GULDARA, Afghanistan -- An Afghan teenager who survived an alleged shooting by Iranian police that set the car in which he was traveling on fire says he is ready to again try fleeing his war-ravaged homeland.
Nearly three months after a viral video showed Akram, 17, chained to a hospital bed while meeting with Afghan diplomats in the Iranian capital, Tehran, he says he is ready to attempt the dangerous journey again.
“I am ready to risk it all once more,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan in Guldara, a rural district north of the capital, Kabul, where he is from. Like hundreds of thousands of Afghans, he intends to build a new life in Turkey or Europe by attempting the journey through Iran.
For many Afghans, Akram’s ordeal highlights the suffering of hundreds of thousands of his compatriots who flee the country seeking security and better prospects in neighboring Iran. From there, many undertake the harrowing journey to Turkey and on to Europe.
“Nobody asked us to stop, but they suddenly fired on our car, which burst into flames after bullets hit its gas tank,” Akram recalled of the June 5 incident in the central Iranian province of Yazd. Four of his companions were killed, and he and seven others were injured. “I remember jumping out of the burning car, and then I lost consciousness,” he said, adding that he then woke up in a hospital bed.
“Give me some water; I am burning,” one of Akram’s surviving unnamed companions was shown saying in a minute-long video of the incident.
The video, thought to have been shot by a passer-by, went viral on social media. It outraged Afghans and prompted Afghan officials to visit Akram and raise the issue with Tehran. The shooting followed another controversial incident in May, when Afghan officials said dozens of Afghans had drowned after Iranian border guards forced them into a river. In angry protests across the country, thousands protested the treatment of Afghan migrants. To many, the incidents were a reminder of the treatment their compatriots face in Iran, which shares a 900-kilometer border with Afghanistan and has hosted millions of Afghan refugees since the early 1980s.
Yazd authorities at the time told Iranian state media that they had fired on Akram's vehicle, suspected of carrying drugs and undocumented migrants, after it crashed through a checkpoint. Local officials told the Afghan government they would hold the perpetrators of the incident accountable.
Midway through his treatment in Tehran in June, Akram fled the hospital. “I was afraid I’d be arrested by the police,” he said. Fellow Afghans helped him make the journey back to Guldara to reunite with his family. Many Afghan immigrants in Iran have complained of ill treatment at the hands of Iranian authorities, who have been accused of implicating Afghans in crimes they had not committed.
In Guldara, he has now nearly recovered from his burns and leg fractures. But he plans to attempt the journey again as soon as he can. Crushing poverty and debts often force Afghans to take great risks to break free from troubles at home. “My parents say it is better to look for opportunities elsewhere than be killed in the war here,” he said.
The teenager is his parents’ only child. His father, Mewa Gul, says he supports his son’s quest because poverty has forced them to make difficult choices.
“No parent would like to be separated from their children, but I am getting old and the farming I do cannot fill our household needs,” he told Radio Free Afghanistan. “After my son returned [wounded] from his horrible journey, I had to pay for [the rest of] his treatment,” he said. “No one is willing to help us.”
Kabul is now negotiating an agreement with Iran that is expected to represent a “comprehensive cooperation” between the two neighbors. A key result of this will be identification cards for Afghan immigrants in Iran, granting them legal status.
Every year, hundreds of thousands of Afghans travel to Iran to seek jobs or to transit to Turkey and Europe on what is often a dangerous journey. But this year the coronavirus pandemic, strict border controls, and an economic slowdown have forced many to return home. According to the International Organization For Migration, nearly half a million Afghans have returned home from Iran so far this year.
Abubakar Siddique wrote this story based on reporting by reporting by Heelai Asad from Guldara, Afghanistan.