DAMASCUS // In the summer of 2006, Hussein began working as an interpreter with the British army in southern Iraq and was quickly attached to the units going on the most dangerous raids in Basra. In exchange for risking his life on a daily basis alongside their soldiers, the British paid him a monthly salary of US$600 (Dh2,200). Within seven months he had been shot in the chest by militia fighters as he drove away from a busy central market.
After the shooting, Hussein, 29 at the time, resumed patrolling with the British troops. By the spring of 2007 he resigned from the job and fled to Syria, a move prompted by the killing of two interpreters by militants who saw them as traitors and who had begun to hunt down interpreters. In belated recognition of the mortal threat to their Iraqi staff, the British government set up an asylum and compensation scheme in 2007, only after prolonged public pressure, and agreed to grant 201 former Iraqi employees asylum in the UK. A further 694 who applied for help have been rejected.
Unfortunately for scores of former interpreters, including Hussein, the asylum plan was only open to those who had worked for more than 12 months. Anything less was deemed insufficient to merit assistance. Financially destitute, technically an illegal immigrant in Syria, yet unable to go to another country, Hussein, now 31, is increasingly despairing of the future. In an effort to solve the basic problem of paying for housing and food, on July 17 he joined more than 20 other former interpreters or their widows to file a legal action against the British government in a London court, suing the ministry of defence and the foreign office for compensation. The next stage in the court proceedings is not set to begin until January. Sitting in his small Damascus apartment - the rent is paid by a friend - he said he felt badly let down by the British.
"I don't regret working with the British army. I needed a job, I needed the money and anyway, I was doing the right thing and so were the British," he said. "The soldiers were always good to me, but I'm surprised at this. I had no idea it would all turn out so badly." Hussein [his name has been changed to protect him from possible retribution] was one of five interpreters working with the British arresting unit, the team that would go out to hunt and capture the most dangerous militants. Of those, two are living in Britain, where they were granted asylum. The other two, named Wallah and Yarab, are dead; it was their murders that made Hussein decide to flee Iraq.
"Three days after Yarab disappeared, his wife was called to the morgue to identify his body. She phoned me and said, 'they found him' and that week I went to Syria. I had to get away." The 12-month cut-off date for the British aid scheme has been a source of much bemusement and dismay among former interpreters, none of whom can work out why such an arbitrary line was drawn. "It would be fine for the British to only help those of us with more than 12 months on the job, as long as the militias agreed to the same terms," said Ali, another former interpreter now living as a refugee in Damascus. "The trouble is, the militias don't care if you worked for 10 weeks or 10 years."
Ali, in his mid-40s, is married with two sons. He worked with the British army for seven months, quitting in the summer of 2006 after the car he was driving to work in - with two other interpreters - was ambushed by militants. Ali applied for asylum, but was rejected. Ali, who is also taking part in the legal action, insists it is the British government's responsibility to help those who once helped British soldiers. "They can't just walk away and pretend they don't know us," he said. "We live here without futures; we cannot go back to our countries. We worked with the British willingly I know, but we sacrificed so much for them. And they left us. They left us behind and didn't care if we lived or died." The British government has until mid-January to admit liability. If liability is contested, as expected, the cases will be heard in court. Opposing the legal action is something that does not have universal support among soldiers and foreign office staff. "It's disgusting, inexcusable, how little help there has been for the Iraqi translators," said a foreign office official, formerly assigned to the British Embassy in Baghdad who spoke on condition of anonymity. The foreign secretary, David Miliband, has praised the "dedication and commitment" of Iraqi staff and said the assistance programme was "designed to reflect our enduring debt to them". He called it popular and effective. Leigh Day and Co, a British law firm, is co-ordinating this latest legal action. A previous effort by the same firm to get the 12-month cut-off date changed failed. In his final remarks on the case, the British judge noted that the assistance scheme was "not overall designed to protect all those who are at risk" and "deliberately gives assistance to only a limited class of staff". The high court in London ruled in favour of the British government, saying it had no legal obligation to run any kind of plan at all, and that the 12-month cut-off date was not "irrational". This time the legal suit is less ambitious and is aimed at securing financial aid for the interpreters. Sapna Malik, the lawyer overseeing the case, said any money would, in the first instance, help Iraqis who failed to win resettlement to the UK start new lives. Hussein said militants in Basra had warned him that the British would betray him in the end. "After being shot, I was having some time off and I got an anonymous phone call," he said. "The guy said, 'You are a decent man, your uncle is a decent man. The British are going to leave in the end, so you should co-operate with us for your own sake." firstname.lastname@example.org