real name and the name of his village, his family would surely be targeted by insurgents.
Tony believed in the US mission in Afghanistan, but more importantly, as a Hazara he had no other option but to support the Coalition and the Karzai government. If the Taliban returned to power, he would have to flee the country or face death—and it would be the second time.
Tony’s father could only see the situation in Afghanistan getting worse. In 1998, he moved the family to Quetta, Pakistan to live with relatives. He was sick with rheumatism. The situation inside the house was somewhat tense, but the cramped quarters were a matter of necessity. Even within the relative safety of Quetta, Tony and his family never strayed from the Hazara neighborhoods of the city. The tensions between them, the Baloch and the Pashtun residents of Quetta could erupt into violence at any point, particularly for a skinny, short kid wandering around the wrong neighborhood by himself.
Tony’s parents and relatives insisted that he go to English school in the afternoons. Tony hated it—he saw no point. He found every opportunity to skip class. He would hang out with his cousins in the streets in Quetta, playing ball and running around. He was caught by his uncle on one occasion, and after being beaten by him, he swore he would escape. When his elder cousins offered him the opportunity to run away with them to Iran, he accepted. Tony was only thirteen. They hitchhiked from Quetta to the border and took up residence in a cheap dormitory in the city of Zahedan, close to the border of both Pakistan and Afghanistan. Tony worked in the street selling CD’s, clothing and housewares. The three of them pooled their money together and took care of one another.
Tony spoke Dari as a native language, which is effectively a regional variety of the Persian language. It’s roughly comparable to the difference between European and Latin American Spanish. For all of its faults, Iran is a far more developed and stable country than Afghanistan or Pakistan, and while economic opportunities existed for illegal immigrants, it was a dangerous and furtive existence. The Iranian police could deport them at any time, but a much more likely was that he would be beaten, robbed and raped. It was a life of vast freedom, of vast loneliness and monotony in a smoky, hectic city. They slept on the floor in cramped quarters, cooking food on propane burners and heating the rooms in winter with a wood stove.
In 2003, when the American efforts in Afghanistan were underway, Tony finally returned to Quetta. He hadn’t spoken to his family in years, and he had received no news of home while he was in Iran. His uncle admonished him for being gone, but they were ecstatic to see him alive. His mother, sisters and brother had returned to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban; his father had died of rheumatism. He returned to Afghanistan immediately, traveling alone again. This time, he crossed the border at Spin Boldak and traveled by bus all the way through Kandahar and the at-the-time unpaved Highway 1. His family had returned home and was living in poverty. He was now the sole provider; he moved to Kabul, enrolled in English classes and worked odd jobs on the side to send money home. In 2005, at the age of seventeen, he was hired as an interpreter for the Coalition.
Tony’s English was improving at the time, but he had never spoken Pashto. He had gone out of his way to avoid speaking it, in fact, because it was the language of a group of people who actively wanted to kill him. He had to learn it at breakneck speed, while simultaneously adjusting to the reckless abandon of American soldiers’ spoken English. The first years were rough. He lived with platoons in remote mountain fire-bases, visiting windswept, hostile Pashtun villages across Zabul, Oruzgan, Ghazni and Paktika. Conditions were poor, and he came regularly under fire—at least once his camp was nearly overrun in a massive, swarming attack of insurgents. Once, after having conducted a shura with hostile local villagers, he heard a voice over the FM scanner that the American soldiers carried.
“Hey, interpreter,” it said. “I was in the shura, and I saw you. I know you’re listening. I’m going to find you, and I’m going to cut you into little pieces, along with your family.”
In a lot of ways, the Coalition failed Tony. He had twice submitted a packet for a Special Immigrant Visa, a reward for interpreters who had spent more than three years in the service of the military. It would allow him to either move to the U.S. and settle permanently or, as is often the case, return to Afghanistan and obtain a higher-ranking (and exponentially higher paid) interpreter position. His packet had twice been lost, and attempts to retrieve it were often met with ambivalence on the part of American counterparts. He was trying to get what he had been promised in order to better provide for his family, but to most people he was an imposition.
Every American who has worked alongside Afghans has been solicited for letters of recommendation. It’s how the interpreters build their packet to receive a recommendation letter from a senior commander. I don’t know if people just assumed that Tony was a kid and ignored him, but the fact was that even though he was younger than me, he had been an interpreter for longer than anyone else in our employ. In fact, some of the kids he had helped train to be better interpreters were now stateside, and there he was. He chalked it up to a combination of things: prejudice on the part of Afghans involved in the process—surely they would discriminate against a Hazara—and the fact that he had lived in Pakistan and Iran. I honestly believe that it was just the glut of paperwork lost in the shuffle of a near decade spent in that country. Regardless, we couldn’t dwell on it. We submitted the packet a third time, and when I left the country in March 2010, it was in process.
Tony never got discouraged. I know he was frustrated, and a lot of times he had to fake motivation for the bureaucracy and talking in circles that took place in all of our joint Afghan-American meetings. We had a lot of conversations when work was slow. We—my senior sergeant, Tony and I—all lived in the same little pump-house on our compound, so we were together all the time. We’d make tea and tell stories. I’d ask about life growing up in his village, and he’d ask about life in the U.S., about American history. I remembered telling stories about him to a soldier I sat next to on the plane back to Kuwait after vacation. She was returning to Iraq.
“You live with your interpreter, sir?” She asked me. I said yes. “Do you really trust him that much?”
Yes. And I hope he’s an American soon. We’ll be better for it.