Afghan returnees from Iran carry their backpacks as they arrive in Herat on August 4, 2018. (AFP)

June 9, 2020

Iranian police opened fire on a car carrying Afghan migrants in Yazd on June 3, setting the vehicle on fire and leading to the deaths of three people and to several others being injured.

The incident prompted widespread response from both politicians and the Iranian and Afghan public. Prominent Afghan political figures, including Rahmatollah Nabil, a 2009 presidential candidate and former national security official, and several members of parliament were among those to voice outrage over the incident.

A group of Afghan protesters spray-painted the walls of the Iranian embassy in Kabul red in protest. The tragedy was widely covered in both Persian and non-Persian media, and poets posted verses on Twitter about Iran’s treatment of Afghan migrants.

The Afghan ambassador to Iran, Abdul Ghafoor Liwal, traveled to Yazd to meet with those injured in the attack, afterward confirming that three Afghan migrants had been killed, five were wounded and three others were uninjured. “We spoke with the governor of Yazd and the authorities,” he said in a video released to the media following the meeting. “The car, in which human traffickers were transporting a number of our citizens, was reportedly confronted by the police. They instructed the driver to stop, but he did not. The police admitted that a shooting had taken place and the car’s tire had caught fire. The car traveled at high speed for a few kilometers … We talked to the injured and they said that no matter how many times they shouted out to the driver to stop or the car was going to catch fire, he did not stop. The fire grew until the car crashed into the roadside and burst into flames.” He called on the Iranian authorities to ensure the injured receive the medical treatment they required.

A video posted online shows one of the victims shouting: “Bring water, I’m on fire.” People horrified by the news used these words to launch a protest hashtag.

In an interview with IranWire, Mehdi Rasekh, a member of parliament for Afghanistan’s Maidan Wardak Province, said the shots Iranian police fired at Afghan migrants’ cars were “against the law and international treaties” and stressed that Iran was “institutionalizing violence against Afghan immigrants.” He said Afghan migrants face continuous violence and discrimination in the mountainous border areas separating Iran and Afghanistan, and that the Afghan government had not pursued the matter, despite it continuing. Violence against Afghan migrants had increased in recent months, Rasekh said, becoming what he described as “more brutal.”

He added: “The extreme violence in recent incidents has been carried out by people under Iranian police supervision, and has been done deliberately,” and pointed to an incident on May 2 in which Iranian officials threw Afghan migrants trying to cross the border into a nearby river, causing several of them to drown.

“There have been many unfortunate cases of unintentional violence against Afghans, but in the last two incidents, our fellow citizens have been abused by officials intentionally,” he said.

Chained to the Hospital Bed

Following the Afghan ambassador to Tehran’s meeting with the wounded, images were released showing them tied to their hospital beds despite their serious burns and injuries, again provoking public outcry.

“Afghan migrants were shot at in a car and taken to hospital after being set on fire and this inhumane and uncivil behavior continued,” Rasekh said. “It is against all moral principles for a human being to be burned, wounded, and chained to a bed.”

Rasekh said the appalling treatment of these men was an act of “insulting people, insulting citizens, insulting the Afghan government.” As part of his appeal to the Afghan government to take more constructive action, he called for a delegation to travel to Iran to investigate the crime. However, he also criticized a bilateral delegation‘s investigations into the drowning of Afghan migrants in the Harirud River, labeling them a failure.

Afghan parliamentarians Maryam Sama and Aref Rahmani also called for more serious follow-up from both Tehran and Kabul, stating that those responsible should be punished, and that the Islamic Republic should officially be held accountable, and offer an apology as well as compensation for the incident.

Following the Afghan ambassador’s meeting with the injured migrants and the publication of photographs of the visit in the media, former presidential candidate Rahmatollah Nabil also condemned the way the Afghan citizens were being treated, and compared Iranian officials with Al-Qaeda’s Osama bin Laden because of their behavior. He went on to attack Iran on Twitter, calling the Islamic Republic a “bad neighbor.”

“There are those in high government and power positions who shed tears over the death of Ghasem Soleimani [the head of Iran’s Quds Forces who was killed in January by US forces] and General Hamid Gul [a Pakistani general who played a key role in Afghanistan’s war with the Soviet Union] but do not dare to ask why our poor, destitute, and innocent citizens are killed by these bad neighbors,” he wrote.

Nabil also tweeted about Iranian officials’ hypocrisy, saying that Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif “seems to complain and demand prosecution for the death of George Floyd, an American black man, but we cannot complain about the death of our oppressed compatriots who were killed after being set on fire by our neighboring country.” He said that both Afghanistan and Iran refer to themselves as Islamic countries but that he knew it would be too much to expect Afghan officials to follow up on the case or respond to the public outrage of the “Bring water, I’m on fire” campaign.

Posting a photograph of one of the injured on Twitter, journalist Farahnaz Foroutan wrote: “He was saved being burnt to death. He is in the hospital, he has burns on his leg, why is he handcuffed? How does this country treat a human being? Has Mr. Ambassador seen these handcuffs? What is the definition of a non-Iranian in our friendly, neighborly, Muslim country?”

Sohrab Sirat, a journalist and poet, also went on Twitter to write about the tragedy. “Last night I could not sleep, so I wrote about my heartache over the event,” she wrote.

“A drink of water! … Bring water, I’m on fire!

Bring water from the mire! I am burning

Standing and watching!

Bring at least a mirage, I am burning

To help my thirst and nightmare, heaven!

Bring rain and sun, I am burning

Don’t slap me in the face, you wolf,

I am human, I am burning!

I am a member of the human race — Saadi!

Bring it to the grave, I am burning

From the “precious border” that has become a “dangerous border”

Bring a sewage bouquet, I am burning …

The latest incident, coming so soon after the grim events at Harirud River, have horrified, angered and shaken many people in Afghanistan. But on the whole, they doubt politicians on either side will take concrete steps to bring people to justice, or to improve the situation. In the meantime, hundreds of Afghans will continue to cross the border into Iran on a daily basis, and many of them will make their homes there. As recent events have shown, their lives are in danger.

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.