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The Trials and Tribulations of an Afghan Fighter

August 9, 2018
Seerat Shayagan
6 min read
Sayed Ismail fought for Iran in Syria, but could not prove it — and so was denied the respect usually afforded to Afghan soldiers fighting for Iran
Sayed Ismail fought for Iran in Syria, but could not prove it — and so was denied the respect usually afforded to Afghan soldiers fighting for Iran

On the 23rd of Ramadan, a group of Afghan migrants who had been forcibly deported from Iran entered Islam Qala, in the western Herat Province. All 43 deportees were men and were mainly youth under the age of 40. The deportees were picked up from Tehran, Isfahan, Mashhad, Kerman, and other cities, and from homes, streets, workshops and buses – all due to lacking a residence permit. They were immediately sent to a camp, from where, after a short period of time, they were deported to Afghanistan. 

Sayed Ismail was one of them. 

The immigrants accused the Islamic Republic of Iran of inhumane behavior and violation of international laws. Ismail, however, was more indignant than the others. The young Shiite from the Balkh Province in Afghanistan was not an ordinary migrant: he had fought for Iran and was a “defender of the shrine,” a term Iranian officials use to describe Afghan fighters in Syria.

In 2013, as the Syrian war intensified, Iran formed a militant army consisting of Shiite Afghans under the Fatemiyoun Brigade. Ismail volunteered to join the militia army in return for a better income, as well as for the increased respect that came with being a soldier of Ayatollah Khamenei’s establishment (Velayat-e Faqih or the Guardianship of the Islamic Jurist). Thus, the subsequent behavior of Iran’s police force and the border guards toward someone who was considered a warrior, and who had fought in Syria against IS, was deeply insulting. Ismail had not only shared meals with Revolutionary Guard commanders in the battlefield and fought under the flag of Fatemiyoun in the line of fire – alongside Hezbollah and the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite force – but, he had, on at least one occasion, met General Ghasem Soleimani.

The Iranian government, unlike its position toward ordinary Afghan migrants, has been respectful of Fatemiyoun Brigade members – which mainly consists of Afghan migrants residing in Iran. Because these fighters are sent to different cities in Syria under the Islamic Republic of Iran flag, in support of Bashar Assad and in the height of war, they are considered to be deserving of dignity and respect. But when a police car approached Ismail to arrest him, it was impossible for him to prove that he was a member of Fatemiyoun. He shouted that he was a "defender of the shrine,” but it was to no avail. His life was shattered.

Ismail joined the brigade some four years ago when his older brother, Sayed Hashim, returned from Syria to take his wife and three children to Iran. Getting an Iranian visa is difficult for ordinary Afghans, but, within a week, Hashim was able to secure a visa from the Iranian embassy in Kabul in order to relocate his family to Iran. Only 24 years old at the time, Ismail’s interest was piqued. Without a job, he was spending most of his time at his friend's tinwork shop trying to earn a little money. He decided to leave Afghanistan and go to Iran in search of a better life. The stories he had heard from his brother about Syria weren't much worse than those of Afghanistan. 

When Ismail's brother arrived in Iran, he sent a message to Ismail telling him that it was the right time to enlist in the army – for a war that Iran had branded as a fight of good against evil. Ismail, with financial support from his brother, illegally made his way to Iran. He had not joined Fatemiyoun yet, so getting an Iranian visa was not easy. Human traffickers took him first to Zahedan, then to Kerman, and finally to Tehran. When Ismail reached a place called Shah Abdul Azem, Hashim had already started his second tour in Syria. Hashim's friends took Ismail to a registration center for recruits, and Ismail enrolled. 

Ismail, whose experience of handling guns in Afghanistan had been only for entertainment purposes, was now entering an organized military group. His father, mother, a brother and his sisters, who were all still living in Afghanistan, thought that Ismail had gone to Iran to work – until his mother received a photo of Ismail in military uniform, with a Hezbollah-style beard, in front of two airplanes, one which had an Iranian flag on it, on the outskirts of a mountain in a military base in Iran (the whereabouts of which cannot be revealed for security reasons). His family was shocked; Ismail had been officially recruited by the Islamic Republic of Iran to a non-official militant group. Although his training included a variety of activities, most of it focused on how to use Kalashnikovs.

The war was ongoing in Syria and greater reinforcement was needed to fight alongside Bashar Assad’s men. After two months of training, Ismail was dispatched by plane to Damascus in the darkness of night. Including Ismail, there were 200 fighters on the plane who landed at the Iranian and Syrian joint military base. After a few days, the Fatemiyoun members were divided into small groups of 20 and were sent to different front lines. The inexperienced Ismail was sent to Aleppo, in the north of Syria, to defend Zainab's Shrine. But, within a short period of time, Ismail was injured, wounded in the thigh and unable to walk. The Islamic Republic of Iran sent Ismail, together with many other Fatemiyoun casualties, back to Tehran. Ismail was treated at the military hospital and he was discharged within a week. Although his physical recovery was rapid, he needed long-term treatment to heal his psychological trauma. 

Ismail’s salary in Syria was not more that six million toman ($1,400 according to the rate at the time of publishing) – an insufficient amount to rent a house or to live a comfortable life. In order to be eligible to receive greater benefits, and to be able to live a decent life in Iran, Ismail would need to take many more tours in Syria; however, his first trip was his last. To reduce his physical and psychological pain, Ismail started using drugs. The Syrian money he earned was now spent on drugs – ruining his health and leaving what was once the body of a young man as nothing but skin and bones. No longer useful to Syria or Iran, Ismail was found lost and wondering in Tehran, and was arrested and deported. All of his identity cards and documents are in his brother's home in the Iranian capital.

For Ismail, while joblessness and drug abuse was a problem, a more dangerous threat to his life was the possibility of extremist Sunni groups finding out about his experiences with the Fatemiyoun Brigade and that he had fought in Syria. Eventually, Ismail made the decision to go back to Iran illegally and to show his documents to the Iranian government, in the hope of reinstating his rights. He also hopes to receive three million toman monthly (approximately $712) from the Mujahideen support fund, and a residence permit to start a new life. However, he is still to make his way to a Fatemiyoun base in Iran, via the nightmare of human trafficking, and notwithstanding Iran’s police.



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