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Shooting To Kill On the Iran-Afghan Border

A man and his son sell fuel packed in water bottles on the outskirts of the Afghan city of Herat, near the western border with Iran, a result of the recent Iranian blockade.
A man and his son sell fuel packed in water bottles on the outskirts of the Afghan city of Herat, near the western border with Iran, a result of the recent Iranian blockade.
By Zarif Nazar and Charles Recknagel
FARAH PROVINCE, Afghanistan -- Crowds of Afghans have demonstrated against Iran in Kabul and Herat this month over what they say are Tehran's oppressive policies toward their country.

The loudest complaints are over Iran's blocking of fuel trucks at the border. The blockade, which Iran says is due to unspecified "technical reasons," has caused shortages and sent fuel prices in Afghanistan soaring.

But the fuel stoppage is only part of the reason for the protests. Equally important is anger over alleged mistreatment of Afghans by Iranian officials, including the border shootings of Afghan migrants who try to enter Iran illegally.

"Eight months ago, my brother and I and two friends were going to Iran. When we arrived at the border at night to cross illegally, the Iranian soldiers fired at us," one resident of Afghanistan's Farah Province who gave his name as Ibrahim, told RFE/RL's Radio Free Afghanistan during a recent call-in program.

He recalled the tragedy that ensued when his brother was shot in the leg and their friends fled. "My brother was wounded [in the leg] in a way that he should have had a 90 percent chance of surviving. But the soldiers threw him to the ground and horribly beat him and beat him and beat him with their fists and with stones until he was martyred."

Ibrahim did not participate in this month's protests, he said.

Little Warning

Like many others who live near the border, Ibrahim slips into Iran for seasonal work at the end of each winter to supplement his meager earnings at home. He is no stranger to Iran because he lived there for years during the 1990s as a refugee from Afghanistan's civil wars. But he says now the attitude of Iranian officials toward Afghans has hardened and brutality has become commonplace.

Previously, Ibrahim says, the border guards used to shout out warnings to illegal migrants to stop; they opened fire only if those warnings were ignored. But beginning about a year ago, the warnings stopped. Now, he says, they simply shoot at migrants on sight.

His story is repeated by many others who have told Afghan media of similar experiences. On December 31, Afghanistan's leading private television channel, Tolo, aired video footage (warning: graphic content) that it said showed the bodies of a group of migrants just minutes after they had been shot near a border crossing. Most of the alleged victims appeared dead, but some were still alive and writhing in pain. Men described as Iranian border guards stood alongside the bodies without helping the wounded.

Afghan men demonstrate in a march to the Iranian Embassy in Kabul on January 13.
The Tolo TV video helped bring the protesters out in Kabul earlier this month. On January 13, hundreds of people massed in front of the Iranian Embassy in the capital, chanting slogans against Iran's leaders and spattering the gate with red paint to symbolize blood.

"Khamenei is sick, sick," some shouted. "Death to the Iranian vampires."

The protesters denounced the fuel blockade and called for the release of Afghans imprisoned in Iran, of which the Afghan Justice Ministry says there are some 5,000. They also protested Tehran's policy of executing Afghans arrested for allegedly smuggling narcotics, including two men put to death this month.

Grim Fate

But the anger over Iran's alleged mistreatment of Afghans is over more than simply the fates of those who try to cross the border illegally. It also extends to the way Iranian officials treat migrants who work in Iran and are injured on the job.

Abdul Hadi, another man who has repeatedly hopped the border because of the difficult economic situation in Afghanistan, says he lost four relatives when they were working as well diggers in Iran and the sides of the well collapsed on them.

"We work in Iran, but nobody there warns us about the dangers of the work [we are assigned to do], such as if a well or shaft might collapse," Hadi says. "If someone dies, they simply carry the dead to the state hospital to conduct an autopsy. Then the dead body is kept for 15 days and afterward released to the relatives for 200,000 tumans (about $200)."

He speaks from experience. The bodies of his dead relatives were repatriated to Afghanistan only after he made what he calls an extorted payment to the Iranian authorities. The authorities themselves said the payment was necessary to meet the expense of transporting the body.

But far more unnerving than the payments, says Hadi, was the condition in which the bodies were returned. Each corpse had been cut open on the front and back from chin to abdomen, then roughly stitched closed again. The officials who returned the bodies gave no explanation for the cuts, leaving the shocked relatives uncertain whether they were part of the autopsy or something more sinister such as the theft of organs.

Hadi was so shocked by the handling of his loved one's remains that he took a video showing the scars with his mobile phone and later sent it after the funeral to RFE/RL's Radio Azadi. (The video can be seen here. Warning: graphic.)

Tough Treatment

Even Afghans who reside in Iran and obtain the legal right to work say they are treated callously by officials.

Karem Tajik tells Radio Free Afghanistan from the Iranian city of Kerman that he and many of his acquaintances recently received work permits under an amnesty program legalizing the status of certain long-term illegal residents. But he says their work permits are not respected by local authorities.

"We got work permits in the second amnesty, but the weather is freezing cold right now and [officials] are not respecting our permits," Tajik says. "Instead, they take us for two or three nights to the refugee camps and then finally send us to the police office [for deportation]."

Arrested workers can sometimes avoid deportation by paying bribes. But if they can't, they have little choice but to sneak back into Iran because their families are still there.

Just how many Afghans are living and working today in Iran is uncertain. During Afghanistan's civil wars of the 1990s, the number of refugees in Iran reached as high as 3 million. Since 2001, and the fall of the Taliban, about half that number is estimated to have returned home.

Most of those who remain work as laborers at construction sites, on road crews, or as field hands for wages well below what Iranian citizens can earn for similar jobs. But as Afghanistan's economy remains far from recovery in many areas, many refugees now put off returning home. In recent years, as violence has risen in Afghanistan, even some refugees who were previously repatriated now seek to return to Iran for work.

Point Of Discussion

The cheap Afghan labor is profitable for Iranian employers who are willing to exploit it. But it is resented by many ordinary Iranians, who worry that the Afghans compete for their jobs and undercut the wage scale.

"The young Afghans' self-serving, freedom of movement in Iran should be banned," an Iranian citizen calling from the city of Mashhad tells Radio Free Afghanistan, whose broadcasts can also be heard in the border areas of Iran. "They should be locked up with their families in refugee camps. Afghanistan belongs to the refugees and refugees belong to Afghanistan. They should return to Afghanistan to rebuild their country because Afghanistan has been freed from the Soviets a long time ago and they have a legal government there."

As the anger over perceived Iranian mistreatment of Afghans helped sparked this month's demonstrations in Kabul and Herat and elsewhere, it remains to be seen how the Kabul government will address the issue.

Afghanistan's minister of refugees and repatriation, Jamahir Anwari, tells Radio Free Afghanistan that he, like millions of Afghans, saw the Tolo TV video showing the alleged bodies of migrants and that "the government is reacting." He vows that the issue of Afghans in Iran will be discussed in detail when the Iranian interior minister visits Kabul in the near future.

Tehran said this week that the backup of fuel trucks at the border should ease in the coming days but has yet to explain why all but a trickle of trucks have been held up for weeks. Afghan officials say their Iranian counterparts have privately objected that the fuel is being used to supply U.S.-led NATO forces in Afghanistan, a suggestion both Kabul and NATO deny.
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Comment Sorting
Comments
     
by: jshemi from: usa
January 24, 2011 16:40
illegal migants all over pay the heavy price, look in our usa borders shocking, horrible stories that ends up in the death of truckloads of indeviuals who pay to get here illegaly and end up dead, chased back, returned and misstreated but we only hear the story from ourside and not theirs....i bet their stories would be far far worse.
In Response

by: Paul Griffin from: USA
January 25, 2011 11:00
I think that you know that that is not true, my friend.
In Response

by: David Edick Jr from: San Diego, CA
January 28, 2011 03:19
Mr. Griffin - I suggest you get off your comfortable couch and find out what goes on in the border regions of your own country...as well as what tossed illegals experience. Your ignorance really shows, sir.

by: Alborzi
January 24, 2011 17:42
An informative article, but one that does not take into account the bigger picture. Absolutely no mention is made about Afghan criminals who commit heinous crimes in Iran; murder, rape and so on. Likewise, should Iranians feel sympathy for illegal Afghan immigrants? No... and why? Because they ARE ILLEGAL immigrants. No people can tolerate the entry of thousands of illegals entering their country, and so Iranians will not tolerate the tide of illegal Afghans entering Iran.

IF Iran were a developed nation with stable political and economic foundations, then some tolerance and understanding could be shown. But Iran IS A DEVELOPING nation itself - it cannot AND SHOULD NOT be expected to accomodate, let alone tolerate, illegal Afghan immigrants. These people know that entering Iran illegally is wrong, yet the take the risk, and so should not complain when it backfires on them.

by: Smith from: Blue Planet
January 24, 2011 18:18
Iranians have a right to protect their borders. Specially with a country that produces 95% of world's heroine and opium, is awash with weapons and smugglers who routinely kidnap and shoot Iranian border guards in order to sneak in drugs. Warnings have stopped because the smugglers start shooting the border police once the police gives away its position by warning them. This is a dangerous situation. NATO which Iran deems it as its enemy is in control of Afghanistan and until Iran does not have the verifiable guarantee that fuel it allows to get into Afghanistan is not used by its enemy, Iran is not in a position to feed its enemies. NATO tanks should not be allowed to roll into Iran running on Iranian fuel. As for humanitarian needs, Iran has already allowed over 2 million refugees inside Iran for the past 3 decades despite itself being under sanctions. Now that Afghanistan is under occupation of NATO according to international laws, it is NATO which is responsible for all the needs of Afghans from education to security. Iran is not responsible for the mess NATO has created in Afghanistan.

by: rsh from: USA
January 24, 2011 18:54
I am Iranian and believe Afghans are our brothers. The Afghans and Persians share a rich history and culture together and will be inseparable for eternity. Therefore, to the Afghan migrants, when you come to Iran, think about the image you are giving to your nation and people. Stop doing criminal activities. I have seen great Afghans and some jerks I wanted to kick out too. And to Iranians, please remember that we are all almost of the same race. I know Iran is going through hard times and huge unemplyment. But, lets face it, Iranians are not going to do the work Afghans do.

by: Adam
January 24, 2011 20:06
Afghanistan is an extremely poor country that has been ravaged by war and poverty for years. There have been hundreds of thousands of Afghans probably over a million of them who have been refugees inside of Iran working and living. Afghans can just simply cross the border regularly and go through the check points with proper ID. They don't need to sneak into country in the middle of the night. This is NOT the US Mexico border!!

But the major problem that the Iranian authorities have with Afghans crossing the border is the DRUGS!!! The only export that Afghanistan has is Heroin!! There are vicious gangs of drug dealers who try to run those drugs through Iran into other parts of the world! These gangsters are armed and very dangerous. They have killed hundreds of Iranian police and security people over the years.

So this is why Iranian authorities have shot at Afghans crossing the border in the middle of the night. Chances are that they were either carrying drugs cross the border or they were know criminals who couldn't simply go through the border crossing without being identified!!


by: Houman
January 25, 2011 09:54
While reading this kind of news if extremely upsetting, especially about the stolen organs. But it should also not be forgotten that because of the sanctions in the past three decades a home grown mafia has emerged and gets stronger after each sanction. And also the self-inflicting isolation of the Iranian regime contributes to that as well.

Regarding the border, those who sit in glass houses shall not throw with stones. If USA is so sad about illegal immigrants entering Iran, they should open their own Mexico border where thousands die every year trying to cross the border. And Europeans could open their borders to illigal immigrants from Africa as a friendly gesture.
In Response

by: Anonymous
January 31, 2011 21:58
@ Houman, who said the USA was sad about illegal immigrants entering Iran? the article was an interview with an Afghan, did you happen to read it before your post?

by: Dr Alice Y from: New York
January 25, 2011 16:42
The author of article writes:
" But far more unnerving than the payments, says Hadi, was the condition in which the bodies were returned. Each corpse had been cut open on the front and back from chin to abdomen, then roughly stitched closed again. The officials who returned the bodies gave no explanation for the cuts, leaving the shocked relatives uncertain whether they were part of the autopsy or something more sinister such as the theft of organs. "
The medical term for this incision is a forensic Y-incision, which is a standard incision technique for autopsy examination. In Iran according to their laws, all violent deaths are required to be autopsied and a judicial file created confirming the cause of death. During this technique which is performed by a forensic pathologist, some dead internal organs are removed for biochemical examination usually these include parts of lungs, kidneys, liver, gut etc. These are sent for poison analysis to labs and usually are not required to be returned for Muslims as per Sharia law of forensics incomplete body does not pose a religious problem. Those cultures and religions form whom an incomplete body is not acceptable for burial have to apply for their return within a set period of time after which these tissues are destroyed by incineration as bio hazardous material. It is conceivable that Afghans who have not yet established routine forensic examination of all bodies interpret this as organ stealing which is a very common belief among such societies. There is absolutely no indication that Iran is stealing organs. Infact as per UN reports Iran has a very low demand for organs since according to their laws they practice a legal form of compensation for donors in which government pays willing donors. This system which had been proposed in US by Urologists could not be put it is regarded as immoral by the society. On the whole I think the article is agendaful and is trying to exploit Iran-Afghan divisions.

by: Wahid from: Germany
January 25, 2011 20:26
Dear commentators, who are sympathetic to government of islamic republic of Iran, please look at first at video and than try to comment the article. It is duty of each responsible person at the border to threat people, whatever they intend to do, with humanity.

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