Escape by road of an interpreter from the Spanish troops: from Kabul to Islamabad passing through Kandahar

  • By:karen-millen

13

03/2023

It was a morning in August 2007 when Mohammad Zarin, now 45 years old, demonstrated that being an interpreter for Spanish troops in Afghanistan sometimes requires a bulletproof commitment. An ambush with several deaths near Bala Murghab, in the province of Badghis, is the bitterest memory he keeps of those four years (2004-2008) of service to Spain. He tells it in Islamabad while showing numerous documents that certify his work and with which he hopes to be able to make the leap from the capital of Pakistan to Spain with his wife and three children.Spanish Troop Interpreter Fleeing by Road: From Kabul to Islamabad via Kandahar A Spanish troops interpreter fleeing by road: from Kabul to Islamabad via Kandahar

Zarin, a Spanish graduate from the University of Kabul, escaped with his family from Afghanistan by road when he saw that the Taliban advance towards the capital had no brakes. The authorities of his country, with whom he had contact due to his work as a journalist, helped him make the decision. Not even they were optimistic, although they thought that, at least, the capital was going to resist something and be the scene of a "great war" that never took place, says the interpreter.

At the beginning of August they decide to leave almost with nothing on. The first leg was to Ghazni, 150 kilometers south of Kabul. There they spent the night at his father-in-law's house. It was he who put them in contact with a trusted Pashtun driver who took them, passing through Kandahar, to the border of Spin Boldak, the last town before Pakistan. They went with humble clothes so as not to attract attention and some food to endure the more than 400 kilometers, details the interpreter sitting on a carpet while sipping a cup of tea.

There was another matter that worried them and forced them to think carefully about the trip without delay. Zarin and his family are of ethnic Hazara, a Shiite group often persecuted by the Taliban and other radical Sunni groups. As he speaks, the interpreter points to his face, in a gesture to explain that they could not hide their Mongol origin as they headed towards Pakistan through territory with a Pashtun majority. The Hazaras represent approximately 10% of Afghans while the Pashtuns, the majority ethnic group among the Taliban, are almost half the population. “The Taliban say that we are idiots and that they have to kill us,” he says without losing his smile. "Many are Wahhabi Sunnis," he adds, referring to one of the most rigorous and extreme versions of Islam.

At the risk of exhaustive checks, she decided to leave behind her mobile phone with all her contacts, photos and information. "It's the first thing they ask you many times," she explains, referring to the sneaky device that he knows so much about its owner. Nor did he take with him all the papers - very compromising if they are found - with which he now shows that he worked for the Spanish troops. The documentation, he points out, arrived in Pakistan by another route along with an acquaintance.

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An interpreter escapes by road from the Spanish troops: from Kabul to Islamabad passing through Kandahar

Zarin ruled out fleeing across the Iranian border, a Shiite stronghold, due to the difficulties that this route entails, often used for clandestine emigration and its mafias. In addition, his little brother settled in Islamabad eight months ago and is the one who welcomes them in his rental house. He is also a journalist and nine months ago he decided to leave Kabul in the face of the bleak outlook for the profession. Now he works in a restaurant in the Pakistani capital.

The family traveled aboard a white Toyota Corolla, in what is popularly called a saracha (vehicle adapted for greater capacity in public transport). To minimize risks, the driver did not always opt for the main road. “They stopped us at some Taliban checkpoints, but they were nice. They didn't search us or make us get out of the car,” says Mohammad Zarin as his two daughters look at him curiously. The price of the journey, which took them from early morning until dark, was 20,000 afghanis (about 200 euros).

There was the last push left. A bribe of 10,000 rupees (about 50 euros) for the agents to welcome them to Chamán, the Pakistani side of the border. Then, by public transport to the neighboring city of Quetta, where a restaurant owner let them spend the night in a room.

After these weeks and already in Islamabad, Zarin takes stock without hiding his optimism about a possible move to Spain. He fondly remembers the Eurocup final that Spain beat Germany in 2008 and that Afghan and military interpreters lived from the Qala-i-Naw base.

But he will never forget the attack they suffered the year before while traveling north. "That was a war from nine in the morning until three in the afternoon," he says. Afghan military vehicles opened the convoy. Next, the Spanish. With them was Zarin, who, through the comm system, was the link to his compatriots ahead. When the storm of fire broke out, he was left lying on the ground and trying to protect himself with the Vantac (high mobility tactical vehicle). In the midst of the chaos, he was chanting to the Spanish military how his compatriots were falling dead or wounded as they were informing him on the walkie talkie. That day there were no casualties among the foreign troops. "The bullets passed around me, pish-pish," he explains as he draws the trajectory around his body in the air. Suddenly, as if someone wanted to unconsciously stop the story in full swing with the helicopter evacuations, the phone rings.

“Wait a minute. It's from the Embassy." They inform him that the procedures for his transfer to Spain are advancing and that at two in the afternoon a driver comes to look for him. In a second call, the interlocutor is the driver himself, who asks Zarin in English. He does not understand. It is his 10-year-old daughter Helen who, in this case, acts as an interpreter for her father, the interpreter, who speaks Dari, Pashto and Spanish, but not English. The older brother, Komail, 13, and little Zahra, eight, witness the scene.

Helen, with perfect penmanship, attended a public school in Kabul and an English academy. She proudly shows everything she knows, even acting as a bridge between her mother, Adela, and the reporter. During a walk through the nearby Peshawar Murr market, Helen browses the shops hand in hand with her father. He has some concern about going to Spain. It is a country that she hardly knows anything about but she is sure that "there is no war there and she will be able to go to school".

Meeting with the Spanish minister

Mohammad Zarin is the only Afghan who worked for Spanish troops who has found refuge in Pakistan and of whom Madrid is aware. These days he is waiting for the bureaucracy to advance so that he can travel to Spain with his wife and his daughters, sources from the Embassy in Islamabad confirm.

The Foreign Minister, José Manuel Albares, visited Pakistan on Friday and held meetings with the Prime Minister, the Foreign Minister and the Chief of the General Staff. In an interview with EL PAÍS upon returning to Madrid, the head of Spanish diplomacy highlighted Islamabad's commitment to help evacuate Afghan collaborators.

Albares himself was able to meet Mohammad Zarin and his family. The interpreter appreciates the efforts and recognizes that the Spanish authorities do not forget about him.

The list with the numbers of those who remain has not been made public, but among them is Farhat Sarwari, 40, who these days is hiding with his family at the house of a friend in Kabul waiting for the police to arrive. Spanish authorities contact him. Next to him are his wife, his daughter and his son and his little brother with his wife. Sarwari worked as an interpreter at the Spanish Qala-i-Naw base between 2004 and 2013.

Plunged in wars for four decades, Afghanistan is a permanent generator of refugees. Of the 2.6 million recognized by UNHCR, the UN agency, 90% are sheltered in Pakistan and Iran.

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Escape by road of an interpreter from the Spanish troops: from Kabul to Islamabad passing through Kandahar
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