BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The young Iraqi known as Ronnie fears for his life. Nearly four years ago, as a recent high school graduate, he signed up to be an interpreter for the U.S. military. It seemed like a good job at the time. Today, he is a marked man.
U.S. Army Lieutenant Derrick Syed talks to a man through an Iraqi interpreter (back to camera) while on patrol in Baghdad, Iraq.
"I swear, my god, every other night, I have a nightmare that some militia is trying to kill me," he says. "I've lost hope. I can't see any future to this country. That's why most of the interpreters want to get out of Iraq."
But for Ronnie and thousands of other interpreters working with the U.S. military, getting out is unspeakably difficult. And with insurgents and death squads viewing them as collaborators with the enemy, going back home isn't a realistic option, either.
"[W]e drove by my house, and you know how painful it is that when you see your house and you can't stop to see your dad or your brother or your mom to say 'Hi,' " Ronnie says.
To help take care of people like Ronnie, the U.S. government is offering 1,000 special immigration visas over the next two years for Iraqis and Afghans working with U.S. forces. But that accounts for just a small percentage of the roughly 9,000 interpreters working with the United States in Iraq. Tens of thousands of others work with various government agencies and contractors. The numbers don't include the interpreters' families.
"Many people have the perception that it's just the U.S. soldier here sacrificing. And that is a misperception," says Lt. Col. Steve Miska, the commander at the base where Ronnie works.
The lieutenant colonel worked closely with two Iraqis who were killed.
"Nidal had been here for four years. He ran a store downstairs. He had a wife and four children, but he would live here [on the military base] because of the dangers," Miska says. Nidal was killed one day on his way back home. Miska: U.S. has moral obligation to help interpreters »
Then there was Jack, an interpreter with whom Miska had spent a lot of time. "He had a wife back in Balad. The Sunni insurgents in Balad were after him for quite some time. His wife was pregnant and ended up losing twins, and he decided he was going home to be with her."
That was the last time Miska saw Jack.
"America has a strong obligation to keep faith with the Iraqis and Afghans who have worked so bravely with us -- and have often paid a terrible price for it," a bipartisan group of U.S. senators wrote in a June letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of Homeland Security Michael Chertoff. The senators are urging the Bush administration to expedite the process for reviewing visa applications for Iraqi and Afghan interpreters.
Another translator at Miska's base goes by the name of Anita. She's a divorced mother of four who took the job back in 2003 to support her children.
"When I started to work with the Americans, it was a very wonderful job," she says, sitting on her bed with her long, dark hair in a simple braid. "There wasn't any kind of the threat we face now, about killing us, about kidnapping us, whatever."
The last time she saw her children was six months ago. They are now living with their father.
"I miss them so much," she says. "I feel sick because of them. My heart is killing me."
She says that if she knew four years ago what she knows now, she wouldn't have decided to work with U.S. forces.
"I'll be honest, no. Because I cannot manage myself, and I cannot work with people [who are going to] leave me behind one day. I'd rather stay living free in my streets in my country than being wanted by many different organizations."
She is concerned that the U.S. military has made no provisions for her future.
"They say OK, we thank you, you're doing a great job. You are sacrificing your life with us, for us. But what's the end for this?" she wonders.
Lt. Col. Miska recognizes that more must be done.
"We are late in the game developing just a policy to take care of interpreters," he says.
Kirk Johnson, a former USAID employee in Iraq, is upset about how little the U.S. government is doing for the Iraqis it has employed.
"Now when I see those Iraqis that worked for us, that did everything for us, when I see them fleeing without anything other than 'good luck,' it turns my stomach," Johnson says.
Ronnie, the 20-something Iraqi interpreter, says his desperation is growing.
"Now I have no future," he says. "Bottom line is, I can't stay in Iraq. If I stay, this means I am going to die." E-mail to a friend