At age 25, he has already been on seven tours of duty, fighting under the yellow flag of the Fatemiyoun Brigade in the Syrian cities of Damascus, Aleppo and Idlib. He is one of the lucky ones, and has survived. He asked not to be named because he was fearful that if he revealed his identity he could face serious trouble, like reported by iranwire.com.
He holds a degree in literature from a private college in Kabul. For a few months after graduation he looked for a job in Kabul, but he eventually gave up hope and decided to go to Iran illegally to find a job. He gave $400 to a human trafficker, traveled to Pakistan through the southwestern Afghan province of Nimruz and from Pakistan crossed the border into Iran.
For about six months he worked as an unskilled construction worker in Tehran. It was backbreaking work and, on average, he received a monthly wage of 700,000 tomans, or less than US$170 — not enough to support his family in Afghanistan. Then he came across recruitment publicity material for the Fatemiyoun Brigade, which he found enticing.
The Fatemiyoun Brigade is a paramilitary organization affiliated with the Revolutionary Guards’ expeditionary Quds Force and all its members are Shia Afghans. By promising them a fixed salary and residency permits for all members of their families, the Revolutionary Guards has persuaded these men to join the brigade and fight in Syria in support of the regime of President Bashar al-Assad.
“After my friend Reza went to Syria, on his advice I went to Fatemiyoun Brigade’s recruitment office and enlisted,” he said. “Anybody who wanted to enlist had to have proof of nationality, a number of photographs and [supply the name of a] guarantor. Without them you could not enlist.”
He put down his cousin’s name as a guarantor. “The reference is required for registration so that if a member of Fatemiyoun is injured or killed they can inform the family and give them the salary owed to him,” he said.
A week after the registration, he was contacted by Fatemiyoun’s recruitment office and told to present himself at a military barracks in Tehran on a specified date. He then underwent 21 days of military training, but he did not want to provide further details because he was afraid doing so would reveal his identity.
After his training was complete, he and around 200 other members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade were sent to Damascus. “When I boarded the plane my whole body started shaking because I knew it would be difficult to survive in Syria,” he remembered. “I wept and prayed to God to keep me alive so I can send money to my family in Afghanistan by fighting in Syria.”
When they arrived at the airport in Damascus they were greeted by high-level Iranian and Syrian officials, who thanked them for coming to Syria. This was unexpected because, as an Afghan, he had been insulted and humiliated many times in Iran.
“Defending the Shrine”
On their first day in Damascus, Iranian commanders took the soldiers to the shrine of Zeinab, sister of Hossein, the martyred third Shia Imam. The commanders of the Fatemiyoun Brigade present “defending the shrine” of Zeinab as the force’s most important goal in fighting the Syrian civil war, and if a Fatemiyoun fighter is killed, he is honored with the title “Martyr of Defending the Shrine.” This rhetoric has been very effective for recruiting Shia Afghans. “The mullahs proselytize so much in the military barracks that I came to believe them,” he said. “They said that we are Shias and defending the shrine against ISIS was our religious duty. I fell under their spell and fought ISIS with a high morale.”
From the first day he arrived in Syria, he came across things that he could not have imagined before. For example, he encountered a fellow Afghan who was fighting for ISIS. “It was 2:30am and we had gone to Jabal al-Akrad [the Kurd Mountains] near the Turkish border,” he said. “There was an intense battle and ISIS was defeated. I saw a fellow countryman who was wounded and was begging us not to kill him but Mohammad [a member of the Fatemiyoun Brigade] killed him, saying that Afghan members of ISIS come to Syria for money and they must not be left alive.”
There were other things that shocked him at the beginning, but he got used to them as time passed. For example, the group were told to commit suicide if they were about to be captured by ISIS. “ISIS tortures Fatemiyoun prisoners to extract information from them and they are killed the moment that they get the information that they want … We always carry a hand grenade with us and when we are about to be captured we destroy ourselves and our mobile phones by detonating the grenade so that they cannot get information from us,” he said.
He also said that after fighting for two months in Syria, the Iranian commanders allow the fighters to have mobile phones and access the internet and he could talk to his family in Afghanistan any time he wanted.
So far, he has been fighting in Syria for more than two years. “The security situation in Syria has improved and that is why the number of Fatemiyoun casualties has dropped,” he said. Nevertheless, he has decided to return to Afghanistan. “I am tired of war,” he added.
He emphasized that because he has fought in Syria, the Iranian government will issue him with a 10-year residency permit, but says he prefers to go back to Afghanistan. “I want to go back to my country but I am also afraid that somebody will sell me out to the Taliban or the National Security Council … If this happens I will have a very difficult time and I might even get killed by the Taliban.”
Afghanistan’s National Security Council has ordered Afghan nationals who live in Iran not to join the fight in Syria. Members of the Fatemiyoun Brigade are put on trial in Afghanistan and, for this reason, soldiers of the brigade try to hide the fact that they have fought there.