US & World

U.S. soldier crusading for Afghan interpreter who saved his life

Janis Shinwari is seen wearing his body armor in 2008. Shinwari, an Afghan interpreter who assisted U.S. forces, has been waiting three years for a visa to enter the United States. He is now in hiding in Afghanistan.
Janis Shinwari is seen wearing his body armor in 2008. Shinwari, an Afghan interpreter who assisted U.S. forces, has been waiting three years for a visa to enter the United States. He is now in hiding in Afghanistan.
Matt Zeller

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Army Capt. Matt Zeller had been told that his Afghan comrades would make a big show of hospitality. He'd read that the Afghan code of honor would mean protecting his life with their own. Sure enough, that's what his interpreter, Janis Shinwari, pledged to him when they met in April of 2008.

"I expected him to say it. I didn't think he'd make good on his promise within two weeks of my arrival," Zeller says. "Literally pick up a weapon and ... save my life," says Zeller.

Now, Zeller says he's got to repay the favor in kind. Three years later, Shinwari is still back in Afghanistan, marked for death by Taliban insurgents, and waiting for a U.S. visa.

American troops are gone from Iraq and leaving Afghanistan, but thousands who served with the American military are still left behind. Afghan and Iraqi interpreters who patrolled, and sometimes fought, beside U.S. forces risk retaliation when those forces leave. Congress passed laws to grant visas to people who helped American forces, but the process has been slow. It's often fallen to the troops that fought alongside them to press the case.

Taking A Risk

On April 28, 2008, Zeller was on patrol in Ghazni Province, near a village controlled by the Taliban. Using outdated maps, the convoy got directed by a local farmer down the wrong road and into a Taliban ambush.

A bomb buried under the roadway disabled one of the MRAP vehicles — a heavily armored, mine-resistant truck. Some time later, Taliban insurgents started firing rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs at the stranded Americans.

"We were taking fire from ... the periphery of this village. We were pinned down in the middle of this field," Zeller says.

Zeller says the Taliban rockets kept getting closer.

"It was the worst firefight of my life," he says. "I ran out of grenades. I was literally counting my bullets, and I remember thinking, we might not make it out of this one alive."

Shinwari was back at the base and came out to help with a quick reaction force. As an interpreter, it wasn't his job to fight, but Shinwari carried an assault rifle anyway.

"I grabbed my weapon and started shooting back at the Taliban. And I went close to Zeller. We were the front line," Shinwari says.

Zeller was focusing on a ridge line when he heard shooting behind him.

"Somebody yelled, 'Zeller!' and I turned and I saw Janis shoot a guy. There was a guy rushing up to attack me and Janis shot him, saving my life," Zeller says.

From that point on, they considered themselves brothers. When it came time for Zeller to go home, he promised Shinwari that he'd get him to the United States.

That shouldn't have been such a tall order; the American military has offered a deal, in both Iraq and Afghanistan, for locals who work with the military. The Special Immigrant Visa Program is designed to grant them visas, especially for those put in danger because they helped the U.S., like Shinwari.

"I was involved in detaining over 200 Taliban. And in that time I didn't cover my face. They all know me by name," he says.

Shinwari got threatening phone calls and letters, and he can't return to his home village because the Taliban operate nearby. Shinwari applied for a visa in 2011, and heard nothing for two years.

That's not unusual. Figures through 2012 show that the State Department has granted only 12 percent of the visas allocated for Afghans, and only 22 percent of the visas allocated for Iraqis.

Fighting The Red Tape

Meanwhile, Zeller was back in the U.S. He and his wife had a daughter, and Zeller says that neither he nor his daughter would be around if it weren't for Shinwari's bravery in combat.

When Shinwari wrote to tell him that the U.S. base he works at was shutting down by the end of the year, Zeller went on something of a crusade. He got members of Congress to write the embassy in Kabul, and launched a media campaign.

"It's not acceptable. He's earned this more than most people have earned their citizenship [in] this country," Zeller says.

Last month, Shinwari got a call to come collect visas for him, his wife and his son and daughter.

Shinwari quit his job at the U.S. base, sold his house and followed the embassy instructions about registering for travel. Then on Sept. 21, he got another call from the embassy. His visa had been revoked and is back under review.

The State Department told Zeller that entry visas are "national security decisions." Zeller suspects the Taliban saw some of the news coverage about Shinwari, and then made an anonymous call to the U.S. embassy, denouncing him.

Zeller says it's now more important than ever to get Shinwari and his family out.

"The only other option is he dies. And then what? What am I supposed to say to my daughter?" he says. "What am I supposed to say to any other ally that I work with in the future, because I'm still an Army officer. And then what good is our word?"

Zeller is ramping up his campaign again, reaching out to Congress and the media.

Janis Shinwari has gone into hiding in Afghanistan.