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"If you Stay, We'll Stone you to Death Here": An Afghan Student's Hellish Crossing to Iran

February 3, 2021
Bagher Ebrahimi
7 min read
A video of Iranian police shooting at and setting fire to a car carrying Afghan migrants brought home to many the dangerous journey these people face
A video of Iranian police shooting at and setting fire to a car carrying Afghan migrants brought home to many the dangerous journey these people face
For many Afghans who have made the hazardous crossing into Iran, the incident depicted was all too familiar
For many Afghans who have made the hazardous crossing into Iran, the incident depicted was all too familiar

A video published by the BBC last year depicted Iranian police opening fire on and then torching a car carrying up to 13 Afghan migrants in Yazd province. The occupants were rescued but several were badly injured. Iranian officials admitted culpability but the Foreign Ministry insisted the actions were justified to prevent human trafficking.

The incident brought home to many the harsh and often life-threatening conditions in which many Afghans make the journey into Iran. But it was far from an exception.

Basir was 15 years old when he left for Iran, and has a similar tale to tell. This Afghan citizen dropped out of school and travelled to Iran intending to support his family. But on the road, their car overturned, his fellow passengers' heads, arms and legs were injured and he was taken hostage.


For Basir, now 22, the harrowing incident captured on video in Yazd last summer was all too familiar. Seven years ago, this student endured a traumatic incident on the road to Iran that left him with not only physical scars but bitter and brutal memories of a country he came to for aid.

At the time he decided to make the trip, Basir was just 15 and ninth grade in Afghanistan. His two older brothers already regularly travelled back and forth to Iran due to the family's financial difficulties. As a teenager, Basir was captivated by their pictures of local children in jeans and T-shirts in Tehran’s Azadi Square. And though his brothers tried to persuade him to stay in school, he insisted on following them on one of their elicit journeys.  

Like countless other Afghan migrants before him, Basir first travelled to the border province of Nimrouz. It was that night that he realized the trip would not be as rosy as he had expected; they spent the night in a stable and awoke covered with insect bites. The smugglers then crammed them and 35 other passengers into two Toyota cars and took them to the border.

"They took us up to a certain point,” Basir remembers, “and said ‘This is the border’, and that we would walk across after it got dark. It was 2.30am by the time we set off on foot. We came to a lake and had to cross it. It was freezing. We held hands so that we might survive. By the time we reached the mountain the cold had seeped through our bodies. Some passengers caught colds."

Crossing the lake and mountains, soaked to the skin and freezing cold, was only the beginning. The human traffickers then took their charges under a canal: “They said it was a border marker and we had to pass it. The width of the canal was about 10 to 12 meters. We were told to put our backpacks down and push them across while lying down. When we arrived on the other side, we were told that this was Iranian territory."

They had indeed reached Iran. From there, the smugglers took them into a forest and conveyed them from there by car to one of their makeshift dormitories, where several other passengers were already being held. Among them were women and children.

Their group was locked inside the dormitory until morning. The smugglers gave each passenger half a piece of dry bread to keep the hunger pangs at bay. At sunrise, the passengers were placed in a six-wheeled vehicle. According to Basir, by now there were 50 of them: "They told everyone to stand side by side and only sit down when told to.

“But whenever they announced that we should sit down, whoever sat down first would end up under the feet of the others, and the others ended up sitting on him. The littlest children were crying.

“We were on the road until nightfall. One person could no longer control himself and urinated right there; the smell was so bad we could hardly breathe. Our feet were numb. We got off in in the morning and we couldn’t walk. There, they took 30,000 tomans from each of us and gave us one biscuit and a cake.”

The group’s final destination was the city of Isfahan. The next night, the 50 passengers were transferred into two Toyota cars, bound first for Bam. By now, Basir regretted having ever set out on the trip but had no means of going back. After two hours of driving, the car reached rocky and uneven terrain, ascending a series of steep hills.

"Every time the cars went uphill, several passengers were in danger of being thrown out,” Basir remembers. “A few people fell out before my eyes and only barely managed to get back into the car. After two and a half hours the car reached the main road, and the lights were turned off so as not to attract the police’s attention. The car was driving faster and faster."

They eventually reached Bam, but then the car swerved off the road.

“The car came straight off the road,” Basir says. “It flew into the air and struck a sand dune. About half of the car was buried in the gravel. We got out and some people fell against the car, while others landed on the ground. Some people had injured their heads and backs; others’ arms and legs were broken. My brother and a friend of mine both suffered severe back injuries.

“One of the passengers' hands was stuck under the car. We lifted the car off him with difficulty and dug around in the dirt to release him. The bones in his hand were broken. The smuggler took the badly wounded [including one of his brothers] to his house in a different vehicle, and a Baluch smuggler took the rest of us from the road to the plain."

Several hours of walking later, the smuggler instructed them to spend the night in a set of residential dwellings. At sunrise the next morning, they were told they needed to climb over a hill: a journey they understood would take 40 minutes, but in fact lasted for 12 hours. No-one had sufficient water and food for the journey and all were exhausted.

By this stage of the trip, one of Basir's friends had lost the ability to walk. "He was overweight and could not walk much,” Basir says. “The smuggler said we’d stay there and take those who could no longer walk by motorbike, via a different route. But he did not take my friend. We were holding hands and another person was carrying his backpack. My friend could not take another step. The smuggler said: ‘If you stay, we will stone you to death here. We will bury you here. We’re merciful to everyone.”

Finally, they struggled over the top of the hill. The smugglers showed their charges into several buses and told them to get in quickly to go on the rest of the way. Twelve of them were placed into the trunk, while the rest were crammed inside the bus.

“I couldn’t breathe,” says Basir. “I was small, so they pulled me out of the trunk and put me under a seat instead. From there, they took us to a stable so that everyone could contact their own smuggler and pay him the money. We had no news of my injured brother and his smuggler was also unaware of what had happened to him. We later found out that one of the smugglers had taken him hostage, and the other was threatening the principal smuggler, saying he would not release the injured passengers until the money was paid. Finally, one of the traffickers intervened in the dispute to resolve it.”

Finally, after eight days of terrifying and violent transferral, Basir arrived in Isfahan with his remaining brother. Two days later, his other brother was delivered to Isfahan. They worked together in one of the city’s quarries; Basir was still only a child, but had no other choice. He remained there for a year and four months before finally deciding to return to Afghanistan to study, as his brothers had urged him all along. “I’m only a student now,” he says. “But these memories are still with me.”

This article was written by a citizen journalist in Tehran under a pseudonym.

Related coverage:

Revealed: How Border Guards and Officials Make a Killing from People-Smuggling in Iran

Afghan Migrant Recalls Three Months of Slave Labor in Iran

Iranian People-Smugglers Taking Afghans Hostage: A Refugee's Story

A Teenager’s Story of Being Trafficked into Iran

Afghan Migrants are Systematically Brutalized by Iran's Border Police


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