April 28, 2020
The expression “out of the frying pan and into the fire” is an apt description for the fate of a group of Afghan children who have left their own war-torn country for Iran, to escape poverty and insecurity, hoping for a better future. In recent years, this group of children who had gone to Iran to work, had been lured by promises such as residency permits and fixed salaries, or by religious propaganda to defend the shrine of Zeynab, granddaughter of the Prophet Mohammad in Syria, and joined the paramilitary Fatemiyoun Brigade and many were killed in Syrian battlefields.
The Fatemiyoun Brigade is a wing of the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force that is comprised of Afghan immigrants to Iran, who are sent to Syria to fight on the side of President Bashar al-Assad’s regime. This paramilitary group was the brainchild of General Ghasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force until January 3 when he was killed by an American drone. It was organized in 2013 by Alireza Tavassoli, alias “Abu Hamed,” who was himself killed in Syria on February 8, 2015.
Najibollah is the alias for an 18-year-old teenager from the Afghan province of Ghazni. He joined the Fatemiyoun Brigade in 2018, when he was only 16, and fought in Syria for six months. Ha later fled to Turkey and from there travelled to Greece.
Najibollah says he had no interest in going to school and, when he was 15, he and a group of his neighborhood’s young men smuggled themselves into Iran. His dream was to get to Europe. “My only wish was to go to Europe. A few people from our area had gone there and they said that Europe is a very nice place.”
Najibollah did not have the wherewithal to realize his dream, and had to work to get his wish. He and his fellow Afghans found construction jobs in Iran but, since he was not strong enough to do heavy work, “I prepared plaster and glued stones and tiles together.”
He worked for a year, but still did not have enough money for venturing to the west. Then he heard that Afghan immigrants were being recruited to fight in Syria, and somebody told him that some join the Fatemiyoun Brigade to get to Europe.
Najibollah had been waiting a long time for an opportunity – he found the idea tempting. On paper, the route seemed simple. He thought that if he joined the Fatemiyoun Brigade, he would be sent to fight in Syria, and from there he could easily reach Turkey. He had also heard there were many human traffickers in Turkey who took a large number of refugees into Greece every day. So he decided to join.
Nobody asked him about his age
With the help of a friend, Najibollah found the address of a Fatemiyoun Brigade recruitment office in Tehran and set out to join the group. He had heard that he must be over 18 years old to be accepted, which he was not, but during registration nobody asked him about his age. They only wanted someone who had previously served with the brigade to act as a reference.
“I brought the registration form back with me and my friends filled it up,” Najibollah says. “I introduced two of my roommates as my nephew and my cousin. The didn’t check whether these people were really my relatives or not.”
Sometime later the the recruitment office called Najibollah for military training. He received training for three weeks and was then sent to Syria.
Najibollah, a few of his fellow recruits and two veteran Fatemiyoun fighters who were on their seventh tour of duty in Syria, were sent from Damascus to the frontlines to fight against ISIS and other groups opposing Bashar al-Assad.
Najibollah’s motive for going to the front was not the salary or the residency permit or the call to defend Zeynab’s shrine. He had come to Syria only to reach Europe, but he was forced to fight along the way. He says that a few times he came close to being killed, “but since I was very young, they would not send me on difficult missions. It is not that they pitied me. No, they were afraid that I would make a mistake and endanger the lives of my fellow fighters.”
During his tour of duty, Najibollah also searched for ways to get to Turkey, but he had to do it cautiously. He knew that if he made the slightest mistake, and his commanders learned what he was after, all his plans would come to nothing. But in any case, Najibollah made no progress with his plans during his two three-month tours of duty in Syria.
But when he returned to Iran for his second leave of absence, he decided to get to Turkey from Iran and then find his way to Europe from there. Before his leave of absence ran out, Najibollah found an Afghan human trafficker and crossed the border between Iran and Turkey, accompanied by six other Afghans.
Najibollah is now in Greece and is happy that he is still alive. “It must have been the will of God that I stayed alive,” he says. “Many of us Afghans were killed or injured in Syria. ISIS even kept some of the bodies to trade them for their captured fighters.”
Turning a Deaf Ear to Pleas by Human Rights Organizations
Since 2017, Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have repeatedly appealed to the Islamic Republic of Iran to stop sending Afghan children to the war in Syria. But Tehran has persistently ignored these appeals and has continued to send underage Afghans to fight the war with ISIS.
In October 2017, Human Rights Watch published an investigative report with pictures of the tombstones of eight Afghan teenagers who had been killed in Syria while fighting under the banner of the Fatemiyoun Brigade. The pictures show that these eight were between 14 and 17 years old when they were killed.
Mohammad is the alias for another Afghan teenager who joined the Fatemiyoun Brigade in 2016, when he was 15 years old. He was seriously injured by ISIS fighters during his first tour of duty in Syria and was taken to Tehran for treatment. But he escaped from Iran to Afghanistan and now lives in Kabul.
He believes it was a miracle he survived. “Surviving the mortar attack that killed several of my fellow fighters was not an ordinary thing,” says Mohammad.
It was only a year after he had gone to Iran when another Afghan immigrant, who was a member of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, encouraged him to join the force. He told Mohammad that by joining the force, he would have no longer have to worry about surviving on the meager wages of working as a laborer or about the lack of jobs.
The prospect of more financial security was tempting by itself. But the subject of defending the holy shrine of the prophet’s granddaughter aroused his emotions as well. He had grown up in a religious family and believed it was a great honor if he could defend the shrine, even if he lost his life doing it. “I was under the impression that the whole duty of the Fatemiyoun Brigade was defending Bibi Zeynab’s Shrine and the only thing that I had to do was ro protect it,” says Mohammad.
To register, he went to a recruitment office at Shah Abdol-Azim Shrine in Rey, near Tehran. “The man who gave me the registration form was an Iranian,” he says. “He asked me about my family and where they lived. I told him that my parents were in Afghanistan. ‘It is all right,” he said. ‘Just fill in the form and write down the name, the phone number and the address of a friend or a close relative, and bring it here tomorrow along with a few pictures.’”
After his application was accepted, Mohammad was sent to Yazd for military training in guerrilla warfare tactics, using firearms and learning to throw grenades. Most of the 80 people who were being trained there were Afghans and some were Pakistani Shias.
The training lasted for 21 days and then they were dispatched to Syria. According to Mohammad, some of those who were sent to Syria were children so young that they could not even carry heavy weaponry.
“Defending the Shrine” was just bait
In Syria, they were trained for another week so that they would learn the lay of the land. When they were about to be sent to the front lines, Mohammad protested that they were there to defend the shrine and not to go into battle, but the brigade commanders simply ignored him.
Mohammad and a few others were sent to the area of Al Malihah and, for 40 days, they fought under the yellow banner of the Fatemiyoun Brigade to defend the regime of Bashar al-Assad.
“In one of the operations, ISIS was hitting us from every side,” says Mohammad, recounting how he was injured. “Eighteen fighters, all Afghans, were killed right there, and a mortar injured my hands and legs. Six others were injured as well.” He was sent to a hospital in Tehran to recover from his injuries.
While he was in the hospital, he saw other children who had lost limbs in Syria. After he recovered, he was again called by the Quds Force to return to the battlefields of Syria. But he did not want to repeat the same mistake and escaped back to Afghanistan.