An Afghan migrant in Iran tells of his time as a fighter in Syria
Ali Akbar was calm as he began his story:
“I was just fifteen when I left Afghanistan with my family. A poor economy and insecurity forced us into emigration — it was the Taliban time in Afghanistan. Now I’ve lived in Iran for 18 years. I’m married and have a son and two daughters. My oldest child is named Abbas.
“I have not gone back to Afghanistan since we left. The situation there has not been good. I do construction work in Iran and all I want is for my children to have a better life away from war and violence, to study and to make their country proud.
“But living in Iran is expensive for Afghans. Aside from paying the bills and rent, every year we have to pay for our children’s school and to extend our immigration cards.
“I had not had a proper job for about a year when I was invited to a friend’s house.People were talking about the ongoing war in Syria. That’s when I heard that they pay two million toman (approximately $660) to whoever will go to Syria to fight.
“I was tempted; I want my family to have a better life. My family did not want me to go — they tried to persuade me not to. But I had made my decision: One week laterI went to register with a friend who had already gone to Syria once before.”
Thousands of Afghans who have sought refuge in Iran are being sent to Syria to fight for the regime of Bashar al Assad. Human Rights Watch reports that the Iranian government often offers cash incentives and a promise of asylum to those who will take up arms in the long and brutal war.
More than three million Afghans are living in Iran, but fewer than a third of them have legal status. This gives military recruiters a powerful weapon to use to persuade desperate Afghans to go and fight.
Ali Akbar continued his tale:
“We were told to be in Behesht-e-Zahra (a cemetery in southernTehran) on a Tuesday morning, 8:00 a.m. From there we were taken to the Pazooki camp in the Tehran suburbs.
“We trained for about a month. There were many Afghans there and I was very happy to see them. When I entered the camp, they took all my information and opened a bank account for me. The person who was training us was Iranian and he treated us very well.
“From there we went to Syria. When we got to Damascus, we went to Zainab’s holy shrine. They called the people who were fighting in Syria ‘defenders of the shrine.’
“There are different groups in Syria; they would call Iraninans ‘Ansariun,’ Afghans ‘Fatemiun,’ Pakistanis ‘Zainabiun,’ and Iraqis ‘Hairadiun.’ They paid us $100 per month for our daily expenses.
“When I went to fight for the first time, my whole body was shaking. The sound of rockets and bullets whizzing around me was like a nightmare. I had never been to a war like this. I had a friend called Muhammad Hussain who came from Afghanistan a year ago and it was his second deployment. ‘I was scared the first time, too. You’ll get used to it.’ he would say to me.
“He would talk to me about the bad situation of Afghanistan and his family. ‘If I am still alive after 6 months service in Syria, I can bring my family to Iran and get a 10-year immigration card and extend it every year,’ he explained.”
When Ali Akbar talked about his friend, he would get choked up and his eyes would fill with tears.
“Muhammad Hussain was 23 years old and full of dreams. He immigrated to Iran so that he could get a job and send money back to his family. But he is not among us anymore. Muhammad Hussain was killed in an operation along with other‘Fatemiuns.’
“As Muhammad Hussain had said, I got used to the situation. Now I have many memories: laughing, crying, making jokes and fighting alongside the brave men of Fatemiun.”
Ali Akbar gets excited when he talks; it is as if he is physically here, but mentally back in Syria.
“Iranian commanders and everyone else always say good things about the Fatemiun group, which now has turned into a real army. They say that Fatemiun really try hard and they fight for the shrine and their beliefs. During the two months that I was there, I saw and experienced many things and lost many dear friends.
“The first time I went there, it was so that I could earn money and give my family a better life. But now it is different. This time I am going for my beliefs and my heart. I want to defend the people who lost their lives to defend Islam and their religion.”
I asked him why he did not come home and fight for his own country, and for the innocent Afghans who are killed every single day. He was silent for a few minutes, then began to speak again.
“Here my family is safe,” he said. “As long as I live I will support them, and when I die, the Iranian government has promised things. I hope they honor those promises, so that my family is not in need.If the Afghan government would do the same, I am ready to come back to my country and fight.”
I wanted to know how he had been treated in Iran over the past 18 years. Had he been insulted or discriminated against for being Afghan?
“Yes! Many times have I been insulted. People say that I do the best work for less money than Iranians. Because I work honestly. Even in the line for the bakery I have to stay at the end of the line, because I buy a lot of bread. However, I have good Iranian friends as well who treat me like their brother and respect me. There are good and bad people in every society.”
He stopped and shook his head.
“When I was in Syria, a young Afghan who had recently joined the Fatemiun group accidentally shot and killed himself. He didnot know how to use a weapon. They should not send people who are not properly trained to Syria. Sometimes I think that we really are just a tool for the Iranian government.”