I sit with my young Afghan interpreter by the swollen Helmand river watching fish leap out of the fast moving current.

“My family thinks I work in Herat. Only my brother knows that I am here…” he tells me, as the icy water swirls past. “In this job it is safer if our friends, our relatives don’t know what we do.”

We continue talking as the sun slowly sets, and it becomes apparent to me that his concealment is common for many of the hundreds of young Afghan men hired to work across the province as translators and interpreters for those of us who don’t speak the local Pashtu.

“I cant trust anyone in this area.” he continues. “They prefer their own people. If I go out alone, then my place will be with the Taliban next week. They say we are the eyes and the ears of ISAF.”

And he is right. Without these brave youngsters, we are blind. They see all and hear all that is passed between we foreigners and the Afghans, be they government officials, local farmers or Talib sympathisers. And they are more than interpreters – they become our guides to the complex customs and ancient traditions that define every interaction. Without them we would be helpless.

Yet they are invisible. Present in every encounter, conduits for our conversations, yet otherwise silent observers to our dealings over every imaginable issue – poppy trafficking, military operations, local disputes… Our understanding of reality is shaped by these men.

His life story is etched by the milestones of war. Born at the time of the Soviet withdrawal, his family fled to Pakistan as the Taliban rose to power. They, like so many others, returned only after Coalition forces toppled the regime in 2001. He seized the opportunity to begin a degree in medicine, but the realities of a war-ruin economy forced him to defer and instead seek work. Feeding his family was a higher priority.

With a good grasp of English learned in Pakistan, he was offered work by the British military, and promptly dispatched to the increasingly volatile province of Helmand. “I wasn’t happy to come here, but my family needed the money, so I decided to try my luck.”

And in a place such as Sangin, interpreters play a dangerous game of chance. He first arrived in early 2009, just as the ‘fighting season’ was starting in earnest. Four months later, one of his colleagues was struck by an IED. Since then three more interpreters, working on the front lines with the US Marines, have been killed. But such deaths are rarely reported in the media.

I learned from him that they are well rewarded for taking such risks, lured by salaries far higher than local officials, and the dream of qualifying for a visa in the West. Many seize the opportunity, serving their time and whisking their families off to a life unreachable by most in Afghanistan. Sadly, it means that this war is draining the precious pool of educated young men who would otherwise be helping to rebuild a shattered country. Our small team alone comprises a pilot, a nurse, a business owner and an aspirant doctor, their chosen professions laid to one side as they serve as our intermediaries.

By now the dusk has arrived, bringing with it gusts chilled by the waters at our feet. My young and loyal interpreter shares his hopes of someday returning to Kabul to complete his medical degree. It will be a hard road from here and I am reminded how easy it is to overlook the sacrifice made by those who are our eyes and ears.