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.
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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.
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.
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.)
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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