PARIS // Arifullah Amini is always hesitant about answering calls on Skype. He insists the caller puts the video on, so he can see who he is talking to.
For the last three years, Arifullah, 28, has lived in fear for his life. Fear has led him to move home several times. Fear prevents him from working to provide for his wife and their daughter, who is almost two. The cause of his fear? For six years, Arifullah was employed by the French army in Afghanistan as an interpreter. But in the eyes of the Taliban, he was a collaborator with foreign forces.
Since the French left Afghanistan in July 2014, he has barely left the house. If he goes out in daytime, he wears sunglasses and covers his head with a scarf.
“I received death threats in September 2014. Then, some people came to ask one of my cousins about me,” he says. His wife says people question her whenever she goes out shopping or to pray at the mosque.
“Wherever we move to, people always ask why my husband is not around. Everybody suspects something,” she says.
Arifullah is one of 152 Afghans who worked as translators for the French military but now live in hiding in their native country. Branded infidels or collaborators by the Taliban and ISIL, who have urged Afghan citizens to turn them in, they have pleaded for asylum in France for three years – so far without success.
When Arifullah was working with the French, it was suggested he could emigrate to France.
“And the army promised they would protect me. I took tremendous risks for France. Where are they today?” he asks.
He first applied for a French visa in March 2013. After a 16-month wait, it was refused, just as the French were ending their mission in Afghanistan. He applied again at the end of 2015 and this time, he was interviewed at the French embassy in Kabul. Letters of recommendation were sent on his behalf to the French ministry of defence. They did not help. After waiting eight months, he got another refusal. No reason was given. Now Arifullah says he is waiting for “either the visa or the bullet” – and he has no idea which will come first.
A serviceman who worked with Arifullah for six months in 2011 says he was by far the best of the three interpreters the French employed, mastering complex technical vocabulary as he translated for the French soldiers who were training the Afghan military.
“He was the best. He worked all the time,” said the French soldier, who wishes to remain anonymous. “We do not play with human lives. They took risks for us, we have to respect our commitments. I heard about others who obtained their visas, but when I knew that Ari did not, it left me stunned.”
In all, the French army employed 252 Afghans as interpreters. In 2015, lawyer Caroline Decroix, 36, read about their battle for asylum. With other volunteer lawyers, she formed a pressure group to lobby the French government in early 2015 to examine asylum applications made abroad – which had never been done before – and review the cases of the Afghan interpreters.
But the government appealed to the State Council, the highest administrative court in France, and reviewed only 100 cases.
Despite this setback, Ms Decroix has written to president Francois Hollande and is working on a new legal approach, compiling files on the remaining 152 Afghan interpreters.
If that fails, she intends to go on hunger strike.
“When I see pictures of them arm in arm with the French servicemen, I want to vomit,” she says. “One day, I met François Hollande’s diplomatic adviser. We pointed out that if France continued to behave this way, foreign interpreters would refuse to work with the army. He cynically replied that they would find people motivated by money wherever they go.”
Ironically, the only political voice raised in support of the Afghan translators comes from the far-right Front National, the party that is vehemently against immigration. In December, member of parliament Marion Marechal-Le Pen – granddaughter of party founder Jean-Marie Le Pen and niece of presidential candidate Marine – said refusing visas for the Afghan translators was “arbitrary and unjust”.
“The French government promised to protect these men who, at risk to their own lives, helped the armed forces in their daily work. Since French troops returned, some of those Afghans have been beheaded by the Taliban or the terrorists of ISIL. Others have had death threats and live in permanent fear. Since the government has accepted thousands of migrants who do not qualify for asylum, what are the reasons for denying resettlement to the Afghans who served French forces in their battle against the Taliban?”
Abdul Wares, 24, was one of the lucky ones. He arrived in Lanmeur, a quiet village of 2,000 people, 600 kilometres from Paris in remote western Brittany, last November. He has a flat and says the villagers have been kind and shown no racism towards him. He receives money to live on from the state but is still waiting for his residence permit.
“I was well received by local people but I still cannot join a university, open a bank account or aspire to work without my residence permit,” he says.
The head of a local refugees association recently informed him that when it arrives, the residence permit will only be valid for a year. According to lawyer Caroline Decroix, that information is wrong, and his residence permit should be valid for 10 years. Abdul feels even more confused and frustrated.
“What did they make me come here for? All this dogged assertion of our rights … What’s the point if it was only to stay here for a year?”