Reporter's Notebook: Story of 'Omar'
Many international headlines have an Estonian echo, and it's true for the story of local Afghans who worked for the coalition and want asylum in the West, saying they fear retributions from people connected to the old regime.
Just as former interpreters in the American theater of operations face long waits and uncertainty, the Estonian contingent's man is waiting for official channels in Tallinn to produce a firm decision. As he waits, he's pursuing alternative avenues - including extensive online social media networking that stands to partially expose his cover.
Call him Omar (not his actual name). He's young, 21. He first contacted ERR News by e-mail and Skype in January, saying he was looking for the e-mail address of a top commander of the Estonian infantry company, Lt. Col. Margus Koplimägi, whom he said he'd lost touch with. He was open about his goal, the same as for millions - to get to the West.
He spends his days online in Kabul, networking. He also clears snow from roofs. One of his Facebook profiles includes contacts with a handful of coalition personnel and mostly speakers of Persian languages. On another profile, he friends Estonians, even small-town high school students he has not met, all in the hopes that it will gradually bring him closer to people who will advocate his case.
Bright but politically unsophisticated, he seems to be under the impression that ERR News has a direct line to the local Estonian loya jirga. He's less clear on the the primary function of the media in a free society.
He contacts his online friends regularly, always painstakingly polite. For someone who used to work in language services, his written English isn't good. "Hi dear," he begins each salvo of Skype instant messages, using "dear" as a noun, with a couple of additional florid salutations. It sounds like the preface to a well-known scam from a different continent, and that's what I thought at the beginning. Or the possibility that a new specialized type of scam was afoot. But it wasn't.
Omar worked for three years as a Pashto-English interpreter for the Estonians in Afghanistan, for Estcoy 12, 13 and 14. Veterans praise him highly, almost as one of their own. A senior Estonian officer - the one mil.ee e-mail address Omar provides as a reference among several anonymous hot.ee addresses - gets back to ERR News, not just vouching for Omar, but speaking in glowing terms.
For his part, Omar also credits the Estonians for their open dealings with the locals. "I was very honestly for Estonian troops on that time. We could to take heart of people in our hands. They were realy happey from us. They were very fighter people, with very good human rights" - the last bit being a recurring Omarism which appears to mean "having a common touch."
Pictures show Omar swimming in a river, with coalition troops in other shots from the same location. There's even something about Omar's facial features that might allow him to pass for a 21-year-old Estonian. He's also as hard to draw out as some 21-year-old Estonian males.
"What river was it?" "What would you eat with the Estonians?" "How was your family affected by the Taliban occupation?" Whenever pressed, Omar tends to return to boilerplate about the danger he says he is in. Our Skype interviews are often tough going, many of my questions disappear up into the feed never to be answered, leaving him still largely a cipher.
Threats from the past
The threats started in 2012, he says. He's from a traditional village, and in September 2012 he left Estcoy, facing what he said were threats against him and his family from "old muhajedin" type people and newer militants.
Now, he says, the threats have resumed, usually made to his cell phone. He's worried about what will happen when ISAF leaves - an eventuality that was recently scheduled for 2014.
Once we were past our awkward East meets West formalities, he e-mailed me the letter he says he sent Estcoy when he left the service, now slightly updated.
"In summary I would like to say that I am known not to overstate and have proven my devotion and commitment to the coalition forces. I sincerely ask my plea for safety and free life be given the highest consideration. I am saying whenever the ISAF troops leave Afghanistan for ever, there won't be any place in Afghanistan for coalition employee, especially for interpreters even our closest relatives will not let us to be around. At the end I would like to ask the Estonian government to launch the visa program for those they are in danger and fair all the time to initiate a better future in Estonia."
As of January 2012, the latest figures available, Estonia has given 15 people from Afghanistan (including family members) international protection, out of a total 55 people of all nationalities.
The solution to Omar's case must likewise come on the foreign policy level, and he has met a few times with Estonian chargé d'affaires Vahur Soosaar in Kabul. At his last meeting, Omar says, Soosaar recommended that he try applying to Estonian universities. "If they give you positive answer," Omar said that Soosaar told him, "then it's easy to take you there," meaning Estonia. Culture clash again ensued: despite the accessible and clear online application instructions on the Tallinn University site, Omar's first move was to send an e-mail to a university official asking for personal intervention with "the council."
ERR didn't speak directly to Soosaar, but the Foreign Ministry is actively weighing the case. "The ministry received from the Estonian chargé d'affaires in Afghanistan a request from a local resident who worked with the Estonian contingent and who desires assistance from Estonia in connection with potential worsening of his personal safety after the departure of the coalition forces from Afghanistan," press officer Minna-Liina Lind confirmed.
Government officials say Omar's is the only such case, and that the precedent in other coalition countries is one of two options - additional financial compensation or asylum. Meetings have been ongoing with other agencies, said Lind. Sources privately expressed concern over Omar's online and media activity, and said that as of early March, the Defense Ministry is drafting a response. By 2014, insh'allah, a decision may be in place.