Afghanistan: Interpreter who assisted NZDF says group were promised seats on evacuation flight that arrived on Monday

An Afghan interpreter who worked for the New Zealand Defence Force fears time is running out to leave Kabul, claiming he and other translators were promised seats on the evacuation flight that arrived in New Zealand on Monday - without them on-board. 

The first group of New Zealand citizens, families and other visa holders to be evacuated from the war-torn nation arrived in New Zealand via a commercial flight on Monday

It comes after the Taliban, the terrorist organisation that ruled Afghanistan from 1996-2001, ousted the former government and captured the capital of Kabul, forcing thousands of Afghans to flee - many of whom have clinged to departing places in a harrowing bid to escape the country.

Last Monday, Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern announced plans to send a C-130 Defence Force plane to the Middle East to bring back an estimated 53 Kiwis and 37 Afghan nationals who had assisted New Zealand, along with their families. 

But Basir Ahmad, an interpreter who assisted New Zealand's military ranks for four years, says translators have now been left behind - despite assurance from the Government that they would be among the first to leave alongside New Zealand citizens.

Speaking to The AM Show on Tuesday morning (NZ time) from his hideout in Kabul, Ahmad says anyone who has assisted foreign powers now has a target on their back - and translators are desperate to escape the stricken city out of fear for their lives.

"I don't feel safe anymore. After the government fell, we are under direct threat from the Taliban," he told The AM Show. 

He and hordes of desperate others have been pleading with officials for safe passage into New Zealand - but are no longer sure if they're welcome.

Speaking on behalf of about 35 other interpreters as their representative, Ahmad has been in direct communication with New Zealand officials regarding their evacuation. The other translators had previously assisted New Zealand's provincial reconstruction team in Bamyan and other locations across Afghanistan. 

Amhad says the group were promised seats on the plane that departed Kabul yesterday.

"I am the representative of these 37 Afghans who had direct contact with the New Zealand Defence Force [NZDF], and we have been extending emails. I'm responsible for writing the information from these people - I collect their information and pass it on to the Ministry of Immigration or Ministry of Foreign Affairs," Ahmad told The AM Show.

"First we were told it will happen very soon. Unfortunately some other people, they were able to convince the Government and they have been evacuated.

"As I understand, we were told that they will evacuate us with New Zealand citizens, but it doesn't seem to be the case anymore. I know some people, that they are the family of Afghans who are in New Zealand - they have been evacuated. But we are left behind. Every day, our group members - I represent these people - in Bamyan, they said the Taliban are searching their [homes]."

Ahmad says the translators had direct contact with the NZDF and were told they would be evacuated "as soon as possible".

"And now we see that is not happening."

He says each day he is asked to provide additional information, but the snail-pace is not matching the urgency of their situation.

"This is like a visa process for a normal time - when things are normal it can happen like this, but not with this situation."

He says some of the other 35 interpreters are sheltering in hotels, while others are hiding in secret locations out of fear of retribution.

"Every night I make phone calls. They are in danger, I can see from their eyes. Every five minutes I get like 10 phone calls - they call me every minute and say 'what is happening?' Sometimes I turn off my phone… I don't have the answers, so what should I say?"

Defence Minister Peeni Henare says evacuations efforts in Afghanistan are taking place under "perilous" conditions.
Defence Minister Peeni Henare says evacuations efforts in Afghanistan are taking place under "perilous" conditions. Photo credit: Getty Images

Up to 80 NZDF personnel have been deployed to Kabul to assist with international efforts to evacuate New Zealanders and other eligible nationals, with four personnel already on the ground in Kabul to establish a New Zealand presence at the overrun airport. A group of Kiwis were successfully transported to the United Arab Emirates on Saturday. 

Over the weekend, Australia chartered four flights into Kabul to evacuate more than 300 people, including New Zealanders. Earlier this month, about 8000 people were flown out of Afghanistan on flights organised by the US, UK and EU nations.

In a statement on Monday, Defence Minister Peeni Henare said evacuation efforts were taking place in "dangerous and perilous" conditions.

"Our ability to assist individuals on the ground and at the airport in Kabul is limited but has been helped by the presence of our New Zealand Defence Force personnel working alongside our partners. Access to Kabul airport is extremely difficult and travel into Kabul from the provinces is almost impossible," he said.

On Monday, a Taliban representative heaped praise on New Zealand after the Government provided $3 million in aid to organisations assisting the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan. Foreign Minister Nanaia Mahuta announced the aid last week, saying the millions will go to the International Committee of the Red Cross and the United Nations Refugee Agency.

The Taliban is listed as a terrorist organisation in New Zealand. Last week, Ardern said whether or not the Government will recognise the new Taliban administration will depend on the treatment of its citizens.