Armed Conflicts, Headlines, Human Rights, Middle East & North Africa, North America

AFGHANISTAN-US: Mission Essential, Translators Expendable

Pratap Chatterjee*

WASHINGTON, Aug 13 2009 (IPS) - Basir "Steve" Ahmed was returning from a bomb-clearing mission in Khogyani district in northeastern Afghanistan when a suicide bomber blew up an explosive-filled vehicle nearby. The blast flipped the military armoured truck Ahmed was riding in three or four times, and filled it with smoke. The Afghan translator had been accompanying the 927th Engineer Company near the Pakistan border on that October day in 2008 that would forever change his life.

"I saw the gunner come out and I followed him. The U.S. Army soldiers helped pull me out, but I got burns," says Ahmed, who had worked as a contract translator with U.S. troops for almost four years. "The last thing I remember was the ‘dub-dub-dub’ of a Chinook helicopter." A medical evacuation team took the injured men to a U.S. Army hospital at Bagram Base.

Three days later Ahmed regained consciousness, but was suffering from shrapnel wounds in his scalp and severe burns covering his right hand and leg.

A little more than three months after his accident, Ahmed was fired by his employer, Mission Essential Personnel (MEP) of Columbus, Ohio – the largest supplier of translators to the U.S. military in Afghanistan. In a statement released to this reporter, the company said that Ahmed’s "military point of contact (POC) informed MEP that Basir was frequently late and did not show up on several occasions. A few days later, Basir’s POC called MEP’s manager and told her that they were not able to use him and requested a new linguist."

Ahmed says he missed only one day of work and arrived late twice.

Today, he lives in hiding in nearby Jalalabad for fear that his family will be targeted because he had worked with the U.S. military. The 29-year-old has no job and had to wait nine months for disability compensation to pay for medical treatment for the burns that still prevent him from lifting his hand to his mouth to feed himself.


Ahmed is one of dozens of local Afghans who have been abandoned or poorly treated by a complex web of U.S. contractors, their insurance companies, and their military counterparts despite years of service risking life and limb to help the U.S. military in the ongoing war in Afghanistan.

"I Trust Him With My Life"

On a table inside a safe house in Kabul, Basir Ahmed placed dozens of photos, certificates of appreciation, and letters of recommendation from the U.S. military units he had worked with between 2005 and 2009. Some pictures showed him in Nuristan wearing T-shirts and wraparound sunglasses and sitting next to the sandbags and concrete barriers. In others, he stood in camouflage gear in the depths of winter next to a snowman.

For example, Sergeant David R. Head and First Lieutenant Candace N. Mathis of the Provincial Reconstruction Team at Task Force Spartan at the Kamdesh base wrote on Dec. 22, 2006 that: "his performance was superb and very professional. He works well as a linguist, and is always punctual."

On May 11, 2008, Ahmed received a certificate of appreciation from Lieutenant Colonel Anthony O. Wright of the 70th Engineer Battalion (Kodiaks) for his help as an interpreter during the road-clearing programme from 2006 to 2008.

It was just five months later, on a similar patrol with the 927th Engineer Company, that Ahmed was injured. At the Bagram Base, the military doctors did some skin grafts, but after about 11 days, sent him to an Afghan military hospital in Kabul. For two to three months he could not sleep properly – scaring his family when he woke up yelling.

Then Gabby Nelson – the MEP site manager – summoned Ahmed back to Jalalabad, where she had the military doctors look at him again. For about 15 days, they treated the burns. He had to report to the gate of the base at 7 a.m. in the middle of winter for Nelson to drive him to the hospital one kilometre away – too far to walk with his injuries. She was often an hour late, he said, a painful and cold delay, but when he asked her to be more punctual, she said she would stop picking him up. He stopped going to the hospital.

Two weeks later Ahmed says Nelson asked him to report for a 12-hour shift starting at 6 a.m. despite the doctors’ recommendation for a month’s rest. After working for the full month, he received 578 dollars, significantly less than the 845 dollars that he normally earned.

Then as luck would have it, he says, he missed work once and was late twice, because of delays on the road to the base, where the Afghan and U.S. forces often tied up traffic with their manoeuvres, he explained. Nelson told him to turn in his badge. He tried to appeal to the military, but they said they couldn’t help him – so he left the base on Jan. 24, 2009.

Soldiers who had previously worked with Ahmed, confirmed the certificates of appreciation and recommendations about his punctuality and the quality of his work. "He did his job diligently and willingly. He served with us during the most uncomfortable times, but never complained," said one soldier, who asked to remain anonymous.

Official Response

Ahmed’s employer – Ohio-based Mission Essential Personnel – was awarded a five-year contract in September 2007 by the U.S. Army Intelligence and Security Command (INSCOM). The contract, to provide 1,691 translators in Afghanistan, is worth up to 414 million dollars.

MEP spokesman Sean Rushton says that the company did the best it could to help Ahmed with his medical needs. "A desire to improve treatment of linguists is what began our company," said the spokesman.

Rushton and MEP’s senior management said that they were pained to hear that Basir was upset at being "let go."

"Anyone reading an account of a translator who was simply let go by a company after being wounded would of course be outraged at the company, but that not only isn’t true in this instance, exactly the opposite is the case," the company said in a statement released to the media.

"We have financial records showing seven disability and salary payments between his injury and the final settlement. It has been said Basir [Ahmed] received insufficient medical care, yet MEP employees not only ensured his medical coverage, they regularly took him to his treatment and got him into a U.S. military hospital," the company stated.

"It has been suggested Basir waited endlessly for his disability settlement, yet the funds arrived within six weeks of his rehabilitation’s conclusion. It has been suggested MEP forced Basir to return to work when he was still recuperating, yet MEP had no financial incentive to do so and in fact, at Basir’s request, MEP got him onto accommodated duty, free of physical hardship. It has been suggested MEP cut Basir loose after he was dismissed by his military supervisor, yet MEP was and is anxious to help Basir, including by considering him for a new job."

Reached by phone for his response to MEP’s statement, Ahmed says that he did get disability payments such as a check for 10,000 dollars sent to him in early July 2009 – nine months after he was injured. Yet he still feels that his employer and the military abandoned him.

But he has not been completely forgotten. About two months after leaving his job, he started receiving death threats. "Believe me, my family is too scared. One day I saw a night letter from the Taliban. They put it in our door: ‘You three brothers work for the U.S. Army. Quit your job. Otherwise we are going to kill your whole family,’" he says.

Like many of his colleagues, Ahmed had kept his employment a secret from his neighbours, he believes that the injuries provided a clue about the true nature of his occupation to Taliban sympathizers in the community.

(*This is the first 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 – www.corpwatch.org.)

 
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