This article was written by a citizen journalist in Afghanistan using the pseudonym Daniel Dayan to protect his identity.
On Saturday, May 2 more than 50 Afghan refugees were reportedly detained by Iranian border guards, beaten, and thrown into the Harirud River. According to Afghan media, between five and 23 of these migrants drowned or disappeared.
Those who were accompanying the Afghan immigrants and the families of those killed say the killings were were intentional. Iran has denied the allegations, but the Afghan Ministry of Foreign Affairs issued a statement on Friday calling for a comprehensive investigation into the incident.
The 50 travelers are thought to have entered Iran on Friday, May 1 via an illegal route from Herat province in western Afghanistan. Survivors of the abortive journey say they were then detained by border guards in the area known as the Zolfaghar passageway, near the town of Golran in Herat, who forced them to throw themselves into the Harirud River.
Shahvali Taheri is one of the survivors. He says he was coming to Iran to find a job. Shahvali is still in shock from the trip and the loss of his fellow travelers, but in an interview with IranWire he was able to describe the horrific chain of events that had taken place: one that would see him forced to deliver the bodies of two of his friends to the morgue at Herat Central Hospital.
"We were on Iranian soil for an hour or two before the Iranian border guards captured us," he said. "We were kept there [at the detention center] for one night, and the next day, at two o'clock in the afternoon, they told us they would return us from the border.
“We were 57 people in total, from different cities in Afghanistan. They took us to a place where there was a lot of water, and threw us into the river to die – and not to come [to Iran]. Two bullets were shot to scare us. Twenty-three of us were carried away by the water and drowned or disappeared. The rest who knew how to swim saved themselves."
"The border guards kept saying that if illegal immigrants did not come, they would not have to patrol the borders. They said the Iranian people are not happy with Afghan people immigrating to Iran. They kept shouting, 'Don't come into our country so we don't set up checkpoints,' and asked why we did not have a checkpoint by the river."
Taheri’s voice cracked as he recounted how Afghan immigrants were "crying and begging" the officers not to force them to jump into the river. "People were crying and begging and begging,” he said. “It was as if these border guards were not Muslims at all. They kissed their feet, but the officers beat them with their rifles and fired in the air. One of the officers told me they had drowned and that I should drown as well. It was as if the officers were having fun; they were drowning the Afghans and making fun of them."
Dr Aref Jalali, the head of Herat Central Hospital, told IranWire that on May 2 the bodies of five Afghans had been taken to the hospital's morgue.
Several of their relatives have since arrived, with tears in their eyes, to receive the bodies of their loved ones. Mohammad Asef is one of them. His brother and nephew both drowned. He told IranWire that Iranian border guards had harshly beaten the Afghan migrants and "the heads of some Afghans had been broken" in a sustained and brutal assault.
"My brother and midwife's son [nephew] were going to Iran from Zolfaghar border passageway. Instead of taking them to the camp, the Iranian border guards threw our family members into the water,” he said.
“We want an Afghan government board to investigate why they [Iranians] killed people. They [Afghan migrants] did not carry drugs or kill people, but they killed them. Is this human? What happened to human rights?"
Molavi Mohammad's son-in-law was also among the drowned. He is furious with the Afghan government for allowing this criminal treatment of Afghan citizens.
"Those cowards captured these [migrants] and took them to the camp and beat them and made them bleed,” he said. “They broke their hands and legs."
Gholam Yahya had also come to Herat Central Hospital to receive his brother's body. Addressing Islamic Republic authorities, he said simply: "If they [border guards] arrest migrants, they should hand them back across the border, not drown them in the water.”
The incident has also drawn criticism from members of Herat Provincial Council. Mohammad Sardar Bahadori, a member of the council, said Iran should patently not be shooting at Afghan refugees from poor families who are simply trying to enter the country to find work. “The Afghan people expect this from Iran,” he said. “They don't have to shoot at those who come to Iran out of compulsion and poverty."
Meanwhile, officials in Herat say they are investigating allegations that Iranian border guards deliberately drowned Afghan citizens.
A spokesman for the provincial governor of Herat, Jilani Farhad, told IranWire: "Based on the guidance of the governor and the allegations, the incident is being investigated comprehensively and, of course, these allegations are being pursued through diplomatic channels.”
Afghan Foreign Minister Mohammad Hanif Atmar has appointed a fact-finding mission to investigate how these Afghan migrants were killed on the border with Iran and called for a comprehensive investigation.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Gran Haywad said:"Mr. Atmar has instructed a delegation under the Foreign Ministry's political leadership to investigate the incident comprehensively in order to make the necessary decisions in the light of the facts.”
For its part, the Islamic Republic's consulate in Herat has issued a statement denying the allegations.
Iran hosts the largest number of Afghan refugees in the world after Pakistan. Most of these Afghans travel to Iran via illegal smuggling routes, and some lose their lives along the way. There are many accounts of Afghan immigrants reporting violent altercations with border guards or in detention centers. At the same time, with poverty and unemployment on the rise in Afghanistan, more and more Afghans are planning to emigrate in order to earn a better living and a better future.
The outbreak of coronavirus in Iran has led to the return of more than 130,000 Afghan refugees to their country. But it appears that several months after the start of the epidemic – and the Islamic Republic offering free medical treatment for migrant patients – a pivotal smuggling route between the two countries has now reopened: a route where survival comes only by chance.