In Syria, the Assad regime is running out of soldiers and is increasingly relying on mercenaries. Many are Shiites – Lebanese Hezbollah militiamen, Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Yemenis. But no group is represented to the degree that the Afghan Hazara are. AAN guest author Christoph Reuter (*) has met two of them – recruited in Iran to fight in Syria and now held as prisoners of war by a rebel group in the Aleppo area. But neither the Syrian government nor the one of Afghanistan is acting to get them released. (With contributions by Ehsan Qaane.)Murad and Sayyed in their neon-lit basement prison in Aleppo, Syria. They are being held by Syrian rebels who want to exchange them, but find no one interested in their prisoners. Photo: screenshot from a video taken by Christoph Reuter
The internationalisation of the war in Syria has turned the country into an odd meeting place for Afghans. Shiite mercenaries are fighting on the side of the Assad regime while Sunni jihadis have joined the Islamic State (Daesh) and other radical Salafi groups. Particularly the war in the northern-Syrian city of Aleppo – but also around both Hama and Damascus and down to Deraa in the south – has taken on an Afghan face.
From the very beginning, the Assad regime had one opponent that it could never really defeat: Syria’s demography. The family dictatorship is running out of soldiers and increasingly needs to rely on mercenaries. To prevent the collapse of Syrian government forces, Assad requested experienced units from the Lebanese militia Hezbollah as early as 2012. Later, they were joined by Iranians, Iraqis, Pakistanis and Yemenis – Shiites from all over. These fighters, too, face a growing body count. In 2013, for example, Hezbollah lost 130 fighters as it captured the city of Qusair and lost many more trying to hold on to it. Most of the Iraqi fighters have returned home or came only for short deployments. Rather than doing the fighting, they largely control the operations from the background. The Iraqi Shia militia Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, for example, organises the deployment of Pakistani volunteers in Syria.
But no ethnic group is represented on all of the regime’s fronts to the degree that Afghans are. Most are Hazara, a Shiite minority. Many Hazara are among the poorest of the poor in Afghanistan. They started to come, about a year and a half ago, to the Syrian frontlines, sent by the Iranian Quds Force, an elite unit of the Pasdaran as Iran’s Revolutionary Guards are called (see previous AAN reporting here). The Afghans then formed the “Fatemiyoun Brigade.” Some members of this brigade were recruited directly in Kabul, attracted by the promise of high wages through Iranian handlers. But most Hazara fighters came from Iran directly, either hired from among the estimated two million Afghans who live and work there as labour migrants or recruited in prisons.
Most of the Hazara labour migrants in Iran are there illegally, which is why most fighting in the Syrian regime’s forces do not do so completely of their own free will. They are an inexhaustible reservoir of the desperate, from which the Pasdaran have recruited thousands for the war in Syria.
An unexpected visitor in a green uniform
One of them is Murad Ali Hamidi, the “son of Arsi and Layla,” as he introduces himself. He is a 45-year-old farmer from the village of Chahrsad Khana, or “400 houses,” near the city of Mazar-e Sharif in northern Afghanistan. We met him at the beginning of May in a neon-lit basement – a prisoner of war in a makeshift prison established by a Syrian rebel group in a rebel-controlled area of Aleppo. Murad, along with another Afghan, Sayyed Ahmed Hussein, was being held next to a roaring generator. The walls were crumbling, a product of the myriad explosions that have shaken the city.
Murad told his story like this. In Chahrsad Khana, he said, he had a small field measuring 50 by 50 meters, but the barley he harvested could not feed the whole family. There was no electricity, running water or school in the village. Drinking water they had to bring in buckets from the river.
Murad went to Iran without valid travel documents and worked illegally in a rock quarry – until he was arrested in September 2013. “They accused me of selling drugs, but this isn’t true,” he said. For 15 days, he said, he was beaten and whipped with heavy cables. A circular scar on his back seems to provide evidence that he was also burned with a cigarette. “They are racist in Iran. They don’t want us, only because we are Afghans. Hardly any of us received refugee papers.” Such documents, he claimed, would have allowed him to at least send his children to school and to receive some food. Murad said he was sentenced to six years in prison.
After serving the first year in the notorious Evin Prison in Tehran, he received an unexpected visit from a man wearing the green uniform of the Pasdaran. “Why are you here?” the man asked. “Drugs,” Murad replied. “Do you want to have the final five years of your sentence commuted?” Murad said yes. He would have to join the war in Syria for two months, the officer told him, saying that he would only be given simple tasks and guard duty. The officer also said he might even receive a residency permit. The other Afghan in his cell also agreed to trade in the rest of his sentence for two months of service in Syria. They were promised a monthly salary of two million toman, the equivalent of 700 US dollars.
Murad’s fellow inmate in the Aleppo rebel prison, Sayyed Ahmed Hussein, also an Afghan Hazara, mentioned the same sum during the interview. Hussein had spent years working in construction in an exclusive residential district in northern Tehran. “We weren’t bothered too much as long as we had work. But suddenly, there were raids, and I was one of 150 illegal immigrants arrested. All of us were Hazara. Then, the Pasdaran came and promised us money and residency permits if we would voluntarily go to Syria. But they also said, ‘we’re sending you there no matter what.’ So everybody signed up.” Asked, if he had considered trying to flee, he and Murad both replied that their only thoughts were about getting out of the Iranian prison.
From there, the two men were sent to different military bases near Tehran for Kalashnikov training. “The trainer told us we would be fighting terrorists in Syria,” Murad says. Dressed in civilian clothes, they were taken by bus to Tehran’s Imam Khomeini Airport for the flight to Damascus. They went in a passenger plane. “There were even families on board. Nobody was supposed to see that we were soldiers,” Murad said.
Two Iranian officers welcomed them upon arrival in Damascus and they were given tea. They then travelled further, still in civilian clothes. Murad went directly to a military base on the outskirts of Aleppo; Sayyed followed after a two-day-visit to Sayyeda Zainab, the holy Shiite shrine south of Damascus. They stayed for ten days at the base. “Here, the Iranians weren’t so friendly anymore,” Murad said, “and much less the Syrian soldiers who looked after us. When we spoke Persian to each other, they yelled at us to shut up.”
One evening, weapons and uniforms were distributed and they were driven in cars to a collection point for some 300 men from Afghanistan. “We began walking, the whole night, until three or four in the morning. Then they pointed into the darkness at a multi-storied building and ordered a dozen of us to storm it and to hold it at all costs! They kept telling us that we couldn’t surrender because the terrorists would cut off our heads,” Murad said. “Don’t surrender, don’t surrender,” he kept repeating during the interview, like a mantra.
“All of us were afraid,” Murad said. “I asked myself, what am I doing here? This isn’t my country.” When our interpreter asked him why he allowed himself to get into such a situation in the first place, Murad became angry for the only time during the discussion. “50 meters by 50 meters of poor soil! How are five people supposed to live off of that?” He wearily raised his hands and continued telling his story: “We started running. Luckily, the building was empty and we spread out among the different floors. We came under fire from the outside. An Iranian officer yelled at me: ‘You have to fight or I’ll kill you!’ I fired off all my ammunition without looking where I was shooting.”
Stranded as prisoners
Murad’s war only lasted from one dawn to the next. When the sun rose for the second time over Aleppo, Murad was still cowering on the second floor of the house he was supposed to defend to the death. He did not know how many men from his unit were still alive; nor did he know where he was or who he was fighting against. His four magazines had been empty for hours. When a violent explosion caused the house to collapse, he found himself thinking about his daughters. “I screamed and thought I was suffocating. And then, everything around me was quiet.”
Rebels arrived and pulled Murad, still screaming, out of the rubble. He was lucky, even if he did not see it that way at first. “I thought they would kill me immediately. But they bandaged me up and took me to their quarters. There was someone there who spoke a bit of Persian and he told me I didn’t need to be afraid.”
That was seven months ago.
Since then, Murad and Sayyed Ahmad have been sitting in their makeshift prison. It belongs to the Jabha al-Shamiya, the “Levante Front.” By June 2015, it was the largest rebel formation in Eastern Aleppo, having emerged from various former groups, some of them more nationalist, some more Islamist. Today, Jabha al-Shamiya represents the predominant trend within the rebel scene, which could be described as “mainstream Islamist.” For their first interrogations, Murad and Sayyed Ahmad requested a Dari-speaking Afghan jihadi from the Jaish al-Muhajirun wa al-Ansar, a jihadi group in the neighbourhood, since none of the Hazara knew any Arabic.
The exact number of Hazara fighters in Syria is hard to come by, but some 700 of them are thought to have lost their lives in Aleppo and Deraa alone. Official counts of the sporadic funerals of Afghans killed in action in Syria taking place in Iran, lead to much lower numbers: 62, from September 2013 to March 2015. But very few corpses are brought back from the frontlines, and the honour of a formal burial is reserved for commanders or, irrespective of the person, for propaganda purposes. The presence of Brigadier General Esmail Qani, the Quds forces’ second-in-command, shows the relevance the Iranian leadership gives to these occasions. Martyrdom, celebrated pompously, is meant to show appreciation to the Afghans as well as to compel others to join the fight.
But most bodies of Afghan fighters are left to rot where they were killed, since in many cases the embattled areas are out of reach of the army, hindering retrieval of bodies. According to a statement from the Iranian Sacred Defense News Agency on 20 May 2015, the Afghan forces in Syria under the command of the Quds Force have been upgraded now to a division, that is to between 10,000 and 20,000 soldiers. Most will have been recruited the same way Murad and Sayyed Ahmad were, deceived by promises. And they will be treated – on both sides – as irregulars.
Two rebel commanders who took part in the battle during which Murad and Sayyed Ahmad were captured, only on the other side, said the Afghans were like machines. “They are incredibly tenacious, run faster than we do and keep shooting even after they have been surrounded. But as soon as they lose radio contact with headquarters, they panic.”
Abu Hassanain, one of the two rebel commanders involved in the fight that night, recalled: “It made absolutely no sense for them to keep fighting. But they didn’t surrender. So we blew up the entire building.” That was the explosion that buried Murad and Sayyed. They were the only survivors from their group.
Barrel bomb time
Now, Murad and Sayyed are prisoners in a city more dangerous than any prison and, every day, at risk of being blown apart by a barrel bomb dropped by the army they came to fight for. The bombs show just how desperate the Assad regime – which has suffered significant military defeats in recent weeks – has become. Every morning between 8 and 9 o’clock is ‘barrel time’ in eastern Aleppo. That is when most of the barrel bombs, now produced in industrial quantities, are rolled out of military helicopters, tumble to the ground and destroy everything within two dozen meters.
“Come after nine,” the man responsible for the Afghan prisoners recommended when we asked for an appointment to see Murad and Sayyed. Shortly before heading to the rebel prison on Sunday, 3 May, a massive detonation in the neighbouring quarter of Saif al-Daula occurred. On the way, we kept seeing people with horrified looks on their faces, some with tears in their eyes. The bomb had scored a direct hit on the only school in the quarter, a four-story building that had been turned into a rubble-filled crater. The remains of the floors hung into the crater like gigantic rags. Sunday is exam day in Damascus, in the rebel strongholds as well as in the regime controlled areas – the only day on which school children still gather. It is almost certain that the pilots knew what they were doing.
At least six children and a teacher were killed instantly, with doctors unsure if several other children would survive. Late that afternoon, a man on a motorcycle stopped next to the rubble and asked those still digging whether they had found his daughter. The diggers silently shook their heads. “My daughter,” he said in a tone beyond hope and desperation. Then, he drove off.
As if their fates were momentarily intertwined, at that morning’s interview, Murad the Afghan, had, too, bemoaned the loss of his daughters. They haven’t heard anything from their father in more than two years, he said. Murad does not have any brothers in the village and his parents are dead. Only his mother-in-law is still alive, but she, too, is bitterly poor. “Who is taking care of my family? Do they have enough to eat, do they have clothes, did they get through the winter?”
“They are just mercenaries – we can send thousands of them”
Murad said that his fate was now in God’s hands. Using an imam and the Red Crescent as intermediaries, the rebels from the al-Shamiya Front have tried to exchange him and other Afghans for their own men being held in regime prisons. That, though, is no cause for hope for Murad. He thinks it would just be another type of horror. “What do I do if they give me back to the Syrian army? They’ll just put me right back into one of their suicide squads. I don’t want to do that again. I want to go back to Afghanistan” – to the misery he once tried to escape.
But in Afghanistan, the government does not seem particularly interested in the disappearance of thousands of its citizens into the Syrian war. “The Ministry of Foreign Affairs does not have any official document about Afghans being forced to go to Syria from Afghanistan or Iran,” spokesman Shakib Mustaghni told AAN. “The documents which are to be found on the Internet are not reliable.”
For the moment, at least, “it does not look as if there would be a prisoner exchange,” said Sheikh Abdulqader Falas, who is leading the negotiations on the Syrian rebels’ side. “In the past, we have exchanged Syrian officers, and the regime is particularly willing to release prisoners in exchange for Iranians and Hezbollah fighters. But for the Afghans – nothing. We have contacted the International Committee of the Red Cross, but again, nothing. What can we do? Those two are our hostages; hence we are responsible for them. They will likely stay with us until the end of the war.”
A rebel commander from Aleppo, who is leading negotiations for six other Afghans, at least managed to reach one of the most powerful Syrian officers on the telephone: Colonel Suhail al-Hassan, called Nimr or “Tiger,” by his supporters. The colonel’s answer was succinct: “Do what you want with them. You can kill them; they’re just mercenaries. We can send you thousands of them.”
(*) Christoph Reuter is a reporter for Spiegel, the leading news magazine in Germany. He has reported from Afghanistan from 2002 to 2012. This story is an updated and more detailed version of his Spiegel story published in May this year; see here.
This article was last updated on 9 Mar 2020