I talked to one of the first volunteers to join the Liwa Fatemiyoun Brigade back in 2013. He served in Syria for eight terms and is now back in Iran working in the construction industry. He tells me that defending the holy Shia shrines, especially the shrine of Hazrat Zainab, was so important to him that he was willing to pay out of his own pocket to go to Syria and fight against ISIS.
“When I wanted to register, they would handpick the volunteers [and] wouldn’t approve everybody. Candidates had to meet certain qualifications. It did not matter if they were Afghans or Iranians, everyone had to pass the vetting process. My process took about a month.” He told me at that time the vetting process was more rigorous, with more difficult requirements.
He appointed an agent to receive his salary in his absence. In the case of his death, the agent would be the one responsible for his burial. The main requirement for joining the Fatemiyoun Brigade was consent from parents and wives, as well as having a strong faith. At the time of registration, he had to answer a questionnaire about his religious beliefs, although he told me he did not remember the specifics. But he insists he joined the war because of his personal religious beliefs. “Honestly, we joined this war with no expectations. We just wanted someone to take us to Haram [the Shrine] so we could defend it. Our salary at that time was only 15 million Iranian rials [roughly US$600 at the time].”
After the registration process, he went to a military camp, where he underwent intensive military training for a month. There he learned about various military tactics, how to use guns, and about guerrilla operations, as well as learning about the Syrian civil war.
After training, he was deployed to Damascus in September 2013 along with 100 other soldiers. “That was the beginning, [when] Fatemiyoun [was first established] and we were so few in numbers, the whole corps consisted of 300 soldiers. It was located in Damascus only, around the shrine,” he said.
According to the soldier, there were only young Afghan warriors fighting on the battlefields against ISIS. Iran’s Revolutionary Guards commanders instructing the brigade were based at the headquarters, from where they shared their advice and tactics. “A guerrilla war is different than a classic war,” he told me. “In a guerrilla operation everyone acts base on their skills and capabilities, whereas in a classic army there is a military hierarchy and everyone needs to obey their superiors.”
It was easy to see the excitement in his eyes when he talked about this, and about the Fatemiyuon Brigade’s success on the battlefield in spite of their short training periods. But when he remembered the bitter memories of friends he lost in the war he couldn’t help himself — he had to cry. He remembered the death of Reza Esmaeili, the brigade’s first martyr.
Reza Esmaeili was the first Fatemiyoun soldier to be killed by ISIS in combat in a small city near Damascus. “I was at the headquarters on that day and was doing the paperwork for my leave when I heard over the telecom that Reza was missing. We all knew Reza and knew he would not be an easy one to capture. So we were hopeful that he was going to come back, but he never did. Later we heard about his death. Reza was the first Fatemiyoun martyr who came back home beheaded.”
In the first term of service, after 45 days, the soldier I talked to went home on leave and stayed for a month, during which he received a salary. “As soon as I left, the enemy invaded Jordan’s borders and was closer to the Damascus airport. The fight was more intense when I returned. I should also say that we also had some victories.”
I asked him about whether he or his family received Iranian citizenship after his service. He acknowledged that there were rumors that Iran had made promises to Afghan soldiers but failed to keep them, but denies this was the case. “No one ever promised us Iranian citizenship. These are only rumors that some haters made up to make us look bad. We wanted to go to Syria so badly that we were willing to pay the expenses out of our own pockets just to fight ISIS off.”