Immersed in darkness, I rock and bob in the back of an MRAP (mine resistant ambush protected) tactical vehicle. The smell of smoke, burning tires, and sewage fills the rear compartment as we drive over the Trash City portion of Baghdad.
Somewhere under Main Supply Route (MSR) we are driving on is a village of people living in garbage.
I glance at the interpreter, dubbed “Jimmy.” He sits across from me in the darkness. He looks as tired as I feel. His eyes are closed, and his hands are folded across the harness that holds him in his seat. Earlier that day, he told us that twenty interpreters had been killed last month from his linguist company. He attributes it to “Iranian elements in the Iraqi government” who view the interpreters as traitors.
The most recent Status of Forces Agreement between Iraq and the United States considers the Iraqi local interpreters to be Iraqi citizens working in a foreign company. They now tax the income of the interpreters and require them to fill out a form that includes their personal information including their real names, family names, and addresses. “As soon as we turned in our personal information, interpreters started getting killed, man,” Jimmy says.
“Now they got our names, man. I got to get to the States or I am a dead. It's not going to be pretty when you guys leave.” Jimmy says. He is one interview and a “medical check” away from gaining what he called “refugee status” which would grant him a visa to live in the United States.
“Where are you going to live in America if you can get a visa?” I ask him.
“I don't care, man, as long as I get there,” he says.
Approximately 9000 Iraqis work for the United States in Iraq. This doesn't include the Iraqis who work for various government agencies and contractors, estimated in the tens of thousands.
“Rough road coming,” the driver's voice mutters into our headsets.
The MRAP thunders over some torn-up concrete. The massive armored box heaves, tossing Jimmy and me into the air. Once gravity slams us back down in our seats, we re-adjust into a comfortable position and rub down body parts that glanced off the fire extinguishers, ammo boxes, and assault packs. We shift our Kevlar helmets which just prevented concussions on the vehicle ceiling. We curse under our breath in English. Sweat pours down our necks.
“Sorry,” the driver said over the headset. “Nothing I could do about that.”
We settle back into our exhausted stupors.
According to a Times Online article posted July 15, a group of 25 Iraqi interpreters sued the British government for failing to provide adequate protection from militia groups who viewed the interpreters as traitors. The interpreters argue that they were due a “duty of care.”
The interpreters served the British Armed Forces while performing missions in Iraq. Britain had provided an assistance program for interpreters and relocated 200 former workers, including some family members. Another 700 interpreters failed to qualify for the program which was only made available to interpreters who had served 12 consecutive months since 2005.
Troops on the ground find the interpreters an invaluable bridge between cultures, an asset which de-escalates tense situations and streamlines communication in situations where a disconnect can lead to violence.
Sweat pours from us. It sops the clothing under my body armor and drizzles down my forehead, stinging my eyes. I wipe the sweat away, lean back, and watch the city lights gleam through the blast windows. This young Iraqi man, who daily risks his life for a free future in Iraq, whose picture hangs in numerous mosques with a reward for his death, fights daily for a secure and satisfying future. He exists between murderous shifting shadows and the shimmering light of justice.