Canadian veterans pay out of pocket to rescue their Afghan comrades ‘stranded’ in war zone: ‘It’s the right thing to do’

Canadian veterans pay out of pocket to rescue their Afghan comrades ‘stranded’ in war zone: ‘It’s the right thing to do’
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When Corey Shelson started the video call, he broke into a giant smile that was matched by the man looking back at him from thousands of miles away.

The retired Canadian soldier had been eagerly waiting to hear from his former Afghan interpreter, whom he’d helped sneak out of Helmand — along with his wife and 18-month-old daughter — and out of the immediate path of the Taliban.

Seeing the familiar face on the screen on Sunday night told Shelson that his former colleague was safe, at least for now, even though no one knew for how long.

The American decision to withdraw ground troops from Afghanistan has resulted in insurgents taking back much of their old territory, and prompted an ad hoc rescue attempt by Shelson and other military veterans here in Canada.

A group of retired Canadian soldiers are using their own money and contacts in the country to virtually co-ordinate the desperate effort to get their former “comrades” and their families to temporary safety. Canada withdrew most of its troops from the country in 2011.

“I called him immediately when he was able to get into a safe place. It was the biggest smile I’ve ever seen. I was also smiling ear to ear,” said Shelson, a retired captain who served in the Canadian forces from 2002 to 2015, and spent eight months in Kandahar in 2010 as a combat engineer.

“But there’s hundreds of other people that are stranded. We are making the time because it’s the right thing to do. And we want to help, but this requires government actions. Our funds are going to run out. This is a very serious situation that requires a national strategy.”

This is not a permanent solution for the Afghans who worked for foreign governments and have been labelled “the eyes, tongue and ears of the infidels” by the Taliban, and face constant threats to their lives. While some are now being moved to safer parts of the country, they fear that the Taliban will eventually catch up.

The veterans have asked Ottawa to fly in a military aircraft to rescue Afghan civilians who served Canada, or get help from its allies on the ground to at least relocate these people to safe places where further security vetting can be conducted if necessary.

Last week, Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino told the Star that his staff are working with the Department of National Defence and Global Affairs Canada with the hope of , who are the targets of insurgents as U.S. and NATO forces complete their full withdrawal by Aug. 31.

But arguing that the government is not moving fast enough, this past weekend the Canadian veterans individually funded and planned the escapes of the Afghan civilians they’ve been in touch with over the years.

While they can’t reveal the routes or details of their plans, or where the evacuees were taken to, they said more than 20 Afghan interpreters and other locally employed workers, as well as their families, were flown out of Kandahar, Helmand and a few other places to safer areas within the country.

“We’re in constant contact with dozens of families, helping each work through a specific extraction plan while reassuring them that someone actually cares about their safety and well-being,” says retired corporal Robin Rickards, who did three tours in Afghanistan between 2006 and 2010.

“We’re operating very close to the wire financially, between housing, food, clothing, medical expenses, transportation, and constantly getting shut down by MoneyGram and Western Union.”

Due to the daily limits put on the amount each person can transfer, Rickards said the veterans had to solicit help from their families and friends to wire money.

The veterans are working with the Afghan-Canadian Interpreters , a grassroots advocacy group for the Afghans’ resettlement, and Not Left Behind , a website created to raise awareness of the civilians’ plight by the family of Capt. Nichola Goddard, who was killed by Taliban insurgents in an ambush in 2006.

There are about 120 individuals — with a total of about 600 people, including family members — who worked for the Canadian forces and have been identified for evacuation from Afghanistan by the veterans.

Ottawa had a special immigration program that helped resettle 780 Afghans and their families in Canada between 2009 and 2011. However, many were left behind because they did not meet its strict criteria.

Shelson said his troop worked with 25 interpreters in Kandahar, but only half of them made it to Canada through the immigration department’s resettlement program.

“When the American forces were on the ground we still had some level of control of what was going on. Now the situation really started to pick up in terms of urgency over the last three to four weeks,” said Shelson, who produced pleading for help from Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

“The Taliban has rapidly begun taking back control of the country. Now the sense of urgency is so much more there because of what’s going on.”

Shelson said there have been reports of the Taliban locking down villages and going door to door to track down locals with connections with western governments, sometimes leveraging technology like biometric scanning devices to make an “inventory” of people.

The situation on the ground was evolving so quickly that Shelson said the network of veterans began to find ways to help their endangered friends get out, many of them in Kandahar, Afghanistan’s second largest city, where the Canadian troops were based.

“You’ve got to try and put money into people’s hands to pay for safe passage, so you have to pay for flights and pay for safe houses. You can’t just expect these people who are affected to get in a car and drive across the border to safety. All of that money is coming out of veterans’ pockets right now,” said Shelson, who runs a digital marketing company in London, Ont.
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