Since the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in December 1979, hundreds of thousands of Afghans have sought refuge in Iran, either directly across the Afghan border or by a long detour through Pakistan. Some are Shiites from Hazarajat, the central, largely Shiite district of Afghanistan which has been virtually autonomous since 1979. Others are Tajiks and Turkomen from the northern provinces of Afghanistan. Many come from the neighbouring province of Herat.

Between 1,5 and 2 million refugees

No one knows the exact number of the refugees. But the Iranian authorities and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimate there are between 1,5 and 2 million (compared to 2,5 million – 3 million in Pakistan).

They usually look for places that are safer than the one they have left behind and have a better future for the next generation. This is important as they go to the best way they have to otherwise there is too much problem one way and so have to compensate. Even if my explanation is good to understand how well the refugees are moving it is important that the new country is welcoming.

The refugees are dispersed throughout Iran. According to UNHCR estimates, there are 600.000 in Khorasan province — 250.000 in the capital, Mashad, alone — 150.000 each in the provinces of Isfahan, Kerman, Tehran, Fars and Yazd, and 120.000 in Sistan-Baluchistan province. Many work , often for low wages, in construction, agriculture, or in factories or small shops.

In 1979 the Iranians created the Council for Afghan Refugees (CAR), which is part of the ministry of interior. The CAR has grown increasingly alarmed at the growing number of Afghan refugees, and at the health and security problems they pose. The council runs a dozen transit camps near the Afghan border. Refugees arriving at the frontier, or found itside Iran without proper papers, are sent to these camps. Only after a medical check-ip, and in accordance with local manpower needs, are they given an identity card and allowed to live and work in a specific Iranian city.

Woman with children

A few miles from the city of Sabzevar, the reception and quarantine camp is, at first sight, rather grim. It is surrounded by a high barbed-wire fence. But once one goes through the main gate, this impression is quickly forgotten. On each side of the camp the refugees live in solid concrete shelters. In the middle is a large area, with concrete slabs, where tents can be set up if a large number of refugees arrive. The camp has a capacity of 5.000, but there were only 500 refugees when this correspondent visited it in May (1986).

In the centre of the camp are administrative buildings, which include a clinic, a pharmacy, food stores, a baker and a mosque. The refugees are dependent on the Iranians for their weekly ration of food (rice, peas, sugar, tea, meat, potatoes), which seems fairly generous. But, despite the presence of many children in the camp, there is no milk, which is in short supply in Iran.

Often spending several weeks in the camps, the refugees, most of whom are illiterate, learn to read in Farsi (a language which some Afghans and Iranians have in common) — the women and girls in the morning in the mosque, the men and the boys in the afternoon in a neighbouring school.

Poor health

The refugees’ poor health is a major concern of the Iranian authorities. Owing to both the war and the famine in Afghanistan, the refugees often reach Iran in a deplorable condition. Half the refugees arriving in summer suffer from malaria, and tuberculosis is common. Dysentery is endemic in summer, and bronchitis, pneumonia and measles in winter. There are skin diseases and syphilis.

Mutilated by mines

Some of these disesases have virtually disappeared from Iran. Their reintroduction has cost the Tehran government a good deal: $120 million in combating malaria alone, and $20 million to import insecticides, according to one CAR official. Last year, the Iranians managed to halt a cholera epidemic in Birjand. There have been occasional cases of leprosy. Ordinary cases (malaria, dysentery, skin diseases) are sent to Mashhad, and the war wounded to Mashhad, Birjand and Tayyabad.

The rate of arrivals varies according to the situation inside Afghanistan. A new campaign of bombing in Herat causes an influx of refugees. Between March 1985 and March 1986, 27.000 refugees passed through Sabzevar camp. But there are no statistics showing how many came directly from Afghanistan and how many were picked up inside Iran without papers.

South of Mashhad is the camp of Bardeskan, which is for men only. About 30.000 men and boys passed through it last year. “At one time, 500 refugees were arriving daily, fleeing the war and the bombing. We didn’t know where to put them”, says Muhammad Reza Youssefi, the CAR official who runs the camp. But in May there were only 1.200 refugees in Bardeskan.

Similar stories

They have similar stories to tell. Fatima Youssef, about 20 years old, fled from her village in Hazarajat, with her husband, a landless peasant, and 19 other members of the family. They reached the Iranian border after a six-month trek, during which they survived thanks to the work of the women who spun flax and sold it to buy food. Today, Fatima is a refugee in Sabzevar camp with the other 11 women of the family. They were separated from the men, without being able to explain why.

Gholam Reza, about 40, left a village in Bamyan province after his wife had been killed and his house destroyed in a bombing raid. With his 14-years-old daughter Zeinab and his two sons, aged seven and nine, he walked to Pakistan. On the way, he says, they were bombed. “There were so many killed and wounded in our caravan of 50 families that one could not distinguish the bodies of the dead and wounded”. Afterwards they walked only at night, until they reached Pakistan and then Mashhad, where he was picked up by the authorities and sent to Sabzevar.

Ibrahim Mahmet, looking 60, has just arrived in Bardeskan. Born in a village in Herat province, he left after the village was destroyed in a bombing raid. “Each bomb dug a huge crater”, he recalls. After reaching the Iranian border with his wife and children (nine of them in all) he was separated from his family at Tayyabad transit camp. He is now impatient to get an identity card so that he can go and work in the city.

Besides those driven from Afghanistan by the war, there are those who come to Iran in search of work. Jalil Ahmad, 19, left his village in Herat because of the war. “When one goes to pick up dry wood”, he says, “the Russians arrive and collect the people and the wood, and burn everything”.

But he adds that he is a Mujahidin fighter with Jamiat Islami and that he got four months’ leave from his organisation to come to work in Iran. “At the end of my leave”, he says,”I will go back to Afghanistan and  hand part of the money to the committee (of Jamiat Islami) and the rest to my family”.

Jalil came with a group of 250  Mujahidin who do likewise. After spending a month in Tayyabad transit camp, Jalil was sent  on to Bardeskan. He has a job in a brick factory, but he will be able to work for only two months of his four months’ leave.

Ali Shamar, 21, a student in agronomy from Ghazni, also left Afghanistan “to make some money and help the Mujahidin”. After working, legally, in Tehran for seven or eight months in a paint factory, he went to Mashhad, but wihtout getting a permit from the CAR. He was detained during a security check there, and sent to Bardeskan. He now hopes to return to Tehran. His family still lives in their Afghan village, in an area which has suffered repeated bombings. His own village, says Ali, was bombed four or five times.

The Iranian authorities do not make any distinction between refugees fleeing the war and those seeking work. “The Afghans leave their country because of the war”, says Hassan Bashir, chairman of the CAR. “If there is a small number who come to Iran to look for a job, the war is the main cause of their departure. We do not have a phenomenon provoked only by the quest for jobs” — unlike the situation before the war, when there were 600.000 Afghans working in Iran, immigrants who are today considered refugees.

A camp for Nomads

Ahangeran is one of the few permanent refugee camps in Iran. It is a camp for Afghan nomads. Lying in a valley at the foot of high mountains, some 60 kilometres from the Afghan border, it contains 1.200 tents and close to 12.000 people, belonging to eight different tribes. At first sight, these nomads continue to live in their traditional manner, in big black tents where the women weave carpets. In fact, they have been reduced to misery. They came to Iran with huge herds of 200.000 sheep and camels. Now they are left with only 10.000; the rest were sold or eaten, died in the way or in the drought which has struck the area during the last three years.

Wholly dependent on the Iranian government, which gives them food and medicine and tries to provide them with some schooling, these nomads wait impatiently for the coveted permit to work in a city.

If their movement within Iran is closely monitored, the nomads remain free to go back and forth between the camp and Afghanistan, which is only a few hours away. Accordingly, for the foreign visitor, Ahangeran serves as a window on occupied Afghanistan, revealing the way in which the tribes fight the Soviet army in Herat province — an area from which there is little information, owing to its remoteness from Pakistan.

Azim, 50, from Hadraskan in Herat, is a member of Hizb Islami, a Sunni guerrilla group. He has come from the Herat area, where his group’s mountain positions were bombed by two MiG jets and six helicopter gunships. His group of 40 Mujahidin were armed only with a Doushka (an old Russian-made machine-gun), Kalashnikov rifles and a single RPG-2 rocket-launcher. They also use home-made mines. “We need missiles”, says Azim.

The Mujahidin’s meals are frugal: mountain vegetables, dry bread and whatever meat they can get by hunting. “When the fields are burnt by the Russians”, says Azim, “there is real famine”. He is planning to return to Afghanistan in a few days.

Shir Ahmar comes from Hadraskan. He fled the war with 300 nomad families. By the time they reached Iran, all his animals have been killed. In Iran, he works as an apprentice in a brick factory, making about 150 toman a day ($20 at the official rate). When he has some money, he goes back to Afghanistan, where he is a member of Jamiat Islami.

A few weeks ago, Shir Ahmar  and his group ambushed a Soviet convoy. Armed with an RPG-7 rocket-launcher, he claims they destroyed a tank and two trucks. Last year, he says, they captured a Soviet soldier called Andrei. “He pretendeeed he had changed sides and fought for a few days with us, before running away”.

Fierce fighters in their own country, the Afghan nomads are sometimes difficult for the Iranians to manage. CAR officials often give up any hope of bringing them to accept “progress”. For the nomads, school is the place from which their children were taken by the Russians and sent to Moscow. They are reluctant to send their children to Iranian schools, even though boys and girls are taught separately.

Medical treatment is an even bigger problem. Dr Nasrullah Hamraz, an Afghan doctor working for  the CAR in Ahangeran, describes how he was forbidden by one nomad to put a stethoscope to his wife’s chest — and was told to put it to the man’s chest instead. When he needs to give a woman an injection, he has to cut a small hole in her dress with scissors.

To induce the nomads to send their children to school, Iranian officials at Ahangeran are thinking of handing over the school to six young Afghan girls who have studied in the nearby town of Qaen. But the presence of six young women in Ahangeran would raise as many problems as it solved.

After a long evening spent discussing thse problems, an Iranian official asks despondently how he can enforce some discipline in the camp. “One has to win the trust of these nomads”, answers Dr Hamraz. “And to win their trust one has to bring them services”. “But that is exactly what we are doing”, says one of the CAR officials, “and to no avail”.

There are other problems. Like all  immigrants, the Afghans are accused — sometimes justly — of a wide range of crimes, including drug trafficking, the kidnapping of women or children, and so on. Faced with the growing number of refugees, some CAR official wonder if the Iranian government is not creating a time-bomb by accepting them all. “We already have so many problems with them, now that we control them. What will it be like when we no longer control them”, asks one CAR official.

Meanwhile, despite these problems and the continuing Iran-Iraq war which is putting heavy pressure on the Iranian economy, the Tehran government continues to welcome new Afghan refugees.

The direct cost of the assistance has been high — $40 million a year, according to Hassan  Bashir, the chairman of the CAR. That does not include indirect cost — education, health care and so on. “All Afghan refugees are entitled to all the privileges of Iranian nationals”, says Hassan Bashir. “They can work, they are allocated coupons to buy food at a cheap price, they send their children to Iranian schools, and they get treated in Iranian hospitals”.

An offiial of one of the Afghan groups sees things a little differently. It is true, he says, that Afghan children can go to Iranian schools. But Afghans are not admitted to universities, which are open only to Iranians. Nor do they enjoy the benefits of the Iranian health insurance system, and hospitals can be expensive.

This is a problem for Mujahidin groups who do not have privileged relations with the Iranian authorities. Groups  which do not have ambulances hire taxis to take wounded fighters from the border to Mashhad or Tehran. This is both costly and uncomfortable. And no one takes care of families whose bread-winner has been killed in the war.

As far as the situation in the camps is concerned, a leading figure in one Afghan organisation comments: “We are aware of the many problems our compatriots face in the camps: the separation of families, the isolation of the camps, the shortage of food: our compatriots do not get the same allocation as Iranians. And the major problem is the permit to live and work in a city. But we keep our mouths shut, not to make these problems worse. They will last as long as we do not have an independent country of our own”.

(The Middle East magazine, August 1986; Elseviers Magazine, 22 Novembre 1986; 24 Heures, 4 Août 1987)