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Victims and Witnesses

Flogged, Jailed and Massacred: a Witness to the Lives of Afghans in Iran

Ali Esmai’li/ ABF Interview
ََAbdorrahman Boroumand Foundation
July 20, 2015
Interview

Family Background, Being a Child Laborer and Its Tragic Consequences

My name is Ali Esmai’li. I was born on March 21, 1973, in Herat, Afghanistan. I lived in Herat with my family until the age of five. My father was a truck driver and the sole breadwinner in our family.

Subsequent to Sardar Davud Khan’s death and the Islamic Revolution in Iran, my family and I came to Iran clandestinely, in 1979, and settled in the city of Mashhad’s Sakhteman neighborhood. Back then, every Afghan could obtain an identification card by paying a meager sum of money, which was valid for one year. After Khomeini’s death, the validity period was reduced to three months and, gradually, the sum payable for renewal of the card was increased to 300,000 Tomans[1].

At the age of seven, I was at school half the day and the rest of the day I would work

My father was prevented from working as a truck driver, having been told that his Afghani driver’s license was not valid in Iran. He was thus compelled to work at a mechanic’s shop, changing oil and tires.

At the age of seven, I went to a school called Mehrab Khan with other children my age. I was at school half the day and the rest of the day I would work at the mechanic’s shop, helping my father to make a living.

Our economic situation was bleak, and I was helping out. That’s why I dropped out of school after three years and started to work at a mechanic’s shop, earning 50 Tomans a week. After a while I changed my job and started to work at the cabin manufacturing section of one of Khorasan Province’s largest transportation companies, called Khamseh Garage, located close to Mashhad’s Garaj Darha[2] Intersection.

I was 14, my boss asked me to help him cut a heavy piece of lumber about 3 meters by 20 centimeters. Four of my fingers were cut off in the process. My boss left me alone in the garage and went out. The hospital would not admit me.

In the summer of 1987 when I was fourteen, my boss came to me one day and asked me to help him cut a heavy piece of lumber using a cutting machine. He said: “I’ll turn the machine on and you cut the piece in two in the middle.” The wood was about 3 meters by 20 centimeters, and I couldn’t control it. Four of my fingers were cut off in the process. My boss left me alone in the garage and went out. My father learned of what had happened to me and -- since his place of work was another section of the same Garage -- immediately came over, put my fingers in a plastic bag and went to Emdadi Hospital located at Mashhad’s Nakhrissi Intersection. When we got there, they asked us what had happened, to which my father answered that my fingers had been severed, but the hospital would not admit me because I was Afghan (At least I think this was the reason).

We then went to an Afghan doctor’s home and, fortunately, he agreed to operate on my fingers. The operation was somewhat successful. After 3 months, I regained the use of two of my fingers. After five months of being out of work, I started to work at the garage where my father did oil and tire changes.

Seventy Lashes for Drinking

In the summer of 1988, I was invited to a party with two of my Afghan friends, Sharif Rahmani and Mohammad Ali, who were my age. It was an all-male party with around sixty people, all of whom were Iranian except for the three of us.

We went to the balcony in the afternoon (and it was still light out) to have a few alcoholic drinks with other people. We were drinking when five men, [Revolution] Komite agents (a quasi-police force formed in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution to safeguard revolutionary values) with an average age of 40 to 45, dressed in green uniforms, bearing the picture of an arm holding a rifle, walked into the house.

“We know there are Afghanis here. Who is Afghani?”[asked the revolutionary guards] to which we answered, “The three of us.” They came toward us, uttering insults, and started beating us

As soon as they walked in, they made an announcement: “We know there are Afghanis here. Who is Afghani?” to which we answered, “The three of us.” They came toward us, uttering insults, and started beating us with the military boots they were wearing. No one dared to interfere to help us or to say anything in our defense.

After a few minutes, they put black handcuffs on us, blindfolded us with the Kafiahs they had, and put us in a car. I don’t remember how many people were with us in the car, and the car itself was a [Nissan] Patrol, if I’m not mistaken.

On the way, the person sitting in the front kept insulting us. “Bastard Afghanis, you come to Iran to drink?” he would say. “We’re sorry, we were wrong, we won’t do it again, and this was our last time. We had never drunk before,” we said. But it was no use, and he continued to insult us.

After twenty minutes, the car stopped at an unknown location. The three of us were taken to the basement of a building. Someone was holding my collar from behind the entire time, telling me that I was going down steps. They put us in a cell without removing our blindfolds and our handcuffs. They locked the cell door and left us there for 24 hours.

When I realized we were alone in that cell, I talked to my two friends. I asked them where we were, but they had no answer, either. In fact, none of us knew where we had been taken and what was awaiting us.

That night, we were not given anything to eat or drink, not even a glass of water. We weren’t even allowed to go to the bathroom. When I asked them to remove my handcuffs because I wanted to pray, they said: “Oh, so you’re a Moslem? If you guys are Moslem, why were you drinking? Afghanis aren’t Moslems.”

At 10:00 a.m. the next day, they came to our cell and took us to their boss’s office upstairs, in handcuffs and blindfolds. When we entered the office, they kept us standing in a corner and slapped one of my friends in the face, then removed our blindfolds, but not the handcuffs.

The boss, whom they called Haji, was sitting behind a desk with three or four other people. Haji was the same person who had arrested us at the party.

After a few seconds, the questioning started: “Why did you drink?” “It was a party and we drank. We’re very sorry. We’ll never do it again,” we said, and started crying. Haji turned to me and asked, “What is your religion?” “I’m a Shi’a,” I responded.

“Tomorrow you will receive 70 lashes, so that you remember never to drink again”

“Don’t lie. You sons of bitches all lie. You’re not a Moslem,” he said. “I am a Shi’a Moslem. That was my first time drinking, and I will never do it again,” I stated. Then he turned to all three of us and asked, “What was the occasion for this party, and for whom? What were you guys doing there?” “It was an Iranian party. The person who threw it was our neighbor and knew us. That’s why he invited us,” we responded.

This conversation lasted about half an hour between Haji and us. We were then told that, “Tomorrow you will receive 70 lashes, so that you remember never to drink again.”

Then they took us out of the room without blindfolds. We asked the agents to let us use the bathroom. This time, without any opposition, they took our handcuffs off and took us to the bathroom. Afterward, we were taken back to the same cell in the basement. It was a 3 by 4 meter room with cement walls, and it was empty. They gave us a piece of bread as food and left us by ourselves again until the next day.

When they were taking us back to the cell, we realized we were being detained at the Islamic Revolution Committee Headquarters, located in a mosque called As’hab-al-Hossein in the same Sakhteman neighborhood where we lived.

The next day, at 10:00 a.m., they came for us to carry out the flogging sentence and took us to the roof of the mosque. The As’hab-al-Hossein Mosque is on a main road, and a lot of people had come to watch the lashing, among them our own families, who had learned of the sentence through our friends.

There was a cement platform on the roof for flogging sentences. They took our clothes off down to our underwear. Then they told us to lie down on the platform, tied our hands and feet with rope, and carried out the sentence using cables.

When it was my turn, I cried a lot and begged them not to flog me. I asked them why they were flogging me, and they said that it was the law of Islam. Then they slapped me in the face a few times, forced me onto the platform, took my clothes off, tied my hands and feet, and proceeded with the lashes.

They took our clothes off down to our underwear. Then they told us to lie down on the platform, tied our hands and feet with rope, and carried out the sentence using cables

The lashes started from the tip of my toes and went all the way up to the back of my neck. With the first few lashes, I felt an extremely sharp pain in my back, but I didn’t feel anything after that.

After they were done, two agents who were assigned to each of us, dragged us back to the cell. They threw our clothes in front of us and left us there, without bringing or taking us to a doctor to tend to our wounds. We slowly put our clothes back on and just crawled to a corner like dead people.

They kept us in that cell for another three days, if I’m not mistaken, and each day they would only give us a piece of bread, some candy, and some water. Even though our sentence had been carried out, we were still not allowed visitation with our families.

After three days, three agents took us to Haji’s office. None of us felt physically well, and my friends couldn’t even walk. Since I was bigger than they were, I took them by the arm and we went there. The pain from the flogging was so great that we couldn’t even stand and so we sat down in a corner. Haji ordered us to stand up and said, “I will release you now, if you promise never to drink again.” We accepted and signed a pledge. Just to spite us, however, they said, “We’re supposed to send you to a camp in Golshahr and, from there, across the border to Afghanistan.” When we heard this, we started crying and begging: “We’re young, we’re kids. There’s a war in Afghanistan. Please don’t do this to us.” That, fortunately, did not happen, and we were released.

The flogging had a major effect on my life. I became a very fearful person and wasn't able to defend my rights anymore

My father met me when we left the mosque and said, “They wanted to send you to a camp and then across the border. The parents begged them and told them they would give them money if that was what they wanted. So, we gave them the money and I also went and talked to the head of the neighborhood council, whose car I had once repaired, and asked him to intervene on your behalf. He accepted and came to the mosque and talked to the authorities here.”

The flogging had a major effect on my life. I became a very fearful person and wasn't able to defend my rights anymore.

In 1990 [at the age of 17], I married my cousin, who was 15, and we had a son named Mohammad.

Routine Harrassment and Deportation Of Afghan Immigrants

At the time, there was an organization called the Afghan Council[3],

Plaincloth agents would walk unexpectedly into the Afghans places of work and ask for their ID cards. If the person did not have his ID card with him for any reason, they would arrest and transfer him to a border camp to be taken across the border

in the city of Mashhad, whose offices were in a neighborhood called Chahar Cheshmeh. The Council was composed of plainclothes agents who would issue identification cards and inter-city movement cards for Afghans, as well as arrest those whose identification cards had expired or who simply did not have one.

For instance, these agents would walk unexpectedly into the Afghans places of work and ask for their ID cards. If the person did not have his ID card with him for any reason, they would arrest and transfer him to a border camp to be taken across the border. Sometimes they would even cut off a corner of an ID card that had not expired and would say that it had. This happened to me once, when an Afghan Council agent stopped me on a Mashhad street in October or November 2005 and asked me for my ID card. When I gave it to him, he said that my card had expired. I told him that I had just renewed it. “One corner has been cut off,” he said. “No, it has all the four corners,” I answered. To my utter disbelief, he took out a pair of scissors from his pocket and cut a corner off and said, “Well, it doesn’t anymore, and it’s void.” Then they arrested me and took me to Sefidsang Camp, which is reserved for men to be sent across the border. I was deported to Afghanistan 35 days later.

Sefidsang Camp and the 1995 Massacre of Afghan Immigrants

In 1995, something worse happened to me. After having been arrested at my place of work and taken to Sefidsang Camp, I witnessed the killing of about 200 Afghans -- and many more injured -- at the hands of Iranian government agents.

On February 17, 1995, I was working, as usual, at Khamseh Garage at Mashhad’s Garage-Keepers’ neighborhood. At 10:00 a.m. a number of Afghan Council members came in and asked me where I was from.

I don’t look Afghans, but I told them, nonetheless, that I was Afghan. If I had told them I was Iranian, they would have asked for a Fulfillment of Military Service Card or another type of identification card, which I didn’t have, and I could have ended up in jail by lying, or face a thousand other potential problems.

After I told them I was Afghan, one of the agents asked if I had any papers. I showed him my ID card, the validity of which had unfortunately expired. “This card has expired,” he said. “There was no announcement for the renewals[4]” I said. They didn’t pay any attention to what I said and arrested me. They put me on a minibus with sliding doors which could only be opened by the driver. We went around town until noon, while they arrested other Afghans. We were then taken to a place called Hassanabad.

Hassanabad is a place in the desert with a small office building for the agents, with a bathroom and a kitchen. For Afghans detainees, there were about 12 freight containers without any facilities whatsoever: no electricity, no bathrooms, no drinking water, and no windows.

They first registered us and then put us in one of the containers. They put 50 to 100 people in each of those containers.

We spent that day and that night there without food or water. Every time we asked to go to the bathroom they would tell us, “Go in your pants. Do whatever you want, because we’re not allowed to open the door for you.”

At 7:00 a.m. the next morning, they got everyone out of the containers and lined them up for roll call. There were close to 200 detainees, around sixty of whom were 12-to-16 year-old boys.

After roll call, we asked to go to the bathroom. They took us behind a hill in groups of six and would tell us that we could go right there. Then they put us on two buses, with three agents each, and took us to Sefidsang Camp.

Every Afghan had to pay 20 Tomans bus fare from Hassanabad to Sefidsang Camp, and if someone couldn’t afford it, others would lend him the money. The trip to Sefidsang was three hours.

Like Evin Prison, Sefidsang Camp had a huge electric gate. Once we went through, they took us off the buses and lined us up in groups of ten. Then the head of the camp came for inspection.

He wore ordinary clothes and was always accompanied by two agents. His name was Ahmad Esmaeili, around 35-years-oldand tall. He went up on a platform and started talking. “No violations are to occur here,” he said. “You are not to have nail clippers, shaving blades, cigarettes, cigarette lighters, matches, medicine, or pills in your pockets.” He then ordered us to empty our pockets, so that we wouldn’t be able to take anything inside the camp. He then ordered a body search of everyone.

Afterward, they gave everyone a metal spoon and cup and emphasized, “The day you leave this place, you have to return the spoon and the cup. Otherwise, you stay here.” They divided us into groups to be taken inside the camp. Then they shaved our heads, leaving some hair as a shape of a plus (+) symbol[5] which later, I paid a barber five Tomans, inside the camp, to shave it completely.

Sefidsang Camp was in the shape of a square and had four camps inside, separated by barbed wire, each having its own boss. There were approximately two thousand people in each camp, for whom there were only two bathrooms. Detainees had to clean the bathrooms themselves. Camp 1, Camp 2, and Camp 4 were for adults and Camp 3 for children, at the entrance to which there was a one-by-five meter sign that read, Korreh Khane [Foal House (to humiliate the kids)].

Camps 1 and 4 had a number of tents, but Camp 2 had 100 rooms without doors that were built in rows of 20, one after another. The rooms were 3-by-3 meters wide, and ten people were housed in each room. There was a bakery and a grocery store at Sefidsang Camp, where we could buy eggs, cheese, and cigarettes. There was also a pharmacy that prescribed a two-tone pill called ASA[6] for every problem and every pain.

The Camp’s outer walls were 10 meters high, and they had laid three bare electric cables on top of the wall. There are also four very high guarding posts in the four corners of the Camp, each with two soldiers guarding at all times. The total number of soldiers was ten, all of whom wore dark green Revolutionary Guards uniforms. There were twelve other plainclothes individuals, who were camp employees. One prisoner told me they were all “lifers,” [those serving a life sentence in prison] sent there to work.

They transferred me to Camp 2 that day. There was nothing in the room, not even a blanket. The floor was made of cement, and we had to sleep on cardboard boxes. Mashhad gets very cold in that season. Detainees had, therefore, tied their clothes together and made a makeshift door for the room, in order to prevent cold air from getting in.

Our daily routine at the camp was as follows: At 6:30 a.m., someone would use a whistle through a loudspeaker and would scream, “Roll call! Roll call!” Everyone, then, had to line up in rows of 10 and be present and accounted for. Then, a man that we would only see in the morning for roll call would show up with the names register and would count everyone. Thirty minutes was allotted every morning to roll call. Then they would announce on the loudspeaker, “You’re free. Go.” At 7:30 a.m., everybody lined up at the bakery. A big cart with Lavash bread [a type of thin bread similar to flat-out flat bread] would then come, and each person could get one piece of bread, which was our food for 24 hours. We used the Camp’s tap water. I must note that we were allowed to take a shower only once a month, with lukewarm water. That was the reason lice were rampant in the entire camp.

One day, when I was near the camp’s barbed fence, I noticed that one of the employees -- Mr. Sharifinia -- wanted to go to the bathroom and wash his blanket. I went up to him and said, “You want to wash your blanket yourself?” to which he answered in the affirmative. “Let me wash it for you, but allow me to wash my own clothes too,” I proposed. “No problem. You can go in and wash my blanket,” he replied. Then he told a soldier there to open the iron door. I quickly grabbed his blanket and some washing powder and went inside the bathroom and washed his blanket, and my clothes which were all ridden with lice. Then I put my clothes on even though they were still wet and came out of the bathroom. Mr. Sharifinia told me to hang his blanket on the fence near his room to dry.

When I did, he approached and asked me: “Where are you from? From which part of Afghanistan? I know all of Afghanistan.” “I’m from Herat. So you’ve been to Afghanistan?” I asked. “No, but I’ve seen all kinds of Afghanis here, and I’ve talked to them all,” he responded.

After a while I got to know Mr. Sharifinia a little bit better. He said, “I’m serving a life sentence, and I will never be pardoned. We Iranians have a life sentence inside of a life sentence, and we are in prison all our lives. I had been in jail for twelve years when, realizing I was a good person, the authorities gave me a job at the Camp. Every morning they bring me here by bus and, at night, they take me back to Mashhad on that same bus.”

What happened was that one of the Afghans in Camp 2, room 77, had learned that his child was sick and was not doing well and had asked the guards to let him see his child. They had not paid any attention to his request and had kicked him in the testicle, which had caused his death

At Sefidsang, we had visitations once a week on Saturday. We were allowed to see one family member for five minutes. Families would leave Mashhad early in the morning and would wait behind the iron gate for their turn to come into the Camp. A person entering the Camp was searched first. Then -- with a brush soaked in paint -- they would put a sign on the back of the person’s hand to show that he [or she] had entered the Camp as a visitor.

My wife was allowed to visit me twice while I was at the Camp. The first time was when I had been detained for a week. The people who had witnessed my arrest had informed my family, who had immediately started their efforts to have me released. They learned that I was at Sefidsang.

My mother had also come with my wife, but, unfortunately, I was not able to see her that day. She had begged to see me but was not allowed to come in. My wife had brought me some money, food, and clothes, which she gave me after she obtained permission from the soldier watching over us holding a Kalashnikov rifle.

On March 4, 1995, fifteen days after my arrest, I was cleaning the soldiers’ quarters, as usual, when, around 11:00 a.m., one of the soldiers quickly threw me out of the room and told me to go to my own camp. When I asked him what had happened, he said that someone had been killed in room 77.

I asked other Afghanis. They said that the soldiers had killed an Afghan. I then went to see what was going on when, close to Camp 3, I saw a body on the ground, covered with a jacket and some used cardboard boxes. What happened was that one of the Afghans in Camp 2, room 77, had learned that his child was sick and was not doing well and had asked the guards to let him see his child. They had not paid any attention to his request and had kicked him in the testicle, which had caused his death.

The death of that Afghan resulted in protests by Afghans in Camps 1, 2, and 4. The first shots were fired in the air, but a few seconds later they shot into the crowd, injuring three people. The situation got worse. The Afghans tore down the barbed wires in the camps, attacked the camp’s main area, and started running for the main gate

The death of that Afghan resulted in protests by Afghans in Camps 1, 2, and 4. Initially, the Afghans had started insulting and chanting slogans against the regime, the soldiers, and the Camp chief. Gradually, this turned into a battle inside the Camp: a battle in which the Afghans were unarmed and soldiers had gone at them with clubs and guns. The first shots were fired in the air, but a few seconds later they shot into the crowd, injuring three people. The situation got worse. The Afghans tore down the barbed wires in the camps, attacked the camp’s main area, and started running for the main gate.

They rolled a vehicle over and set it on fire; then they broke down the main gate and started running for the Afghanistan border. Meanwhile the soldiers started shooting at them once again, injuring another three persons. Close to 4000 Afghans ran out of the camp that day. It was not long, though, before some of them were killed and the rest were arrested and returned to the Camp.

When the riot broke out, Mr. Sharifinia told me, “The Afghanis are running away. Don’t do it. If you have half a brain, you know that these people will come after you and will kill you.”

Half an hour after their escape, I noticed that an armed helicopter was in the air. After a short while, large vehicles brought in hundreds of bikers with dirt bikes and disembarked them in the desert around the Camp. There were two bikers on each bike, one of them armed with a Kalashnikov.

Half an hour after their escape, I noticed that an armed helicopter was in the air. Large vehicles brought in hundreds of bikers. There were two bikers on each bike, one of them armed with a Kalashnikov

There was a mountain near the camp where a large number of Afghans had gone to hide. They arrested and handcuffed two or three Afghanis together, beating them, breaking their arms and legs.

They started bringing them back into the Camp at 3:00 p.m. They had to go through a tunnel, with soldiers holding sticks and clubs standing on both sides, hitting them as they passed. This continued until 6:00 p.m. You could hear gunshots until 4:00 p.m. At 6:00 p.m., everything was back to normal, except for the helicopter that kept hovering until late that night.

The people who had been returned went back to their own camps but, because of the heavy mood, none of us were able to sleep. The guys who had returned alive told me that they had seen three helicopters that day.

The next morning we lined up for roll call, as usual, in the Camp’s main yard. The number of soldiers had increased, and they were all holding sticks and clubs. There were also a number of plainclothes agents with colts that we had not seen there before. After a few minutes, the Camp chief started a speech, as always. “You have to put all your money together,” he said, “and rebuild everything you have destroyed. Plus, you have to identify the person who had taken a soldier’s rifle from him and had beaten him up.”

After roll call and the chief’s speech, they said they needed twenty people from each camp except Camp 3. I was selected from Camp 2. They put us in cars and drove 20 minutes to the mountain near the border. They gave a blanket to every two people and told us to gather the bodies of the dead by a hill. According to what our Afghan friends at the camp could count, there were close to 230 bodies gathered there. After we were done, they returned us to the camp without uttering a word.

They said they needed twenty people from each camp except Camp 3. They put us in cars and drove 20 minutes to the mountain near the border. They gave a blanket to every two people and told us to gather the bodies of the dead by a hill. According to what our Afghan friends at the camp could count, there were close to 230 bodies gathered there

The person who had beaten one of the soldiers and taken his rifle was among the dead. He had a bullet in his head. The soldier was able to identify him after he saw the body and said, “This is the same Afghani who took my rifle.”

They brought in a person wearing white clothes to the Camp and said they had brought the doctor to tend to the wounded. The only thing the doctor did for the injured was that he gave a roll of bandage, a bottle of Betadine antiseptic solution, and some ASA pills to each group of six people and left. The number of wounded at Camp 2 was fifty.

Afterward, I spoke several times to Mr. Sharifinia about the bodies we had collected and asked him, “You’re my friend, please tell me what they did with the bodies.” But he wouldn’t say anything and asked me not to talk to him about it again.

The situation changed completely at the Camp. Every day, ten soldiers would enter the camps and inspect each and every room to see what we were doing, whether we were talking to each other, or eating.

By the end of March 1995, I was ultimately able to leave Sefidsang Camp after 40 days, thanks to my wife’s efforts. On the day of my release, I was freed, along with six other individuals.

Leaving the Camp had its own formalities. We were forced to rabbit jump from our camp to the Camp’s main gate. That is, we had to place our arms behind our backs, bend our knees, and jump that distance. If anyone fell, that person had to go back and start all over again. The rabbit jump was not part of an official release process. It all depended on the head of the camp. If he was in a good mood, he would just told a guard to open the gate and let the detainees get lost; but if he was in a bad mood, he would definitely told the detainees to do the rabbit jump all the way from their camp to the gate.

In those circumstances where I was being released, I couldn’t care less about doing rabbit jumps. That’s why I was able to go from Camp 2 to the main gate, a distance of 500 meters, without any problems, and was released.

Ultimately, in 2012-13, after 35 years of living in Iran, I entered Turkey clandestinely and applied for refugee status with the UNHCR.

I am now forty one, but I endured so many hardships in those 35 years that I feel physically and mentally old. My hopes and dreams were all buried, and my only wish is to be able to send my wife and son to another country where they can study and live like normal human beings.

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[1] A superunit of the official currency of Iran, the Rial. 1 Toman equals 10 Rials.

[2] Garaj Darha means the owners of car garages. An area in Mashhad where there are a lot of companies that provide bus transport, overnight parking for big vehicles, and also repair/ maintenance services for buses and trucks.

[3] Bureau for Aliens and Foreign Immigrants Affairs (BAFIA) in Khorasan – Office for issuing residence cards for the Afghan refugees known to Afghans as “Afghan Council”

[4] There is a public call for renewal through media at certain time of the year by the BAFIA which is the only possible time for the refugees/ immigrants to renew their expired cards.

[5] A common act of punishment at the time imposed by the government to the boys in general to humiliate them in the community.

[6] ASA = Acetylsalicylic Acid/ Aspirin