April 24, 2020
Human rights activists have called on Iran to pay compensation to the families of Afghan teenagers who were killed while serving in the Liwa Fatemiyoun Brigade, a branch of the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force.
The Fatemiyoun Brigade comprises Afghan immigrants to Iran who were dispatched to Syria to fight on behalf of the interests of the Islamic Republic. For half a decade Iran has exploited the often dire living conditions of Afghan migrants in its borders, offering them monthly stipends, residency permits and their basic civil rights in exchange for joining the Brigade. These incentives have led many to their deaths. No accurate count of the number of teenagers who have lost their lives under the yellow flag of the Fatemiyoun Brigade exists, but last year it was reported that 2,000 had been killed in the battlegrounds of Syria. The Afghan president, Ashraf Ghani, has asked Iran to disband it.
Members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade who have returned to Afghanistan prefer not to talk about their experiences. They fear that if they are identified their lives will be in danger, especially as the Taliban and ISIS are still active in Afghanistan and are once again gaining strength.
The Fatemiyoun Brigade was formed in 2014 from Shia Afghans to fight in Syria alongside forces loyal to President Bashar al-Assad, under the command of Quds Force officers. Five years later, a number of human rights groups are demanding that Iran pay reparations for the lives of the Afghan teenagers who perished in the Syria in its name.
Seyed Ashraf Sadat, a human rights activist in the Afghan province of Herat, is a vocal proponent of this policy. In an interview with IranWire, he stressed again that many of those who joined this branch of the Quds Force were under the legal minimum age. They were, he says, “unable to understand the tragic consequences of war. They joined the brigade not out of a clear understanding but under the influence of propaganda by the Revolutionary Guards, and in order to provide their families with some means of subsistence.”
Sadat believes that recruiting Afghan teenagers to fight in Syria was a blatant violation of internationally accepted human rights principles. But he points out that the Afghan government, too, failed in its duty to of care to the victims and their families. “Afghanistan is responsible for supporting the civil rights of its citizens anywhere in the world,” he says, “but the Afghan government has done nothing to secure the rights of its citizens.”
Sadat says the Afghan government should first negotiate with the Islamic Republic for reparations, and if this does not yield results, then it must complain to International Court of Justice and umbrella human rights organizations.
Child Soldiers in Syria
As far back as 2017, Human Rights Watch raised the alarm over the Islamic Republic deploying Afghan children to fight in Syria. According to its initial report, children under the age of 14 had been among those recruited to join the war. The organization also identified eight graveyards in Iran where the bodies of Afghan children aged 14 to 17 who had been killed in Syria were being buried after being transported back to Iran.
With the decline in hostilities in Syria in recent years, some members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade have now returned to Afghanistan. When they first signed up, many were immigrant children who had travelled to Iran to contribute to their families’ livelihoods, in hopes of a better future. Instead, they were denied even the most basic human rights. Now, those who have survived are returning home, burdened by injuries to their bodies and souls, silently carrying painful memories of violence and fearful of revealing their identities.
Reza is a former member of the Fatemiyoun Brigade who has now returned to Herat. Over the course of 2017 and 2018 he served in three tours in Syria under the banner of the Brigade. He confirms that when the war in Aleppo and Damascus was at its height, he witnessed children being sent onto the battlefield.
“Sending them into battle was not right,” he says. “They migrated to Iran for a crust of bread but in the Syrian war, they were either injured or killed. They might well have been the sole providers for their families in Afghanistan.”
Sajjad is another Afghan who joined the Fatemiyoun Brigade when he was 17. He fought for close to seven months on behalf of the Islamic Republic and the government of Bashar al-Assad – in exchange for close to three million tomans ($170) per month and the promise of a legal residency permit.
“I was influenced by the Revolutionary Guards’ vast propaganda campaign and went to a Fatemiyoun recruitment office in Tehran to register,” he says. “Two days later they called me. I was sent for training alongside a number of Afghans at a military barracks in Tehran, and we were quickly dispatched to the frontlines.”
He and his fellow recruits were flown from Tehran to Damascus. From there, they were taken straight from the airport in tanks and military vehicles into the heart of the fighting. “They sent us to the front lines of the war with ISIS,” he says. “When we were not on the front lines, a commander trained us in things like how to climb a mountain carrying heavy weapons. We were trained for a month, in the barracks and outside. Most of the children were kept at the barracks but those with sturdy bodies were sent to the front. I had gone to Iran to work as a laborer – but I fought many battles. The Islamic State’s equipment was more advanced than ours. They had high-grade night vision goggles. They were able to martyr many of our people.”
Ali is another native of Herat who has now come back to his own country and is looking for work. He is grieving the loss of his 14-year-old brother, Ashraf. “My brother was killed in his first deployment against ISIS,” he says. “He had gone to Iran to work but he bought into the Islamic Republic’s propaganda and joined the Fatemiyoun Brigade. He went to war without telling us. They called us out of the blue from Tehran and told us that he had been killed.
“After the news came, the consulate arranged for my parents to travel to Iran. But the Islamic Republic must pay my brother’s blood money.”