Helmand to Derby: An Afghan interpreter on his long fight for UK asylum - and the family left behind

Ali* explains why he left Afghanistan to ITV News Central's Sarah Kilburn-Wilson

By ITV News Central Journalist Barnaby Papadopulos

Ali's 10-year journey from Afghanistan's war-ravaged Helmand Province to Derby in the East Midlands began with a knock on the door.

It was his cousin - someone he had known since childhood.

But while Ali - a pseudonym we are using to protect his identity - grew up to work as a translator for the British army, his cousin had grown up to join Islamist militant group, the Taliban.

"He said, 'I remember that evening when you came with the English forces and arrested my brother'," Ali remembers.

"I was completely shocked.

"I told him, 'if you are not going from here I will call the people or I will call the police'.

"He was just laughing at me... it's not a crime, if I've seen you, I've seen you. And if it's not you, then why is your whole body shaking?"

War in Afghanistan

A coalition of soldiers from multiple countries invaded Afghanistan after the 9/11 attacks in 2001, aiming to topple a government led by the Taliban, the fundamentalist group who the United States accused of harbouring Osama bin-Laden.

The Taliban were swiftly ousted - but later launched an insurgency against the new Afghan National Army and international partners.

456 British soldiers died during the conflict, which ended when international troops withdrew from Afghanistan last summer and the Taliban regained power.

For almost a year in 2011, Ali worked as an interpreter for the British army, based in Helmand Province.

The eighteen year old had first begun learning English as a child, using a large Cambridge dictionary and old newspapers.

Interpreters regularly patrolled alongside British troops, translating for soldiers if they wanted to talk to people. Ali also listened in to Taliban radio chatter, his interpretations vital in working out when, and where, attacks were planned.

It was while accompanying an arrest in Nad Ali district that Ali was seen by people who reported back to his cousin.

Returning to the capital to work as an English teacher, one year later, he'd been aware of the danger that military service had put him in. A friend had been executed for working with the Americans, his body dumped in a well for family to find.

"I want to hug my mum:" Ali hasn't seen his parents for almost 10 years

With his own life threatened, Ali fled for India in 2013. In his haste to leave, he didn't even attend his own marriage ceremony. "The girl they chose for me, she came to India," he explained.

Until last year, he worked in the country, waiting tables in a restaurant for two eight-hour shifts a day, but only getting paid for one of them - blaming himself for the situation all the while.

"I was thinking that because of me, because of what I'm doing, now my mum and dad they are unable to hug their grandchild."

He later added: "It's better that Taliban should kill me. If my brother or mother, father, if anything happened to them - my whole life I will blame myself.

"Because of me, now they are facing the trouble."

The long road to UK asylum

There have been several manifestations of schemes aimed at getting Afghans who worked with the British army asylum in the UK, due to the threat their service puts them, and family members, in.

The most recent was the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy, or ARAP.

But men like Ali were excluded. Firstly, because he had served for just shy of a year. And secondly, because he had already been to a third country.

Interpreters whose contracts were ended early, say, for a minor infraction, were also unable to apply.

In late spring and early summer of 2021, as the United States accelerated plans to withdraw all its soldiers from Afghanistan, the Taliban launched a lightning advance, seizing towns and cities across the country.

But despite this, and warnings from defence officials that the country was on the cusp of falling to the Taliban, ARAP's exclusions did not change.

Not until the Taliban were actually inside Kabul, where, for some, it was too late. Not until men like Ali had spent years petitioning for sanctuary within the country they had fought to protect.

Ed Atkins is a former soldier who founded the Sulha Alliance, which campaigns for the rights of Britain's former staff.

Ed Atkins remembers fighting a system which was "under resourced"

Looking back to the summer, he says schemes to help Afghans were under resourced.

"We found ourselves in a situation where we were battling an under resourced policy which was still quite narrow, and therefore meant that lots of those who did apply and were processed were being rejected," he said.

"Myself and Lord Richard Dannatt [former head of the army] and others wrote to Ben Wallace to say we really must do more, and the policy really must be more generous, and we were told by the Ministry of Defence, 'no no, everything's in hand, this is a very generous policy'.

"And this was weeks before Kabul fell. And we got ourselves into the situation that we have."

Afghanistan fell to the Taliban in 2021 Credit: PA

A Ministry of Defence spokesperson told ITV News it worked "tirelessly to safely evacuate as many people out of Afghanistan as possible", airlifting more than 15,000 people from Kabul including thousands of interpreters and their dependents.

"It was a fast-moving situation and resources were rightly prioritised to evacuate as many eligible people as possible," the spokesperson said. 

"We continue to do all we can to secure safe passage and enable British nationals and eligible Afghans to leave the country. Our contact channels remain open for those seeking assistance."

The statement also encourages Afghans who may be eligible to try to travel to third countries - despite the risk that travelling through Afghanistan, and trying to get across borders, could pose.

It's not an option for Ali's family, who are in hiding in Kabul, living in fear that Taliban relatives released from prison by the new regime could come seeking revenge.

Taliban "will never forgive the interpreters" says Ali

With attention focused elsewhere, there is evidence that the Taliban are further tightening their grip on the country.

Women and girls are still unable to receive an education, seven months on from the takeover - despite the group pledging back in the summer that they would.

And WhatsApp messages from one former translator for the British army seen by ITV News Central show the desperation felt by those who didn't make it out.

A WhatsApp message seen by ITV News Central, sent by a former interpreter Credit: ITV

"Are you updating? We are not safe. The Taliban began searching from house to house," reads the message.

"It so bad."

When Kabul fell, Ali heard that the Taliban had released hundreds of members who had been in prison - including his cousin.

"I told them 'leave everything. Get your documents... reach for the nearest border.'

"They packed everything and left all their things at home and went to my aunt's home. After two or three days, our neighbours told our brothers that the Taliban came and were searching the home."

Ali's parents remain in hiding. He speaks to them every day - still using an Indian phone number so his call can't be traced to the UK.

His long journey is finally over - but he'll be living under a continued cloud of fear for so long as his family remain at risk from the Taliban.

He's urging the UK government to do more to help the families of interpreters.

"If somebody is helping somebody with conditions it's called business," he said.

"If someone is helping somebody without conditions it's called humanity."