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一個老兵的戰斗:營救阿富汗翻譯

一個老兵的戰斗:營救阿富汗翻譯

Julie Watson, Andrea Rosa, 美聯社 2021年08月31日
為美國效力,又被美國“拋棄”的阿富汗人,命運會如何?

大概十年前,兩人冒著生命危險共同作戰,在槍林彈雨中建立起可以將后背交給對方的長久友誼。

如今,一家德國西裝店內,美國士兵和阿富汗翻譯再次并肩。在美國簽證被拒后,阿卜杜勒哈克?索迪斯的未來取決于德國法院舉行的庇護聽證會上的結果,而斯潘塞?沙利文正在幫他做準備。

兩人一起看了索迪斯家鄉的視頻,槍聲此起彼伏,濃煙滾滾中人們運送著尸體。美軍撤離后短短幾天,靠著索迪斯和沙利文等人多年努力建立的脆弱政府就垮臺了。

“我沒有忍住,哭了。”索迪斯說。“我的父親說,塔利班在赫拉特挨家挨戶地搜查曾經為聯軍工作的人。”

這是沙利文內心深深的傷痛:他之前的翻譯賽義德?馬蘇德在等待美國簽證期間不幸身亡。美國政府做了他從未預料的事情:背叛。

索迪斯靠著偷渡到了歐洲,沙利文決心不讓他遭受同樣的命運。

正因如此,他才從美國加利福尼亞州飛往德國幫助索迪斯挑選衣服,參加9月6日的庇護聽證會。

在充滿傷害和不確定的世界里,沙利文唯一能夠控制的事情就是買套西裝。如果在出席庇護聽證會時穿著專業,可能說服法官幫助保護索迪斯的安全,維護美國無法遵守的神圣誓言,這至少可以帶來改變的希望。

“我向他承諾,正如美國承諾保護他挽救他的生命一樣。”沙利文說。“怎么可以背信棄義?我認為答案并不復雜。其實很簡單。”

單槍匹馬營救

數十位美國老兵在獨立營救出了曾經并肩作戰的阿富汗人,沙利文只是其中之一。

早在8月美軍從阿富汗漫長戰爭中撤出,塔利班迅速接管,而阿富汗當地人紛紛逃離混亂之前,營救就已經開始。

多年來,由于美國特殊移民簽證計劃嚴重積壓且飽受圍攻,數千名曾經幫助過美軍的阿富汗人一直深陷困境。塔利班瘋狂追捕的消息不斷,他們只能給戰場上幫助過的美國士兵打電話求助。

特殊簽證項目意味著阿富汗人和家人能夠前往美國。但簽證實在太少,每年美國國會批準的簽證數量不夠,前特朗普政府又增加了新的安全要求和官僚障礙,平均等待時間從幾個月延長到近三年。

只是因為工作記錄中存在微小或不公正的矛盾,有些人就會直接被拒。現在很多人擔心,僅僅因為像有上班遲到的記錄這種并不公平乃至單純意外的原因,都可能減少逃離的機會,甚至可能付出生命的代價。

杰出的口譯

2012年至2013年,在蘇利文領導的阿富汗戰排的十幾名口譯員中,索迪斯和馬蘇德最為優秀。

兩名口譯都跟隨他的戰排執行了數十項任務,進入塔利班控制的村莊,手無寸鐵地面臨戰火。

2013年,馬蘇德在工作時收到死亡威脅后便申請了特殊移民簽證。申請材料中包括一封來自沙利文的推薦信,信中稱他“守時、專業、精通語言,是值得信賴的朋友”。

“為了表達美國對他服務的感激,最少也應該提供一張特別移民簽證。”沙利文寫道。

兩年后,馬蘇德的申請遭駁回。美國大使館稱,他沒有為美國政府或軍方工作過。然而,馬蘇德工作的美國公司與國防部簽有合同,專為駐阿富汗部隊提供語言服務。

馬蘇德提出上訴,沙利文給駐喀布爾的美國大使館負責人又寫了一封信,提供了更多工作細節,但無人回應。

沙利文找其他的老兵求助,想看看能夠提供什么幫助。他發現花2萬美元可以幫助馬蘇德偷渡,但沙利文不想支持犯罪網絡。他還是希望申請美國簽證的路能夠走通。

與此同時,隨著威脅升級,馬蘇德被迫各處躲藏,發給沙利文的信息也越來越少。

“他越來越慌亂害怕。”沙利文說。

2017年夏天,沙利文收到了最后一條信息。

“你好,很抱歉回信晚了。我遇到了問題。”馬蘇德的信息主要為未能跟朋友保持密切聯系而致歉。

“我說過,沒有關系的!”沙利文回了短信。

“你現在安全嗎?”

然而,沙利文再也沒有收到回復。

幾周后,沙利文收到馬蘇德兄弟回復的電子郵件:“馬蘇德回家參加親戚的葬禮,被塔利班開槍打死。”

沙利文沉浸在悲傷和內疚之中。他曾在Facebook上發過兩人的合照,他覺得朋友身陷危險或許是因為自己行事不當。同時,他也在反思自己之前是不是應該更努力地保護朋友。

他說:“我感覺很無助,不知道還可以做什么。也許早應該把2萬美元給骯臟的走私犯。”

馬蘇德死后一年半,沙利文終于收到了美國駐喀布爾大使館的電子郵件,通知他阿富汗特殊移民簽證處已經收到給馬蘇德的推薦信。

發信的官員想知道推薦信是否正當,沙利文還會不會推薦該申請人,從而開始審核流程。信中有一張留著濃密紅發和稀疏胡子的馬蘇德的照片。

沙利文回信給大使館說,在等待申請流程的四年多里,馬蘇德已遭到殺害。

2021年8月27日,喀布爾機場。8月26日機場發生兩起自殺式炸彈,造成數十人死亡,其中包括13名美軍士兵。爆炸現場遍地是逃離中阿富汗人的背包和物品。圖片來源:Wakil Kohsar—AFP/Getty Images

一起死亡事件引發的連續反應

在馬蘇德遇害后,沙利文發生的事情告訴了他的翻譯索迪斯,但沙利文沒有得到對方的回復。

與馬蘇德一樣,索迪斯也曾在2013年申請特別移民簽證,但被拒簽。他在2015年和2016年再次申請,但都被拒簽。2017年他最后一次被拒簽,沙利文給美國駐喀布爾大使館寫了信,說明支持索迪斯申請的理由。

后來,叔叔被斬首,而曾擔任聯軍燃料卡車司機的鄰居在自家門前被塔利班射殺,索迪斯因此決定自尋出路逃出阿富汗。索迪斯在圖書館自學了英語,因為他仰慕美國并且相信美國的使命。

他的計劃是通過陸路前往歐洲。索迪斯的兄弟在一家旅行社有一位熟人,在這位熟人的幫助下,他辦理了前往伊朗的旅游簽證,他的家人認識一位住在伊朗的阿富汗人,索迪斯通過這個人聯系上了第一位蛇頭。

索迪斯背著一包衣服和價值100美元的伊朗里亞爾,開始了逃亡之旅。

他在途中結識了其他曾為聯軍工作的阿富汗人,他們也與他一樣希望通過蛇頭找到安全的庇護所。

索迪斯與其他難民一起被裝進了人擠人的車廂里。他們曾經在夜間的暴風雪中翻越高山,還要躲避土耳其邊防軍的攻擊。他曾經被蛇頭毒打和拋棄,也曾經被警察關押和毆打。

與此同時,隨著塔利班在當地的勢力日益龐大,索迪斯留在阿富汗的家人也不得不搬家,并催促他盡快找到安全的地方。由于土耳其和希臘禁止阿富汗人入境,索迪斯決定前往德國。為了給他的逃亡之旅籌錢,家人賣掉了家里的小百貨商店。

索迪斯用七個月時間,花了家里15,000美元,才最終抵達德國。入境德國之后,他馬上申請避難,但由于缺乏足夠的照片或資料能夠證明他的說法,申請很快被駁回。

他打電話給已經一年多沒有聯系的沙利文。

這令沙利文喜出望外。他的第一反應是:“ 我的上帝,他還活著!”

四個月后,沙利文去德國見了索迪斯,并為他提供了幫助。

沙利文向德國法院寫了一份報告。他給索迪斯寄去了許多照片,證明索迪斯曾經在他的站排工作,他還致信美國政府獲取了索迪斯的檔案,證明他的合同因為“放棄工作”而在2013年終止。

索迪斯說,他在一次任務中遭遇簡易爆炸裝置襲擊,導致背部受傷。因回家治療,他的30天假期超期。

索迪斯在2014年被美軍重新雇傭,但他的合同由一家民用承包商負責管理。該承包商在2016年以工作表現不佳為由終止了與他的合同。

索迪斯是個表現出色的人。沙利文為此聯系到2016年解雇索迪斯的民用國防承包商,詢問事情的經過,但對方拒絕幫助他或為他提供解釋。對方簽字的文件只顯示,他之所以被解雇是因為“他的能力不適合該部門的任務。”

面對美聯社(The Associated Press)的詢問,對方也不愿意回答是否記得索迪斯,或是否是出于安全考慮解雇了索迪斯。

索迪斯表示,承包商指控他在工作期間查看個人Facebook頁面,但這一指控沒有根據。

在苦苦等待德國法院判決兩年之后,索迪斯已經陷入了深度抑郁的狀態。他時刻擔心被驅逐出境,還要承受頭痛、后背痛和因為簡易爆炸裝置爆炸受傷而導致的其他疾病。

2020年3月,他曾經試圖服用大量止痛藥自殺。他曾經被診斷出患有創傷后應激障礙,在一家精神病院治療近兩個月。

他出院后發信息給沙利文。

索迪斯后來說道:“我現在能夠活著,都要感謝斯潘塞,都是因為他。”

沙利文說,他只是在履行戰場上許下的承諾。他正在幫助索迪斯寫一本書,介紹自己作為阿富汗難民的經歷。

目前,索迪斯已經安全。8月11日,由于局勢動蕩,德國臨時停止驅逐所有阿富汗難民,但并沒有具體說明該項命令會持續多久。

當談到沒有提供幫助的美國政府時,沙利文稱:“德國正在填補我們在道德上的缺失。”

但索迪斯擔心,一旦德國恢復驅逐阿富汗難民,他的好運總有一天會到頭。

他在與沙利文的Zoom通話中哀嘆道:“有時候,現在的生活真的讓我無力抗爭。”他擔心阿富汗同胞的遭遇,也因無法拯救留在國內的親人而感到愧疚,還因前途一片渺茫而深感焦慮。

他質疑自己如何才可以前往他夢寐以求的美國。

沙利文要他振作起來,并提醒他集中精力應對9月6日的避難聽證會。

他說:“我們要做的第一件事情是讓你活下去。我們先在德國申請避難,然后再考慮其他的可能。”

沙利文也必須保持專注。他感覺索迪斯是自己能夠拯救的盟友。幾天后,他收到了也曾在曾經在美國軍事基地工作的馬蘇德兄弟發來的一封求助郵件。電子郵件中附上了他最近遇害的媽媽和叔叔的照片。

沙利文知道,對此他無能為力,因為他們沒有一起共事的經歷。

在位于不萊梅的一家服裝店,索迪斯穿著一身黑西裝走出更衣室,這是沙利文第二次來探望他。

在試衣鏡前,沙利文一邊轉著指頭一邊拍著朋友的后背,開玩笑說:“很帥!轉個圈。你看起來很精神。”

索迪斯露出了微笑。

這是兩人在談論過各自的經歷和未來之后的一小會兒輕松時刻。

在沙利文離開之前,索迪斯情緒崩潰,哭了起來。沙利文擁抱著自己的好友。

他說:“沒事的,你一定會成功的。”(財富中文網)

譯者:Feb、Biz

大概十年前,兩人冒著生命危險共同作戰,在槍林彈雨中建立起可以將后背交給對方的長久友誼。

如今,一家德國西裝店內,美國士兵和阿富汗翻譯再次并肩。在美國簽證被拒后,阿卜杜勒哈克?索迪斯的未來取決于德國法院舉行的庇護聽證會上的結果,而斯潘塞?沙利文正在幫他做準備。

兩人一起看了索迪斯家鄉的視頻,槍聲此起彼伏,濃煙滾滾中人們運送著尸體。美軍撤離后短短幾天,靠著索迪斯和沙利文等人多年努力建立的脆弱政府就垮臺了。

“我沒有忍住,哭了。”索迪斯說。“我的父親說,塔利班在赫拉特挨家挨戶地搜查曾經為聯軍工作的人。”

這是沙利文內心深深的傷痛:他之前的翻譯賽義德?馬蘇德在等待美國簽證期間不幸身亡。美國政府做了他從未預料的事情:背叛。

索迪斯靠著偷渡到了歐洲,沙利文決心不讓他遭受同樣的命運。

正因如此,他才從美國加利福尼亞州飛往德國幫助索迪斯挑選衣服,參加9月6日的庇護聽證會。

在充滿傷害和不確定的世界里,沙利文唯一能夠控制的事情就是買套西裝。如果在出席庇護聽證會時穿著專業,可能說服法官幫助保護索迪斯的安全,維護美國無法遵守的神圣誓言,這至少可以帶來改變的希望。

“我向他承諾,正如美國承諾保護他挽救他的生命一樣。”沙利文說。“怎么可以背信棄義?我認為答案并不復雜。其實很簡單。”

單槍匹馬營救

數十位美國老兵在獨立營救出了曾經并肩作戰的阿富汗人,沙利文只是其中之一。

早在8月美軍從阿富汗漫長戰爭中撤出,塔利班迅速接管,而阿富汗當地人紛紛逃離混亂之前,營救就已經開始。

多年來,由于美國特殊移民簽證計劃嚴重積壓且飽受圍攻,數千名曾經幫助過美軍的阿富汗人一直深陷困境。塔利班瘋狂追捕的消息不斷,他們只能給戰場上幫助過的美國士兵打電話求助。

特殊簽證項目意味著阿富汗人和家人能夠前往美國。但簽證實在太少,每年美國國會批準的簽證數量不夠,前特朗普政府又增加了新的安全要求和官僚障礙,平均等待時間從幾個月延長到近三年。

只是因為工作記錄中存在微小或不公正的矛盾,有些人就會直接被拒。現在很多人擔心,僅僅因為像有上班遲到的記錄這種并不公平乃至單純意外的原因,都可能減少逃離的機會,甚至可能付出生命的代價。

杰出的口譯

2012年至2013年,在蘇利文領導的阿富汗戰排的十幾名口譯員中,索迪斯和馬蘇德最為優秀。

兩名口譯都跟隨他的戰排執行了數十項任務,進入塔利班控制的村莊,手無寸鐵地面臨戰火。

2013年,馬蘇德在工作時收到死亡威脅后便申請了特殊移民簽證。申請材料中包括一封來自沙利文的推薦信,信中稱他“守時、專業、精通語言,是值得信賴的朋友”。

“為了表達美國對他服務的感激,最少也應該提供一張特別移民簽證。”沙利文寫道。

兩年后,馬蘇德的申請遭駁回。美國大使館稱,他沒有為美國政府或軍方工作過。然而,馬蘇德工作的美國公司與國防部簽有合同,專為駐阿富汗部隊提供語言服務。

馬蘇德提出上訴,沙利文給駐喀布爾的美國大使館負責人又寫了一封信,提供了更多工作細節,但無人回應。

沙利文找其他的老兵求助,想看看能夠提供什么幫助。他發現花2萬美元可以幫助馬蘇德偷渡,但沙利文不想支持犯罪網絡。他還是希望申請美國簽證的路能夠走通。

與此同時,隨著威脅升級,馬蘇德被迫各處躲藏,發給沙利文的信息也越來越少。

“他越來越慌亂害怕。”沙利文說。

2017年夏天,沙利文收到了最后一條信息。

“你好,很抱歉回信晚了。我遇到了問題。”馬蘇德的信息主要為未能跟朋友保持密切聯系而致歉。

“我說過,沒有關系的!”沙利文回了短信。

“你現在安全嗎?”

然而,沙利文再也沒有收到回復。

幾周后,沙利文收到馬蘇德兄弟回復的電子郵件:“馬蘇德回家參加親戚的葬禮,被塔利班開槍打死。”

沙利文沉浸在悲傷和內疚之中。他曾在Facebook上發過兩人的合照,他覺得朋友身陷危險或許是因為自己行事不當。同時,他也在反思自己之前是不是應該更努力地保護朋友。

他說:“我感覺很無助,不知道還可以做什么。也許早應該把2萬美元給骯臟的走私犯。”

馬蘇德死后一年半,沙利文終于收到了美國駐喀布爾大使館的電子郵件,通知他阿富汗特殊移民簽證處已經收到給馬蘇德的推薦信。

發信的官員想知道推薦信是否正當,沙利文還會不會推薦該申請人,從而開始審核流程。信中有一張留著濃密紅發和稀疏胡子的馬蘇德的照片。

沙利文回信給大使館說,在等待申請流程的四年多里,馬蘇德已遭到殺害。

2021年8月27日,喀布爾機場。8月26日機場發生兩起自殺式炸彈,造成數十人死亡,其中包括13名美軍士兵。爆炸現場遍地是逃離中阿富汗人的背包和物品。

一起死亡事件引發的連續反應

在馬蘇德遇害后,沙利文發生的事情告訴了他的翻譯索迪斯,但沙利文沒有得到對方的回復。

與馬蘇德一樣,索迪斯也曾在2013年申請特別移民簽證,但被拒簽。他在2015年和2016年再次申請,但都被拒簽。2017年他最后一次被拒簽,沙利文給美國駐喀布爾大使館寫了信,說明支持索迪斯申請的理由。

后來,叔叔被斬首,而曾擔任聯軍燃料卡車司機的鄰居在自家門前被塔利班射殺,索迪斯因此決定自尋出路逃出阿富汗。索迪斯在圖書館自學了英語,因為他仰慕美國并且相信美國的使命。

他的計劃是通過陸路前往歐洲。索迪斯的兄弟在一家旅行社有一位熟人,在這位熟人的幫助下,他辦理了前往伊朗的旅游簽證,他的家人認識一位住在伊朗的阿富汗人,索迪斯通過這個人聯系上了第一位蛇頭。

索迪斯背著一包衣服和價值100美元的伊朗里亞爾,開始了逃亡之旅。

他在途中結識了其他曾為聯軍工作的阿富汗人,他們也與他一樣希望通過蛇頭找到安全的庇護所。

索迪斯與其他難民一起被裝進了人擠人的車廂里。他們曾經在夜間的暴風雪中翻越高山,還要躲避土耳其邊防軍的攻擊。他曾經被蛇頭毒打和拋棄,也曾經被警察關押和毆打。

與此同時,隨著塔利班在當地的勢力日益龐大,索迪斯留在阿富汗的家人也不得不搬家,并催促他盡快找到安全的地方。由于土耳其和希臘禁止阿富汗人入境,索迪斯決定前往德國。為了給他的逃亡之旅籌錢,家人賣掉了家里的小百貨商店。

索迪斯用七個月時間,花了家里15,000美元,才最終抵達德國。入境德國之后,他馬上申請避難,但由于缺乏足夠的照片或資料能夠證明他的說法,申請很快被駁回。

他打電話給已經一年多沒有聯系的沙利文。

這令沙利文喜出望外。他的第一反應是:“ 我的上帝,他還活著!”

四個月后,沙利文去德國見了索迪斯,并為他提供了幫助。

沙利文向德國法院寫了一份報告。他給索迪斯寄去了許多照片,證明索迪斯曾經在他的站排工作,他還致信美國政府獲取了索迪斯的檔案,證明他的合同因為“放棄工作”而在2013年終止。

索迪斯說,他在一次任務中遭遇簡易爆炸裝置襲擊,導致背部受傷。因回家治療,他的30天假期超期。

索迪斯在2014年被美軍重新雇傭,但他的合同由一家民用承包商負責管理。該承包商在2016年以工作表現不佳為由終止了與他的合同。

索迪斯是個表現出色的人。沙利文為此聯系到2016年解雇索迪斯的民用國防承包商,詢問事情的經過,但對方拒絕幫助他或為他提供解釋。對方簽字的文件只顯示,他之所以被解雇是因為“他的能力不適合該部門的任務。”

面對美聯社(The Associated Press)的詢問,對方也不愿意回答是否記得索迪斯,或是否是出于安全考慮解雇了索迪斯。

索迪斯表示,承包商指控他在工作期間查看個人Facebook頁面,但這一指控沒有根據。

在苦苦等待德國法院判決兩年之后,索迪斯已經陷入了深度抑郁的狀態。他時刻擔心被驅逐出境,還要承受頭痛、后背痛和因為簡易爆炸裝置爆炸受傷而導致的其他疾病。

2020年3月,他曾經試圖服用大量止痛藥自殺。他曾經被診斷出患有創傷后應激障礙,在一家精神病院治療近兩個月。

他出院后發信息給沙利文。

索迪斯后來說道:“我現在能夠活著,都要感謝斯潘塞,都是因為他。”

沙利文說,他只是在履行戰場上許下的承諾。他正在幫助索迪斯寫一本書,介紹自己作為阿富汗難民的經歷。

目前,索迪斯已經安全。8月11日,由于局勢動蕩,德國臨時停止驅逐所有阿富汗難民,但并沒有具體說明該項命令會持續多久。

當談到沒有提供幫助的美國政府時,沙利文稱:“德國正在填補我們在道德上的缺失。”

但索迪斯擔心,一旦德國恢復驅逐阿富汗難民,他的好運總有一天會到頭。

他在與沙利文的Zoom通話中哀嘆道:“有時候,現在的生活真的讓我無力抗爭。”他擔心阿富汗同胞的遭遇,也因無法拯救留在國內的親人而感到愧疚,還因前途一片渺茫而深感焦慮。

他質疑自己如何才可以前往他夢寐以求的美國。

沙利文要他振作起來,并提醒他集中精力應對9月6日的避難聽證會。

他說:“我們要做的第一件事情是讓你活下去。我們先在德國申請避難,然后再考慮其他的可能。”

沙利文也必須保持專注。他感覺索迪斯是自己能夠拯救的盟友。幾天后,他收到了也曾在曾經在美國軍事基地工作的馬蘇德兄弟發來的一封求助郵件。電子郵件中附上了他最近遇害的媽媽和叔叔的照片。

沙利文知道,對此他無能為力,因為他們沒有一起共事的經歷。

在位于不萊梅的一家服裝店,索迪斯穿著一身黑西裝走出更衣室,這是沙利文第二次來探望他。

在試衣鏡前,沙利文一邊轉著指頭一邊拍著朋友的后背,開玩笑說:“很帥!轉個圈。你看起來很精神。”

索迪斯露出了微笑。

這是兩人在談論過各自的經歷和未來之后的一小會兒輕松時刻。

在沙利文離開之前,索迪斯情緒崩潰,哭了起來。沙利文擁抱著自己的好友。

他說:“沒事的,你一定會成功的。”(財富中文網)

譯者:Feb、Biz

The two men risked their lives together nearly a decade ago trying to eliminate the Taliban, dodging bullets and forever bonding in a way that can only be forged in war.

Now the American soldier and his Afghan translator were together again in Germany shopping for a suit. Abdulhaq Sodais's future hinges on an asylum hearing in a German court after he was denied a U.S. visa, and U.S. Army Veteran Spencer Sullivan was there to help him prepare.

Together, they watched videos from Sodais' hometown: The crackle of gunfire, dead bodies being carted off as black smoke billowed. Once U.S. troops withdrew, the fragile government built over years by people like Sodais and Sullivan collapsed in just days.

“I couldn’t stop crying,” Sodais said. “My father said the Taliban were knocking on every single door in Herat looking for guys who worked for the coalition forces.”

Sullivan already lost another translator, Sayed Masoud, who was killed by the Taliban while waiting for a U.S. visa. It's a scar Sullivan carries deeply, the realization that the U.S. government is capable of the one thing he never believed: betrayal.

Sullivan was determined not to let Sodais, who used smugglers to get to Europe, suffer the same fate.

So he flew from California to Germany to help Sodais pick out something to wear for his Sept. 6 asylum hearing.

In a world of hurt and uncertainty, buying a suit was the one thing Sullivan could control. It offered a small hope of making a difference. A professional appearance just might convince a judge to help keep Sodais safe and uphold the sacred vow that America was unable to keep.

“I made a promise to him just as America made a promise to him to protect him and save his life,” Sullivan said. “I mean how can you turn your back on that promise? I don’t think the answer is more complicated than that. I think it’s actually very simple.”

Solo rescuers

Sullivan is among scores of U.S. combat veterans working on their own to rescue the Afghans who served alongside them.

Their efforts started long before August’s chaotic rush to evacuate Afghans after the Taliban’s swift takeover of Afghanistan as U.S. forces withdraw from America’s forever war.

Thousands of Afghans who aided US troops have spent years stuck in a backlogged and beleaguered U.S. Special Immigrant Visa program, while frantic messages of the Taliban hunting them down have been pinging the phones of the American soldiers they helped on the battlefield.

The program was meant to award Afghans for their support by giving them and their families a pathway to the United States. But it has fallen far short, with Congress failing to approve enough visas each year, while the former Trump administration added new security requirements and bureaucratic hurdles that turned the average wait time from a few months into nearly three years.

Others have been denied over what immigration attorneys say were minor or unjust discrepancies in their performance records. Many now fear that the time they were marked as late to work, unfairly or accidentally even, may cost them their escape, and possibly their life.

Standout interpreters

Sodais and Masoud stood out among the dozen interpreters who worked with the platoon Sullivan led in Afghanistan from 2012 to 2013.

Both interpreters went with his platoon on dozens of missions into villages controlled by the Taliban, taking on fire while unarmed.

In 2013, Masoud applied for a special immigrant visa after receiving death threats for his work. His application included a letter of recommendation from Sullivan who described him as “punctual and professional, an exemplary linguist and trustworthy friend.”

“Granting him a special immigration visa is the least that can be done in order to express America’s gratitude for his services,” Sullivan wrote.

Two years later, Masoud’s application was denied. The U.S. embassy said he had not worked for the U.S. government or its military. In fact, Masoud was hired by a U.S. firm that had a contract with the Department of Defense to provide linguistic services to troops in Afghanistan.

Masoud appealed and Sullivan wrote another letter to the Chief of Mission at the U.S. Embassy, Kabul, providing more details of his work, but he got no response.

Sullivan reached out to other veterans to see what he could do. He learned he could pay $20,000 to get Masoud smuggled out, but he didn’t want to support a criminal network. Instead, he hoped the U.S. government would come through on its end.

Meanwhile, Masoud’s texts to Sullivan became more sporadic as the threats escalated, forcing him to move from house to house.

“He was becoming increasingly frantic and afraid," Sullivan said.

Sullivan got the last one in the summer of 2017.

“Hello sir. I am so sorry to reply you late. I got a problem,” Masoud wrote, apologizing for not keeping in better touch with his friend.

“Hey Sayed it’s OK!” Sullivan texted back. “Are you safe?”

Sullivan never got a reply.

Weeks later, Masoud’s brother answered an email Sullivan sent to Masoud’s account: Masoud had been shot by the Taliban after returning home for a relative’s funeral and was dead.

Sullivan was consumed by sadness and guilt. He felt partly responsible since he had posted Facebook pictures of them and wondered if he had put his friend at risk. He wondered, too, if he could have done more to protect him.

“I felt helpless,” he said. “I didn’t know what else I could have done. Maybe I should have spent the $20,000 to pay seedy smugglers.”

A year and 1/2 after his death, Sullivan got an email from the U.S. embassy in Kabul informing him that the Afghanistan Special Immigrant Visa Unit had received his recommendation letter for Masoud.

The official wanted to know if the letter was legitimate and if Sullivan would still recommend the applicant so they could begin the process. It included a photo of Masoud with his thick red hair and thin moustache.

Sullivan wrote back to the embassy to inform them that Masoud had been killed while waiting more than four years for his application to be processed.

A death reverberates

After Masoud’s death, Sullivan texted Sodais to tell him what had happened to his fellow translator. But he got no reply.

Like Masoud, Sodais also had applied for a special immigrant visa in 2013 and was denied. He applied again in 2015 and 2016. Sullivan sent the U.S. embassy in Kabul letters to support his case. His last rejection came in 2017.

After Sodais’ uncle was beheaded, and his neighbor, who worked as a fuel truck driver for coalition forces, was gunned down by the Taliban while standing in his front doorway, Sodais, who taught himself English using library books because he admired America and believed in its mission, decided he had to find another way out.

His plan would be to go to Europe by land. His brother, who knew someone in a travel agency, helped him get a tourist visa to Iran, and his family knew an Afghan man living there who would end up connecting Sodais to the first of a long line of smugglers.

Sodais left with a backpack full of clothes, and $100 worth of Iranian rials.

Along the way, he met other Afghans who worked for coalition forces also now turning to smugglers to find safe refuge.

Sodais was crammed into cars with refugees stacked on top of each on the floors. They hiked through the mountains in a snowstorm at night and dodged gunfire from Turkish border guards. He was beaten and abandoned by smugglers and jailed and beaten by police.

Meanwhile, his family back in Afghanistan was forced to move because of the Taliban’s growing presence in the area, and urged him to get to safety. He decided to head to Germany since Turkey and Greece were deporting Afghans at the time. His family sold their small general store in Afghanistan to fund his journey.

In the end, it took him seven months and would cost his family $15,000 to get to Germany. Once there, he applied for asylum but was lacking sufficient photos or documentation to support his claims and was immediately denied.

He called Sullivan, who he had not spoken to in more than a year.

“I was like ‘oh my God, he’s alive!’” Sullivan recounted, feeling overjoyed.

Four months later, Sullivan went to see him in Germany and offered to help his case.

Sullivan wrote a transcript for the German court. He sent him photos of his time with his platoon and wrote to the U.S. government to get his record, which showed his contract was terminated in 2013 due to “job abandonment.”

Sodais says he overextended his 30-day leave after going home to deal with a back injury from the blast of an improvised explosive device during a mission.

He was rehired in 2014 by the U.S. military but his contract was administered by a civilian contractor who terminated it in 2016 due to poor job performance.

Sullivan contacted the civilian defense contractor who fired Sodais in 2016 to ask what happened since he had found his work exemplary, but she refused to help him or provide an explanation. The paperwork she signed stated only that he was being released due to “incompatible skill set with the unit’s mission.”

She also would not answer questions about whether she remembered Sodais or had a security concern when contacted by The Associated Press.

Sodais said she falsely accused him of checking his personal Facebook page on the job.

Sodais fell into a deep depression after two years of waiting for a decision by the German courts. The fear of being deported was overwhelming, and he suffered headaches, back aches and other ailments from injuries from the IED blast.

In March of 2020, he tried to end his life, overdosing on pain medication. He spent nearly two months in a psychiatric ward after being diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.

When he got out, he messaged Sullivan.

“I’m alive right now because of Spencer, because of him,” Sodais said later.

Sullivan said he’s just keeping the promise he made on the battlefield. He is helping Sodais write a book to shed light on the experience of Afghan refugees.

For now, Sodais is safe. On Aug. 11, Germany temporarily halted the deportation of all Afghans due to the upheaval but did not specify how long the order would last.

“Germany is filling our moral void," Sullivan said of the U.S. government's failure to help.

But Sodais worries his luck will run out once deportations resume.

“Really sometimes, it’s really hard for me to fight against this life,” he said on a Zoom call with Sullivan as he rattled off his fears over what’s happening in Afghanistan, his guilt over not being able to save his family there, and his anxiety over whether he will ever have a future.

And how will he ever get to the United States, where he wants to live? he asks.

Sullivan interrupts, stopping his downward spiral, and reminds him to stay focused on the Sept. 6 asylum hearing.

“Step one is we keep you alive,” he said. “We get you asylum in Germany and everything else will follow.”

Sullivan had to stay focused, too. Sodais was the one U.S. ally he felt he could possibly save. Days later, he would get an email from Masoud's brother, who worked for a U.S. military base, pleading for help. He included photos of his mother and uncle who were recently killed.

Sullivan knew there was little he could do since they had never worked together.

At the suit store in Bremen, on Sullivan's second visit, Sodais exited the dressing room in a black suit.

“Nice! Do a spin,” Sullivan joked, twirling his finger and patting his friend on back as they look in mirror. “You’re looking sharp.”

Sodais chuckled.

It is a moment of lightness after talking about what they’ve been through and what’s to come.

Before Sullivan leaves, Sodais breaks down, and Sullivan embraces him as he sobs.

“It’s OK,” Sullivan says. “You’re going to make it.”

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