Who Will Fix the Fixers?

The United States war in Iraq is over, but those who helped Americans in combat zones remain in danger.

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An Iraqi interpreter, name not given, who works for the Titan Corp., helps a US soldier, right, to inspect a man's identity papers while an Iraqi soldier, left, looks on at a checkpoint near Baqouba 35 miles northeast of Baghdad Iraq, May 5, 2005. This translator uses a cap, sunglasses and a scarf to conceal his identity.

Everyone knows life is dangerous for a soldier in an active war zone. It's also dangerous for journalists, foreign service officer and aid workers. But one group has been tragically ignored: the fixers, translators and local staff who risk their lives to help Americans in combat zones.

Anyone who has been foreign correspondent has a story of a translator or "fixer"— a word used to apply to the plethora of services a local employee provides—who performed courageously, kindly, patiently and tirelessly to help the correspondent navigate the local scene. They do it because they need the money (many get paid $100 a day or more to drive, arrange interviews and translate) in war zones. They also do it because they have a commitment to journalism, or to a future for their own war-damaged nations they hope will be accelerated by making things run more smoothly for reporters or other foreigners. They take personal risks, as the internationals do, but with the added burden of feeling somewhat responsible for their employers. My fixer in Haiti gamely went along when we decided to break curfew to travel to the outer end of the island for interviews—a transgression in a combat zone that could get you killed, not grounded. My fixer in Kosovo (where at least one bodyguard to an Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe official was murdered) protected my life with his own, stepping in between me and whatever danger he saw. Another translator in Kosovo, a Serb, kept her cool even as we traveled through territory controlled by the ethnic Albanian Kosovo Liberation Army. Another young woman who translated for us— an ethnic Albanian—was with us when we were ambushed by Serb paramilitary, dragged out of the car and held at gunpoint. Not only did our 19-year-old translator keep her cool, but she managed to negotiate the return of a tape recorder one of the soldiers had taken from a radio-reporter colleague with us. My fixer in Iraq worked nonstop and had invaluable local knowledge that kept me from getting killed. He helped me earn the trust of locals whose sad stories needed to be told, but who might have felt uncomfortable opening up to an American. And he knew enough local scuttlebutt to keep me from getting hurt. "Hey, Samir, let's go to Sadr City," I proposed one day in August of 2003. He looked straight ahead as he drove us in downtown Baghdad. "Not today," he said evenly. I knew not to push.

[ See a collection of political cartoons on the Middle East.]

Unlike those of us who go to war zones as reporters or aid workers or military, local translators cannot look ahead to returning to a safe home. Many are targeted by their own countrymen for aiding what they saw as the enemy— Americans. It's a good-paying job for a local, but when the job is done, the danger stays and even escalates.

The U.S. government committed to helping those folks, offering special immigrant visas to Iraqis who worked with the U.S. government during the war. But as McClatchy's stellar Middle East writer Hannah Allam reports, few than one-fifth of the 25,000 visas allotted to help the Iraqis who helped the U.S. have actually been awarded. And with the program set to expire in September, thousands of Iraqis who risked their lives to help will face a lifetime of looking over their shoulders. As Allam quotes one such worker:

"People don't forget what you did. Ever," said Khaldoun Kubba, who worked closely with the U.S. government after the invasion on projects in southern Iraq. He arrived in the United States with his family in December after being granted a special immigrant visa.

[ Read the U.S. News Debate: 10 Years Later, Was the Iraq War Worth It?]

Americans are shedding the burdens of money and human suffering as the nation withdrew from Iraq and draws down in Afghanistan. But for locals who wanted nothing more than to feed their families, work toward democracy and build a better future for their own countries, the burden—and the danger—is forever. The U.S. obligation does not end with the cessation of combat.