Dear brothers and sisters, 

We are a community of Afghan interpreters now living here in Australia. We have come here to make a new life after working with Australian and British and other Coalition forces back in Afghanistan.

From this time there are a lot of memories, mostly bad or sad memories, which are hard to remove. Most of the time, even now we’re in Australia, whenever we hear about the war, explosion, military operation, or even a loud and harsh noise around us, these all bring back bad or sad memories. So too the Australian war crime report about Afghanistan. And of course, the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban.

These all remind us of those times where we experienced the most horrible situations of our life: where we saw our friend covered in blood and lose his life, where nearly we lost our life, and some other horrible situations during military operations. It would be hard to recall and mention all the incidences here, but we want to share how we are dealing with memories that will stay with us forever.

We are writing to you because we hope our words might help when you are visited by memories that cannot be erased. We would like to share some of our memories and how we try to deal with them.

We hope our stories are helpful to you. We hope to send a message of peace.

There are three different sorts of memories of war that we want to share:

We would be interested to know if these are the same sorts of memories that come back to you time and time again.

 

How did we keep going?

That’s a good question. We had no way to contact our families.

But in every camp there were usually three to five interpreters. We were very close. We were sleeping in the same room. We would stick together and watch movies, or late in the evening we’d play cards.

Every camp had a TV room where we would watch Hollywood movies.

Sometimes we were playing chess. Most of the interpreters learnt Chess from their mentors. Through the British troops especially – they play a lot. Each chessboard can take up to one hour so it’s good time to spend. And when you’re playing chess, there’s memory working as well. You have to think which pawn, or king, or castle, or horse, where to go. And you’re thinking about your next move, so it keeps the other memories away.

In the evenings, everyone had just come back from the conflict, from the bad memory, so when we start playing the game, or when you are watching movies with your friend, we were not just 100% in the movie, we were also interrupting each other as well.

Sometimes I also read novels. I read the Kite Runner when I was in Helmand province. That book was like my best friend. 

And then, when it came to sleep, each night there were often rockets being fired into the camps. So we were always trying to find the safest place we could sleep – usually behind HESCO barriers which were full of packed dirt. We would be protected behind these. And then the next day we would start again.

Why we kept going

Sometimes, when things were bad, we would remind ourselves why we were there. Often this was about earning money for our families. We were doing this for our families and the economic problems we had to solve. We would remind ourselves of our responsibility, ‘I am doing this for my family’.

Sometimes it wasn’t just for our families. It wasn’t just a job.

When I saw how a Pakistani interpreter treated our civilians, it really, really hurt me. When I saw his racism in his interpreting, I realised I was needed. A racist translation may take a civilian’s life. When we were going out, we faced lots of civilians. Sometimes we had to ask them security questions but I think the interpreter’s job is just to interpret and translate what your mentor says. You shouldn’t change your behaviour towards a civilian, based on your ethnicity. After this, I realised I was really needed there by both the Coalition forces and especially the community. The civilians need an interpreter from Afghanistan. The one who knows the country. And the one who translates correctly.

As another one of us described:

I worked as an interpreter for US special forces in Paktika and Logar provinces and the Australian Defence Force in Kabul for more than 7 years. During this time, I was totally thinking I was helping my country, helping my people. I was trying to make good words between people during the long war in Afghanistan.

How we deal with sad memories now

There are many different ways that we now deal with our sad memories.  Even though these memories can’t be erased, we are finding ways to live with them.

Staying connected with people who are alive  

One of us describes how he deals with sorrowful memories by staying connected with people who are alive. He describes this as ‘spending time with goodness’:

“One of our team, his name was Abdul Qahar, got blown up by an IED on the side of the road. When I first saw him, I was very depressed. It was the first time when I see somebody dying in front of me. He was a brave soldier. He sacrificed his life for the country so it depressed me a lot. For a week I was dreaming him. When I was going to sleep at midnight I was waking up and I think wow, Qahar was here? No, I was asleep. It was very sorrowful.

When I think of those we lost, I’m losing my tears of my eyes straight away. Of course, I still remember him. This is the sorrow, but it’s also memory of love. I’m still in this world and he is not here. How would his family be? How will his kids be? How are they doing?   I’m with my family, with my kids and he … It is nature, who is dying is dying, who is living is living, but sadness is coming definitely to us. So, we have to control ourself with that.

The way I control myself is to find out about the guys who I worked with who are still alive. I try my best to be communicative with people. This way, I stay stuck with the people who are alive, with the community, so then I am not stuck with the memories that I have in the past.

Sometimes I am going under depression. When I’m not connected to the community, that’s when I’m going back down there. I try not to use Facebook, because that takes me back to the friends what I lost. Because their friends, or their brothers are using their ID accounts, and some of their relatives are putting up pictures of the person we lost. So, mostly I’m not trying to be connected with the Facebook.

Instead, I’m trying to be connected with the real world, with the present world, with the people present in front of me. I’m like, spending all my time with goodness.”

Sharing and turning memories together

We also find ways of sharing our memories. We have gatherings in friends’ houses. When interpreters get together, we tell stories, we remember in special ways.

‘I have great friends here in Dandenong. Most of the times we are coming together, eating together, and everyone is telling their stories and sharing memories. When we are all together, we are sharing those experiences in a very smiling atmosphere. Whenever we feel that one of us is sad about a memory, we have reminded him of, we quickly change or turn that sad memory. We turn it to a very funny way and that makes us all smile again. Everyone is then encouraged to tell their funny stories of those times. We try to find ways to tell our stories in ways that make us smile.

Importantly, we don’t let anyone in our gathering keep quiet. If someone is quiet, we insist they also share his funny experience, or even if it’s sad, we are trying to make it in a funny way. For example, in my situation, my friends are not just trying to ask me about body parts or the boy shot dead, they are just asking what I was doing at that time, how did you assess that situation, how long did it take to get to home, what were other soldiers doing, how strong were they, whether they were shouting, how was the soldiers’ reaction, what did you interpret or translate at that time etc. Their questions help carry me through the memory, and turn it away from sorrow.’

Back in the camps, we had a small community. Now as we make new lives in Australia, we have rebuilt a community. Same in other cities across the country. In different houses, after a beautiful meal and tea, there are interpreters sitting around telling stories.

Those stories are not about death, but about the times we played volleyball together or what we did during Ramadan when we were fasting at the same time as working as interpreters in the heat of Afghanistan. So many stories.

Keeping our friends’ memory alive

We also find our own personal ways to honour the memories of our friends.

‘One of my best friends was an interpreter Ahmad Jawid from Farah province. We were always together. He told me all the story of his life and about how his father was killed by Taliban in 1999 and about how much his mother love him. In the evenings we were playing play cards and chess and he loved brown and black chocolates. He was his mother’s only son so he insisted to come with us on the convoy to Kabul as he spent his last Eid away from family. But he was killed on this journey.

Ahmad loved his military uniform a lot and whenever he was going on a mission or on a patrol, he would look at himself in a mirror we had in our room and was asking me, ‘Hey look at me, how am I looking? After his death, whenever I face a mirror, I felt sad and then smile and then keep quiet. And whenever there was someone around I was asking them, ‘Hey look at me, how am I looking?’ I am trying to keep Ahmad’s memory alive.

Even here in Australia, I have put a big mirror in my bedroom and nearly every morning when I’m looking to the mirror, I’m asking my wife. ‘Hey look at me, how am I looking?’ Most of the time my wife didn’t understand what I mean and simply reply ‘great’. Even when I am shopping and looking at myself in a mirror, I am asking people around. ‘Hey look at me, how am I looking?’. And sometimes, when I go to Coles supermarket, I buy black chocolates to remember him. 

Here I am talking about Ahmad, but every Afghan family has someone who they lost and who they remember.’

Personal therapy

Some of us have also developed what we call personal therapy to deal with sad memories:

“I have like a personal therapy that I am treating myself and I’ll give you some examples. I usually travel to green areas. Research has shown that green areas, or green spaces, are very good for mental health. I usually go to a beachside. Water is very good for mental health. When I usually do not have a good sleep, I wake up early in the morning when the weather is so much clearer, and take myself for a run, maybe for 45 or 50 minutes, to get refreshed for the whole day, so I can work properly. And sometimes, when work stress, or study stress, or the effects of those events from my army career still affect me, then I usually prefer to have social work, maybe like, a party, or just have a nice gathering with my friends. I call this my personal therapy. These things that keep me going in a positive way.”

Friendship

Many of us speak of the importance of friendship:

“Honestly, without my friends, I would say I would have ended up in a mental health hospital by now. Coming to a new country, all the rules and regulations, laws, the way of life … you know, even the first day, when I went out of my house I didn’t know where am I going. Where is the hospital? Where is the shop? How can I go to the bus station? But we were so lucky, friends who have worked with me in the army, we support each other. They were coming to our house and showing us everything we needed. If we did not have these friends here, actually our mental health problems would have gotten worse and worse and we would not have achieved anything that I have. I have a job now and I am a university student. But without friends I would have ended up in a mental health hospital.”

Now we are trying to reach out and support the Afghan families who have fled Kabul and have just arrived in Australia. They are trying to make new lives here and we are doing everything we can to welcome them, to be their friends. 

Volleyball – it’s more than a game

Recently, we have created our own volleyball team. This is giving us mental strength:

“Since being in Australia, I am happy for my kids as they are growing up without fear and getting education, but I am under too much stress. Nearly every morning, when I wake, it’s like I am still in my job as an interpreter and preparing for my risky mission, putting on my body armor and helmet. Back in Afghanistan, I would always think of my kids, family and friends imagining every morning that this would be my last day of life. Now, in Adelaide, when I wake, just for a minute or so, I am back there, before I realise that I am in Australia. During my days here, sad memories are often coming to my mind … thinking about dear friends who have been killed. I witnessed first-hand their broken and blooded body sent off in coffins to their families. But there are things that are making a difference. Since I am coming to volleyball with my sons, it’s really good fun and enjoyment. It’s not only about playing good quality volleyball but it’s also about how we can make our connections stronger and ease our stress. Now every interpreter is anxiously waiting for Sunday to arrive and play volleyball. Sometimes we make the volleyball a competition and whichever team won they have to order a pizza for everyone. It’s very funny but everyone takes the competition very serious!”

“Since we started playing volleyball, I met a lot of new friends who recently came to Australia with nearly the same experience as me, other interpreters who did the same job in Afghanistan and some even worked in the same military camp. Everyone is enjoying coming to volleyball and it’s not only about playing the game. It’s way more than that. When we are playing volleyball, we honour and remember those friends in Afghan National Army who we played with everyday in a small military camp in Afghanistan. I remember us playing volleyball together one afternoon and the next day I saw the parts of the bodies of my teammate hit by IEDs. When I am on the court, together with others who knew the same men, our remembrances and honouring give us all so much comfort. The volleyball also gives us mental strength. My sleep has improved, my headaches that I had especially during afternoons have gone, and my concentration is very good now. The court is also a place for laughter. When an interpreter cannot control the ball in the game, or sometimes when I even purposely hit the ball into the opposite direction, it reminds us of the fun and jokes we shared when playing volleyball in that military camp.”

Learning to swim

We are also arranging swimming lessons for children, for women and for men in our community. There is no ocean in Afghanistan, but there are beautiful beaches here.

Islam embraces all that is pure and beneficial for human beings. It encourages a human being to be strong and to seek the means of strength. In one Hadith, the Prophet – peace be upon him – commands us saying:  Teach your children swimming, archery and horse-riding. This is a direct call to practice sports and shows the great importance Islam places on sports to train and make our bodies healthy and sound. One of the participants in our swimming lessons program described their significance:

“Since attending swimming lessons, I’ve noticed that my sleep has improved At the end of the swimming we have a few hours break and then attend volleyball. It makes my body very tired. When going home with my kids, even sometimes I am not eating dinner and straight to my bed, when I wake up in the moring I feel very fresh and energetic. I was really searching for these feelings when I first came to Australia. When I first arrived here, among all other stresses and issues, the lack of sleep and low energy in the morning was something very difficult for me, for which I attended my doctor several times. I am hoping that swimming lessons for women will continue as they have even more mental health issues than us men in looking after kids, cooking, away from their families, and struggles with English.” 

A cricket game like no other

We have also created a friendship cricket match that brings together our community of Afghan interpreters with Australian Defence Force veterans. This is a cricket game like no other! It acknowledges all those who served in Afghanistan (veterans and interpreters) and supports those who are struggling with the aftermath of military operations, the release of the Brereton Report (in relation to Australian unlawful killings and war crimes), and the fall of Afghanistan to the Taliban. Here is a video from the first game! There were so many highlights:

Thinking of a new future

These are all ways in which we try to keep out of stress and deal with sad memories. We try to be together and do things together. Some of us are also studying at uni or trying to find jobs – like a painter, a builder, a mechanic – that can guarantee our future. Thinking of a new future can also help erase what we’ve been through.

Sharing our stories

We want to share these stories with other interpreter communities and military veterans in Australia, in England, in America or Canada. We hope our stories are helpful to you. We hope it sends a message of peace.

We would also like to hear your ideas. How do you deal with memories that cannot be erased? How are you creating new futures?  

This document is now waiting for your stories to be added. You can share your story or message in your own language … we can translate it!

Thank you

Thanks so much for listening and reading our stories. Whenever someone asks us and looks keen to hear our stories then we feel proud and it gives us energy.”

How we are dealing with sad memories that cannot be erased

How we are creating new futures

  • We’re building community here in our new country and offering friendship to those who have just arrived.
  • We’re sharing food in each other’s houses. Sitting together telling our stories. Sharing and turning memories together.
  • We spend time with goodness – stay connected with people who are alive.
  • We honour the memories of our friends in our own ways. We keep their memories alive. We tell stories about them – stories of what we did when we were together.
  • We’ve also developed our own forms of personal therapy.
  • We remember how we got through times of war:
    • We were very close. We were sleeping in the same room. We would stick together and watch movies, or late in the evening we’d play cards, chess, volleyball.
    • Sometimes books were also our best friend
  • We remember why we worked as interpreters – for our families.
  • And how we were needed by both the Coalition forces and especially the community. We were trying to make good words between people during the long war in Afghanistan.
  • We keep thinking of our futures and the lives of our children by trying to find jobs or studying at uni.

Leave a Reply