THE story of Hja, a local interpreter who helped British and UK forces in Afghanistan is one of human compassion in the face of death. 

Later though, it became one of callous indifference at the hands of the state for whom he’d risked his own life and that of his family. 

“One of my best friends was a 3 Para who got killed in a contact. They were supposed to leave the dead body of the British forces on the ground. But I brought him back. I wanted to send his dead body back to his family because he came to Afghanistan to help my people.

“When we were in the UK in the quarantine hotel, we were not allowed to go outside. It was very difficult for me to explain to my daughter. She is still talking about the Jail Hotel.” 

Hja made his application for re-settlement to the UK under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy in March, 2021 and finally arrived here five months later. 

Like many other Afghans who helped British and Nato forces over two decades of engagement in his country, he has since effectively become a non-person. 

They are at a wretched intersection between refugee and war veteran, but are officially regarded as neither. In the midst of the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan last August by Britain and its Nato allies, they were promised sanctuary and resettlement in the UK. 

The resettlement has happened, but nothing that you would reasonably describe as sanctuary. 

Instead they are subject to a postcode lottery of unemployment or low-paid jobs in the black economy and an existence where they are corralled in cheap hotels and cut off from regular society. 

There is no help from the Home Office, and little from the Armed Forces or veterans’ charities. “Only the Help for Heroes organisation cares about the welfare of these people and their families,” says De Jong.  

Hja’s blurred features, along with those of 13 other Afghan interpreters, have featured in a stark and poignant little exhibition at Glasgow’s Tramway.

The Herald: The collaborative project between Andy Barnham and Sara de Jong with the Sulha Alliance documents the experiences of Afghan interpreters who were resettled to the U.K. under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP)The collaborative project between Andy Barnham and Sara de Jong with the Sulha Alliance documents the experiences of Afghan interpreters who were resettled to the U.K. under the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (ARAP) (Image: Andy Barnham)

Its title encapsulates all of their stories: “We Are Here Because You Were There: Afghan interpreters in the UK”. It’s the work of Andy Barnham, a portrait photographer and British Army veteran and Dr Sara de Jong, a Senior Lecturer in the Politics Department at York University. 

These startling portraits look down on you from the bare walls of an upper room in the Tramway. There are no accoutrements such as interactive, multi-media guides. 

There are no educational packs and nothing is on sale. This hasn’t been manicured for easy consumption. 

And this is as it should be: only the faces of people from a distant land are here. 

People who paid a harsh price for doing what they thought was right and lighting the way for Britain’s own young men fighting another of Britain’s wars … and then to find that this country wants nothing more to do with them. 

The pictures have been edited and shaped so that the faces of these men who still have family in Afghanistan are anonymised. Each image is a composite of several frames then blurred, pixelated and overlaid to form a portrait. 

The programme suggests that the pictures have undergone a process of trauma, reflecting all of their experiences when serving in Afghanistan and then fleeing. 

But you wonder too if the spectral effect we’re left with is also a metaphor representing their current, incomplete status in the UK. 

De Jong, who has studied the interactions of NGOs and civil society in the field of migration and gender asks a plaintive question about the UK’s moral responsibilities to these interpreters: “Who can walk this road beside them as they did for us in Afghanistan?”

She is co-founder of the Sulha Alliance, an organisation that campaigns for the rights of Afghan former interpreters and other locally employed civilians who have worked with the British Army. “From the moment they start working, they believe they’re doing the right thing for their country and their families. 

“My interest in their stories came about largely because, for a while, they were essential and then they were very easily discarded due to their marginal racial position in the global economy of how we treat people.”

Barnham said: “I served from 2002 to 2009, including a stint at language school to learn Farsi. So, when Afghanistan fell last year it hit me quite hard. I had an emotional attachment to what was happening there. 

“Also, I’m mixed race so that when I was in Afghanistan I almost looked like a local and built up an instant rapport. My mother is Chinese from Vietnam and she fled in the last days of the Vietnam War. So, I’m the son of a refugee.

The Herald: Taliban fighters escort women march in support of the Taliban government outside Kabul University, Afghanistan, on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. Taliban fighters escort women march in support of the Taliban government outside Kabul University, Afghanistan, on Saturday, Sept. 11, 2021. (Image: AP)

“The portraits and interviews are all made in intimate spaces. Most of the time we were in people’s homes for two or three hours. This requires a measure of trust from these people that we’ll be faithful to their stories. I hope some of that intimacy is reflected in the exhibition. 

“These people helped us when we were in Afghanistan. Now they are here and we need to be able to help them and part of that is them being able to tell their story and what they’ve been through. They suffered trauma and injuries and, in many cases, death. 

“They also suffered the additional trauma of trying to leave their country in the midst of a chaotic military withdrawal. And now this is being exacerbated by the postcode lottery of how they’re been treated since they were re-settled here.” 

De Jong adds: “There’s been a catalogue of errors in how the government has dealt with these people. The Defence Select Committee had already indicated in 2018 that the existing re-settlement schemes weren’t working and that they need to be reformed. 

“Yet, 35% of these interpreters had been fired from their jobs, often for very minor breaches. Initially, all of these were excluded from resettlement.

Our new King Charles was pictured last week meeting one of the interpreters. Yet that was someone whom in June 2021, approached the Sulha Alliance in desperation because he had been rejected for resettlement. 

“It was only due to our lobbying that the scheme finally changed. He’s feted as a hero now, but this certainly wasn’t the way the UK were viewing him a year ago.

“When they visit the job centre, they’re treated as complete strangers. At the opening of this exhibition, one man told me about his 13 failed applications for supermarket shelf-stacking jobs. 

“They were all rejected because they didn’t think he had any relevant experience prior to this. 

“This man worked 12 years for the British Army. Many of them are highly skilled and multi-lingual. In the exhibition we’ve collected the glowing testimonies about their skills and bravery by their commanding officers. 

“What hurts them, as well as being unable to support their families back in Afghanistan, is something rooted in decency and morality. 

“They put their lives on the line for the UK, only to be told they don’t have any relevant experience.” 

Across the city, in the Sogo Arts Gallery, David Pratt’s stunning black and white pictures from Ukraine, the latest conflict to hold our attention (for a while at least) are on display. 

Pratt is the UK’s foremost war correspondent and has been chronicling global conflicts for more than three decades. “There’s no doubt the UK have been negligent in their treatment of these people. I’ve spoken to military personnel tasked with securing safe passage for them. 

“They’ve told me of the complete lack of organisation and administrative incompetence at all levels. We can’t even get the basics right for them. Afghan culture, like that in many Muslim nations, is built on hospitality. 

“They open their arms to all visitors regardless of culture or intent and to an overwhelming extent. This is a disgraceful episode in our history and embarrasses our soldiers, most of whom have great sympathy and respect for their translators.” 

In military conflicts resulting from the ambitions of powerful nations, local people who acted in good faith to mitigate the chaos are the first to be forgotten when these adventures end. 

These pictures and these words remind us of the disruption caused to people like us by forces acting in our name. And that this country has a duty to care for them.  

David Pratt’s ‘Pictures From Ukraine’ runs Wednesday to Sunday until October 30 (Sogo Arts, 86 Saltmarket).