One of the most often repeated phrases in our military culture is “Leave No Fallen Comrade Behind.” Many service members relied so heavily on their Afghan and Iraqi translators that some were considered members of the unit. It goes without saying that, when troops are in the combat zone, their lives are in constant danger. But at the end of their tours, they get to go home.
Translators, however, do not have that luxury.
The State Department, seeing the dangers citizens who help Coalition Forces face, promised Special Immigrant Visas to interpreters in exchange of one year of “faithful and valuable service.” This program, however, closes at the end of this month.
One peculiar case is that of Janis Shinwari. Janis was an interpreter for CPT Matt Zeller in Afghanistan. Janis managed to save Matt’s life in a firefight against the Taliban in 2008 (Janis shot and killed two insurgents). After Matt returned to Rochester, NY, Janis applied for a Special Immigrant Visa. Earlier this month, after years of lobbying, Janis and his family were granted visas. Janis quit his job, sold all of his possessions and prepared for a new life in the Washington DC Metro area.
Photo: Janis Shinwari
But at around 2:00 AM on 21 September, 2013, Janis notified Matt that his visa had been revoked without any explanation. After frantically calling the US Embassy in Kabul, Matt found out days after that an anonymous “informant” contacted the US government and claimed all sorts of things about Janis. The informant’s claims eventually reached analysts at the National Counter Terrorism Center in Washington. Almost immediately, a security hold was put on on Janis’ visa, causing the State Department to revoke it all together. Today, Janis, his wife, and two young children are now on the Taliban’s kill list. According to Matt, “This development does not pass the logical plausibility test. If he was a bad guy, he would have killed me in the firefight, and not two Taliban fighters.”
When asked about what steps to take next, Zeller replied, “I fear at this point we can only save Janis by shaming the US government into doing the right thing. I will do whatever I have to to save his life. The United States military doesn’t leave a soldier behind. Janis is a member of my unit – a brother in arms – still trapped in Afghanistan. I will not leave him behind.”
Authors note: If you would like to help, Matt Zeller has set up two websites to assist Janis and his family. One is a petition website on Causes.com, and the other is a fundraising website. If you want to help in other ways, Matt suggests you share his story and amplify it as much as you can.
Main photo: Simon O’Dwyer