At his home in Thunder Bay, Ontario, Robin Rickards’ laptop keeps pinging with message notifications and emails from former Afghan interpreters and Canadian forces personnel, who are desperate to get out of Afghanistan before it’s too much. late.

With the total withdrawal of US and NATO forces from Afghanistan in about six weeks, the retired Canadian corporal has attempted to use his own contacts on the ground to bring a group trapped in Kandahar to relative safety in the capital Kabul.

But that journey is literally littered with roadblocks, with at least 40 checkpoints, and growing, set up by insurgents along the 300-mile highway linking the two cities, according to the latest updates Rickards received from his officials. two former Afghan interpreters there.

“What they do to investigate people is that they ask for your cell phone at the checkpoints and they check all your contacts. They will start calling contacts and start asking questions. As long as the answers to the questions are aligned, it’s okay to be on your way, ”he said.

“But if they don’t, they will use the airport security term, you have been selected for ‘secondary inspection.’ They take you to the side of the road and shoot you or cut your throat. “

With the road to Kandahar airfield still under Afghan government control for now, Rickards said the only option to get the civilians out is by air before they are captured by the Taliban, who see these former Western government employees. as infidels and threaten to kill them. them and their families as he takes control of the country once again.

But with few civil flights leaving Afghanistan’s second-largest city, Rickards said it cannot be done without help from the Canadian government, which has come under intense criticism for its late response to help those who supported the Canadian mission.

“It is atrocious and truly shameful that there are more than 115 people who are in danger because they helped Canada, because they believed in Canada and risked their lives, serving alongside Canadians as interpreters, as drivers, as staff, and because of that, now they are targets, ”said Kate Rusk, whose sister, Captain Nichola Goddard, was killed by Taliban insurgents in an ambush on May 17, 2006.

“Franky, I think we owe them,” added Rusk, whose family launched a website this week to urge Canadians to communicate with their MPs and demand immediate action from the Liberal government.

Immigration Minister Marco Mendicino told the Star that his staff are working with officials from Canada’s Department of National Defense and Global Affairs in hopes of implementing a program “as soon as possible.”

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Currently, national defense officials are compiling a list of interpreters who worked for them, while Foreign Affairs deals with the issue of locally recruited staff working at the embassy.

Meanwhile, the immigration department acts as a “facilitator”, trying to figure out, among other things, how to properly screen everyone, which immigration “category” they should belong to, where they will go once they arrive in Canada, and which members of the family can bring with them.

Specific details on who will qualify, for example how long and when they needed to work for Canada and in what capacity, are still being worked out, Mendicino said.

On Wednesday, Washington launched “Operation Allied Shelter” to evacuate interested and eligible Afghans and their families. White House press secretary Jen Psaki said they will include those “who have supported the United States and our partners.”

Mendicino would not say whether a direct request for assistance has been made to the US, but that Canada is speaking with coalition partners and that no option, including sending Canada on their own plane, is off the table. .

A Canadian team is also on the ground assessing the risks that would be involved in an evacuation, Mendicino said.

“We are going to move heaven and earth to do this,” he said in an interview.

Conservative leader Erin O’Toole said Ottawa must provide a date when it will remove these former Afghan interpreters and support personnel from Afghanistan.

“Other countries are taking immediate steps to help Afghans who worked with their armed forces and ensure their safety, while Canada hesitates and lags behind,” it said in a statement.

“There is no excuse for the Canadian government not to have a plan in action to save the lives of these brave Afghan interpreters and support personnel.”

This was followed by an open letter last week from three retired Canadian generals who called on the federal government to restart a resettlement program for Afghan civilians working for the country.

Rickards, who did three tours of Afghanistan between 2006 and 2010, said there is no excuse for Ottawa’s inaction.

He and the defenders of the Afghan-Canadian interpreters – a grassroots advocacy group made up primarily of war veterans, active military members and supporters – along with liberal supporter Marcus Powlowski have identified and screened some 120 Afghan employees (totaling about 500 people, including family members) and Ottawa has the list for some time.

Retired Corporal Robin Rickards, who made three tours of Afghanistan between 2006 and 2010, says Ottawa must immediately send its military plane to rescue Afghan civilians in Kandahar or ask allies for help.

“Partisan politics is destroying our country. I would say that a lot of this is not due to safety concerns, but to the need to manage the message because we will soon have elections, ”said Rickards.

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“We have been ignoring this because it was not a wedge problem. It wasn’t something we could get Canadians to park in for a political advantage. “

Mendicino insisted on Thursday that the program would be launched electorally or not.

“This operation is many things, most of which is, I think, an effort to do the right thing on the part of Afghans who supported Canada’s role in the war in Afghanistan,” Mendicino said.

“But what is not is partisan. And the choice, whenever it occurs, is not a factor to do this or not ”.

Rickards said time is running out and Ottawa must send its own military plane to Kandahar to take out those civilians now or ask its allies for help.

He said that if the issue is the background check, Canadian officials can take these people to Kabul or a military base where the inspection and paperwork can be done.

Rickards said his friends in Afghanistan bought apartments so some of the former Canadian Afghan employees could hide, but even trying to transfer money is challenging due to restrictions imposed by money laundering rules.

“We have an Afghan risking his life right now to try to find accommodation for people so that they have a place to stay. People tell us that they are not going to leave Kandahar to live on the streets of Kabul because it is simply not safe and that it is safer to stay in a war zone where the Taliban are invading them daily, ”he said. “It’s just an anxiety that makes you bite your nails.”

Rickards, who has been in contact with some of the Afghan civilians on the ground, said he has been advising everyone to delete contacts and social media accounts on their mobile devices and destroy proof of their service for Canada, to avoid detection. of insurgents.

“But that’s a Catch-22,” Rickards lamented, when another text message appeared on his computer screen from one of his field contacts.

It read: “The front line of the Taliban was right at Mirwais (hospital in Kandahar). I told you the day would come when you couldn’t help us. “

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto reporter covering immigration for The Star. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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