They served the French army on the frontlines in Afghanistan, sometimes bearing arms during operations by international forces against the Taliban.
But for years after the French troops pulled out, many Afghan interpreters were left exposed to revenge attacks by Islamist fundamentalists and denied asylum by the country for which they worked.
Their long fight for protection from France ended on February 1 when a top French court ordered the state to give immediate protection to all those who had been previously turned away.
As Afghanistan sinks further into violence, those who serve or have served foreign militaries are particularly at risk from the Taliban, who view them as traitors.
Zainullah Oryakhail, 30, served as an interpreter for a French battalion from 2009 to 2013 — a role for which he was occasionally armed with a French assault rifle to use in the event of an ambush.
On January 7, his long quest for asylum ended when he arrived in France with his family, a year after he fled his village 38 kilometres (around 24 miles) north of Kabul.
Oryakhail, who had been denied asylum by France in 2015, had already survived a drive-by shooting at his home and then been wounded in a suicide motorcycle bombing as he spoke to a NATO patrol outside his house.
Convinced both attacks were linked to his work with the French military, over which he had received multiple threats, he moved to a freezing, one-room apartment in a suburb of Kabul.
He survived by doing odd jobs, living in constant fear, until December 2018, when France’s Council of State, the country’s highest administrative court, ordered he be given immediate protection, along with five other interpreters whose asylum requests had been rejected in 2015.
In the landmark ruling, the court said that the state owed local staff a duty of “functional protection”.
In a follow-up decision on February 1 the council went further, extending the protection to all the interpreters whose asylum requests had been rejected, including those who missed a government deadline to apply.
The ruling, which also sets a precedent for local people employed by the French army in other conflict zones such as the Sahel region of West Africa, comes too late for some Afghans who sought safety in France.
Qader Daoudzai, an interpreter for the French military from 2010 to 2012 whose visa application was rejected in 2015, died in a bomb blast in Kabul on October 20.
He left behind a pregnant wife and three children.
Yusefi Z., another former interpreter who cannot be fully identified for safety reasons, was severely wounded, and his step-brother killed, in mid-January in a bomb blast in Kabul, where he remains in hiding.
– ‘Traitors’ –
France was the fifth-biggest contributor of troops to the NATO-led mission in Afghanistan from 2001 to 2014, when the last of its soldiers left the country.
Over the course of its long deployment, the military employed 770 local staff in positions such as interpreters, drivers and warehouse workers.
A total of 224 interpreters received visas to move to France in three waves of relocations between 2013 and 2018, according to the Association of the French Army’s Afghan Interpreters, but many were then turned down.
France is not the only country accused of failing to provide adequate protection for former Afghan employees.
A British parliamentary committee last year found Britain had “dismally failed” to look after 7,000 former Afghan staff.
Defending France’s record, a defence ministry source, who asked not to be identified, said French officials had spent a month in the region in late 2018 to hear new asylum requests and reopen old cases.
The mission was carried out “at the request of the French president, taking into account the deterioration of the situation during the past 12 months in Kabul and Kapisa,” the province where most of the French troops were stationed, the official said.
At the end of the mission, 218 long-stay visas were granted to former employees and their families, the official said, adding: “France cannot be accused of doing nothing.”
– Treated like ‘ordinary migrants’ –
But for Quentin Mueller, co-author of a book entitled “Interpreter, a French Betrayal” (“Tarjuman, une Trahison française”) published last week, France abandoned those who were its “eyes and ears in the fight” against the Taliban.
“It treated them like ordinary migrants who would like to take advantage of the French system,” he said.
The book’s other author Brice Andauer denounced the asylum process as “intentionally opaque and secretive”, saying many applicants had been turned down with no reason given.
Noting that the French army’s local Afghan staff were routinely subjected to background checks, he argued there were few chances of extremists slipping through the system into France.
“Furthermore, the Taliban have never advocated global jihad”, he pointed out.
Today, there are still close to 550 former interpreters and other service providers who could claim protected status in France.
Some have already joined the migrant trail to Europe or moved to neighbouring countries, having lost hope of being brought to safety.