Kurdish interpreters for U.S. Army share experiences
Hogir Ahmed (not his real name), 29, worked for the U.S. Army as an interpreter for two years in Anbar province, once an al-Qaeda stronghold. Three years ago, when he graduated from university in Kurdistan Region, he couldn’t find a job in the private sector. The only job available was to teach, but the salary was low. For that reason, he chose to become an interpreter. “In the beginning it was very scary, especially when we were outside on a mission or raiding houses in the villages, but gradually it became normal and not as frightening,” said Ahmed. “I always tried to convince U.S. soldiers not to harm people or break people’s doors down,” he added. Once, a roadside bomb blew up under his armored Humvee, but he was moved to safety. He said his most miserable day was when a friend of his, an Arab interpreter, who had only been working for three days, was killed by an insurgent sniper while on a mission in a rural area in Anbar province.
He believes that interpreters are the most invaluable assistants to the U.S. army. Ahmed said there were always arguments among Kurdish, Sunni, and Shiite interpreters, down to which TV channel to watch.
“The Shiite and Kurdish interpreters were friendly, but they disliked Sunni interpreters; also, Sunni interpreters disliked Shiites and Kurds, particularly Shiites,” said Ahmed. In the beginning, Ahmed tried to befriend every interpreter and not involve in political quarrel with them. Gradually, however, the situation became unbearable and he decided to take sides. “Some Sunni interpreters always defended Saddam’s actions, and we always argued that Saddam attacked Kurds with chemical weapons and killed hundreds of thousands of Kurds and Shiites,” he said. “When Saddam was executed, a Sunni interpreter cried,” he added.
“In the end, we all decided to divide our container [sleeping room] into two parts, Shiites and Kurds together and Sunnis alone; but this did not stop the arguments,” he concluded. Osman Ali (not his real name), 25, worked as an interpreter for U.S. troops in Q West Base in the Qayara area in the northern Iraqi province of Mosul. He said he always carried a pistol when he traveled between his home in Erbil city and the base in case insurgents attacked or kidnapped him. Shortly after he became a U.S. Army interpreter, Ali was very disappointed when he heard that the Americans had allegedly left a translator behind after insurgents attacked them. “There was a meeting in one of the Arab villages in Mosul province between the Iraqi and American armies on one side and tribal leaders on the other side; then, insurgents started shelling the village with mortars. U.S. troops left their interpreter behind,” Ali told the Globe.
He said when he started working with the U.S. Army that he was terrified of roadside bombs, but after awhile they became not only normal but amusing. “Sometimes when we were outside on a mission, on the road inside the truck, instead of being careful and watching out for bad guys, we [he and U.S. soldiers] discussed women and social affairs and sometime sang to each other,” said Ali. His main topic of discussion with U.S. soldiers was about social differences between U.S. and Kurdish societies. Ali said there were always quarrels among Kurd, Shiite, and Sunni interpreters, but they always tried to hide it from the Americans by saying they were just joking with each other.
“Arab interpreters all the time complained to the Americans that Kurdish authorities won’t let Arabs enter Kurdistan Region; we told them that if we let all Arabs enter Kurdistan then the situation in Kurdistan Region would become like Baghdad and Mosul,” said Ali. People in Kurdistan Region do not consider those who work for the American Army “traitors,” unlike most Iraqi Arabs, who consider anyone who works for the Americans “A’ameel,” which is Arabic for collaborator, or, literally, “agent.”
Arab interpreters lead duel lives to avoid being killed, concealing their identities and addresses. On patrol, the men cover their faces with military-issued bandannas that they pull down to the bottom of their sunglasses. But Kurdish interpreters have no such problems. Washington established a program in 2006 that allows interpreters who have worked with U.S. forces in Afghanistan and Iraq for at least 12 months to move to the United States with their families. The program, however, limits the number of “special immigrant visas,” which means only a fraction are granted refuge. In 2008, all 500 visas were issued by April, although a recent law raised the annual quota to 5,000 starting in October. Ali told the Globe that obtaining visa to the U.S. is a priority for Arab interpreters. Since the war began five years ago, at least 200 Iraqis translating for U.S. troops have been killed, most of them in targeted killings, according to L3 Communications, a New York company that supplies interpreters to the American military.