Investigation: videos reveal location of mass drowning on Iran-Afghan border

Amateur videos circulating on social media in Afghanistan show bodies of Afghan migrants drowned in the Harirud river on the border with Iran on May 1, 2020. Survivors say they were forced into the river by Iranian border guards.
Amateur videos circulating on social media in Afghanistan show bodies of Afghan migrants drowned in the Harirud river on the border with Iran on May 1, 2020. Survivors say they were forced into the river by Iranian border guards.

Dozens of Afghan migrants are feared dead after Iranian border guards allegedly forced them into a river on the Iran-Afghan border on May 1. Of the 57 men and boys in the group only 12 are known to have survived. One of the survivors told the France 24 Observers he and the others were arrested and tortured by guards from an Iranian border post overlooking the Harirud river. His account, along with amateur videos circulating on social media in Afghanistan, allowed the Observers team to pinpoint the location of the Iranian border post. 

The group of migrants crossed from Afghanistan’s western Herat province into Iran’s Razavi Khorasan province late on April 30, traversing the Harirud river on makeshift rafts with the help of a human trafficker. But they were caught by Iranian border guards, who detained them at their post. The border post overlooks the Harirud river, 20 km southeast of the village of Jannatabad, Salehabad County, in Iran’s Razavi Khorasan province.

Survivors say the Iranian border guards humiliated and beat them, then drove them in minibuses to the nearby river and forced them into the water. Afghan officials said May 7 said they had confirmed at least 17 deaths - 12 bodies found on the Afghan side of the river, and five downstream in Turkmenistan - with 28 people still missing.

Iran’s Border Guard Command on May 3 denied that its troops had forced Afghan migrants into the river, saying “videos shared on social media that show bodies on the river bank are not from the Iran-Afghanistan border”. The Iranian foreign ministry said however it was ready to cooperate with the Afghan government.

Hanif Atmar, Afghanistan’s acting foreign minister, said in a tweet May 5: “We will pursue this unforgivable crime with all our country’s diplomatic means until we achieve justice and righteousness.”

The UN says more than 100,000 Afghans living in Iran fled the Covid-19 outbreak after it hit the Islamic Republic in February. The migrants in the May 1 incident were apparently among a wave of Afghans returning to work in Iran as the virus eased in recent weeks.

This video circulating on social media in Afghanistan since May 2 shows four bodies - three men and a teenage boy - on the Afghan bank of the Harirud river, in Gulran district, Herat province. A survivor told the France 24 Observers the four were among dozens who drowned when Iranian border guards forced them into the river further upstream on May 1, 2020. A similar video shows the same four bodies with the faces exposed.

“The border guards were laughing as we drowned”

Shah Mohammad (not his real name) is a survivor of the incident. He told the France 24 Observers he was going back to Iran to resume work on a construction project that had been halted after the coronavirus hit. He said he and more than 50 other men and boys crossed into Iran from the Zulfiqar valley in the Gulran district of Afghanistan’s Herat province.

We crossed the Harirud river in the Zulfiqar area around 10 pm on Thursday April 30. We were on barrels tied together with ropes. After we crossed the river and entered Iran, an Iranian patrol arrested us and took us to their post. The post was on a cliff overlooking the river. There were about 50 of us. They arrested all of us. There were old men among us, and children as young as 16, 14, and even 11. [Note: while members of the group believed at the time of the incident the youngest boy was 11, a spokesman at Herat hospital, where the boy’s body was taken, said he was in fact 13.]

They kept us overnight at the post.The next day [Friday May 1] they began to insult us. They made us strip naked. They kicked us and beat us with their rifle butts and a whip. They forced us to remove weeds in their garden. Around noon they loaded us onto minibuses, and drove us a few minutes from the post. They told us to cross the river or they would shoot us. They fired some warning shots to frighten us. We decided to cross the river because we thought they would kill us. 

Many of us didn’t know how to swim. The border guards were laughing as we drowned. We tried to stick together, but it was impossible - the current was too powerful. There were about 20 of us who knew how to swim. That saved our lives. But the river took the others. We were able to find just eight bodies. I lost my money and my cellphone. We walked several kilometers to find help, and finally reached Herat.

This 51-second video circulating on social networks in Afghanistan since May 2 was apparently filmed by the same person as the two videos showing the bodies. The man, apparently a survivor of the May 1 drowning, points the camera toward a building on the Iranian side of the border and says: “This is the Iranian border post whose guards pushed us into the river. In 10 minutes, 15 of us died. We took six bodies out of the river. The others disappeared.”


“They just wanted to work”

Ahmad [not his real name] lost three cousins in the incident: Mohammad, 20, Edris, 19, and Djalil, 16. Their bodies were among the eight bodies that were found. He talked to France24 while he was crying:


It wasn’t the first time they had crossed into Iran. They had been working in Iran for years. After the coronavirus epidemic hit, construction projects halted in Iran. The boys had to come back to Afghanistan. But in recent days their bosses contacted them and asked them to come back to work. So my cousins contacted the trafficker who regularly takes them across the border. 

Their bodies came back a few days later. I don’t understand why the Iranian guards did that. Are they human? They could have beaten them, broken their bones, imprisoned them for 10 years - but not kill them. My cousins just wanted to work, to make a living.

“Asphyxiation by water was the cause of death”

While Iran’s border guards deny forcing the Afghans into the river, doctors who examined the bodies say there is no doubt about the cause of the death. Dr. Aref Djalili, spokesman of Herat General Hospital, said doctors there had examined 5 of the 17 bodies that had been recovered:

We received three bodies on May 3 at 6 a.m., then two more bodies at 10 a.m., including the body of a 13-year-old boy.

We examined the bodies. We did not find bullet wounds or signs of any other physical violence. There was some bleeding in the nose and mouth of one of the deceased, but we think it happened in the river not before. Asphyxiation by water was the cause of death for all of them. We also treated two of the survivors. Both had minor problems in their digestive system because they imbibed muddy water from the river.

“Iranian border guards have a green light for any kind of violence”

Abdullah Saljoughi, an independent journalist in Afghanistan’s Herat region, says undocumented Afghan migrants often face mistreatment and violence at the hands of the Iranian police and border guards.


When Iranian border guards arrest illegal migrants they normally transfer them to specific camps inside Iran, then deport them after one or two days at official border crossings between the two countries. Each day Iran deports between 1000 and 1,200 illegal Afghan migrants like this. 

This is the first time I’ve ever heard of Iranian border guards doing such a thing. However, violence against Afghan migrants is routine even when they are being deported via the official procedure. Insults, beatings, whipping, forced labour, being forced to strip…we hear reports of these practices frequently. There have been more serious incidents in the last decade too. For example in 2012 Iranian border guards shot and killed 13 migrants. Our experience on this side of the border suggests Iranian border guards have a green light for any kind of violence.

Where did it happen?

Two amateur videos circulating in Afghanistan since the May 1 incident show four bodies beside a river, one with the faces covered (see above), the other with the faces visible. A third video (above), apparently filmed by the same man wearing a green robe, zooms in on a building on the other side of the river as he says:  “This is the Iranian border post whose guards pushed us into the river. In 10 minutes, 15 of us died. We took six bodies out of the river. The others disappeared.” 

While Iran’s Border Guard Command says the amateur videos showing bodies were not filmed in the border area, comparison with satellite imagery reveals that the third video shows an Iranian border post. Its location and appearance are consistent with accounts by Shah Mohammad and other survivors. 

A video circulating on Afghan social media since May 2 claims to show an Iranian border guard post where 57 Afghan migrants were detained and tortured. The video, filmed from the Afghan side of the border, shows the Harirud river, next to it a green space (outlined in white), then cliffs with a specific geological structure (outlined in red), and on top of the cliffs a circular tower (outlined in blue) and some trees (outlined in orange). Circular towers are a common feature of Iranian border posts. A search of satellite images of the border area allowed the Observers team to match what is seen in the video with a specific location: 20 km southeast of the village of Jannatabad village, Salehabad county, in Iran’s Razavi Khorasan province.

The three videos contain geographic clues such as the mountains in the background that can be matched with satellite imagery from the same area of the Gulran district in Afghanistan's Herat province, across the river from Salehabad county in Iran.

Article by Ershad Alijani