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AFGHANISTAN-US: Military Translators Risk Low Pay, Death

Pratap Chatterjee*

WASHINGTON, Aug 14 2009 (IPS) - Murtaza “Jimmy” Farukhi was killed while on patrol with the U.S. Marine Corps on Sep. 9, 2008, at the age of 23. He was not a soldier, but a local translator employed by Columbus, Ohio-based Mission Essential Personnel (MEP).

Farukhi was one of 24 MEP translators killed and 56 injured since the company’s contract with the U.S. military began in September 2007, according to company statistics.

MEP was awarded a five-year contract in September 2007 by the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM) to provide 1,691 translators in Afghanistan. MEP defeated the incumbent contractor, San Diego, California- based Titan Corporation. The contract is worth up to 414 million dollars.

When he was alive Farukhi was paid between 650 dollars and 900 dollars a month, depending on how much time he spent on patrol with the soldiers. In compensation for his death, his family got a one time payment of 10,000 dollars from MEP, and is hoping for a similar amount from their insurance company, Zurich Financial Services.

Farukhi’s former colleagues say that they are unhappy with the salaries, which have been cut some 20 percent in the last two years, as well as with the death compensation for their colleagues that have been killed.

Sole Bread Winner

A Tajik from the Panjshir Valley, Farukhi’s family fled their village in the 1980s after Russian jets destroyed their home during the Soviet occupation. They moved to Kabul and then, when the Taliban came to power, to Peshawar in Pakistan. When the U.S. defeated the Taliban, the Farukhi family moved to the Azaadi neighbourhood just outside central Kabul.

Farukhi’s father, Alam Shah, and his two younger brothers, Akbar and Kabir, said that Murtaza had taken a job with Titan in 2003, because his father was sick and the family needed the money.

“He was my best friend,” Akbar, his 19-year-old brother, recalled. “He was very loving, kind, never hurt anyone. We would go to school together. He helped me when I got into fights, preventing me from getting into quarrels with other people.”

Once he started working, Murtaza Farukhi was sometimes away for three to four months at a time. His family arranged for him to marry a distant cousin who was an orphan, and in May 2008 the couple had a daughter they named Najma.

On Sep. 8, 2008, Murtaza Farukhi had a premonition that something bad would happen. His wife urged him not to go to work, but he said that she should not worry. He gave his brother Akbar 50 dollars to fix the household computer. The last Akbar Farukhi heard from his older brother was a text message checking whether the repair had been done.

The following day, Murtaza Farukhi was killed in Nijrab, Kapisa province when a roadside bomb struck the Humvee that he was riding in. Also killed were Lieutenant Nicholas Madrazo and Captain Jessi Melton of the U.S. Marines, and Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Eichmann Strickland.

“It is always a tragedy when one of ours is hurt or killed in the line of duty, and we regard our fallen colleagues as heroes,” says MEP spokesperson Sean Rushton.

Not Enough Compensation

Samim, a Pashtun translator from eastern Afghanistan who previously worked for MEP, says: “God forgive them, but there are many interpreters who have been killed but [their families] haven’t been compensated. Even if they did get any compensation, they got it after long arguments.” He ticks some of them off from memory: “There was Hamid who was killed in Nuristan. Emran was killed in the Devangal Valley in Kunar Province, and another in Paktia,” he says.

Samim, who asked that his full name be withheld for personal safety reasons, also says that MEP pays local translators less than their predecessor. A Titan translator who had spent two years with the company could expect 1,050 dollars a month, but MEP slashed this to 900 dollars or less. New employees who do not travel with the troops make just 650 dollars a month.

“MEP cannot comment on Titan Corporation’s practices. This is a different contract with different pay scales,” says Rushton. He noted that translators who did “more difficult, more strenuous, and more dangerous jobs” were compensated at a higher rate. “When MEP took over the Afghanistan language contract, it overhauled the method by which LNLs [local nationals] were paid, improving it substantially – even while the number of contractors using it has doubled. The previous company’s payroll system was slow and inconsistent, and had a high error rate.”

But former MEP translators noted that the higher salaries for more dangerous work were still lower than Titan’s rate. “I think they don’t really care that we are the people who work hand-in-hand, shoulder-to-shoulder with the U.S. armed forces,” said Samim. “They sacrifice their precious lives but [MEP] doesn’t care that they [the translators] are targeted. They may work for one year, but they will be targeted for the rest of their lives by the insurgents, the terrorists and the bad guys.”

For most of the thousands of translators who now work for MEP in Afghanistan, even the lower salaries were better than no job at all, so most accepted the new contracts.

Several Afghan translators say that that don’t even get to keep a copy of their paper contracts. MEP said the lack of copies of the signed agreements was to protect the local hires who are not allowed to carry any documents that link them to the U.S. military.

Fired For Fighting

In July 2008, an MEP site manager fired Samim “for starting a fight with another linguist,” according to a company statement released to CorpWatch. “During the fight, he used disparaging words regarding religion which damaged team morale.”

Samim says that he was not even present at the time of the alleged incident and that the site managers confused him with a different translator. After four years on the job, he was told to leave the base in Kunar overnight “as if I was Taliban.” Samim remains bitter. “I have saved many American lives. People even call me ‘Son of Bush, infidel,’” he said. “But MEP treats us like trash. They treat us like criminals.”

Samim appealed his case to MEP’s director of human resources, but to no avail.

That kind of treatment lost MEP a skilled employee. Samim quickly found new work with DynCorp, a U.S. company with a police training contract, that valued his experience working in the field with U.S. troops in places such as the Korangal Valley in Kunar province, sometimes called the “Valley of Death.” Before long, Samim was making more money than he had at MEP, and being courted by international agencies including the European Police mission in Afghanistan. Today he works for NATO in Logar Province.

Next In Line

In late September Akbar Farukhi and his father were invited to Camp Phoenix to meet MEP staff. They filled out the paperwork and were given 10,000 dollars in compensation – approximately a year’s salary. The family says it is still waiting for the second instalment of promised compensation.

There was only one guaranteed path for the family to stay together and support Farukhi’s widow and her orphan daughter. So on Sep. 21, 2008, immediately after Akbar Farukhi picked up the check for the death of his brother, the 18-year-old walked across Camp Phoenix to register with MEP to take his brother’s place. He did this so that he could get a basic 650- dollar-a-monthly salary to take care of his brother, his father, his widowed sister-in-law and Najma, Farukhi’s three-month-old daughter.

*This is the second of a two-part investigative series on translators in Afghanistan by Pratap Chatterjee. Pratap is a senior editor at CorpWatch. This article was produced in partnership with CorpWatch.

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