I Fought The Taliban And They Came After Me And My Family
So there's this guy in Afghanistan who learned English from watching old Arnold Schwarzenegger movies. When the Americans invaded after 9/11, he offered to help them by acting as an interpreter ... then wound up fighting alongside Army Rangers and saving at least five American lives in the process. The moment he felt like he was finally out of danger, the Taliban came after him and his family, forcing him to flee the country.
His name is Janis Shenwary, and he has quite a fucking story to tell ...
You Can Find Your Country Taken Over By Religious Extremists Overnight
Culturally, Afghanistan and the USA might as well be on opposite sides of the goddamned solar system. For example, 92 percent of Afghan people are unaware of the 9/11 attacks.
That means that many of the people shooting at American soldiers somewhere in Afghanistan, right now, don't really know why Americans with guns are there in the first place. This is something you have to understand about the place if you're wondering why we couldn't find bin Laden the moment we landed: Afghanistan isn't really a nation at all -- it's a sprawling hunk of land about the size of Texas, full of mountains, nomadic tribes, and villages. Most of the people there identify with their own little group and don't give much of a shit about international politics.
OK, that last part doesn't sound different from America, but bear with us.
So, you know from the eye-opening documentary Rambo III that Afghanistan was invaded by Russia in the 1980s. Once the Russians pulled out, Afghanistan was basically one big civil war between dozens of competing warlords. Our source for this article, Janis, and his family fled to Kabul when the whole warlord period started. But on the whole, he recalls those as Afghanistan's good ol' days. "In the time of warlords, we could go to school. There were a lot of job opportunities; you could work," he says.
And then came the Taliban and their extreme form of Islam. For Janis, and probably most Afghan people, this just kind of happened, out of the blue. One day, as Janis recounts, Afghans were told via a BBC radio broadcast, Janis says, "There wouldn't be school for girls, that females couldn't go outside. They should stay at home, and no one could see her face. I had my mom at home, and I wanted her to go out with us, and she couldn't."
Just a couple nights after hearing about the takeover on the radio, it started. "We were sleeping and we heard gunshots," he says. They awoke to learn that the band of mujahedeen who'd controlled the city before had fled Jalalabad, his home, and the Taliban had control. Janis was outside playing with his friends when two or three Taliban trucks came rolling by. He recalled the men as having "big turbans" and beards and being generally "dirty." The Taliban introduced themselves to Janis' neighborhood when they "leapt out of trucks and started beating girls, women, everyone on the street." It was a good day to be an asshole with a gun, but a pretty bad time for everyone else.
The next night, Janis and his family again listened in on the BBC News. They heard that the Taliban now controlled the capital Kabul and 90 percent of Afghanistan. The first few days of Taliban control were met with widespread murder; the president and his brother were executed and road-hauled across the city.
Janis and his family decided to move to Pakistan because of all that shit in the previous paragraph. And then, Arnold Schwarzenegger came into Janis' life.
Janis Learned To Speak English By Watching Commando
Ah hell, it just feels so good to type that title. Everything about this next story is so ridiculously upbeat, it'll make up for all the violence and road-hauling of the previous entry.
Anyway, Janis and family moved to Pakistan and started a life there. Unfortunately, it was a "kind of boring" life, so Janis and his brother decided, "Let's go buy a VCR, and at least we can watch some movies at night." Their newly bought old VCR came with a free movie, and, because sometimes the universe is an engine of whimsy, that movie wound up being "an American movie, Commando. I think that movie is like, 30 or 35 years old."
And yet still relevant.
Janis and his brother liked Commando, because they are living creatures with hearts that beat. And since Commando was their only movie, the watched it a lot. "Every night when I was coming home from work, I'd watch that movie over and over," he says. "I memorized everything they were saying. This movie made me learn English." If you don't see the humor in that, let us share a few select quotes:
"You're a funny guy, Sully. I like you. That's why I'm going to kill you last."
"I eat Green Berets for breakfast. And right now, I'm very hungry!"
"Fuck you, asshole!" "Fuck you, asshole."
"Slitting a little girl's throat is like cutting warm butter."
"John, I'm not going to shoot you between the eyes. I'm going to shoot you between the balls."
"Remember, Sully, when I promised to kill you last? I lied."
"You know, when I was a boy and rock 'n' roll came to East Germany, the communists said it was subversive.
Maybe they were right."
Janis loved Commando enough that he needed to know what those words he memorized meant. So he bought himself a dictionary and looked up every word. "I learned more than a couple thousand words from that movie," he says. Janis estimates he could speak "20 to 30 percent English" when he returned to Afghanistan after coalition forces kicked the Taliban out. He took classes for the rest and became an English teacher, until one day ...
Interpreters Must Go From Civilian To Soldier Overnight
Afghanistan isn't exactly filled with dudes who can speak the local tongues (Pashto and Dari) and also speak English. And since many interpreters are needed to walk along with U.S. troops, they wind up seeing combat. As the occupation went on, Janis decided to volunteer to work as a 'terp. Partly because they were paid well, and largely because he hated the Taliban and wanted to do whatever he could to keep those dicks from forcing their beards on everyone.
In Kabul, barber shops are called freedom salons.
"I didn't have military training, but because my family, they were all military, we had a gun at home for our security. We had an AK-47, my brother had a pistol, and my father had a pistol. They taught us how to shoot, how to charge it, how to put it on safe," Janis says. He had some experience hunting birds with his uncles, but he didn't have any experience firing the AK-47 or firing any kind of weapon at people. He felt like he was a pretty good shot, though, and unlike about 70 percent of people who say that, the U.S. military agreed with him. Janis volunteered to serve with a unit of Army Rangers, and after a single session at the gun range they armed him. "They gave me a gun with ammunition and everything," he says.
It's worth noting that U.S. Army Rangers are one of the most elite military units on the planet, and Janis had just volunteered to fight with them. Each of these guys has gone through months of basic training and advanced infantry training, and then 61 days of Ranger training. Janis had one day at the gun range. Still, around three years into his time as an interpreter, Janis saved the life of an Army intelligence officer, Captain Matt Zeller, who was pinned down in an ambush.
Here he is, unpinned.
"I leave the truck and see Americans are on the ground shooting. I start shooting ... somebody called me, 'Janis don't shoot on that side.'
"'You have a friendly over there.'
"'What is he doing over there? Is he alive or dead?'
"'We don't know yet.'"
Janis braved a hail of enemy fire to crawl over to Matt's position. Hidden in some bushes, he noticed two Taliban gunmen crawling up behind him. Here's how Janis describes what happened next:
"If you see, when a tiger is going for hunting ... they are moving; nobody can hear anything as they get closer to their target. They were doing the same thing. But they didn't see me ... I saw them. I said, now I have to make a decision very soon. If I move, they will see me and shoot me before Matt. If I keep myself calm, they will kill this American guy. I say, I have to shoot these guys. My magazine was full. ... I said, if I shoot my whole magazine I can get both of them."
"Have a free subscription."
He killed them both, saving Matt's life. And no, Janis did not exaggerate any of that. American soldiers who were there at the time saw the same thing. Matt Zeller, the captain Janis saved, is actually the guy who put us in touch with him.
After the firefight, back at the forward operating base, Matt asked Janis why he'd risked his life for a foreigner and a stranger. Janis says, "He was expecting this from one of his own friends, one of his Americans. He said ... why did I do this? Why did I put my life in danger? I looked at him and I said, 'Look, my friend, you are a guest in my country. And you know Afghans are very very careful with their guests. That was my responsibility ... to save your life and send you back alive to your family.'"
Interpreters Were Immediately On The Taliban's Hit List
The Taliban, unsurprisingly, isn't cool with Afghans actively working against them with the infidels in the American military. They love torturing and killing American interpreters, and they also go after their families. In 2009, an intelligence officer told Janis his name had been added to the Taliban's big Kill List. Janis' commander got him a transfer to Kabul, where he managed over 250 translators for several years.
"I said, 'OK ... I will be safe here.' But I didn't know if after one year or two years ... it happened. Even in Kabul, they found me." The Taliban sent letters to Janis' house, he says: "Threatening my life, my family's lives." In 2011, one of Janis' American friends told him to apply for a U.S. visa, "because the Americans are not in Afghanistan forever."
So that's it, right? The U.S. held up its end of the bargain and Janis and his family got to become Americans and work in an apple pie factory drinking Coca-Cola through rolled-up copies of the Constitution?
It turns out the U.S. doesn't even pay to fly interpreters to the U.S. A group named the International Organization for Migration loaned Janis the money. He's still paying them back. Janis arrived in the U.S. with his wife, his kids, one bag each, and absolutely nothing else. The only things they fit in their bags were, "a couple pair of clothes and shoes." Matt greeted Janis at the airport. Janis says, "He told me 'Let's go and get the rest of your stuff.' I said, 'Brother, what stuff? That's everything we have here."
Kabul airport shows no mercy when it comes to excess baggage.
Yeah, Janis had kept in touch with Matt via phone calls and Facebook over the years since Matt left Afghanistan. That's the only reason Janis had anyone waiting for him at the airport at all; the government considered its debt to Janis paid as soon as he got the visa. Janis went and stayed in a hotel for a few nights until they got approved for an empty apartment.
Matt, seeing the guy who'd saved his life dropped in America with nothing but a "Good luck!" took action. He emailed his friends and neighbors, created an online fundraiser, and collected enough donated clothes, beds, dishes, sofas, etc. to make one family reasonably comfortable. They also brought in a crapload of money via GoFundMe ($38,000 in the first week). Happy ending, right?
If You Escape, They Go After Your Family
Janis' story went a little viral. He wound up on the news. The tale of his good fortune made it back to Afghanistan, bringing Janis into the sights of the Taliban outside of his province. They started sending letters to Janis' extended family members in Afghanistan, claiming they'd murder them if Janis didn't return to Afghanistan and give himself up. You know, basic Taliban stuff. "A couple times they called my brother; he broke his SIM card and got a new SIM card. they received a letter from the Taliban: ... They will send a suicide bomber to blow up my whole family ... children, young, female, old. ... They will kill my family like they kill a dog. So that no one can know their body; no one will know who they were."
The U.S. government obviously knows this goes on: They allowed Iraqi interpreters to bring their extended families over. But not interpreters from Afghanistan, for absolutely no reason at all.
This could be the only way America distinguishes between Afghanistan and Iraq.
Matt helped Janis find a lawyer, who looked at these letters and told him that because he had gotten somewhat famous, Janis might have a shot at getting the government to OK bringing over his extended family. "After a month, we received approval," Janis says. "In two months, they were done. They got their visa and they came here."
The whole process of helping Janis and his family get their lives started helped inspire Matt Zeller to create No One Left Behind, a charitable organization that helps former interpreters get out of Iraq and Afghanistan and start new lives in America. (They're also pushing Congress to change the law to allow Afghan 'terps to bring their extended families.) Oh, and by the way -- No One Left Behind was started using the $38,000 Janis received in donations. He refused to accept the money.
It's a good thing Janis and Matt started an organization to give a shit about these guys, because the U.S. government's attitude is more on the "whistle quietly and walk away" end of things ...
These Guys Are Our Troops Too, And We've Largely Abandoned Them
We realize that most of you paused in your reading of this article earlier to watch the movie Commando several times. Well, you know that scene quoted earlier in which Arnold Schwarzenegger's character says to the bad guy, "I like you. That's why I'm going to kill you last"? Then later in the movie he says, "I lied!" and drops him off a cliff?
That is a classic badass Arnold one-liner moment, but it really isn't a wise move. In any conflict, when you're trying to get one of the "other side" to work with you, it's important you keep your word. Otherwise, the next time you try to make a deal, why would they believe a word you say? You see the parallel here?
Fearing ISIS, the U.S. government has suspended their program to grant interpreter visas to Iraqis. They're still giving visas to Afghan interpreters, but the process is slow as hell, and many interpreters are ineligible thanks to a series of impossible hoops even the most loyal can't jump through, like the notoriously unscientific polygraph test. "I know most of my friends ... they failed that damn polygraph test, and they lost their job and their visa," Janis says. "Somebody works for 10 years, five years as a translator ... and finally the polygraph says this guy is a bad guy. Then why didn't he kill anyone during his service? He had a gun!"
On top of that, the San Bernardino shootings made a certain subset of the American population almost enraged to the point of violence at the thought of Muslim immigrants.
This guy. This is who we're talking about.
Janis is not a big fan of Mr. Trump or his attitude toward Muslims: "Yes, I believe this is a big insult. I fought for eight or nine years, and I had an American flag on my shoulder." Janis points out that any U.S. soldier who serves a full tour in Afghanistan is seen as deserving of respect. "But each of these translators, we have nine or eight tours of war ... we fought for the U.S from our heart, and that's why we are here now."
He adds, "They are hurting the heart that fought for them."
And not the fun way.
Janis' anger at this isn't just offense on his own behalf. He's worried about the Commando scenario we just pointed out: Word is going to get around that the Americans begged for cooperation from locals and then stabbed the volunteers in the back. "There is a big difference between the time the U.S. left a lot of their workers, their translators, in the war of Vietnam. ... In that time, there was no media and no Internet. ... Now, this is the time of technology. Everybody knows what happens if the U.S. doesn't bring their translators from Afghanistan and Iraq. ... They will get killed by Al Qaeda, Taliban, or ISIS."
And if that happens, Janis fears the repercussions: "Nobody can stand with U.S. government in any places. This will be a big loss."
That's the thing; it's easy to forget about heroes like Janis after the war has wound down (or, at least, stopped making headlines). But in this world, you need people like Janis and to do right by them. You don't win wars by going in alone, strapping a half dozen guns to yourself, and shooting up an island.
This almost makes us doubt all of the other life advice imparted by this masterpiece. Almost.
No One Left Behind needs your help getting the remaining 12,000 'terps and their families (more than 35,000 people) out of harm's way and into the U.S. These guys are American soldiers too: Please donate to help bring them home.
For more insider perspectives, check out 6 Things You Learn Detonating Roadside Bombs For A Living and 5 Things You Learn Hanging With The Taliban.
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