Day 6

HRW Researcher: 'Afghan children recruited in Iran are fighting and dying in Syria'

Human Rights Watch researcher Tara Sepehri Far has documented Afghan refugees in Iran — some of them children — who are fighting and dying in Syria.
Tombstones of Afghan child soldiers buried in Iran / Tara Sepehri Far ( Human Rights Watch)

It was the faces of the people being mourned that first got Tara Sepehri Far's attention.

The story of how Afghan fighters came to die in Syria before being buried in Iran was also curious, but it was the faces that piqued her interest. 

Sepehri Far is a researcher with Human Rights Watch who investigates human rights abuses in Iran and Oman.

"The photos of the deceased fighters looked very young," Sepehri Far tells Day 6 host Brent Bambury. "Like they could be below the age of eighteen."

The way we were able to confirm the age of these fighters, these children, was actually capturing photographs of their tombstones.- Tara Sepehri Far, Human Rights Watch

It is already known that Afghans were fighting in Iranian militias in Syria. There are enough of them to make up an entire division of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, called the 'Fatemiyoun'.

"They are probably the most active fighting force on the ground, supported by Iran," Sepehri Far says.

But the possibility that there were children fighting among them was new.

Tombstones of Afghan child soldiers buried in Iran. (Human Rights Watch)


Finding the tombstones

Confirming the age of the dead fighters was a challenge and one that Sepehri Far was unable to do herself.

Born and raised in Iran, Sepehri Far fled her homeland after the 2009 election and The Green Movement uprising. She is unable to return to Iran because of the sentence she faces over her participation in the uprising.

Tara Sepehri Far, researcher with Human Rights Watch. (Tara Sepehri Far)

On top of that, she says that the Afghan families of the deceased fighters in Iran were not comfortable speaking to human rights organizations, in part because of their precarious status in Iran.

"The way we were able to confirm the age of these fighters, these children, was actually capturing photographs of their tombstones. So we asked a trusted partner to capture these photos. So we definitely trust the authenticity of the photos."

Traditionally the date of birth, date of death, given name, family name, as well as the place of birth and death are all engraved on the tombstones.

Sepehri Far found eight cases of Afghan children, some as young as 14, killed fighting in Syria. She believes there may be more. Her work was published earlier this month by Human Rights Watch

"In two cases, we received photos indicating the age was above eighteen," she explains. "But later, going through Iranian media, and testimonies, and interviews with families, we actually found out that these two people lied to authorities about their age in order to serve."

Tombstone of Alireza Rahimi, Behesht-e-Zahra Cemetery, Tehran, Iran. (Human Rights Watch)


Why they fight

Sepehri Far says she has found no evidence that Iranian authorities have a policy of recruiting children, saying that the children and their families are often willing participants.

"Many of these people might voluntarily decide to join forces in Syria, and that happens across the conflict," she says. 

Families who were previously living in the margins ... are brought into the spotlight and are respected and thanked for what they have sacrificed for the cause.- Tara Sepehri Far, Human Rights Watch

"The problem is [that] for whatever reason there is not enough protection, and in several cases [our research] shows that the authorities didn't even ask for any documentation to confirm the age of the people who were going to serve."

Sepehri Far believes part of the motivation is ideological.

She says the marginalisation of the Afghan community in Iran, and the difficulty they have in obtaining residency permits, is at the heart of the issue.

"We know that the fighters who fight in Syria have an easier time in getting their residency permit(s) ... and we are worried that might contribute as an incentive."

She says there is also a social status conferred by Iranian authorities to those who fight and die in Syria and Iraq.

Sepehri Far says that many of the tombstones belonging to these fighters are engraved with the title "defender of the shrine," a reference to the shrine of Zaynab in Syria, which is revered by Shia Muslims and found at the Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque near Damascus.

Sayyidah Zaynab Mosque, near Damascus in Syria (Wiki Commons)

Sepehri Far says there's no evidence that the families of these young fighters are getting financial support from the government, but she says that the families' lives are changed by what has happened. 

"Often the funerals and memorial services are attended by high-level government officials, and military commanders have visited these families," she says.

"So the families who were previously living in the margins ... are brought into the spotlight and are respected and thanked for what they have sacrificed for the cause."

To hear the full conversation with Tara Sepehri Far, download our podcast or click the 'Listen' button at the top of this page.