Nineteen-year-old Abdulbari used to sell bags of Cheetos from a cart in Herat, in northwest Afghanistan.
Abdulbari was the sole breadwinner for his family, said Asanat, one of his cousins. (Some Afghans go only by their first names.) Last month, when the coronavirus hit his city, officials ordered everyone to not gather in public spaces.
“Because of the virus, everyone stayed home,” Asanat said.
And just like that, Abdulbari’s meager income was no more. Abdulbari’s family went days without food, his cousin said. The family of eight struggled to survive.
Hungry and exhausted, Abdulbari and a group of his friends did what many young Afghan men do — they headed for the Afghanistan-Iran border. They tried to smuggle themselves into Iran. All in the hopes of finding jobs.
Now, Abdulbari and 44 other Afghan migrant workers are dead. Last Friday, a group of about 50 Afghan men and boys, some as young as 11, reportedly entered Iran via a border crossing in northwest Afghanistan. Not long into their journey, survivors say, they were stopped by Iranian border guards who beat them and threw them into a nearby river.
“We were taken to a camp, then we were driven in a minibus at 1 a.m. towards the river. They [...] took us to the river and threw us in.”
“We were taken to a camp, then we were driven in a minibus at 1 a.m. towards the river. They [...] took us to the river and threw us in,” Shah Wali, one of the survivors, told Afghanistan’s TOLONews.
Most didn't know how to swim, and they drowned. Abdulbari’s body was among 17 others that were later recovered from the river. In a video shot by locals, at least five bodies can be seen lying on the ground — all men and boys, including one whom locals say, was “11 or 12 years old.”
On Friday, Herat officials told the BBC’s Persian language service that they found another 18 bodies of Afghans from the river near the Afghan-Iran border. Officials also said signs of torture can be seen on their bodies.
“This has created a national rage, a national resentment against particular officials of the Iranian regime,” said Tabish Forugh, who served as Afghanistan’s chief of staff for the Election Commission and now lives in New York City.
“As an Afghan, you always wait for unfortunate news, but this one was something even shocking by Afghan standards,” he said.
The news of the drownings outraged many Afghans. It has also sparked diplomatic tensions between Iran and Afghanistan, two neighboring countries with deep cultural and economic ties.
Even US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo brought it up at a press briefing this week.
“I was appalled to see reports last week of Iranian guards on the border of Afghanistan’s Herat province abused, tortured, drowned Afghan migrants who dared to cross the border simply in search of food and work,” Pompeo said, adding that there should be a full investigation.
After a few days of trading accusations and denials, Iran and Afghanistan said they launched a joint investigation. This week, Abbas Mousavi, a spokesman for Iran's Foreign Ministry, denied accusations that Iranian border guards forced the Afghan workers into the river.
“We have called for a thorough investigation into the incident where Afghan refugees, who had just crossed the border, were forced to drown by the Iranian Border Guard. Before being forced to drown, they were forced to work, intimidated, beaten up and tortured.”
Zaman Sultani, Amnesty International’s South Asia researcher told The World in a statement, “We have called for a thorough investigation into the incident where Afghan refugees, who had just crossed the border, were forced to drown by the Iranian Border Guard. Before being forced to drown, they were forced to work, intimidated, beaten up and tortured.”
“So far, more than a dozen dead bodies have been retrieved from the river, and many others are, reportedly, still missing. This serious human rights violation must be investigated with full transparency, and those responsible held accountable and prosecuted.”
This week, Sardar Mohammad Bahadori, a member of the Herat Provincial Council, pleaded with the Iranian government, asking that it show “mercy and compassion towards Afghans who attempt to cross into Iran out of poverty and desperation.”
Over the past years, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have migrated to Iran. According to the UN, there are roughly 1 million registered Afghan refugees in Iran. But real figures could be much higher, since many are undocumented.
Those who make it into the country often work as day laborers on construction sites. Others take on jobs such as cleaners, doormen and gardeners.
“This is shameful and disgusting, to say the least,” Afghan Deputy Foreign Minister Idrees Zaman said at the time. “We are going to raise the issue with Iranian officials. We will not allow Afghans to be treated like this.”
Changes have been painstakingly slow.
In 2015, Iran’s Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei issued a decree allowing Afghan children access to education. Last year, Iran started to allow women married to foreign men to pass on their citizenship to their children. This move was said to benefit a significant number of children born to Iranian mothers and Afghan fathers in Iran.
Last month, as Iran faced a major outbreak of the coronavirus, thousands of Afghans returned to their homeland.
“We fear that Herat will turn into another Wuhan,” Afghanistan’s minister of public health, Ferozuddin Feroz, said, referring to the city in China where the virus was first detected.
Iran has seen 105,000 COVID-19 infections and 6,541 deaths as of Friday, while in Afghanistan, 3,778 cases have been confirmed, and 109 deaths.
Forugh, the former Afghan government official now in New York, said that while the coronavirus pandemic worsened conditions for Afghan migrants, it’s one of many broader challenges.
“The main problem is poverty. It’s war, it is the basic needs of a family which pushes the breadwinner to risk his life in search of something that could help his kids.”
“The main problem is poverty. It’s war, it is the basic needs of a family which pushes the breadwinner to risk his life in search of something that could help his kids,” he said.
Families of the Afghan migrants who drowned say they want answers. Including Abdulbari’s mother, whom Asanat, the teenager’s cousin, said has been crying nonstop since she heard the news of her son’s death.
“She’s in really bad shape,” Asanat told The World. “All that we want is for all the perpetrators to be held responsible.”