Afghan refugees trying to enter Iran have been indiscriminately shot at by border guards and many have been killed, IranWire has been told. Two eyewitnesses said that at the time of their attempted crossing in mid-August, the survivors and the wounded were arrested by IRGC agents and sent back to Afghanistan. When they crossed over, both said, Iranian border forces opened fire on them for a second time.
Thousands of Afghans have been trying to flee their country since it fell to the Taliban in late summer. Some received emergency visas during the evacuation of international forces and diplomatic missions, but countless others are now trapped inside the country under a violent, regressive and unpredictable new government. Many with no other choice have enlisted the help of people-smugglers. Their path, in turn, has become even harsher and more dangerous due to Iran having closed its border with Afghanistan.
"The night Kabul fell was a bad night. I and a number of my colleagues left our military base at 11 o'clock. The students had entered the city square. We hid with two of my friends, and the next day, we left Kabul for Iran. We wanted to get out quickly. Cars blocked us in the middle of the road, to see if we had worked with the [former Afghan] government. We all said no. After 20 hours, we reached Nimrouz on the Iranian border. The situation was catastrophic. Thousands had gathered there to be smuggled out of Afghanistan. The city did not have the capacity for that number. We went... But they shot at us... Some were killed."
The narrator of this sorry tale has chosen the pseudonym Ali for himself. In his telling, he was one of a group of about 200 Afghans, including about 30 women and 50 children, who together made a bid to escape their country of birth for Iran on August 16, 2021. On reaching Nimrouz they had spent a night on the border with three smugglers, two of them armed. Then they embarked on a two-day journey toward the Iranian border.
On arrival, he says, the group tried to scramble over using six ladders erected by the smugglers. “The Iranian border guards fired at us from the watchtowers. It was like a rain of bullets. At the outset, three members of our group were killed and five others, including a woman and two children, were injured. But we pressed on and entered Iran. After a few kilometers were some ruined houses, where they held us until nightfall, so that we could continue in the dark. But we were ambushed by Iranian forces. They were from the Revolutionary Guards."
Ali says the IRGC officers seemed to have been prepared for them. "They took our money. A friend of mine was wearing mountaineering shoes, so they took them off shoes and examined his handkerchief. It was like they were looking for drugs, or Afghan cannabis, which they did find – and those who had the drugs seemed to be treated more leniently than us! We were beaten. The IRGC agents then returned us to the border with another group that had arrived before us."
The deportation was also violent and for some, fatal. When they arrived in Afghanistan, border guards there again opened fire shots on the hundreds of returning refugees. This time, Ali says, “they killed 12 people and injured 20. Among those killed were four women and two children. We buried the dead under a tree and dragged away the wounded, and delivered them to the Taliban to be taken to a hospital."
Another man who was in the same group and witnessed the indiscriminate shooting was Eshagh Hosseini, who also decided to leave in the first days after the Taliban overran Kabul. Before the takeover, he had worked in the former government's security services. Fearing for his life, he contacted a smuggler and made his way to Nimrouz. There, he says, the climate was not unlike that of Kabul Airport: the crowd was thrumming with terror and everyone was trying to escape, by any means possible.
"The hotels, alleyways and streets were full of people,” he says. “Some were sleeping in the shade of the walls because of the heat. Water was hard to find. You had to wait in line at the bakery for two to three hours to get some bread, or else you’d starve."
Eshagh was finally able to strike a deal with a smuggler, although they had put the prices up. The smuggler was supposed to take him to Tehran for 10 million tomans. Once the agreement was reached, he and 14 others were put in a car and moved to the border. Twenty minutes later, the car stopped in front of the ruined houses and each passenger was charged a further 500 afghanis. There, about 200 other Afghans, including children, were waiting to leave.
The crowd waited for three hours, after which they were directed to begin walking by the three smugglers. Along the way, no one was allowed to talk or use the phone. After three hours, they reach the zero point: "More than 20 other groups were also moving towards the border,” Eshagh says. “Each group included more than 150 Afghan citizens."
They then began to climb the border wall: "The smugglers fixed the ladders. Ten of us stepped forward and climbed over. We hadn’t walked forward for two minutes when we were ambushed by Iranian border guards. They saw us with a night vision camera. The guards took us to the corner of the plain; more than a thousand people were there. One of my friends was severely beaten."
Eshagh’s group spent the night in captivity at the border checkpoint. When the weather cleared in the early hours of the morning, he says, the border guards humiliated them by forcing them to chant "Death to America, Death to Israel". They were beaten again, and eventually deported to Afghanistan.
Eshagh Hosseini also says that when his group entered Afghanistan, they were shot at again by Iranian border guards. It was as if they were waiting for the group to leave Iranian soil so they wouldn’t be held accountable. “They shot at us [from behind]. Eight members of our group were killed and more than 10 were injured. We put the corpses under a tree and brought the wounded to the city of Zaranj. The Taliban took the wounded to a hospital and sent the dead to Kabul.” He emphasizes again: “Iranian soldiers won’t kill migrants on their soil, but when we were returning to Afghanistan, they shot us from behind.” In his group, he says, two women and a child were among the dead. One of the women was pregnant.
His cohort remained in Nimrouz for another two days after being pushed back, hoping for a second chance to try to reach Iran. But there was no hope. Over those 48 hours, other groups of returned Afghans joined them at the same place; they, too, had stories to tell of being shot at by Iranian guards. “Some also said that border guards had sexually abused the women," Eshagh says. He wasn’t able to confirm this independently.
The cameras of the global media are generally trained on the streets of Afghanistan’s major cities, and in the chambers and corridors of power. But out on the border, crimes are being committed against the Afghan people by forces other than the Taliban. There is no-one there to track and document this horrific reality, beyond the testimonies of refugees: individual witness statements to which the world can all too easily close its eyes and ears.