December 14, 2019
“We were trained for less than three days in a Tehran military barracks. We had to learn fast to go to war in Syria. We did difficult exercises to make our bodies stronger. In this short period of time, we had to work hard to learn how to use Kalashnikovs, how to throw grenades, and how to protect ourselves.”
Morteza fought with the Fatemiyoun Brigade against Islamic State (ISIS) in various Syrian cities for more than four years, supporting Syrian President Bashar al-Assad’s regime and the Islamic Republic of Iran. Morteza — not his real name — comes from Ghazni province in southern Afghanistan and now lives in secrecy after returning to his country.
In 2014, following the rise in unemployment in Afghanistan, as well as growing insecurity in the country, Morteza traveled to Iran. He was 19 years old. Because he did not have a passport, he, like many other young people from Afganistan, paid traffickers three million tomans (about US$250) to take him to Iran through Pakistan and via southeastern Iranian borders.
Morteza crossed the Pakistani plains with a group of 20 other Afghan citizens and finally reached Iran. After crossing Pakistan’s Raja border, he traveled to Tehran on a Peugeot motorcycle. Morteza’s illegal journey from Afghanistan to Iran lasted nearly 20 days.
Three days after arriving in Tehran, he found work in a building with the help of other Afghans living in Iran. One of his main reasons for coming to Iran, he says, was to raise money for his marriage. Morteza had been working in Tehran for six months before the promise of a high salary persuaded him to join the Fatemiyoun Brigade.
The Propaganda Pushing Recruitment
The Fatemiyoun Brigade, a militia made up of Afghan soldiers, serves under the Quds Force, and is a subsidiary of the Islamic Republic of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps [IRGC]. In order to fight against ISIS and support the Bashar al-Assad regime in Syria, the Guards promised to pay Afghan citizens high salaries to fight alongside the Islamic Republic in the war in Syria, and launched a persuasive propaganda campaign to recruit fighters. As well as the promise of high salaries, the Guards promised to provide official identification cards for Afghans who had been living illegally in Iran and agreed to fight, and sometimes for their families as well.
Morteza says the propaganda material led him to fight 10 battles for the interests of the Islamic Republic and Bashar al-Assad under the yellow flag of the Fatemiyoun Brigade. He received a monthly salary of three million tomans ($250).
Morteza went to one of the recruitment centers in Tehran to join the Fatemiyoun Brigade. The first steps in joining required him to show his Afghan identity card and several photographs. A few days after the Tehran office contacted him, he was summoned and transferred to a military barracks in Tehran, along with dozens of other Afghan citizens.
After a brief training session, Morteza went one of the most difficult and risky missions of his life, fighting in one of the most dangerous parts of Syria, where his chances of survival were low. “Little by little, the Iranian commanders told us during the military training that the time [for us to go] to Syria was approaching. We were transferred from Tehran barracks to the Tehran airport. There were a lot of Afghans going to the Syrian war. On the plane, there were Afghans from many different provinces of Afghanistan. Some went to the Syrian war and some went to defend the shrine of Bibi Zainab. When the plane descended in Damascus, the tremor shook us all. It was natural for us to be frightened to walk onto the battlefield for the first time. After we saw the war, gradually there was no fear of war in anyone anymore.”
Morteza says that ISIS forces fought and killed with brutality: “They used every trick to kill us. They tortured their captives badly and showed us the footage to terrorize us.”
Like other fighters, Morteza witnessed horrific scenes in the Syrian war, many of which are still alive in him, from the widespread attack by Taliban fighters on his companions in the Fatemiyoun Brigade, to the individual suffering of his comrades. But he says there was no other way but to fight against ISIS in Damascus. Looking back, he says if he had not fought, he would have been taken prisoner and killed after being tortured.
Morteza says it was the Fatemiyoun Brigade which undertook much of the fighting that he witnessed, and that the Islamic Republic forces did not come to their aid when needed — as if they were using them as a human shield, he says. “We resisted and sometimes had to flee. When we faced large numbers of ISIS forces, we would have fled if we had found a way. When the area was taken over by ISIS, we attacked them again with renewed force. Sometimes the Iranians would shoot at us from behind and say, don’t run away, we’re with you. We had no way back and no way forward. We were killed and wounded. But we succeeded, and after that success, the Iranians respected us so much.”
A Soldier’s Crossing
Each session of their service lasted two to three months, followed by 15 days off. On one of his breaks, Morteza returned to Afghanistan. Although he had had to enter Iran illegally, there are usually no problems for Afghans to return Afghanistan via the Dogharoon [Special Economic Zone] border. But if they want to leave Afghanistan again without legal documents and a visa, they will once again have to use traffickers to help them make the journey illegally.
However, because of his service, Morteza got a passport and returned legally to Iran, and to the war in Syria. After two rounds of fighting, he bought a bus ticket and returned to his country with a passport.
Morteza was able to earn a living by fighting for the Islamic Republic. But after US sanctions were re-imposed against Iran, the value of the toman against the Afghan currency declined, and Morteza could not save money. It has now been a year since he returned to his home country with a backpack full of memories and deaths and war.
Although Morteza recently got engaged to his childhood friend, he is worried about his own safety and the safety of his family, added to the normal challenges people face in Afghanistan, including unemployment.
While Afghanistan is still an incredibly insecure country, men like Morteza who fight for the Fatemiyoun Brigade are subjected to other dangerous insecurities as well. ISIS’ Khorasan branch is active in Afghanistan and regularly claims responsibility for suicide bombings.
After returning to Afghanistan, Fatemiyoun Brigade fighters are forced to live in secrecy. If their identities are exposed, their lives and security will be in danger — from ISIS, but also from the government of Afghanistan, who can prosecute them for fighting in an Iranian-affiliated force. For Morteza, the reward for fighting under the banner of the Islamic Republic has been a return to unemployment, the scars of violence and war, and now a life more insecure at home.