Mohammadullah joined the Shiite paramilitary Fatemiyoun Brigade by accident. He was in Afghanistan when his uncle, an Afghan militant commander in Syria, was injured and taken to a hospital in Iran for treatment. Mohammadullah went to Iran to support and nurse him. It was there that he met the high-spirited and excited Afghan men who had come from Syria to visit his uncle. The men indulged in an enjoyable recollection of past events, sharing their stories and speaking of the monthly three-million-toman salaries the Islamic Republic had provided. They spoke of residence permits and permission to live in Iran, as well as the welfare they received after coming back from the war.
Mohammadullah was encouraged to put his own life at risk by going to the war in Syria in order to get residency in Iran. “After registration, I got military training at Yazd base,” the Afghan fighter, who is now in Afghanistan visiting his relatives, said. “The training given to us included operating guns, physical education and some description about guerrilla warfare. Producing and neutralizing mines were also a part of the training. The Iranian trainers gave us a compact training."
According to Mohammadullah, hundreds of the newly-joined recruits to the Fatemiyoun Brigade are taken to the garrison in Yazd that belongs to the Quds Army – the branch of the Islamic Republic’s Revolutionary Guards in charge of overseas military operations. The new recruits receive compact military training there and prepare to go to war. Since most of these individuals are Afghans who have grown up in Iran and have not used guns before, most of the military training is concentrated on introducing and operating different kinds of weapons. In addition, the men are trained to use Kalashnikovs and other Iran-made arsenals, as well as in guerrilla war and de-mining tactics.
“At the beginning, the military training period was 20 days because the war was severe and there was immediate need for fresh forces, but now it goes on for two months,” explained Mohammadullah. “In fact, the period increased to two months in 2016, as in this year the severity of war reduced and the number of warriors also increased.”
He went to Syria after 20 days of training in the military base of Yazd to fight beside Bashar al-Assad’s allied forces and under the yellow flag of Fatemiyoun – the Afghan fighters brigade. From concept to recruitment, and from training to the leadership of Fatemiyoun, all are under the control of the Iranians.
When Mohammadullah finished his training, he landed in Damascus with high morale – but one part of his training remained incomplete, and he was taken to the shrine, as per the usual practice.
“The first thing that Iranian commanders did was the identification of the units,’ explained Mohammadullah. “They wanted to know who is [an] expert in which profession. After division of the units, the second task was taking the troops to the shrine of Bibi Zainab, the granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad. Then the warriors are sent to the front line. However, it was not compulsory for the volunteer fighters to go to the front line. [There was] no forcing of any fighter … who did not want to go to war.” He added: “The first time we went to Bibi Zainab’s shrine, we forgot everything about the residence permit in Iran and the promised salaries that we had had in mind earlier. The Fatemiyoun men read religious choruses and prayers that day. Our feeling and the situation changed. Our focus changed from money and the residence [permits] to… Fatemiyoun’s fight.”
Mohammadullah, who appeared to be over the age of 30, was deeply influenced by this spiritual practice. After he concluded his first mission in Syria and returned to Iran, he could not stay more than seven days. Instead, he planned to start his second tour of mission to Syria. However, this time his goal was neither money nor the residence permit, but rather it was to defend Bibi’s shrine.
He was deployed to Aleppo when the war showed its brutal face. “We were surrounded by ISIS for three days in an area in Aleppo. We lost hope and decided [that] if no one came to our rescue, we will be dead. Although we were running out of weapons and food, we didn't plan to surrender, because we knew that surrendering to ISIS means death. Eventually, the Fatemiyoun troops, with support from Lebanese Hezbollah forces, broke the deadlock and took us out. We saw ISIS face to face. They were based 50 to 100 meters away from us. They came to show a cruel face of Islam. They beheaded my fellows. They yelled at us that the Iranian pay is less and urged us to go and join them. They came to destroy Shiism and Islam. They were calling us from a 100-meters distance. They thought that we were all Shia Hazara. They talked in Persian, our own language, and said that the wages and asylum conditions are better in Arabic countries. None of our men joined them because they were ready to die — but not surrender to ISIS.”
The longest residence permit Iran gives Afghan Fatemiyoun fighters is for 10 years. Tehran has not yet decided to issue citizenship to Afghan fighters. Mohammadullah confirmed that the residence document is given to those who have passed the test of war, like he has. The people who went to war in Syria two or three times and returned were eligible to receive residence permits.
Now that the spiritual dust of the Bibi Zainab and Bibi Ruqayya shrines has fallen, Mohammadullah has started a relaxed life with his newly-formed family in Iran. He does not regret what he did for the Revolutionary Guards and for Shia Islam.