Afghan friends coming home

KATHRYN KING AND GREER BERRY
Last updated 12:00 12/06/2013
Interpreters
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Mates: Afghan interpreter Hossein Bagheri, left, and Kiwi soldiers overlook Bandimere Lakes tourist spot in Afghanistan. Mr Bagheri is one of 11 interpreters resettling with their families in Palmerston North on Friday.

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Linton-based soldiers who worked with Afghan interpreters in Afghanistan are looking forward to catching up with the men who "were like our families" when they arrive in Palmerston North this week.

Sergeant Major Mario Ropitini was the Kiwi Base Warrant Officer of Crib 19 in Bamiyan province, Afghanistan, in charge of the management and supervision of a group of 20 interpreters.

Sergeant Major Ropitini said when he entered the role, the interpreters "tried it on" with him.

"I thought, this isn't on. It was like looking after young soldiers. You could tell when they were trying to pull the wool."

So Sergeant Major Ropitini got the interpreters to parade like soldiers every morning and stand to attention for role call.

"They came around very quickly."

About half the interpreters lived on the base with the soldiers, because their homes were too far away.

While working with the soldiers, they picked up a lot of Kiwi slang, so it wasn't surprising to hear them say "bro", "chur" or "choice man" during everyday conversation.

Those lighter moments were in stark contrast to the danger of the job they carried out, with some interpreters present during incidents that claimed the lives of New Zealand soldiers.

One of the interpreters, AJ, who had been in his role with the defence force for a long time, left after receiving a number of death threats, Sergeant Major Ropitini said.

AJ was among the interpreters present when Lieutenant Tim O'Donnell was killed in an ambush in north-eastern Bamiyan Province in 2010. That experience had affected AJ deeply.

However, Sergeant Major Ropitini said he was still in contact with AJ through social media and he was now travelling the world. While disappointed that AJ wasn't coming to New Zealand, Sergeant Major Ropitini was looking forward to catching up the interpreters arriving in Palmerston North on Friday.

"They were like our families."

Lieutenant Caleb Berry, who was based in Afghanistan as a patrol commander for seven months last year, said the Kiwis never left base without an interpreter or two.

"Interpreters were used to interact with locals on vehicle checkpoints. They'd interpret what we'd say and help the locals to understand what we needed them to do."

Part of their job was also to communicate with local elders about the security situation in their area.

"It could often be difficult for the interpreters as they were a lot younger than the elders."

The patrol interpreters were generally the more able-bodied, younger interpreters because they would have to patrol in body armour alongside the Kiwis, Lieutenant Berry said.

"Generally patrols stuck with one interpreter. Hossein [Bagheri] was mine for almost five months.

"They lived with us, within the patrol base, and experienced what we went through."

This created a strong bond between the entire patrol and the interpreter, he said.

Lieutenant Berry was a part of the Crib 20 rotation to Afghanistan which lost five soldiers.

"I look forward to catching up with him again and I'm glad we've been able to help and continue to help them establish their lives in Palmerston North."

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- Manawatu Standard

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