An Iranian citizen journalist, who writes under a pseudonym to protect his identity, wrote the following article on the ground inside Iran.
Reza, a 21-year-old Afghan man, has served under the yellow flag of the Fatemiyoun Brigade in Syria.
Iran’s Quds Corps, the Revolutionary Guards unit that carries out operations outside Iran, runs the Liwa Fatemiyoun, and often recruits Afghan Shia immigrants to fight for Bashar al-Assad against opposition forces in Syria.
Prior to joining Fatemiyoun, Reza worked as a construction worker in Tehran. He and a friend were looking for work when a taxi driver gave them the address of a Fatemiyoun recruitment office.
According to him, the offices operate openly and actively seek Afghan immigrants. “There was unemployment in Iran and they told us if we go to Syria we will get involved in jihad and make money. The Fatemiyoun recruitment offices are at the Basij bases and everyone in the base knows what’s going on. They did not ask for any documents, and the only requirement was to not be underage. You don’t even need to have an emergency contact to join Fatemiyoun. The salary for anyone deployed to Syria was 30 million Iranian rials per month.”
After the registration, Reza spent 18 days in a military boot camp in Varamin near Tehran, and was then deployed to the battlefield immediately afterward. “In training, they only showed us how to work with AK-47s. No matter how good a training you get, in the course of 18 days if you don’t have a background in using a gun, you can never learn it fully and properly. Some of the fellow soldiers have difficulties in disassembling and reassembling their guns.” Reza said.
Desperate for Money
“Many people join the war in Syria because they’re financially desperate. It’s better than staying in Iran where there are not many jobs available and even if you are lucky enough to get a job, there is a good chance that you won’t be getting paid.” he said.
But according to Reza, this is not the case for everyone. There are some recruits who have no idea of where they are going. “There were people who’ve been told that they are going to Syria to work in construction. Little did they know that instead of a hammer they will work with guns. These individuals did not pass any training courses and therefore, casualties [among them] were often high.”
He, however, knew that he was going to war. Reza, along with 300 other Afghan fighters, was deployed from an airport in Tehran and landed at Damascus airport. The group was immediately welcomed by Fatemiyoun officials and Iranian generals. “Fatemiyoun [officials] and Iranians came to the airport and took us to the base. The base is located in the city of Damascus and from the airport to the Imam Hussein Base it is approximately a one-hour drive. We stayed in the base for three to four days and then were relocated to a different city.”
Reza served three terms in Syria in the same city, which he didn’t name. The first time was during a cold winter, which he says was the least dangerous time of his service. He says because of the cold weather there was no active plan to liberate the city from ISIS. But during his second and third terms, he fought for the liberation of the city.
He considers himself to be lucky to be alive. He witnessed many of his friends dying in front of him and he could do nothing to help them. “In a time of war, people drop down left and right, some are dead on sight, [and they are] the lucky ones. Many others are injured and suffer without any medical help. In the first attack, we were surrounded by ISIS fighters on a farm. They blocked the farm from three different sides and it was a nightmare for us. Of the people I met during the training course in Tehran, 12 died that day. One of my friends was injured and I lost five other close friends the same day.”
Although Iranian officials claim that they provide air support for the Fatemiyoun Brigade during the operations, in reality, there is no such support for soldiers fighting ISIS on the battlefield. “In those chaotic moments, our only hope was to fight our way out of a certain death,” Reza said.
A Fluctuating Salary and Short-term Residency
He says his parents did not know about their son’s intentions to fight in Syria, but during his first term they found out and begged him to come back. So after his first term of duty, he came back to Tehran.
Reza promised his parents that he wouldn’t go to Syria anymore, but when he failed to find a job in Iran, he went back to Syria without notifying his family. To keep them at peace, he would call them frequently from Syria, telling them he was in Iran working in a nice job.
According to Reza, Fatemiyoun fighters in Syria are given an extra amount of around $50-100 per week in addition to the normal wages they are paid at the end of their service, but they are not provided with adequate food. “The food wasn’t good, it wasn’t even enough. Especially when there was an operation, we had a food shortage. If you had your own food and it didn’t go bad, you could use it, but even finding a piece of a bread was next to impossible in those times.”
Reza was promised a three-month residency card after his first term, one-year residency after the second term, and 10-year residency for him and his family after the third term. Iranian authorities have yet to decide on whether and how Afghan Fatemiyoun fighters can obtain permanent residency.
According to him, the salary for each month fighting in Syria was between 28 and 30 million Iranian rials, which, because of the depreciation of the Iranian currency against the US dollar, has since risen to 40 million.
Iran officials state that Afghan recruits fight in the war because of their religious beliefs, but Reza says making money and getting residency status are much more important for the fighters than guarding holy shrines. “Iran propaganda states that the reason behind this jihad is to guard Hazrat Zainab’s shrine. They are telling us as well that we are being deployed to Syria to guard the holy shrines. But there is no holy shrine in Aleppo or any other places where Fatemiyoun is present. Maybe in the early days of this war and when Damascus was under attack, people joined to guard the shrines, but not today. There is no danger threatening the capital anymore.”
According to him, the Iranian government treats Fatemiyoun fighters with respect and completely differently to how it treats other Afghan immigrants in the country. However, he also added that he had one experience where he and his fellow fighters retreated from a battlefield near Damascus and Iranian officials harshly criticized them.
The exact number of Afghan citizens who have been recruited in Iran to fight in Syria is not clear, but there are too many Afghan families who have lost a loved one in this faraway war.
After the third tour, Reza, who was really homesick by that point, went straight back to Herat in Afghanistan. Although he is now back living with the family in his hometown, Reza spends his days in fear and suffers from stress. “I’m scared and do my best to keep my identity secret. The identity of us, the Fatemiyoun fighters, must remain confidential,” Reza said. “I don’t even post any photos on Facebook. Some people published photos on social media and ended up getting arrested by Afghanistan’s National Directorate of Security. They were sentenced to 18 years in prison.”
The Afghan government insists that its citizens don’t get involved in wars in the region and in neighboring countries. Furthermore, it says when Afghan Fatemiyoun fighters return to Afghanistan, they endanger national security. Some also say that ISIS looks for and identifies Afghans who fought in Syria once they return to Afghanistan, and then hunts them down in their own country.
Ahmad Mousavi, citizen journalist