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Last Updated: Wednesday, 25 July 2007, 11:10 GMT 12:10 UK
Interpreting danger in Iraq
By Richard Colebourn
BBC Newsnight, Beirut

Iraqi interpreter
Iraqi interpreter - perhaps one of the most dangerous jobs in the world

Dalia loved her job at the British Embassy in Baghdad. Her work as an administrator was satisfying and she enjoyed improving her English by reading the foreign magazines that arrived in the post.

"Before the war I didn't have contact with people from other countries so I liked working with the British. We both want to develop our country and we learnt from each other's culture," she explains.

But as an Iraqi employee of the British and American coalition, Dalia perhaps held one of the most dangerous jobs in the world.

Every day working in Baghdad's international 'green zone' brought worries that Iraqi insurgents were watching and waiting to strike against someone they regard as a collaborator with the enemy.

"Sometimes I couldn't go back home," she recounts. "The militias were watching."


In lawless Iraq, those who work as interpreters, translators or administrators for the British and American governments are often at the top of the militia hit lists. Kidnappings and brutal beheadings are common.

Dalia says she never doubted the dangers. "When you become known, you will be executed as a traitor for working with the British and the Americans, for working for the invasion."

Her name, and those of the other Iraqis mentioned, has been changed to conceal her identity.

On three occasions she has been followed home from the office. Her brother was kidnapped and quizzed about Dalia's work.

Finally, when she was in Amman for a conference, her family went to her home in Baghdad and discovered an envelope containing a death threat and a bullet. A militia had found her. She decided she couldn't return to her country.

Let down

Shelaine Tuytschaevers
Every time you go out on a mission with them, they become a soldier with you and leaving behind another soldier is something we're told never to do
Former US reservist Shelaine Tuytschaevers

Dalia is now one of approximately 2m Iraqi refugees forced to flee to elsewhere in the Middle East. The Jordanian government won't allow Iraqis to work.

In her gloomy apartment in Amman, she told me that she now has to live off her rapidly diminishing savings. She reckons the cost of living to be five times that in Baghdad.

The worry is that her work for the British may also have put her family in Baghdad at risk. She feels let down by her former employer.

The government agency she worked for offered a month's paid leave but then told her she was on her own.

The government's position is simple - local staff are paid for a job in Iraq and are owed nothing beyond their contract.

Eyes and ears

Shelaine Tuytschaevers shares the disappointment with the British and American governments. She was a US Army reservist based in Mosul, in northern Iraq, during 2005.

Her duties as a Public Affairs Officer meant she relied on her Iraqi interpreters as her eyes and ears in a foreign land, interpreting and explaining the local culture and tribal loyalties.

"They go out on missions every day with us," she explains. "They go out by our sides and a lot of the time they don't have the luxury of body armour, helmets or weapons. But they're happy to do it."

"Every time you go out on a mission with them, they become a soldier with you and leaving behind another soldier is something we're told never to do."

Iraqi interpreter and British soldier
Some say the US and UK have a duty of care when interpreters are threatened
After a year's duty she returned to her home in Des Moines, Iowa but kept in touch with three interpreters - two brothers and a sister. In their cramped flat in Amman, Tika made me a cup of tea using a small camping stove. The two brothers, Salam and Mazen, have to share a bedroom.

Salam passed me an e-mail from Shelaine detailing the latest instalment in her battle with the American government. She is trying to secure visas to allow the three interpreters to settle in the United States.

"I've been in Amman for about nine months," Mazen told me. "I'm still waiting for the case to be processed. Our residency visa here has expired and you feel unsafeż because a Jordanian policeman could stop us at any time and could take us back to the Iraqi border."

They don't leave the flat very often.

US visas

Despite the fact that she is a former Army officer and that she has mobilised her local Senator on their behalf, Shelaine still finds the process desperately slow. The American government has recently offered an extra 7,000 visas for vulnerable Iraqi refugees but there is still a battle against the bureaucracy.

Some question whether it is acceptable to push an Iraqi to the front of the queue for a visa just because he or she worked for the coalition. Others argue that there might be a political price to be paid in Iraq if Britain does not assist those Iraqis endangered because of their work.

Shelaine Tuytschaevers says that the plight of the Iraqi interpreters dents the morale of troops on the Iraqi frontline. "We all feel the loss when all of a sudden an interpreter who has been working for us doesn't show up to work the next day and their decapitated body is found a week later," she wrote in an e-mail.

"We end up feeling guilty, like we couldn't protect them and we didn't thank them enough."

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