14-year old Mahdi has been in Stockholm for a couple of weeks. He was forced to leave Iran, where his family was living as refugees from his native Afghanistan, after his father unwittingly had agreed that he, together with Mahdi, would be sent to Syria to fight.
- That thumb print he made, they said to him it's both for you and your son, said Mahdi.
The father, who can't read or write, had gone to an office that he thought helped Afghan refugees with food and other basic supplies. A thumb print on a paper he couldn't read meant that he agreed to go to Syria, together with his son.
- My father said "but he's only 14." They just replied, "He will be shahid, and that will bring benefits," Mahdi said. Shahid means martyr.
Swedish Radio has found a number of similar stories among unaccompanied Afghan minors arriving in Sweden. The payment for an Afghan going to Syria is reportedly about 2 million Iranian toman per month, or SEK 5000. And the families of those who are killed are reportedly paid about 90 million toman, close to SEK 250.000.
The fact that these reports are so common right now is connected to the Iran-supported offensive that recently was launched in Syria, said Phillip Smyth, researcher at the University of Maryland who has closely followed the activities of Shia militias in Syria.
- They've been pushing people quite hard for at least a year to join this effort, whether it's through financial incentives, or just through coercion, Smyth said.
And when the Afghans end up in Syria, they often don't fare well. Recently, there have been a number of public mass funerals in Iran for Afghan fighters, in Tehran and in the holy city of Qom.
- They're going to need further number of Afghans, given that they've been using them basically as cannon fodder, Smyth said.
The Iranian embassy in Stockholm declined to address specific questions in relation to this issue, but issued a general denial, stating that "There are 2-3 million Afghan refugees who have a normal life in Iran and who live like everyone else, while in the West they're put in refugee camps."
Mahdi's name has been changed to protect his family.