Zaranj, Afghanistan – “Every time I try to get to my lands I get shot at by the Iranian guards,” Abdul Bazir, a 60-year-old farmer from Barichi on Afghanistan-Iran border, told Al Jazeera.
Crops along the border in Afghanistan’s southwestern Nimroz province grow unattended under the shadow of a five-metre wall erected by Tehran.
“There were over a 100 families in Barichi but half of the villagers have left because of the wall. We cannot cultivate neither smuggle goods from the other side of the border now,” said Bazir as he sat inside his mud house with no running water and electricity. The farmer said he would flee like his former neighbours “sooner rather than later”.
Life is far from easy in this remote area which is located 30km from Zaranj, the capital of Nimroz province that borders Iran’s Sistan province to the west and Pakistan’s Balochistan province to the south. It’s one of Afghanistan’s poorest areas as well as the most sparsely populated. And abandonment trends are seemingly on the rise.
Barichi resident Dost Mohamed shows the injuries from two shots on his body.
“They shot me two years ago while I was simply walking across my lands,” the 50-year-old told Al Jazeera, before producing the documents that credit possession of his property near the wall.
They are killing our animals, our donkeys and sheep either for fun or just to eat them afterwards
“They are killing our animals, our donkeys and sheep either for fun or just to eat them afterwards,” Mohamed said.
Villagers told Al Jazeera that Iranian guards fire at their cattle from a recently established checkpoint – a makeshift tent just 20 metres from the wall and 200 metres from the Afghan Border Police garrison in Barichi.
Ali Ahmad, police commander of Nimroz’s Kang district, told Al Jazeera that Barichi is far from being an isolated case.
“There are 22 Afghan villages in the same situation, two of which are now completely empty,” Ahmad told Al Jazeera from a building which displays over a dozen bullet holes in its façade. Other than crops and cattle, the official also said, the wall was also affecting the school nearby.
“Over the last two years lessons have been constantly interrupted due to random fire from the other side. We either evacuate the kids or simply close the school until things settle down,” said commander Ahmed.
Barichi mayor Mohamed Ayub nodded while repeating that communication with the people on the Iranian side used to be fluid before the incidents.
“All of us have relatives on the other side and even the Iranian guards would help us gather after crossing the wall. I wonder why things got so nasty over the last years,” Ayub, who is Barichi’s biggest landowner, said.
The closest village on the other side, he added, is Shagalak, “a mere 500 metres away from here”.
The Iranian-built wall barely covers 50 of the 224km border that Nimroz shares with Iran. Zaranj Police Chief Commander Haji Abdullah Baloch told Al Jazeera that the reasons behind its construction are “too obvious”.
“Iran began building the wall in 2007, shortly after the US deployed their troops in southern Afghanistan. This is the closest border area to Delaram district, where American soldiers were stationed until last April,” Baloch told Al Jazeera. The incidents, he said, started two years ago.
“Tehran wants to prevent Washington from supporting Baloch insurgents in southwestern Iran,” Baloch said. Nimroz borders Iran’s Sistan and Balochistan province, a largely neglected district that has witnessed an armed rebellion by Baloch nationalist groups, which Tehran claims to be backed by the US.
Zahir Gul Moqbel, Colonel of the Border Police Nimroz, told Al Jazeera about “terrorists with links to al-Qaeda trained in Iran”, adding that they have come across Iranian IDs among them.
Meir Javedanfar, an Iranian politics lecturer at the Interdisciplinary Centre (IDC) in Israel, thinks that stopping the flow of Afghan refugees and workers into Iran might be the biggest reason behind the construction of the wall. The other important reason, he said, was to stop drugs and different armed groups from entering Iranian soil.
“With the US forces still in Afghanistan and the anti-Iran Taliban gaining more power, this is one security concern which is widely shared in Iran between everyone, pro and anti-government,” Javedanfar told Al Jazeera.
Repeated calls and email to the Iranian Embassy in Kabul by Al Jazeera received no reply.
The wall and beyond
International forces are no longer deployed in Nimroz but Iran’s presence still looms over this barren region. Such feeling is visibly evident in Zaranj, the provincial capital. Its massive bazaar area serves as a last stop before the official border crossing with Iran – just two kilometres away – with hundreds of stalls overloaded with Iranian products. Transactions are made in Iranian currency and electricity to Zaranj also comes directly from Iran, and so does the water supply.
|The official border crossing with Iran, 2 km south of Zaranj, is a main hub for trade of all kind of goods [Karlos Zurutuza/ Al Jazeera]|
“We assist Afghan orphans and widows because we share a common religion with our Afghan brothers,” Gulam Mobarez, head of the Imam Khomeini Relief Foundation in Zaranj, told Al Jazeera. The NGO’s building was recently repainted after it was covered with graffiti accusing them of spying for Iran.
“They are really working for Iran,” Rahmatullah Baloch, a political activist and local elder told Al Jazeera. Two years ago, the 50-year-old struggled to set up an office meant to develop Balochi language and culture. It didn’t work.
“We rented a house in Zaranj: two rooms which hosted a library and a computer room to offer Baluchi and English lessons for the local people,” Baloch said. “We decided to close it after the place was completely ransacked and one of the guys working with us killed.”
Amir Mohamed Akhadzada, Nimroz province’s new governor, told Al Jazeera that the Iranian presence in the region was “overwhelming”.
“We’re trying to tackle this issue but it is far from easy,” Akhadzada, a former religious leader from neighbouring Helmand province, said. “The borders are too big and we cannot control them,” he said.
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