(CBS News) An American soldier, desperately trying to rescue an Afghan translator, made it a personal mission to bring the translator to the United States. On Wednesday night, the Afghan and his family arrived in America.
CBS News’ Jan Crawford reported on “CBS This Morning” this is a story about a soldier’s determination to uphold a promise and his fight through years of roadblocks and bureaucratic red tape—all to save the Afghan translator who he says saved his life during a battle, and became like a brother to him.
The soldier’s first words to the interpreter were familiar—a common greeting in Arabic to put him at ease in his new home.
Matt Zeller said to Janis Shinwari, “Assam alaikum.” Shinwari replied the same.
The last time Zeller saw Shinwari, they were in Afghanistan, fighting side by side against the Taliban. Zeller recalled, “I got my last member of my unit home. I can breathe a sigh of relief for the first time in five years. I got my buddy home.”
They reunited late Tuesday night at Washington’s Reagan National Airport. It was Shinwari’s last leg on a 36-hour journey out of Afghanistan. Shinwary said, “I’m feeling very happy, because finally we made it.”
Crawford asked, “Did you ever think this was not going to happen? Did you ever give up hope?”
Shinwari said, “I had a brother here to fight for me, and I was thinking that I can make it.”
For Zeller, it was a fight for Shinwari’s life. Shinwari says in 2009 his name was added to the Taliban kill list. He became a marked man after the two were caught in a Taliban ambush in eastern Afghanistan.
Shinwari said, “We saw the first truck was blown up by (improvised explosive device). I saw Zeller that he was away from the other unit in the kill zone, shooting against the Taliban. I went, I brought him back from the kill zone to the safe zone.”
Zeller said that’s when Shinwari shot and killed two insurgents sneaking up behind him. He said, “I mean he saved my life.”
Shinwari added, “And you saved my life.”
Zeller said, “Well, we’re even.”
Zeller was at the airport hours before Shinwari landed, anxiously scanning the crowds of arriving passengers. Shinwari, his wife, and two young children were among the last off the plane. It was Zeller who helped make it happen—a promise to a man he says became like a brother to him, all those years ago on the front lines.
Shinwari said, “What he promised to me, he did it. ... He promised me that when he was leaving he told me that one day he will bring me home, and United States is my home.”
By all accounts, Afghans who serve alongside U.S. forces—those who, like Shinwari, would kill insurgents to save Americans—are now under dire threat from Taliban retribution.
“When I was in Afghanistan, each minute of my life I thought that I would get killed,” Shinwari said.
After years of waiting, he and his family got visas under a special program for Afghans and Iraqis who fought alongside U.S. forces. But then, just two weeks later, he got crushing news: the State Department revoked the visas. Those involved in the case believe the Taliban called in a bogus anonymous tip saying Shinwari was a threat. After seven years as an interpreter for U.S. forces, there was no safe haven.
Zeller refused to accept it. It was clear in a “CBS This Morning” interview last month, he was tormented by what might happen if Shinwari stayed. Zeller said, “He’ll die. No question about it. They’ll torture him in front of his family. These people used to send us the body parts of interpreters that they captured as warnings to our interpreters to quit now.”
Asked if he could see that being Shinwari’s fate, Zeller said at the time, “I can’t even bear to even think about that.”
And after a massive effort lobbying members of Congress to force the State Department to reconsider, the family’s visas were reissued. But Shinwari’s case is an exception.
Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., said, “There are thousands of people who are in a similar situation—thousands. We’ve been able to get out fewer than 10 percent of the people that we could have. The mass majority of these people, if they wanted to harm Americans, had all sorts of chances.”
Tens of thousands of visas were allocated for Iraqis and Afghans who risked their lives for the U.S. military, but just a fraction of those visas have been issued, leaving many in harm’s way.
Shinwari said, “The Taliban will kill them. They call them traitor of Islam. They call them American spies.”
Shinwari and his family no longer have to fear the Taliban. For that, they had to leave a lot behind. Just 48 hours ago, Shinwari was praying at his father’s grave, saying his goodbyes. Now they are in America, ready to start a new life with a former soldier by their side.
Zeller said, “It’s your country now, welcome home!”
CBS News’ Jan Crawford said Shinwari and his family spent Tuesday night in a hotel in Virginia, and they’re going to move Thursday into an apartment that Zeller and a charity helped furnish, complete with clothes and toys. Shinwari said that one of the reasons that he’s so happy to be in the U.S. is that his children can go to kindergarten. He said, in Afghanistan, the children learn to carry guns, but in America, they carry pencils and paper.