KABUL • The fate of two brothers from Kabul, one grievously wounded, the other killed while fighting in Syria, spotlights Iran's covert but active recruitment of Afghan refugees to buttress President Bashar al-Assad's steadily depleting forces.
Shi'ite Iran, Mr Assad's key military and financial patron, denies enlisting Afghan mercenaries to fight alongside Syrian forces in the four-year conflict against opposition Sunni rebels that has left more than 240,000 people dead and millions displaced.
But interviews with Afghan fighters and relatives of combatants killed in Syria point to vigorous - and sometimes coerced - recruitment of Shi'ite Hazara refugees.
Tears well up in Ms Jehantab's rheumy eyes as she recalls the haunting parting words of her husband, 35-year-old Haider, when he called two months ago from Teheran. He said: "I am going to Syria - and I may not come back."
Mr Haider, she said, was lured by the monthly salary of US$700 (S$980) - a tidy sum for a labourer with no combat experience - and the promise of an Iranian residency permit, an attractive inducement for refugees who otherwise live in constant fear of deportation.
Mr Haider's premonition came true - a few days after he left, an Iranian official informed his relatives, also refugees in Teheran, that he had been killed in battle.
Mr Haider was part of a growing wave of jobless young Afghans seeking shelter in neighbouring Iran from decades of turmoil and war tearing their country apart, only to be ensnared in another conflict.
The rise of Iran-backed forces made up of Afghans, Iraqis, Lebanese and Pakistani Shi'ites underscores Mr Assad's growing reliance on foreign mercenaries as rebels ramp up attacks on Damascus.
In Ms Jehantab's home, Mr Haider's cousin, Ms Zahra, consoled her and quietly fumed over his death "in a war that isn't ours".
"Going to Syria is like signing up for a suicide mission," Ms Zahra said in a phone call to Mr Haider's brother, Mr Hussein, who had also volunteered to fight in Syria, where he suffered a deep shrapnel wound to his stomach.
"I'm okay. There were 300 to 400 of us (Afghans). Many died, I survived," Mr Hussein said from a hospital bed in Teheran just before being wheeled into surgery.
"I hear you plan to go back? Don't do that. Find work in Iran," Ms Zahra told him. "There's no work in Iran," Mr Hussein replied.
As the line went dead, Ms Zahra's face dropped into her hands.
"Afghan lives have no value - both inside and outside Afghanistan," she said.