Footprints: heroes — unlikely and unknown

Updated May 02, 2017

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JAWAD Langari’s brother, Imam Ali, 22, was made to choose between fighting for Bashar al Assad in Syria or risking deportation from Iran back to Afghanistan.—Photo by writer
JAWAD Langari’s brother, Imam Ali, 22, was made to choose between fighting for Bashar al Assad in Syria or risking deportation from Iran back to Afghanistan.—Photo by writer

BAMIYAN: Jawad Langari’s brother, Imam Ali, had only been in Iran for four months when he was given an ultimatum by the Iranian police: go fight for Syrian President Bashar al Assad or be deported to Afghanistan.

The 22-year-old was told he would be given up to $700 a month and residence in Iran if he agreed to join the more than 20,000 other Afgh­ans conscripted by Tehran to fight Jab­hat al Nusra, often referred to as the Syrian branch of Al Qaeda. Ali earned less than $300 a month in a Tehran shoe-making factory, so the offer proved difficult to reject.

“In Iran there is only suffering for Afghans,” he later told his older brother about his decision to join the Fatemiyoun Brigade, a force thousands of men strong, and comprised almost entirely of Afghans, that has been stationed in Damascus, Aleppo and Idlib.

In 2013, Human Rights Watch released a report detailing the decades-long harassment Afghan refugees face in Iran. The report documented dozens of cases of physical abuse, forced labour, the separation of families and detention in unsanitary deportation centres.

To Ali and thousands of other Afghan refugees, the promises that came with serving in Syria were the only way to avoid the continuation of such treatment. “He was walking home from work when the police stopped him and gave him the ultimatum” in October of 2015, Langari said. He learned about his brother’s decision 40 days after Ali was dispatched to Damascus.

“He had fallen out of contact and I was worried that he had been arrested,” Langari explained. It was only after weeks of asking friends and family in Tehran that he learned about his brother’s fate, leaving him filled with fear and dismay. “I feared for his life, what would they do with his body… I told him that it’s better you beg here than fight for others,” Langari said in his simple mud house in the central Afghanistan province of Bamiyan.

The province, regarded as one of Afghanistan’s safest, is full of families whose relatives have been forced into service in Syria. Some, like Ali’s, were lucky enough to be able to convince their brothers, fathers and cousins to return.

Langari, who served in the forces of Abdul Ali Mazari, a slain anti-Soviet commander, during the Soviet occupation and subsequent civil war in Afghanistan, was entirely against his family joining any army. “I saw nothing good coming from war,” he said. “What do I have to show for the years I spent fighting?” He was especially unnerved by the fact that the war in Syria is “a religious fight that allows Iran to continue to use Afghan refugees for their own benefit.”

Mullah Sajad Mohseni, a Shia religious leader in Bamiyan whose use of online platforms has earned him the title of ‘Facebook Mullah,’ says Iran is engaging in a treacherous game. “Any Afghan going to Syria is going under the influence of Iran,” he said. He added that he has travelled to Iran three times over the last year, specifically to warn eager young Afghans “to not be fooled by the promises of the Iranians.”

Ali, said Langari, is now safe in Isfahan, but he worries that as long as his brother is in Iran, he will be susceptible to Tehran’s claims that the shrine of Sayyida Zainab is under threat. Langari recalls that during the last days of the Iran-Iraq war, he was presented with an offer not unlike the one Ali received. “They told me it was my religious duty to go fight against the Iraqis,” he mused. “I was lucky that the war ended before I could be convinced to join. At the time, as a young man, I may have made a similar decision.”

Ali Khan, 20, almost made the same decision as Langari’s brother earlier this year, but was dissuaded by his soon-to-be mother-in-law. Shortly after getting engaged, Khan went to Tehran where he was told that going to Syria would be his way of protecting Islam’s holy shrines.

“My friends said, ‘Let’s just go and see what it’s like, even if we die we will become martyrs and our families will be taken care of,’” Khan said. They were told that if they served three tours, ranging between three and six months, they would be given a 10-year residency in Iran. The Iranians made no attempt to hide the dangers ahead. “They asked us for three phone numbers, two in Iran and one in Afghanistan, in case we were martyred,” Khan told this writer.

Having completed the registration and training processes in Iran, Khan was awaiting a flight to Damascus when he informed his family, trying to convince them that he was making the right decision as a Muslim. But he also admitted to knowing nothing about the war in Syria.

His future mother-in-law was not swayed. She gave him her own ultimatum: “If you go to Syria, don’t bother coming back.”

Looking back, Khan, who now works in a Bamiyan restaurant, said he was glad his mother-in-law forced him to return: “People only go to dangerous places like that for money. Afghan refugees in Iran are desperate.”

Published in Dawn, May 2nd, 2017