He may be thousands of miles away, safe in the sunlit offices of his home counties lawyer, but Elyas Mohtasham still blanches as he recalls a day he nearly died while working as an interpreter for the British Army in Afghanistan. The young Afghan had just crossed the military compound at Nad-e Ali, in Helmand province, where the unit was stationed, to fetch a bottle of water. He was to be briefed by his sergeant-major about the next patrol against the Taliban. Suddenly, bullets started ricocheting around his legs.
“We’d been out trying to secure a road that day and everyone had come back to the compound, pulled off their body armour and started making food and relaxing,” he recalls. “I saw the sergeantmajor sitting on the stairs and was on my way to join him. With the first shot the sergeant-major took it in his head [he mimes a bullet passing through the temples].
“He fell off the stairs … it was a very horrible day. We took cover and pulled our helmets on, but it was like people say: the whole of your life flashes in front of you. Nobody expected to come out alive.”
When the hail of fire subsided, five of the 15 British soldiers lay dead and six wounded. A rogue Afghan policeman had turned assassin inside the compound where the British had been training Afghan police.
The incident, in 2009, made headlines around the world, but for Mohtasham it was only one of several brushes with death during the three years he spent as an army interpreter.
Now, however, he is looking forward to a very different future. Last week Mohtasham, 25, who was forced to flee Afghanistan earlier this year after receiving death threats from the Taliban for being a “collaborator”, was told that he had won a test case giving him the right to settle in Britain. It followed a struggle that saw him spend two months in Wormwood Scrubs.
According to Andrew Morris, his lawyer, the controversial legal victory paves the way for many of the other 650 Afghan interpreters working with British troops to seek asylum here too. After all, they face real risk, especially after 2014, the date British troops are expected to complete their withdrawal from the country. About 15 have already been killed in service.
“This case must set a precedent,” says Morris, of Hine solicitors. “Iraqi interpreters were given the choice of accepting a large sum of money or resettling in the UK after the Iraq war ended and I don’t see how it can be any different for Afghan interpreters, especially now that this first case has been conceded.”
Mohtasham, sitting with his lawyer at the firm’s offices in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire, elaborates: “An interpreter’s life is very difficult in Afghanistan; people call us spies. Like me, interpreters have been threatened and told to leave their jobs. Worse, though, was the demand for information — even a small piece of information can be useful to the Taliban. After the kidnappers got the answers to their questions, the interpreters’ bodies were found dumped at the corner of streets. I knew one of these guys, I was at school with him. He left his job with the American troops after being threatened and he ended up dead anyway.”
Mohtasham’s story began three years ago in the streets of Kabul. Like many young men in the crippled country, he struggled to find a job in Afghanistan’s capital, where his father worked as a shopkeeper and his mother and a sister as teachers. Despite returning again and again to university to gain extra qualifications in engineering, law and IT, he says: “I couldn’t find a nice job.”
So when, aged 22, he heard that the British Army was looking for interpreters, he went to a base, passed the security tests and was signed up. To all intents and purposes he was, he says, an “unarmed soldier”, escorting troops on patrols and translating between the English-speaking soldiers and the local Afghans. It was a dangerous role. In his first three months, accompanying British soldiers trying to persuade a farmer to stop growing poppies for opium, he came under fire.
“Bullets were passing my head by two inches and we had no cover. We were lying in the field. It took 20 minutes before the jets arrived to scare the Taliban off,” he remembers.
He was also attacked in armoured vehicles: “We got hit by RPGs [rocket-propelled grenades] and IEDs [improvised explosive devices] but we survived,” he says calmly. But he loved the job, especially his last, safest posting, as a cultural adviser to the troops, briefing them on Afghanistan’s holy days and traditions.
In July this year everything changed. Soon after a leave visit to his family he was phoned by his father. They had received a letter warning him to quit his job or risk being killed as a collaborator. So he resigned and returned home to Kabul, but then came a second letter containing more threats. The family moved house but couldn’t afford to move far from Kabul and their jobs. So Mohtasham’s father gave his son his life savings and told him to leave the country.
This is where the story gets murky. “I met somebody in an internet cafe and told him I wanted to get out quickly,” the young Afghan recalls. “He said he could do it in a week’s time for $22,000 (£14,000). So the following Friday I went there, paid the money and we both boarded a flight to Dubai. He had told me not to look at him while we were travelling, to follow his rules. He took my Afghan passport and said he would give me a British one when we arrived at Heathrow. When Mohtasham changed flights at Dubai he didn’t know if his companion had also boarded for London, because he was looking straight ahead as instructed, but when he landed at Heathrow he was devastated to find that he was on his own.
Confused and upset, Mohtasham went straight to the immigration officers and, as he says, “introduced myself”. No one asked his story; instead he was charged with entering Britain without a passport — a criminal offence — and sent to Wormwood Scrubs, where he shared a cell with a drug smuggler, to await trial. It was , he says with feeling,”the worst nightmare of my life. I’d rather have been under fire.”
Luckily, however, his case was picked up by Hine, the court’s duty solicitors, and pursued with vigour by the lawyers, who wrote to the soldiers with whom Mohtasham had worked in Afghanistan. Twelve days ago the charges were dropped after the court heard the testimony of army officers. Of the young Afghan’s service, a major told the court: “He provided skills that were … of significant value to the British forces. Elyas was well known, as he held a high-profile role. It is likely that this profile and his association with the forces contributed to his being targeted. I therefore consider it unfair to unduly punish him for seeking refuge in a country he served so loyally under life-threatening conditions.”
A few days later Mohtasham was celebrating again after being told that he had also won his case for asylum. He now has the right to stay in Britain for five years. Living in a hostel outside London, waiting for his refugee passport to come through, this well-educated Afghan has only one desire that many will find surprising — to find a job with the British Army. “I have no regrets,” he says. I lived army life for three years and I really liked it. I’m hoping to work for them again.”