Book Review - The Gardener of Lashkar Gah: The Afghans Who Risked everything to Fight the Taliban.

LARISA Brown, now defence editor at The Times, won the 2018 British Journalism Awards Campaign of the Year for her work highlighting the plight of Afghan interpreters.

Her book, The Gardener of Lashkar Gah: The Afghans Who Risked Everything to Fight the Taliban, follows the remarkable journey of Shaista Gul and his family from a turbulent Afghanistan to safety in Britain.

Their story is emblematic of the experiences of many ordinary Afghans who helped the British troops and have subsequently endured death threat and beatings.

It also provides a unique insight into the devastating effects of Nato’s withdrawal on ordinary Afghans. The repercussions continue to this day.

A former Afghan policeman, Shaista planted and nurtured a beautiful garden inside a British military base in Helmand Province for six years. It became renowned as a calm oasis for off-duty soldiers.

Other members of his family worked for the Nato allies in various roles, including his son Jamal, who became a frontline interpreter for the British Army when just a teenager. He came to the UK on the Afghan Relocation and Assistance Policy (Arap) scheme in 2015.

I recently talked to Brown, who has been campaigning on behalf of Afghan interpreters since 2105, about her book.

In August 2021 she reached out to Jamal after reading his tweets about his father who was in Lashkar Gah as the Taliban drew in. She spent hundreds of hours talking to members of the Gul family and others across the region in order to tell their stories.

Brown has reported from several conflict zones, including Syria and Libya. She says she wrote The Gardener of Lashkar Gah to raise awareness about the Afghan interpreters who had helped the British army but have not still found a sanctuary in the UK.

Her book is also a searing indictment of the government’s scandalous betrayal of many interpreters and others who worked for the British forces.

Many Afghans have been denied visas or had to leave members of their family behind who are in constant danger of violent retribution from the Taliban.

“Jamal and other interpreters were crucial to the British forces,” Brown says. They usually served next to the highest in command. Relaying what the Taliban were saying on their radios, helping ensure the troops avoided ambushes, and serving as translators with local elders and community leaders, they helped save British lives.

Initially they were not provided with the same armour as the soldiers until the army realised that the Taliban could easily target the interpreters and the high-ranking officers they were translating for. They also had little safety training.

They could earn good salaries, and prestige but, Brown claims, “many of them genuinely believed that they were helping their country and building a better, brighter future”.

The sudden and chaotic withdrawal of allied troops from Afghanistan in 2021 allowed the Taliban to reconquer the country and they swiftly moved on Kabul.

Brown’s chapter about the desperate scramble to evacuate the region and the chaos in the airport from 24 to 26 August is called “Hell on Earth” with good reason.

She recreates in heartbreaking detail, Shaista’s attempts to get himself, his wife, Razagulla, and four sons on a flight out of Kabul, and the suicide bombing that nearly killed them.

In the end the family had to retreat and find another route out via Pakistan and Cyprus. Many veterans, such as Major General Charlie Herbert, former Captain Ed Aitken and Major Andrew Fox were desperate to support their former interpreters and helped several Afghans board planes to safety.

Once Jamal’s family arrived in the UK, their troubles did not stop. It is inevitably difficult for refugees to acclimatise to a new culture and find work, and many Afghans bear the emotional scars of being threatened or beaten by the Taliban.

Shaista, Razagulla and their sons were eventually settled in Scotland, some distance from Jamal and their friends. Brown says other Afghans have been housed on military bases.

She had hoped Shaista might be offered work in a garden, but he has not yet found any suitable employment and is trying to improve his rudimentary English.

Many Afghan interpreters end up in lowly paid jobs – Jamal is now working as a taxi driver.

Brown concluded our interview with the distressing news that Jamal’s youngest brother has recently been assaulted.

A compelling and accessible read, The Gardner of Lashkar Gah shines a light on the aspirations and tribulations of Afghans who risked everything for change and are still paying the price.  

• The Sulha Alliance support former Afghan interpreters, other Locally Employed Civilians who worked for the British Armed Forces, and their families

Originally published by Camden New Journal