Iran silently recruiting Pakistani Shiites to fight in Syria: Reports

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Iran recruits Pakistani ‘volunteers’ for its Zainebiyoun Brigade. (Photo courtesy Zainabiyoun division Twitter account)
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Updated 24 September 2017
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Iran silently recruiting Pakistani Shiites to fight in Syria: Reports

ISLAMABAD: Three months ago, the Pakistani city of Parachinar experienced its third deadly attack so far this year by Daesh-linked militant group Lashkar-e-Jhangvi Al-Alami (LeJ), which said the assault was in response to support for Iranian-backed militias in Syria.
“This is propaganda,” Ali Afzal, a journalist and resident of Parachinar, told Arab News. “There’s no (Shiite) recruitment happening. That’s all in Iran, not here. This place has a strong army presence, with security surveillance around the clock. We border Afghanistan, and it’s unlikely that a recruiter would walk in and take people from here to Iran. Do you know how many checkpoints he’d need to cross?”
But a suicide bomber did enter the city, killing more than 70 people. Fourteen suspects were arrested by Pakistani security forces, while the mastermind is still at large.
LeJ warned the local Shiite community of “dire consequences” if it did not stop tainting its hands with the blood of Daesh fighters in Syria. This led to widespread reports that agents of Iran are discreetly recruiting Pakistani Shiites.
It is hard to ascertain the authenticity of these reports, since Pakistani officials are silent over the issue.
“Iran is recruiting from wherever it can,” said Maj. Ashfaq Hussain Bukhari, a retired army officer who is in charge of Markazi Imambargha (the Shiite Congregation Center) in Islamabad.
“It targets impoverished or fanatic Shiites, preying on their sentiments and offering martyrdom in defense of Shiite holy sites.”
Bukhari said the Pakistani areas of Iranian interest to draft men are the southern parts of Punjab province, the port city of Karachi, the tribal belt and Baluchistan province.
Numerous social media platforms list Pakistani Shiite fighters in Syria, including their name, photo, hometown and father’s name, as a way to eulogize their devotion.
Pakistan’s Shiites comprise 5-20 percent of the country’s total population of 207 million, but the minority says it constitutes around 40 percent.
According to media reports citing unnamed Pakistani officials, Pakistani recruits — referred to as “volunteers” — are inducted into the Zainebiyoun Brigade.
They are offered up to $1,000 per month by emissaries operating undercover to avoid detection by the country’s spy and security agencies.
Since the brigade’s alleged inception in 2014, the number of Pakistani Shiites killed in Syria has spiked.
Last year, 39 Shiite fighters disguised as pilgrims were apprehended by security forces at the Taftan crossing on the Pakistan-Iran border, including some from Quetta, capital of Baluchistan province, said a Pakistani defense official. They were suspected of having links to the Zainebiyoun Brigade.
In February, a Pakistani coastal patrol arrested 13 suspects, including three Iranians, in boats illegally trying to enter Pakistani waters near Baluchistan, said Interior Ministry official Muhammad Abdullah Khalid.
Interrogation revealed that they were tasked with transporting fresh recruits from Pakistan to Syria.
Police arrested “two Shiite fighters recruited via Zainebiyoun” in March 2016 after their return to Quetta from Syria, Khalid added.
Adding to the mystery surrounding Islamabad’s silence, Defense Ministry sources told Arab News: “If this information (that Pakistanis are being recruited) is of public interest, we’ll give a response.”
The National Counter Terrorism Authority (NACTA), a federal agency that coordinates between all security departments, declined to comment.
An Interior Ministry source told Arab News that he is unawareness of Iranian-backed militias recruiting Pakistanis, saying: “It’s the first time I’ve heard of this.”
But security officials told Arab News that the lack of comment is due to the highly sensitive nature of the matter, which they fear could fan sectarian violence. There is only private acknowledgement.


‘We cry in our hearts. We cry to God:’ Forgotten Yemeni refugees of Djibouti

Updated 23 May 2018
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‘We cry in our hearts. We cry to God:’ Forgotten Yemeni refugees of Djibouti

  • As strife-torn Yemen marks its unity day, thousands of Yemeni refugees in neighboring Djibouti say they have little to cheer about
  • Perched strategically on the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is the only country in the world to welcome refugees from Yemen

DUBAI: Yemen this week celebrated its national unification day, marking 28 years since the north and south were united — only to be torn apart again by the current war. 

Across the Red Sea from Yemen’s coastline, however, a forgotten segment of the country’s vast displaced population would have found little time for the festivities on Tuesday.

Thousands of Yemenis have sought refuge in a desolate, sun-baked desert camp in the tiny nation of Djibouti.

Perched strategically on the Horn of Africa, Djibouti is the only country in the world to welcome refugees from Yemen. 

Associate reporting officer for the the UN refugee agency UNHCR in Djibouti, Vanessa Panaligan, told Arab News that many Yemenis had fled their homeland in search of safety. 

“From the stories I keep hearing, they were tired of seeing bombs and constant fighting in their neighborhood,” Panaligan said.

“They thought, ‘I’ve had it, we’ve stayed long enough and it’s time to get going because you never know when you are next, or if you would survive the next couple of months,’” she said.

Ali Thabit family

Shortly after the war began, Nathair Ali Thabit, 37, took his wife, Goma Salaamy, 27, and their three children, Nadi, 8, Malka, 9, and Atif, 2, and traveled to Mokha port, where he paid 10,000 Yemeni rials ($40) to board a boat to Obock. They left Yemen at 8 p.m. and arrived in Djibouti the next morning. 

“We were living in Dhubab and that was on one of the fronts,” Ali Thabit said. “There were forces fighting from all directions and we were right in the middle of all of that. So one night we decided to leave everything behind — our home and belongings — and flee.”

His wife said: “We were all seasick. It was the first time we had been on a boat.”

“Now we live on handouts and rations, and I try to sell bags I sew. At least we are safe,” she said.

“The heat is also unbearable. My young child gets heat rash, he can’t handle it.”
From left, Nathair Ali Thabit, Nadi, Goma Salaamy and Malka. 

Four years of war in Yemen have displaced more than 2 million people and left 75 percent of the population in need of humanitarian assistance, according to the UN.

UNHCR said there has been a spike in the number of refugees coming from Yemen in the past six months. 

From the end of last year, after the killing of the former president Ali Abdullah Saleh by the Houthi rebels, the situation deteriorated significantly, leading to “a sharp surge in new arrivals” in Djibouti. 

Almost 200 refugees arrived in December, and more than 100 in January and February. 

Panaligan said that although the influx has tapered off, the conflict shows no signs of letting up, forcing the agency to remain on standby with a contingency plan in case of an emergency influx.

“The sharp increase from what we are used to seeing is definitely a cause for alarm,” Panaligan said. “We’re planning for an emergency.” 

In 2015, 38,000 Yemenis traveled to Djibouti. However, due to the harsh living conditions, many left to go elsewhere, while others returned to Yemen. The current population of Yemeni refugees in Djibouti is almost 4,000 — of which 1,695 live at the Markazi refugee camp in the port town of Obock.

Refugees arrive in Obock and are then sent to reception centers, where they are registered, and given food and water before being sent to Markazi camp. 

Meha Abdul Sala

The 35-year-old mother lives in the camp with her daughter Asiah, 11. She had to sell all her gold to pay $560 to get her three children and herself to Obock in 2015. 

“We had no choice because of the war,” Abdul Saleh said. “At least it’s safe in the camp. I was happy and comfortable in my country, I wish I could go back. I had a shop. It helped me look after my children. I’m divorced. But because of this war we had to throw all that away. Now I make bags to sell to earn some money. But sometimes I don’t have enough money to buy thread, so I have to wait until something comes along.

“I try to sell bags to try and earn money to get food for my children. The food they give us is enough to get by, but it’s not the same when you have your own money.”

Aisha said that she attends school at the camp, but also helps her mother make the bags. “I like to play with skipping ropes. I miss my country and my friends,” she said.

The tiny coastal country is home to more than 22,000 refugees and asylum-seekers, making up 2.5 percent of its 900,000 population. 

Houssein Hassan Darar, executive secretary of the Office of National Assistance for Refugees and Displaced Persons (ONARS), proudly explained his country’s history of helping other nationalities.

Since gaining independence from France in 1977, Djibouti had welcomed tens of thousands of refugees from nations including Somalia, Ethiopia and Eritrea, he said. 

In response to the growing refugee population, Djibouti President Ismail Omar Guelleh signed two decrees in December to allow better access to social services and employment.

 

The government said it was building a new school for refugees in Obock.

Refugees with teaching experience are able to work in the existing schools, and are paid and trained by Djibouti’s education ministry, Panaligan said. 

In Markazi camp, most of the population is under the age of 18, but fewer than 300 primary students and 20 secondary students are enrolled in school.

Despite attempts to house the influx of Yemeni refugees, living conditions in the camp are harsh. 

When Arab News visited the camp in Obock last year, many refugees were living in tents made of thin fabric to protect them from the desert environment and endured scorching temperatures reaching 45 degrees Celsius as well as sandstorms. 

Saudi Arabia’s King Salman Humanitarian Aid and Relief Center built 300 housing units in January to ease their suffering, spokesman Dr. Samer Al-Jatili told Arab News. 

Ali Ibrahim

The 51-year-old father was relatively lucky and managed to get his family of 11 on a boat to Obock without having to pay.

“As soon as we arrived at the Djibouti port, they welcomed us,” he said. “The (government officials) were very kind to us. They gave us water, food and blankets. We stayed in the port for one night. The next day they sent us to the camp.

“Life here is at least safe. We get rations, but the most important thing is safety. They give us water, oil, lentils, flour, rice. 

“They give us gas and some pans to cook with, but it’s not enough, so we have to go to the mountains to get wood. 

“We are not used to this life — we grew up with electricity, gas and proper cookers. But we have to deal with this to survive.

Ali Ibrahim said his village in Yemen was near a military camp and close to the fighting.

“There was fire from all directions. We didn’t even get a chance to take anything with us, we left everything behind. The whole neighborhood left together.

“If there is stability and safety in Yemen, I would return. But I would rather die here than go back to the war.”

The housing units hold two rooms. One is the living space, with a kitchen and living room, while the other is the sleeping area. A small closet holds a shower area, and the floor lifts up to work as a toilet. 

However, the camp lacks running water and electricity.

Panaligan said that of the 300 housing units, 250 were given to families and 50 to single people. An average family has five or six members.

Refugees are given food rations, but many have said it is not enough. The UNHCR reported that in the past few months, about 164 refugees at Markazi were at risk of malnutrition.

Nathair Ali Thabit, 34, who has a family of five, told Arab News last year that refugees get two meals a day, but no meat or vegetables. 

“We have bread and tea in the morning and in the evening rice,” Thabit said. “I haven’t tasted meat, chicken or fish in two years.

“My children sometimes want biscuits or milk, so I try to distract them by taking them to the beach and playing with them.

“We are in the middle of nowhere, so there’s not much we can do” he said. 

“We cry in our hearts — we don’t show anyone, we just cry to God.”

Panaligan said that despite the challenges of life in Djibouti, Yemeni refugees come for safety, which is missing in their homeland. 

“Many have come to join their families who left Yemen last year, too,” she said. 

FACTOID

Djibouti is the only country in the world to welcome refugees from Yemen