Jordan Heath-Rawlings: More than 40,000 Canadians served in Afghanistan over more than a dozen years, and the last of them came home in 2014. But a lot of them still think of people they left behind not only their fellow soldiers who lost their lives, but the people who helped them survive, who helped them navigate dangerous territory and heated conversations, who helped them understand culture and customs and should have been rewarded for those efforts. Most of them, no, were not.
News Clip: I’m urging the Honorable Sejan Mendocino Engarno do the right thing and approve visas for these interpreters that work with Canadian Armed Forces so that they can come here with their families and provide for them a much better life. Time is of the essence. There is not much of it.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Now that US forces are also withdrawing from Afghanistan. The danger to the interpreters who served with Canadians will only get worse. Canada once had a program to fasttrack visas for these interpreters. That program ended years ago when our involvement in Afghanistan did. Now Canadian veterans are calling on the government they fought for to protect the Afghans who helped them survive their tours of duty. Will the government listen? If they do, will it actually Act fast enough to save lives in what is a rapidly deteriorating situation? What does Canada as a country o to the interpreters who put themselves in harm’s way to help our forces survive? And will they get it?
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. This is The Big Story. Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov deployed twice to Afghanistan during a long career with Canada’s armed forces, where he worked with interpreters in Afghanistan but also in the former Yugoslavia, in South Lebanon, and the Syrian Golan Heights. He is now part of a growing number of Canadian Forces veterans calling for more to be done for those who help them so much overseas. Hi, Mark.
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov: Hi. Good morning.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: We called you up to talk about Afghan interpreters or just I guess when you talk with anyone about Afghan interpreters, who is the first person that comes to your mind?
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov: Would be my interpreter that served with most of my time in Afghanistan. There were two that I had and just doing a wondering what happened to these guys and where they are. The interpreters I worked with are the first two people that come to mind.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Tell me a little bit about them, if you don’t mind. How did you meet them and what did you do with them? And I think a lot of people don’t quite understand the relationship and how tight it is.
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov: Well, one thing we have to understand is that when the Canadian armed forces deploy somewhere, typically they do what are called rotations where a group of troops will come over. Usually it’s a six or 8 month tour of duty and then return to Canada. So you have troops from Petawawa, Valcartier, Edmonton cycling through. And it’s often been said that we weren’t in Afghanistan for 11 years. We were there for 11 one-year tours. And if you divide that into six months, that’s 22 different tours. Now, the people that never left were the interpreters and in understanding a complex society like Afghanistan, particularly in the tribal areas in Canada, our province where we worked from the Western mindset, two or 3 days of cultural awareness is not enough to get us ready for it. So the interpreters were more than just language translators. They were our window into how tribal dynamics worked, how society worked, who the power players were, what the nonverbal cues in any conversation was. They would talk to us afterwards and say, I don’t think he was telling me the truth, boss. Or he didn’t want to talk about this, stuff that we would not pick up just from a pure linguistic interactions. So our interpreters were quite honestly, in Afghanistan, the body of corporate knowledge that we relied on as different groups of Canadians get cycled in and out.
So I met my interpreters when I took over the area that my combat team, a combat team, is about 250 troops of all different combat trade. So I had armored reconnaissance troops, I had Infantry soldiers, had engineers, combat engineers, had artillery soldiers all in my group. So we took over in October of 2009 in Kandahar Province from a combat team from Valcartier, and the interpreters, who are employed by the larger sort of Canadian contingent, just remained. So they had worked for the previous group, and they stayed in place and started working for my group. Because of the security situation, they lived in our camps. They lived with us, eight with us, spent all their time with us as part of our team. So it was a very close relationship by necessity. And it was absolutely vital for me to understand in a brief time, I could in no way get an entire handover of 6, 7 month rotation from my predecessor and ask all the right questions. So the interpreters were key in getting all my folks up to speed on the location we were now living and operating.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I can imagine in a situation like that, where there seem to be so closely tied to Canadian forces, that probably creates some pretty dangerous dynamics for them outside of the base.
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov: Absolutely not only for them, but their families. I’ll give you an anecdote. So our interpreters and this was funny. Those who didn’t understand the relationship thought we were ignoring their culture, and it’s completely the opposite. So our interpreters all chose Western sounding names to be addressed by. And this was not because we couldn’t pronounce their own names. We can pronounce Abdul, Rashid, and we respected their names, but it was for their security. They didn’t want to be known as Abdul from Coast Province to the locals because the word could get back to the Taliban and their families could be threatened. So our interpreters, instead of being Abdul, Mohammed, Rashid, Kaber, they were Bob, Bill, Don, Chris, Paul, Gord. So they all chose their own name. They were proud of the names they had chosen because that kept them safe. So absolutely, they took risks. And their families were at risk, no matter where they were in Afghanistan. Just by virtue of these interpreters working for us.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Do you know of anything that happened to any of them or their families while you were there or previous or post your tours?
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov: I do know that a couple of our interpreters during my latest deployment had left our service because they were worried about their families, whether family members are sick or they are worried about rest of their families. Also, I had a couple interpreters that had worked previously for Americans and chose to stop working for the Americans working and started working for another contingent with the Canadians or Danes because of the perceived threat would be higher against interpreters working for Americans in their minds. So I do know the interpreters were hesitant to talk with us about their families. It was almost like they didn’t want to burden us with that sort of knowledge. But I know a lot of them. You’d see them on their phones, talking with their family members, with a lot of worried looks on their faces. There were threats made to the families of the interpreters during both my deployments to Afghanistan.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: In a couple of minutes, we’ll talk about what we need to do for these people. But first, maybe let’s touch on what, if anything, has Canada done so far for any of the interpreters who worked with the forces? Like, how does that relationship work once the Army leaves or the forces withdraw?
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov: That’s really good question. And quite honestly, I don’t have all the answers. I know in the years immediately after I came back from Afghanistan. So 2011 to 2012, 2013, I wrote a number of letters of reference for a number of my former interpreters because I had about 30 or 40 attached to my team at different times. So each of these interpreters, when we left the mission, we would give them a letter. I would sign it as the commander, a letter of reference saying from the date to the date, he worked for us. He was reliable. And some of these interpreters had files with 10, 15, 20 letters in it from different Canadian commanders. So between giving them their own reference letters, and then I wrote some reference letters that were forwarded to Immigration Canada on behalf of interpreters who had applied for visas. I believe there had been some sort of special fast track program a few years ago for them, but quite honestly, I didn’t follow the issue until I got just restarted in it to about a year ago following it again.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Tell me how you got restarted into it.
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov: The member of Parliament for Thunder Bay, Dr. Marcus Powlowski, one of his constituents, had gotten the member engaged in the interpreter issue. And one of the interpreters that was still in Afghanistan was trying to come over had been one of mine. So he had a letter with my signature on it as reference. So Dr. Powlowski’s office reached out to me confirm, do I know this individual, would I vouch for him? I wrote another letter, and that’s how I became re engaged. Right around December of 2020.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’ve seen a number of veterans, yourself included, sort of loosely lobbying for this. Is there any organized plan? What are you guys doing?
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov: Well, I know there’s an organized plan and a Facebook group run by a retired captain named Dave Moral. It’s, I guess you’d say, an informal organization of concerned veterans. I don’t think the Department of National Defence is doing anything about this, and I’m not sure what Immigration is doing about this at all. So it very much seems to be grass roots at this time.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: You mentioned that during your time there, your group would have 30 or 40 interpreters. So we must be talking about a relatively large number of Afghans who were working with Canada overall during the time there.
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov: I would think so. And in addition to the interpreters, there were also at each of the camps, local Afghans like each other to small Canadian outpost. Local Afghans would be hired to do work, a lot of cleaning work or some construction work, stuff like that. And that was a method we used as a confidence building measure with the local elders, by hiring some of their young men, giving them some income, and showing the people that we were there to protect, that we trust them enough to have them work with us. So there were also Afghans who worked on Canadian construction and humanitarian assistance projects as well. They’re less visible, and probably they’re not under as much threat as our interpreters would have been. But there are quite a few Afghans, much like in all our other deployments in the former Yugoslavia and everywhere else Canada’s been, where we try to engage the local population and hire local workers wherever possible. So, Yeah, there are quite a few Afghans over the time. If you think that we had Canadians in first in Kandahar, then we had a mission in Kabul, then back to Kandahar with a large mission, 2,500, 3,000 troops, and then back to Kandahar for the training mission. And of course, for training and need even more interpreters, because so much of the training is one on one with our Canadian training staff, an Afghan soldiers. So there were, I would imagine, more than a thousand, at least interpreters who had worked for Canada throughout our time there. At least.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: I’m not trying to ask you to speak for anyone but yourself, really. But what I’m curious about is why do these folks tend to be forgotten as soon as we leave the battlefield?
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov: Part of that is, I think, the fragmented nature of how we deploy. So when my Squadron got ready to go over, my core Squadron was 100 troops from Petawawa. We were deploying as part of a larger organization called a Battle Group, which is a collection of Squadron and company size elements, battle group’s about 1,200, people that was headquartered in Edmonton. So troops from Petawawa, we spent a lot of time in Edmonton and Alberta training from 2008 to 2009 to get ready to go. Once we got to Afghanistan, we were augmented with engineers, artillery, soldiers to bring our numbers up who were all from different places. Whether Edmonton, Gagetown. We served together, we fought, we came back to Canada, and once we got back to Canada, our augmentees, our additional soldiers from Canada’s reserves all went back to their home stations. The soldiers all went back to the home stations and in my own Squadron, all the leadership from the rank of master corporate up to myself as the major, we were all posted away to different duties within two months of our return to Canada. So because these cohesive groups only form, they deploy, they fight, they come back and then they disperse. It’s very hard to maintain a corporate awareness, and a lot of us in the leadership ranks, we go on to different career level courses, advancement in your career, high pressure jobs. And unfortunately, the pace of life keeps you really from keeping things like the interpreters at the forefront because you handed your mission over to another group. You trust the other groups doing its job taking care, and you just kind of drops from your mind.
But now, I mean, thinking about the fact that Bagram Air Base has now been handed over by the Americans to the Afghans. Just recently, the Taliban posted a video on YouTube of them taking and occupying the former Canadian, former operating base in Masum Ghar, where Canada’s Leopard tanks were, where there were maybe 1,000 Canadian troops in the village of Panjway, which so many Canadians fought in and around and died in and around and occupying the Panjway District Center that Canadians helped set up. That really brings it home that we are not there anymore, and therefore those people that helped us could be under threat.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What should we do about that?
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov: Well, I look at it and I say that our interpreters already demonstrated their their commitment to maybe not Canada as a country is a bit grandiose, but definitely to Canadians to helping us. They put themselves and their families at risk and threat to help us. And, Yeah, you could say Yes, they were paid for their jobs. Absolutely. But you have to feed your family and there’s other jobs they could do that would not have exposed them to rockets, mortars, gunfire, roadside bombs, being shot, having their families threatened. So we’ll park that aside. So these folks have all been also security checked for their reliability. So I would see no reason why there would be immigration bureaucratic hold ups to them coming into Canada on I’m not sure. Some sort of special visa special program if we could fast track thousands of Syrian refugees to come in a few years ago and set up reception centers and programs and deploy military troops to assist with getting these folks screened, and vetted into Canada. And surely we could do something more than we’re doing right now for our Afghan interpreters in terms of letting them come to Canada if they want.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: What kind of response have you and some of the other veterans been getting as you’ve told these stories? You know, I’m one of the folks in media who admittedly sort of let the Afghanistan story drift off the map as Canada’s involvement ended. And I had not thought about the people who work with us that were left behind at all.
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov: Well, I think a lot of us are in that same boat because, quite honestly, it wasn’t in the forefront of my mind. But I will tell you that as recently as yesterday, I’ve had my fellow veterans reach out to me and say, Hey, we saw your piece on CTV News. My interpreter sent me an email. He’s still stuck in Kandahar City. How can we help these people out. So from a grassroots level, from my former soldiers that I worked together with, former supervisors, my peers has been strongly supportive.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Has anybody in government, aside from your MP who initially reached out to you, engaged on this?
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov: I don’t think so from my perspective. I mean, I got a message of my email from my own member of Parliament in just a message of support for my efforts to help the most recent fellow that I was helping. But other than that, no, not that I’ve seen.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: And Lastly, just asking you to speak only for yourself again, why do you think we’ve left these people behind? It doesn’t seem to mesh with the talk we talk, I guess, about Canada’s involvement overseas and what we do over there.
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov: Well, I think we kind of from an institutional standpoint, just viewed the interpreters maybe a bit, as a resource. We were in Afghanistan. We use the interpreters, and I think because not a lot of our public understands exactly what we were doing in Afghanistan or exactly how our interpreters helped us, it didn’t seem like a big issue. During the war, for a while, there was quite a lot of support Red Fridays, everything like this. And then that sort of waned as people got interested in other things and forgot about it. And because the interpreters really only ever interacted with us soldiers who were there, and then we came back. And from the government and population perspective, we’re back, we’re safe, great, survived the war. But we as military folks, including those still serving the commanders of the missions. I guess I never considered it as part of the plan to exit Afghanistan. And I really think we, to the detriment of people that gave a lot for us, we overlooked them institutionally.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Mark, thank you for this. And I hope your campaign starts getting some traction.
Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov: I hope so. And I’m happy to have folks like you supporting it and getting the word out so that our public understands some of what happened over there.
Jordan Heath-Rawlings: Lieutenant Colonel Mark Popov. That was The Big Story, for more head to thebigstorypodcast.ca, Find us on Twitter at @TheBigStoryFPN. Talk to us anytime you want via email, thebigstorypodcast, all one word, @rci.rogers.com [click here!]. And, of course, every podcast player has our show in it. You can like us, you can follow us, you can Subscribe to us. You can listen to the podcast, actually, and you can tell a friend, because that’s what helps this show grow.
Thanks for listening. I’m Jordan Heath-Rawlings. We’ll talk tomorrow.
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