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D-H worker, veteran trying to get translator out of Afghanistan

  • Former U.S. Army Capt. Zac Conaway, of Groton, Vt., is working to get the interpreter he worked with during a 2009 deployment to Afghanistan safely out of the country, which is now under Taliban control. Conaway said he was in touch with Jamil, the interpreter, hourly since a few days before Kabul fell to the Taliban in August, but he is now in hiding with his wife and seven kids. “I haven’t heard from him since last Friday,” said Conaway while standing for a portrait at Colburn Park in Lebanon, N.H., on Friday, Sept. 10, 2021 and checking for communications from officials helping in the effort. “It’s been a lot of long nights and early mornings talking to people online,” he said. (Valley News - James M. Patterson) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com. James M. Patterson

  • Army Lt. Zac Conaway during his deployment to Afghanistan in 2009.

Valley News Staff Writer
Published: 9/10/2021 9:29:09 PM
Modified: 9/10/2021 9:29:19 PM

LEBANON — Zac Conaway spent a little more than a year in Afghanistan, from Christmas Day 2008 until Jan. 5, 2010.

As an Army logistics officer, he spent much of that time moving materials around Kunar Province in support of battalions operating in the Kunar River Valley. The landscape passed by through the windshield of a truck, and sitting next to him in that truck was a translator named Jamil.

“He was my direct interpreter for most of my deployment,” Conaway said this week. “He was shoulder-to-shoulder with me. He was one of the guys in the platoon. That was how we thought of him.”

They have stayed in touch, and Conaway — who is now the director of environmental services at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center — is doing what he can to help Jamil and his wife and seven children get out of Afghanistan.

Leaving his homeland was a long and arduous process even before the Afghan government collapsed in mid-August. Now it is dangerous, as well.

“When I reached out to him on the 14th of August, he said, ‘I haven’t gotten my passports,’ ” Conaway said. The government fell the next day, leaving no one in authority to grant passports.

Conaway, who served with the 1st Battalion, 32nd Infantry Regiment of the 10th Mountain Division, based at Fort Drum, N.Y., was in touch with Jamil by phone until Sept. 3, when the translator went into hiding, away from his family.

His best chance for escape now is to cross the border and find an American outpost. The United Nations has set up crisis centers for people seeking political refuge, Conaway said.

Even then, there is documentation that needs to be sorted out. Applicants need letters of recommendation that confirm their service for the American government. The U.S. departments of State and Homeland Security are vetting Afghan citizens who are seeking special immigrant visas (SIVs), and then embassy staff conduct interviews with potential immigrants.

“There are multiple, complex pieces that have to get sorted out still,” Conaway said.

Jamil had started the SIV process in 2013, but hadn’t heard from the State Department until June of this year. He was waiting for an in-person interview, Conaway said.

For the two weeks prior to Aug. 31, Conaway had been in touch with Jamil every couple of hours. He and his family were near the airport in Kabul, but he is now hiding in a place without cell service.

The documents the translator now carries with him are evidence that the Taliban would use against him, Conaway said.

Conaway has been trying to keep the issue in the public eye and to keep Washington officials working on it. He has reached out via social media, contacted people in his broad network of former military colleagues and he’s called “everybody from the office of the president of the United States on down,” he said.

He has spoken with the office of U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., which is tracking and assisting with multiple cases, David Carle, Leahy’s press secretary, said Friday.

“There are many individual cases that we have been working for some time now,” Carle said. However, “we can’t confirm that we are working on this or any other case.”

Afghans who are trying to flee the country and its Taliban leadership include a wide range of people beyond those who worked with the American military.

They include human rights defenders, women and girls, people who worked for nongovernmental organizations or who have family in the U.S., and scholars, intellectuals, judges and others who helped form the country’s civil society.

The number of cases Leahy’s office is working on is unclear. Aides are in regular contact with the State Department.

“Helping those who helped the United States ... is an obligation,” Carle said.

Conaway feels the weight of that burden.

“We’ve evacuated nearly 100,000 people from Afghanistan in a two-week period,” he said, calling it “a monumental undertaking.” (By the time the last military flight left Afghanistan, on Aug. 30, around 122,000 people had been evacuated, according to reports from that day.)

But, “there are still thousands of people who are left behind in Afghanistan who now fear for their lives.”

So Conaway, who lives in Groton, Vt., and commutes over an hour to DHMC, is still working his contacts for any information that might be useful.

“There’s not a lot of information coming out about success stories,” he said.

His main concern is that Afghanistan will lapse from the national consciousness.

“As much as we want to say that the war in Afghanistan is over, it’s not,” he said.

There are many people who were given a commitment by the U.S., he said. “They need our help.”

Alex Hanson can be reached at ahanson@vnews.com or 603-727-3207.




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