When Mohammad Hashem returned to Kabul after a year of fighting in the Syrian war, his childhood friends couldn’t recognize him. He was suffering from muscular rheumatism, had lost several pounds, most of his hair had fallen out, and he could not speak without stuttering. The doctors told him that sleeping in a wet place with wet clothes was the cause of his troubling disease. But for Hashem, these troubles affected him far less than what he had witnessed while in Syria.
Hashem was working in Tehran, like thousands of immigrant Afghans, when the wave of Afghans dispatching to Syria swept through his life.
“I am just surprised how I did go to Syria,” he told IranWire. “One day my elder brother told me he was going to Syria. I told him not to do that. I said you are married with a wife and a boy. If someone has to go, it should be me, as I am unmarried. He asked me not to because he cannot answer our dad if something goes wrong. I told him if he goes I will follow suit. My brother went. I was left alone. My friends had gone to Syria and returned wounded or martyred. Some are still missing. Work, work, work, I was really tired of it in Tehran. The guys used to say that only those called upon from the prophet’s family can go to Syria. I was called upon.”
Hashem decided to register to go on tour. This was easily done. He was given a couple of days to rest, and then was asked to come to Imam’s Square. He was taken to a military base by a minibus. While the name of the base was not mentioned to him, he found out that it was once used to train anti-Saddam Iraqi forces in Iran. His training lasted for 21 days. All he learned to do, however, was to fire guns. Then he was back on the minibus and on his way to the airport.
Some 120 people were trained along with him at the base. However, there were approximately 400 men on the plane to Syria. Classification was done properly: every group of 11 fighters had a commander and a deputy commander. The Iranian man in charge had told them to match themselves with those they got along with. The Iranian and Afghan commanders were short of forces and were expecting fresh troops. In the darkness of night, the plane carrying the 400 Fatemiyoun fighters landed at the Imam Hussain base in Damascus. Hashem stayed at the base for a night and went to the shrine the next day. When he returned from Bibi Zainab’s shrine, his morale was boosted for the mission ahead. He asked his commander to send him to Bibi Ruqayya’s shrine once too, but his commander refused, saying that there was a lot of liberty among women in that area and that he advised against it. Instead, Hashem was sent to the mountainous village of Belas, in Aleppo. The village was so populated with Afghan fighters that they used to call it “Dara-e Soof”, referring to the mountainous valley in the northern Samangan Province that refuged most of the anti-Soviet and anti-Taliban Mujahideen commanders.
“The enemy was face to face with us,” Hashem explained. “Only with 300 meters distance. They were on one side of the hill and we were on the other ... Kalashnikov bullets were easily reaching each side. The fight usually took place at night. We used to fight at night and sleep in [the] day. Their men used to come out of their bases toward our camp, and when they neared they started firing by calling, ‘Yah Allah’. When I heard this, I was confused [whether] to shoot or not to shoot. Our commander was a Sayed. I asked him, ‘Agha Sayed, what is this? We shout Yah Zainab and they respond with Yah Allah. What’s the issue?’ The commander said that it was just [a tactic] for them to misguide us. But the question for me was whether defending the shrine was more important, or Allah.”
Once, the Sunni extremists launched a rocket strike against the base and showered them with bullets. Hashem described the attack: “The bullets were flying like the rain. Their strike was massive. They launched a suicide attack that confused people ... a couple of kilometers away. About 450 Fatemiyoun men were killed. If you were careless for a moment, you would be killed. They first targeted our heavy weapons [and] ... mostly used snipers. Hardly Kalashnikovs. Only snipers and night cameras were used. It was a hard fight. They preferred to hit in the lower parts of the body to capture us alive, and [then] behead [us] by their [own] hands after making videos. It took hours before [the attack was over].”
He added: “... distribution of food and water and taking our casualties to hospitals was a major problem. I got ill myself. I had severe pain in my wrist and could not even hold a glass ... It [my hand] deteriorated and harmed my bones in my shoulders. Then it extended to the neck and muscular parts of my legs. All my bones started aching. I was not able to walk and [the] pain was killing me...medicine was useless to me. I requested them to send me to Iran to get some treatment and they did. But I did not go to hospital in Iran. I suffered severe pain. I returned to Afghanistan and went to India for treatment.”
Doctors conducted 37 tests on Hashem, and finally diagnosed that he suffered from muscular rheumatism. They blamed it on the damp conditions at the base, and the wet mattress he slept on there.
All that Hashem brought back with him from Syria was approximately two million toman, equivalent to one month of income for an ordinary laborer in Iran. He says that if he had spent his time on work such as baking bread or cutting stones, he might have earned more.
When I asked Hashem about his overall view of the war, he recounted the story of one of his fellow fighters: “One of the boys had lost one of his fingers in a rocket blast. The boys used to joke, ‘It’s fine, because he has gotten rich. He will have holidays ahead and will enjoy life.’ But the boy would say that even if they paid him 20 million and asked him for a single finger, his answer would be a loud ‘No!’ The money that comes from war and bloodshed has no blessing.”
I asked the former fighter about Iran’s role in the Syrian war and the abuse of Afghan forces in the war, now in its seventh year. He replied: "It’s a political matter. I am illiterate. It’s hard for me to answer. But I know [that] if Iran does not keep the war there, it has to fight it on its soil. We, the Afghans, went to defend the shrines and the family of the prophet in Syria and the shrines were actually ruined. They damaged Bibi Zainab and Bibi Ruqayya shrines. We did our duty.”
Read the other articles in IranWire's Afghan soldiers series: