His tattered mattress lies on a baked-mud floor in his cramped hiding place. Bomb blasts can be heard outside the window, as the streets of Kabul come under repeated attack from the Taliban and Islamic State.
Yet it is not just this that prevents Waheed Dullah from sleeping. Rather, it is two words in Arabic which most haunt him: ‘Allahu Akbar’ — ‘God is Greater’, a phrase hijacked by jihadists and one the former British Army interpreter would hear over the patrol radio in the seconds before the Taliban launched their bloody attacks.
Those vital seconds were just enough time for Waheed to warn his British comrades in the Brigade Reconnaissance Force to hit the ground before bullets sprayed overhead.
The elite unit operated in the most dangerous areas of Helmand Province. Waheed, then aged just 19, was always by their side.
‘I was told I saved many lives,’ Waheed says. Now 29, he is speaking on a crackling telephone line from the Afghan capital, where he lives with his wife and two children, Naveed, four, and Muska, 18 months.
It was this unwavering loyalty to British troops by Waheed and many other Afghan interpreters — whose stories were told as part of the Daily Mail’s award-winning Betrayal of the Brave campaign — that led former Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson to promise them sanctuary in the UK.
In June 2018, Mr Williamson said: ‘They served our nation with dazzling distinction. Standing shoulder to shoulder with our troops on the battlefield, they demonstrated unflinching courage in carrying out duties that were fraught with great difficulty and danger. And we will do what is right to honour their extraordinary service.’
In comments commended by this newspaper, he promised that some 50 interpreters who had served on the Helmand front line alongside UK soldiers would be granted visas under new qualifying measures, and would be able to bring their wives and children with them.
Those who had long campaigned for all army interpreters to be given a safe home in Britain — as those from the Iraq conflict were — felt it was certainly a start.
For Waheed and his wife Mashita, 25, it was an announcement they had prayed for.
But those hopes have come to naught. More than two years on, a mere two interpreters have come to Britain under the new rules.
Ministry of Defence insiders blame officials for making the qualifying criteria too narrow.
Simon Diggins, a former British colonel who campaigns on behalf of Afghan interpreters, recently wrote to ministers and the Chief of the Defence Staff blasting ‘unconscionable delays’ that had put the lives of interpreters ‘on hold’. His letter went unanswered.
Defence Secretary Ben Wallace, who has been in his post for a year, has promised to look again at the policy and is set to meet Home Secretary Priti Patel early this week to discuss the issue. Sources said it was a cause ‘close to their hearts and both are committed to finding a resolution’.
Mr Wallace is said to be taking the issue ‘extremely seriously’ and wants to expand the criteria so more Afghan interpreters can come to Britain.
While this is welcome news, surely after so much time has elapsed the interpreters deserve real and prompt action, not just words.
One cannot help but contrast their treatment with that of British Overseas Passport holders in Hong Kong, who were offered the chance to settle in the UK after China imposed a new national security law on the former British territory.
The Hong Kong qualifying residents number some three million, while there are just a few hundred Afghan interpreters blocked from coming to Britain, despite loyally working alongside UK Armed Forces for more than a year. Could they not be offered equal treatment?
Mr Diggins, also a former military attache at the British Embassy in Kabul, speaks for many of his generation of Afghan veterans when he says: ‘I am ashamed by the way we have treated the interpreters. After all, without their help in the most difficult and intractable conditions, we could not have done our job.’
There is no doubt the plight of the abandoned interpreters has moved many thousands. A Daily Mail-backed petition over their treatment was signed by more than 178,000 people, including former generals, war heroes and politicians.
Yet in Kabul, Waheed, weary of hiding from the Taliban, is deeply depressed by many failed promises.
He was no mere backroom boy for the Army. He was in the thick of it, working with military spies and frontline troops during his three years of service from 2010 to 2013.
He served with the Electronic Warfare Squadron Intelligence Unit, which was attached to the Brigade Reconnaissance Force — effectively a ‘fire magnet’ going into areas and engaging with the enemy. The unit would monitor Taliban communications and help break down the enemy’s plans and movements.
‘We were at patrol bases and checkpoints to monitor Taliban positions, pinpoint their hideouts and neutralise plans to harm our forces,’ Waheed recalls. ‘I would go into the most dangerous insurgent areas and I would tell the officers about Taliban plans, tactics and strategy, as well as the positions of hidden bombs.’
Before joining the military he studied and taught English at a High School while also translating documents from English to Pashto.
Waheed’s father was shot dead by the Taliban in 2005 because he was helping U.S. Intelligence in Kunar province. Waheed says his father’s high profile also made Waheed an even higher priority target for gunmen.
Death threats were delivered to him via an uncle and another relative, while further threats were made to punish him as an ‘infidel spy’ for ‘helping to take the lives of Islamic brothers’.
Imagine his shock, then, when in July 2013 he was informed by his army bosses that his contract had been terminated; a decision made, he was told, for his own safety, after Afghan authorities revealed they had intelligence he was being hunted.
Under the old policy for interpreters, those working on Helmand front lines after December 2012 were entitled to a redundancy package, including the possibility of sanctuary in UK. This has so far enabled 445 interpreters — plus some family members — to come to Britain.
Waheed says he asked for this but was told he was ineligible — despite his case being strongly supported by British officers he served with — because his contract ended rather than his being made redundant.
The Williamson policy widened the qualifying period to include those who spent at least a year with British forces as far back as 2006. But it still only included interpreters who were made redundant, not those forced to quit because of death threats or who were on contracts that ran out.
Indeed, the policy’s small print even excludes men such as 36-year-old ‘Ricky’ (his military nickname), Britain’s longest-serving translator, who spent 16 years beside UK troops and survived a Taliban ambush outside his Kabul home.
Why has he been denied safe haven? Because he did not serve a year in Helmand — yet another ‘requirement’ of the system. Instead, he worked for UK forces mainly out of Kabul, translating for senior officers, UK political leaders and diplomats. He has been threatened, attacked and desperately wants to leave.
Even those interpreters who made it to the UK under the original scheme, who were promised by the Home Office that their wives and children could join them, are still waiting for their loved ones more than a year on.
Waheed says he cannot work now for fear of being identified by the Taliban, so he is in debt. The family survive by selling his wife’s jewellery.
He says: ‘My profile is known to the Taliban and in this city they have many spies. I’m told I am not entitled under current policies to come to the UK. I would call on the Government to reconsider this or they will have the blood of translators on their hands.’
Home for him and his family is a cramped two-room apartment — the roof is on the verge of collapse and he can’t afford to repair it — in the Afghan capital, a city under repeated attack from both the Taliban and Islamic State.
‘It is often dangerous to go out. People could point me out as having worked for the infidel, or say my wife is married to a spy. The fear will only go if we can escape Afghanistan.
‘It is only a matter of time before the Taliban or maybe ISIS find me and try to kill me. They may also hurt my family.’
One of his colleagues, who also worked for the British, was recently ambushed, his car peppered with bullets. He survived, but the episode threw Waheed’s wife into an even deeper depression.
As the Mail has revealed, translators have been beaten, murdered and beheaded by the Taliban; their children and relatives kidnapped and killed.
And the threat to those considered ‘traitors’ has only risen as the Taliban regains ground.
Last month, the organisation was accused of carrying out its deadliest week of violence in 19 years of conflict, with 422 attacks in 32 provinces, killing and wounding hundreds.
Yet British ministers have defended their shameful policy, saying that to allow more interpreters into the UK would cause a ‘brain drain’ in Afghan society. In fact, the danger interpreters face means they often cannot work anyway and are forced to move from town to town for fear of being hunted down and killed.
Another interpreter, Latif, 36, worked for Britain’s military for nearly five years.
He, his wife and four children are now living in his parents’ home in Kabul. Thirteen people live in the two-storey house, which has already been attacked by Taliban gunmen. His children have even been used by his enemies to hand-deliver death threats to him.
Now, in addition to the constant threat of murderous attack, they have to deal with Covid-19, which has already claimed the lives of three of his family.
‘I cannot work. I cannot leave. We live day to day in a single room,’ Latif says. ‘This is because of my work for the British and it is my family that is being punished.’
He lays the blame firmly at Britain’s door: ‘The only reason I am a target is that I worked side by side with British soldiers. The British know that and have the evidence the Taliban is after me.’
Latif began working for the British Army as a frontline patrol interpreter in 2007 and graduated to serve alongside the SAS.
His work and bravery were praised by UK officers after they were caught up in several Taliban ambushes and IED attacks.
In one, a British soldier died. In another, two men were blown up just five metres from him.
Latif says even though details of threats made against him by telephone and letter to his family home were shown to British officials, he has still not been allowed into the UK.
‘We have been abandoned to the Taliban by those we helped protect and I would ask the Government to reconsider,’ he says.
Dozens of interpreters, sick of living with constant fear, have paid people-smugglers and fled Afghanistan, taking a perilous journey through hostile Iran — at least two have died along the route — to try to reach Britain illegally. Several are languishing in hellish camps.
Nesar, another loyal interpreter for the British, is living with his sick wife Nazarine, 28, in the infamous Moria camp on the Greek island of Lesbos. He wanted to reach Britain but was arrested en route by border guards.
Moria, the ‘worst refugee camp on earth’, is notorious for robberies, stabbings, ethnic rivalries and food and medical shortages. Even children have tried to commit suicide there, it is said.
The couple live in a shelter built from pallets, tarpaulins and plastic sheeting, held up by ropes fastened to an olive tree.
A crude wood fire is the only form of heating or cooking. There is no electricity and little sanitation —there are 210 people per toilet and 630 per shower in the camp.
After six months in the camp, this week the 29-year-old had his asylum appeal rejected by Greece. He now faces the prospect of being deported to Afghanistan, where he says he believes he will be killed.
He is understandably desperate for the UK to let him apply for asylum here, under a precedent established for Iraqi translators who were allowed to make claims from a third country.
‘Our lives are on hold,’ Nesar says. ‘Britain seems to think it is a crime for us to want peace and safety. But the crime is their treatment of men who risked everything for them and now see their families punished because of it.
‘We see reports of migrants being allowed in (to the UK), of people from Hong Kong who have done nothing for Britain being invited. Yet for the few who did so much there is only rejection, fear, suffering and uncertainty.’