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United Kingdom: The road to Herat - a British interpreter in Afghanistan

22-11-2013 Feature

Charlie Gammell first worked for the ICRC as a Persian interpreter in the ancient Silk Road city of Herat, in western Afghanistan’s Hari Rud valley. He later worked in Khost as a Pashto interpreter and delegate, filling in and running the office for a period of four months, in the south-eastern part of Afghanistan near the border with Pakistan. He returned to the UK in July, 2013 and told us about his road to Herat.

Working for the ICRC as an interpreter 

Charlie, right, a Farsi and Pashto speaker, worked as an interpreter for the ICRC in Afghanistan.
/ C. Gammell

After graduating with a degree in history, Charlie did some tutoring and internships without a clear idea of what he wanted to do - a familiar position for many graduates. None of the “boring political jobs” he was applying for appealed to him and they were poorly paid as well. He reflects that at the time, what he really wanted was “to sit in an interview situation where I can say with 100% credibility and confidence that I want this job because I am interested in it, not because I simply need a job.”

Reading a newspaper in 2009, he found his answer. It came from an article about Iran, which he found fascinating. So he did what any curious and talented linguist might do and bought a book called Teach yourself Persian. Charlie says that he found getting to a level in Persian where he could pass an ICRC language test took a relatively short period of time compared to the challenge of a more complex language like Arabic. For 8 months he applied himself to learning the language and then, after spending some time in Iran, applied to the ICRC to work as a Persian interpreter. Shortly afterwards he was off to Herat.

No such thing as a typical day

Protecting civilian populations caught up in conflict has been a key part of the ICRC’s mission since the adoption of the Fourth Geneva Convention in 1949. On some days, Charlie told us, a family might come to the office wanting to report that a relative had been arrested, or there had been an air raid and that their property had been damaged.  He would speak to people and collect eyewitness statements with the aim of tackling the  authorities concerned, be they US, Afghan government or Taliban, to ensure civilians would be better protected in future.

On days when he was taking part in a prison visit there would first be an internal briefing.  On arriving at the place of detention, they would have a meeting with the prison authorities; in ICRC parlance, this is called the Initial Talk. The team would then meet with detainees in private or spend time inspecting the prison conditions. A typical visit could take up to a week, or sometimes more depending on the issues they faced. 

Back at the office, from early in the morning, orthopaedic patients would arrive in the hope of receiving treatment. Thousands of people in Afghanistan have lost limbs to mines and explosive devices, and the ICRC is treating them at rehabilitation centres across Afghanistan.

Charlie had been given some training at the ICRC orthopaedic centre in Kabul so he was able to carry out an initial examination to assess whether they could be referred for treatment in the capital. However, many of the patients were illiterate and couldn’t read the appointment letters they received asking them to travel. In addition, many Afghans are not familiar with the Gregorian calendar and would not understand what dates in a diary translated to in actuality.

Confronted daily by complications like this, ICRC staff must be resourceful. To ensure patients would not miss their appointments, Charlie gave them a calendar, highlighted the current day and the date of the appointment and asked the patients to show it to their local mullah. He would be able to read and could remind the patient when they needed to travel.

Charlie is now working on a book on the history of Herat to be published in the UK.

Find out more about careers with the ICRC or read about the experiences of a first-time delegate in Afghanistan