Interpreters' lives were 'under threat'

TALIA SHADWELL
Last updated 11:01 15/06/2013
Mohammed Askar Habibi receives his medal from CMajor General Dave Gawn
WARWICK SMITH
HONOURED: Mohammed Askar Habibi receives his medal from Major General Dave Gawn at the Linton Community Centre.

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The head of the New Zealand army says the lives of Afghan interpreters would almost certainly have been threatened had they not been given the option of sanctuary here.

Chief of Army Major General Dave Gawn said the Afghan men had risked their lives to serve as interpreters to Kiwi troops in Bamiyan Province, and bringing their families to New Zealand was the best way to thank and protect them.

"I believe there was a real threat to them, and it was the right policy decision by our country to bring them here. I think we can all see how happy they are to be in New Zealand, and ready to start a new life."

A total of 94 Afghan interpreters and their families were settled in Palmerston North and Hamilton yesterday, eight weeks after they first arrived in New Zealand. The families were granted resettlement by the New Zealand Government in recognition of the risks posed to their lives by the Taliban after Kiwi troops withdrew from the region.

Yesterday all 11 men were presented with the New Zealand Operational Service Medal and the New Zealand General Service Medal Afghanistan. It was the first time civilians had been awarded the New Zealand Operational Service Medal since it was introduced in 2002. It is a once-in-a-lifetime medal awarded for historic service in a New Zealand operation in conflicts that have occurred since World War II.

Speaking through a Dari translator, General Gawn also made special mention of the "sacrifice" of the interpreters' wives and children, whose lives have been uprooted as a consequence of the interpreters' work.

Asked whether he thought leaving the men in Afghanistan was tantamount to a death sentence, General Gawn said it was not unusual for interpreters to be targeted by opposing forces.

"It is quite possible. That has certainly been what has historically happened in other regions of conflict, and there's nothing to suggest it wouldn't have been the same in Afghanistan."

Afghan interpreter Mohammad Askar Habibi thanked their Kiwi hosts on behalf of the 11 families settling into Palmerston North yesterday. He asked the audience to take a minute of silence to remember their comrades who died in Bamiyan.

Palmerston North mayor Jono Naylor welcomed the Afghan families, telling the audience that their arrival contributed another thread to the fabric of a growing multicultural city.

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- Manawatu Standard

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