Dead bodies of victims drown into Harirud River on May 02, 2020, taken to a hospital in Herat

New findings on Harirud mass-drowning of Afghan workers; who were victims?

On May 02, some cellphone images leaked to local media outlets showed corpses of Afghan migrants who were illegally crossing into Iran. The migrants who had survived told reporters that there were over 50 Afghan migrants who were caught, beaten and thrown into Harirud River by Iran’s border guard after they crossed into Iran’s territory. According to initial reports, five Afghan migrants who were thrown into river were found dead, 18 are still missing. The Afghan government has tasked a fact-finding committee to probe the case in a joint investigation with Iranian officials.  

New reports show that five dead bodies of the Afghan migrants, who were allegedly drown into a river by the Iranian Border Guard, have been taken to hospital in Herat for postmortem study. Most victims are young and under 23. They are from western Herat and the northwestern Faryab provinces of Afghanistan.

This tragic incident has taken place in Dahaneh Zulfiqar, a border area situated 90 km in the north-eastern of Gulran district. Gulran is 210 km away from Herat city. It is a border point between Iran, Turkmenistan and Afghanistan.

Kabul Now has investigated names and identities of 27 victims who are all from Kushk-e-Robat Sangi district of Herat and Dawlatabad district of north western Faryab province.

According to Abdul Ghani Noori, district governor of Gulran district, they have so far found 18 dead bodies of the Afghan migrants who were drown into a river and six others are still missing. “There were 52 Afghans who crossed into Iran. Iranian border guards beat the Afghan migrants with shovel. There were wounds on dead bodies. They were tortured, and badly beaten,” he said.  

Quoting commander of Iranian forces in the border line, Mr. Noori said they have acknowledged that deadly drowning was a “mistake”. “We have made a mistake,” he quoted the Iranian commander as saying.

At odds to initial response of Iranian border guards who refused detaining and deporting Afghan migrants, the facts show that they have taken the migrants to deepest point of river and thrown them into it, said Lal Mohammad Omerzai, district governor of Kushk-e-Robat Sangi district.

Eyewitnesses and survivors of the deadly drowning say that the Iranian border guards even stopped rescue attempts made by those who could swim.

Who are the victims?

According to local sources in Faryab, 12 Afghan migrants—who had illegally crossed into Iran—were residents of Dawlatabad district of Faryab. Abdul Raziq Kakar, district chief of Dawlatabad district, confirmed that five dead bodies of the victims, drown in Harirud River, have been buried in the district.

Faryab residents, who lost their lives in drowning, are from a single village, namely Taheri Hanifa, situated 13 km south of Dawlatabad district.

According to those who survived the incident, human traffickers had declared to take each migrant to Iran in return for 500,000 Iranian toman.

Younus son of Bay Jan, a survivor of the deadly drowning, is currently in critical health condition. He has been tortured before being drown into river, said Mohammad Amin, head of Dawlat Abad development council.

Shah Wali Taheri, a survivor who is a resident of Dawlatabad district, says the Iranian border guards forced them into the river by firing bullets. “The crowd of Afghan was crying and begging them but the Iranian border guards were merciless and they are not Muslims. The Iranian border guards ordered me to drown myself. The Iranian border guards fired bullets until I jumped into the river,” he said.

“When they forced us into the river, they were laughing and enjoying it,” Mr. Taheri repeated the same account told by other survivors.

Some survivors of the incident from Dawlat Abad district were not willing to be interviewed by journalists. They refused to talk about what happened to them.

Shah Wali Taheri, a survivor, says the Iranian forces forced them at gunpoint into the river.

Two victims from a single family

Eid Mohammad, a newlywed 21-year-old, and the 16-year-old Jalil Ahmad were siblings who were drown into river by Iran’s border guard.

According to their uncle, Nasrullah Omeri, the two victims had returned from Iran after the coronavirus outbreak in the country but poverty and unemployment forced them to leave their home for Iran.

“My sister is now in a bad condition and her blood pressure increases. I have brought my sister from Kushk-e-Robat Sangi to city for a week. She faints two or three times in a single day,” Mr. Omeri described the trauma of victims’ mother.

Citing eyewitnesses of the incident, Mr. Omeri also said that the Iranian border guards would throw stones at drowning migrants so that they would not be able to swim.  

Eid Mohammad, 21, was married seven months ago. His brother – on the right – was 16 years old. The two siblings died in the mass drowning.

Idrees, 19, is another victim whose life was taken in his second time illegal entry into Iran. The victim’s brother, Ghulam Yahya, asked why the Iranian guards killed his brother. The Iranian guards should have deported them, they do not have the right to kill them, he added.

Azizullah, another eyewitness of the deadly incident, claims that the Iranian border guards forced the Afghan migrants to do harsh labor and tortured them a night before forcing them into the river. “The Iranian border guards dropped us off the bus beside a river and told us ‘go to your own country’. They forced us into water and fired seven to eight bullets warning that whoever return will be killed,” the survivor told his observation of the scene. He said only seven or eight people managed to swim out of water.

According to Ahmad, another survivor, the Iranian forces have hit them with a shovel. “They told us ‘come here and have a breakfast.’ [When we went] they took a shovel and hit us on our shoulders and hands. They hit us hard and cursed very much,” the survivor further stated.

Idrees, 19, is another victim who was allegedly forced by Iranian border forces into river and lost his life

Postmortem study of corpses

Five dead bodies of the victims have undergone postmortem studies in Herat forensic center.

According to Ahmad Shah Mushfiq, an expert at Herat forensic center, all five migrants have died of asphyxiation under water. Contrary to claims made by the survivors, postmortem studies have shown that they were not tortured and beaten. “There were some minor scrapes on bodies. It is not clear how the scrapes were caused,” he added.

He urged the Attorney General’s Office and police to launch a thorough investigation into killing of Afghan migrants.

District governor of Kushk-e-Robat Sangi, Lal Mohammad Omerzai, however, says that there were very obvious scars of wounds and tortures on bodies of the victims. “If the Iranian forces had not beaten them too much, a number of them would have been rescued,” he noted.

According to Lal Mohammad Omerzai, district governor of Kushk-e-Robat Sangi, the dead toll would have been lower if the migrants had not been tortured by Iranian forces.

Afghan fact-finding committee yet to visit incident site

Though a week has passed since the occurrence of the drowning, a fact-finding committee assigned by the Afghan government has not visited incident site. Local officials in Herat province have confirmed that the fact-finding committee have arrived in Herat but gave no details on when they are going to visit the incident site.

Dawood Hashimi, Herat’s deputy governor, told Kabul Now that the fact-finding committee will probe the case in close meeting with the Iranian officials after collecting enough documentation.

According to him, the main hurdle for the committee to visit incident area is security concerns and its remoteness.

In a statement issued on Friday night, May 08, the Presidential Palace said that a delegation led by Mohammad Hamid Tahmasi, senior military auditor at Afghanistan Armed Forces, has been assigned to probe the case. Some MPs, Ministry of Interior, Ministry of Defense, Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Ministry of Refugees and Repatriation, representatives from the National Directorate of Security, local Herat officials, the provincial council, Zafar Military Corps are said to be member of the delegation.

Media office of Herat’s governor, however, said late Saturday, May 09, that a delegation led by Sayed Abdul Waheed Qatali, the governor for Herat, paid a visit to incident site in border point between Iran, Afghanistan and Turkmenistan. The delegation would launch a comprehensive probe into the drowning of Afghan refugees, share condolences with their families, and talk to the eyewitnesses, said the statement.