An Afghan interpreter who was by the side of an Australian soldier slain in battle says he has been abandoned by the Australian government and is resigned to his all but certain death, as Taliban forces seize back swathes of the country.
Australia is preparing to evacuate hundreds of people from Afghanistan, the ABC reported on Sunday, but on the ground former interpreters and contractors for the ADF have said they hold out little hope of rescue.
The RAAF would fly out Afghan people who served with the Australian forces from Kabul, in coordination with US and British security forces, the ABC report said, as well as Australians working for nongovernment organisations.
At a media conference on Sunday, prime minister Scott Morrison declined to outline any detail of the plans, saying only that Australia was “working closely with our partners”.
Defence sources told the Guardian two of the three infantry battalions comprising Australia’s battle ready group, based in Townsville, were preparing to deploy within days, and would arrive in the region on RAAF planes by the end of the week.
NGO staff members still in Kabul have been told to send all their Afghan staff home and prepare to leave within 72 hours, well-placed sources said.
Immigration staff would be needed to accompany the troops to rapidly work through outstanding visa applications for Afghans who assisted Australia, as well as anyone fleeing on humanitarian grounds.
But it will be almost impossible for anyone to be evacuated from anywhere other than Kabul, leaving those in southern Afghanistan without a lifeline.
In the past few days Guardian Australia has spoken to numerous Afghans who worked with Australian forces. Many fear they will be left to their fate as the Taliban tighten their grip around the capital, regardless of any evacuation effort. In some cases they are unable to get to Kabul because of the fighting, and would have no guarantee of being accepted on to flights even if they could do so.
Mohammad, a former interpreter for Australian troops, was on operation in 2009 in the Taliban stronghold of Baluchi Valley in southern Afghanistan when Private Benjamin Ranaudo stepped on a bomb, killing him instantly. Former Private Paul Warren lost his leg in the same blast.
“After this mission I got many threats from the Taliban,” Mohammad said on Saturday.
“Taliban was following me and they killed my father in front of my eyes.
“He was trying to stop them and my father was telling them that I won’t work again with any military any more.”
He escaped, but said on another occasion he was shot three times.
Mohammad, who has a wife and young children, said the Taliban would show him and his family no mercy when they found him. He said he was spending his days hiding in his home, but the Taliban had captured areas within kilometres of his village.
Mohammad stopped working with the Australian defence force in 2010. His application to be granted a safe haven in Australia was rejected after the Defence department found him not eligible because he didn’t apply within six months of ending his employment.
The locally engaged employee (LEE) program, which includes the six-month provision, did not come into force until 1 January 2013.
Mohammad has tried to have his employment verified retrospectively, but until recently was unable to contact his supervisor, who worked for a contractor to the ADF, or to get corroborating material from soldiers he worked with.
“My late application is because I had no papers – when I found my supervisor and got employment papers it was in December 2020,” he said.
Mohammad has written to the prime minister and the defence minister, Peter Dutton, out of desperation, but has received no reply, he said.
“I am hopeless that no one is able to help us.”
Corporal Benjamin Byrne, who was standing next to Mohammad when the bomb that killed Ranaudo detonated, said he had written a letter of support for him.
“That’s a moment in my life I could tell in quite brutal detail and something I obviously still deal with, and he [Mohammad] was part of that,” he said.
“He was more or less one of the boys.
“It pisses me off a bit that they’re getting screwed around as much as they are. I feel like he’s getting a bit ripped off.”
The Australian government has said the visa program for Afghans who worked with Australian forces was a “high priority” and had only a few dozen applications left to process “as quickly as possible”.
But advocates argue figures provided by Home Affairs don’t include those waiting to be certified by Defence, the foreign affairs department, AusAID or the Australian federal police, in what is a multi-stage application process requiring involvement by numerous agencies.
At the weekend the first US troops began arriving in Afghanistan to evacuate citizens and visa applicants, amid the rapid Taliban advance towards Kabul, where so many have fled for refuge.
On Friday the Taliban captured Afghanistan’s second-biggest city, Kandahar; on Saturday the northern stronghold of Mazar-i-Sharif also fell; and by Sunday they were reported to be within kilometres of Kabul.
With most of the landlocked country’s borders controlled by the Taliban, those who assisted Australia have run out of options to flee as they are actively hunted for assisting “infidels”.
Sources in Afghanistan said Taliban militants were going door to door in villages searching for journalists, female doctors, government staff and those who worked with foreign forces.
The US embassy in Kabul said on Thursday it had received reports of the Taliban executing members of the Afghan military who had surrendered. “Deeply disturbing & could constitute war crimes,” the embassy said on Twitter.
Morrison said on Friday Australia was working closely with the US to fulfil Australia’s responsibility to relocate Afghans who were in danger for their work alongside Australian troops.
But he would not say how many more would be resettled in Australia under the program, which has been shrouded in secrecy.
Migration lawyer Glenn Kolomeitz said his Canberra law firm, GAP Veteran and Legal Services, represented 140 Afghan security guards and was monitoring the visa applications of more than 100 interpreters.
The LEE visa grants are counted within the annual humanitarian program quota, set at 13,750 for 2021-22.
It’s understood the government may reconsider the intake cap in the light of the dire situation in Afghanistan.