In Syria, Iran recruits Afghan teenagers to fight its war

Foreign fighters are being sucked into the Syrian conflict. And many, who are sent to the frontline, are barely out of their teens. DW’s Naomi Conrad met one of them.

    
A Shiite fighter in Hatita (picture-alliance/AP Photo/J.al-Helo)

When the Revolutionary Guard offered Mahdi a choice — fight in Syria or be shipped to the border with Afghanistan, rife with Taliban fighters — it seemed a no-brainer: It was 2014 and Mahdi, a teenager who’d never finished school and had fled from Kabul to Iran hoping to find a better life, had never heard of Syria, let alone of the brutal war that had been raging there for over three years.

“I was afraid to die and so I chose Syria”, he told DW. Returning to war-torn Afghanistan wasn’t an option. And, he added, the money was almost too good to be true: $700 (€585) a month, a fortune for Mahdi who was working as a tailor in an Iranian factory and who was picked up by the Iranian police in a crackdown on undocumented Afghan migrants.

In 2014, Iran was stepping up its support for President Bashar Assad. And that included sending more ground troops, many of them Afghan migrants like Mahdi.

He was being held with dozens of other Afghans in the police station and, as far as he recalls, they all opted to fight in Syria.

In the end, he said ruefully, “that wasn’t a very good decision.”

A young Afghan fighter in Damascus (Privat)Mahdi is still haunted by the memories of war and death

Mahdi, a young, slight Afghan man with carefully coiffed short hair, who now shares a flat in Berlin with a fellow Afghan, speaks of war and death in the detached way of those who have seen too much to process. He admitted that he tries to keep the memories at bay by cutting himself, over and over again. But that, he said, doesn’t always work.

HRW: Children as young as 14 recruited to fight in Syria

Mahdi is one of many thousands of undocumented Afghans in Iran, many of them Shiite Hazara, recruited by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps to fight alongside Assad’s forces in the Syrian war to defend Shia sacred sites in Syria. Others are lured by a steady salary and legal residence in the country, important incentives for refugees who live in fear of being deported at any moment. Many, like Mahdi, are coerced to fight in the Fatemiyoun division, a group made up entirely of Afghan fighters, mostly from the Hazara Shiite minority, which has long faced violence and persecution in the region.

Humaira Ayoubi, an Afghan parliament member from Farah province that shares a border with Iran, said the recruitment in Iran was happening “publicly and fearlessly.” It is widely known in Afghanistan that Iran was targeting poor Hazaras, but no one wanted to talk about it, she told DW.

Iranians are also recruiting in Afghanistan itself, DW has learnt: Several Fatemiyoun veterans and Afghans who say they were approached by recruiters, independently of each other pointed to an unofficial recruiting center in western Kabul, where most residents are Hazara. The center, according to at least four people that DW spoke to, constantly changes its location.

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“They target poor Afghan Hazara Shiites in Iran and also in Afghanistan and send them to Syria. In return, the fighters receive money, protection and in some cases a chance to meet the Iranian leaders in person,” Ayoubi said.

According to a report published by Human Rights Watch last year, children as young as 14 are serving in the Fatemiyoun division. “Under international law, recruiting children under the age of 15 to participate actively in hostilities is a war crime”, as the authors of the report contend.

Mahdi, too, was underage, 14, maybe 15, he can’t be sure. His mother died when he was born and his father, an addict, abandoned him early, so he doesn’t know his exact date of birth.

But, he told DW, “the Revolutionary Guards knew I wasn’t 18.”

Many teenage recruits

Mahdi says he was trained for a month in Iran and then sent to Damascus with a group of other Afghan recruits, many of them underage.

Soon, they were shuttled from one frontline to the next: Maliha, Deraa, Hamra — the names of battles in a war that meant little to him, other than a blur of memories of exploding bombs, fighting road to road, and house to house and the hope that he, too, would just die, “so it would all go away.”

Today, when he recalls his time in Syria, he methodically rubs his hands across his temples, as the headache creeps up on him, as it does whenever he delves into his time in Syria.

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After nine months, it all came to a sudden, excruciating end: The rocket that killed his best friend Abbas, smashed his face and legs. After he was patched up in Syria, he was airlifted to a hospital in Teheran, which, he says, was full of wounded Afghan fighters.

When he was released, he withdrew his salary, almost $7,000, and paid a smuggler to take him to Europe.

He didn’t know much about Europe, he admits, and even less about Germany. All he had was a vague notion that it was a safe place, where people weren’t forced to fight in wars.

He was desperate to go.

Read moreCan foreign ‘Islamic State’ fighters’ kids return to Europe?

“I was young and not so smart”

A group of Syrian fighters (picture-alliance/dpa/M. Voskresenskiy)Fatemiyoun unit fighters in Syria

Outside his flat, a group of women and children clutching plastic bags were waiting in line in front a local food bank run by the church in central Berlin that’s providing Mahdi and another Afghan family a place to stay. The laughter of a group of children in an adjoining nursery wafted up through the open window of the spacious, but scarcely furnished flat. From here, the Syrian war seemed impossibly far away.

But Mahdi’s arms, crisscrossed with countless scars that merge into an intricate design of gnarled tissue, tell a different story: that of the nightmares that creep up on, of his best friend being blown to pieces in front of his eyes, of the constant terror of the life in the war zone, when each day might prove to be the last, like it was for at least six of his closest friends.

Now, he is waiting for the German authorities to decide his fate. Mahdi’s chances of asylum, though, appear to be slim, as Germany has deemed parts of Afghanistan as “safe” and has stepped up deportations of Afghans.

Read more: Mass deportation of rejected Afghan asylum seekers from Germany imminent: report

Looking back, does he think he made the right decision when the Revolutionary Guard presented him with the two options? Mahdi shrugs: Maybe fighting in Syria was a mistake.

But: “I was young and not so smart.”

Masood Saifullah contributed to this report.

COURTESY: DW

Berlin property price growth tops global list: Knight Frank report

Berlin property prices skyrocketed in 2017, outpacing all other major centers, according to a new report. Three other German cities also ranked in the global top 10.

Berlin skyline

Berlin property prices increased more than any other major city through 2017, a study from property consultancy Knight Frank reported on Wednesday.

The “Global Residential Cities Index” found average property prices in the German capital increased by 20.5 percent, 2 percentage points more than Izmir, Turkey, which ranked second.

Three other German cities ranked in the top 10. Hamburg had the seventh highest housing price increase at 14.1 percent, followed by Munich in eighth (13.8 percent) and Frankfurt in 10th (13.4 percent).

Read more: Europe faces growing homeless population as housing costs soar

The study found that the average growth of housing prices worldwide has dropped from 7 percent overall in 2016 to 4.5 percent in 2017. Twelve cities, the study said, had a registered price growth above 20 percent in 2016, whereas Berlin was the only city to have a price growth above 20 percent in 2017.

The study attributed the large increase in Berlin to “strong population growth, a stable economy, record low unemployment and robust interest from overseas investors are together propelling prices higher.”

General Berlin real estate market figures

A growing housing bubble?

In Berlin, where real estate was affordable for much of the past two decades, average property prices have increased by 120 percent since 2004. On top of that, Bundesbank, Germany’s central bank, suggested in February that real estate prices in German cities may be overvalued by 15-30 percent and as much as 35 percent in Berlin.

But the relatively low property prices are still attracting foreign investment as real estate analysts continue to cite Berlin as one of Europe’s top real estate hotspots.  At the beginning of March, American billionaire Warren Buffet signed a deal with Berlin’s Rubina Real Estate to buy upscale residential property in Berlin.

Many foreign investors are also buying up residential buildings in Berlin and renting out spaces to tourists, which has squeezed the housing market in the German capital.

Read more: Home sharing adds to Berlin housing squeeze

Lawmakers are making efforts to ease housing costs in the city. In 2016, the ruling Social Democrats (SPD) enacted a law — called Zweckentfremdungsverbotsgesetz — that fined landlords up to €100,000 ($125,000) for illegally renting out their property for short-term stays.

Germany’s Senate Department for Urban Development and Housing reported in January that the law returned 8,000 apartments to the rental market in Berlin in 2017. Additionally, more than €2.6 million in fines have been imposed, according to public broadcaster RBB.

But housing demand in Berlin is expected to rise as the city’s population, currently at 3.5 million, increases — it is expected to grow by 10.3 percent by 2030 and could reach 4 million by 2035.

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North Korea used Berlin embassy to acquire nuclear tech: German spy chief

The head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has said North Korea used its Berlin embassy to acquire high-tech equipment. The agency believes the tech was used for Pyongyang’s missile and nuclear programs.

North Korea's embassy in Berlin (picture alliance/dpa/S.Schaubitzer)

North Korea procured equipment and technology for its ballistics missiles program using its embassy in Berlin, the head of Germany’s domestic intelligence agency has said.

BfV head Hans-Georg Maassen (picture-alliance/AP Photo/M. Sohn)‘We can’t guarantee that we will be able to detect and thwart all cases’: BfV head Hans-Georg Maassen

“We determined that procurement activities were taking place there, from our perspective with an eye on the missile program, as well as the nuclear program to some extent,” BfV head Hans-Georg Maassen told public broadcaster NDR in an interview.

Read moreWhich countries have diplomatic relations with North Korea?

NDR released portions of its interview with Maassen on Saturday, but the full program will be aired on Monday.

Although he did not say exactly what kind of technology and equipment was procured, Maassen said they were so-called dual-use goods that can be used for civilian as well as military purposes.

“When we detect something of this sort, we prevent it,” he said. “But we can’t guarantee that we will be able to detect and thwart all cases.”

Read moreUS calls on Germany to cut diplomatic ties with North Korea

Maassen also noted that the parts for Pyongyang’s programs “were acquired via other markets, or that shadow firms had acquired them in Germany.”

The BfV obtained information on North Korea’s procurements in 2016 and 2017, according to an investigation by NDR. These items were allegedly used for the country’s missile program.

In 2014, a North Korean diplomat reportedly tried to obtain a “multi-gas monitor” that is used in the development of chemical weapons.

Read moreUN chief calls for ‘peaceful denuclearization’ of Korean peninsula

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North Korea sanctions report

The allegations from Germany’s domestic intelligence agency follow on the heels of a United Nations report that said Pyongyang has been flouting sanctions.

The UN report found that Pyongyang had continued to export coal, iron, steel and other banned commodities — earning $200 million (€160 million) in revenue last year.

Read moreKim Jong Un — North Korea has completed nuclear program, US will never attack

Pyongyang sold a ballistic missile system to Myanmar and may be helping Syria with a chemical weapons program, according to the report.

Over the past year, the UN has repeatedly tightened sanctions on the reclusive state in response to leader Kim Jong Un’s continued ballistic missile and nuclear tests.

rs/cmk (AP, AFP, dpa, Reuters)

COURTESY: DW

German police in widespread raids on ‘visa marriages’

Authorities have said that they know of at least 70 cases stemming from the same criminal gang. Nigerian men are suspected of paying for fake marriage licenses to Portuguese women in exchange for EU residency.

Deutschland Bundesweite Razzien gegen Scheinehen (picture-alliance/dpa/P. Zinken)

Hundreds of German police officers carried out dozens of raids on Tuesday morning searching for couples believed to have created sham marriages in order for the “husbands” to receive residency permits for the European Union.

Some 41 apartments were searched in Berlin, Potsdam, Frankfurt and Görlitz. The raids resulted in the arrest of one man and four women, although the authorities said they know of at least 70 sham marriage cases involving the same trafficking gang. Police said the female suspects were between the ages of 46 and 64 and that the man was 50 years old.

The criminal organization finds Nigerian men who wish to stay in the EU and pairs them up with women from Portugal. The men pay around 13,000 euros ($15,550) for counterfeit marriage certificates from Nigeria that are shown to the German authorities along with a well-rehearsed love story confirmed by the Portuguese “wife.”

The women usually fly back to Portugal within a matter of days. According to the federal police, the purpose of the raids is to determine whether the homes look like a couple lives there. German authorities then work with Europol to prove that the marriage is a sham.

Similar raids were reportedly carried out in Portugal in tandem with the ones in Germany.

‘Fake father’ bust

This is the second major raid against visa fraud in recent months. In June, German police took down a “fake father” ring – wherein German men were paid to put their names on the birth certificates of children born to immigrants from Vietnam, parts of Africa and eastern Europe. The babies were automatically granted German citizenship, which allows their mothers to claim German residency permits.

Authorities estimate that about 5,000 of these false paternity claims are made every year. They are notoriously difficult to prosecute however, because police cannot order DNA tests and have to follow strict guidelines when probing into a suspect’s personal life.

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Alexis Tsipras and Wolfgang Schäuble praise new Greece austerity deal

Greek officials have praised their latest deal with international creditors. German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble, a frequent antagonist in anti-austerity Athens, has, too, praised Greece’s latest cuts.

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German Finance Minister on the Greece deal

On Friday, Greek Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras said the latest austerity deal negotiated by his government would allow Greece to stand on its own feet financially soon. Creditors lent the country 8.5 billion euros ($9.5 billion) on Thursday. The new loan will help Greece pay back $7 billion owed to creditors by July.

“We took a decisive step leading our country out of the economic crisis,” Tsipras said on Friday.

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Late Thursday, German Finance Minister Wolfgang Schäuble expressed tepid satisfaction with Greek officials’ acceptance of the creditors’ requirements in an interview with DW.

“We always knew that Greece had a very difficult path ahead, and it will remain a long, arduous journey,” Schäuble told Deutsche Welle. “Therefore, one must not create the illusion for the Greek public that everything has already been achieved. But they are now making good progress, and we’re helping Greece.”

He added that the goal was for Greece to “stand on its own feet” by the middle of next year.

Wide-ranging deal

Jeroen Dijsselbloem, the chairman of the Eurogroup, said the deal covered “all elements,” including pension cuts and a further opening of Greece to foreign investors. Labor advocates were especially stunned by the creditors’ enshrining of an anti-union measure into the requirements.

German officials expressed willingness to consider easing Greece’s debt burden through reprogramming the repayment after the present agreement expires next year. Officials in Berlin want to retain leverage over Greece to make sure that the country implements cuts dictated by previous packages.

The Bundestag must review whether the deal deviates from a 2015 credit package enough to need new German parliamentary approval.

Prolonged austerity

Those familiar with conditions in Greece over seven years of austerity were more critical. The economist Yanis VaroufakisSchäuble’s erstwhile counterpart and frequent opponent, called the requirement of a budget surplus of 3.5 percent of GDP through 2022 and 2 percent through 2060 unrealistic – even cruel.

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“The Eurogroup remains committed to an insane level of austerity,” Varoufakis wrote on his blog on Friday, picking apart the creditors’ statement line by line. “After those further four years of mind- and soul-numbing recession, for those Greeks that remain in the country (and who have not migrated as a result of the utter misery the Eurogroup has spread all over the land), the austerity will be a little lessened until … 2060.”

mkg/se (Reuters, AFP, dpa, AP)

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Merkel tells Abbas, two-state solution only alternative

The two-state scenario of Palestinians living alongside Israel remains the “only sensible alternative,” Chancellor Angela Merkel has told Mahmoud Abbas in Berlin. The Palestinian president is also due to visit Brussels.

Berlin Abbas bei Merkel (Reuters/P. Kopczynski)

Merkel indirectly warned Israel on Friday that its expansion of Jewish settlements in the West Bank would lead to “erosion of the two-state solution,” that would also put Israel’s future at risk.

“I still do not see a reasonable alternative to the goal of a two-state solution,” Merkel said in an apparent reference to US President Donald Trump’s suggestion last month that a Palestinian state alongside Israel was not the only solution.

Abbas, speaking alongside Merkel at a Berlin press conference, thanked Germany for what he termed German political and material support provided to improve Palestinian institutional structures.

Israel’s ambassador to Germany, Yakov Hadas-Handelsmann, told Germany’s “Nordwest-Zeitung” newspaper on Friday that Israel was not against the two-state solution but insisted that Palestinians return to the negotiating table, without pre-conditions.

Renewed peace efforts?

Peace efforts lead by the former Obama’s administration’s secretary of state John Kerry collapsed in 2014. One of Trump’s top advisers, Jason Greenblatt, visited Israel and the Palestinian territories last week for talks on both sides as Trump issued an invitation to Abbas.

Israel has continued to build settlements in the occupied West Bank – seized by Israel in a 1967 war – and where Palestinians want to establish their state.

Statistics on settlements

On Wednesday, Israel’s Central Bureau of Statistics published figures, showing that ground was broken on 2,630 housing units last year compared with 1,884 in 2015.

That figures excluded East Jerusalem, also occupied in 1967 and later annexed.

Some three million Palestinians live in the West Bank and east Jerusalem. Israeli settlers amount to some 200,000 in east Jerusalem and 400,000 in the West Bank.

Call to find successor

On Thursday evening, while addressing Germany’s conservative Konrad Adenauer Foundation, Abbas asked rhetorically whether Israel wanted “only one state.”

“On 60 percent of our territory we cannot move freely,” Abbas said. “We can’t even move a stone or plant a tree on these grounds.”

Deutschland Palästinenserpräsident Mahmud Abbas in Berlin (picture-alliance/dpa/S. Stache)Can’t even move a stone, says Abbas

Roderich Kiesewetter of Merkel’s conservative Christian Democrats (CDU) urged Abbas, who next Sunday will turn 82, to find a successor.

Otherwise a dangerous vacuum could result, said Kiesewetter, who is a leading conservative in the German parliament’s foreign affairs committee.

Controversial report removed

Before meeting Abbas on Friday, Merkel warned Palestinians that if they wanted peace it was wrong to condemn Israel within international bodies.

Earlier this week, UN chief Antonio Guterres had ordered the removal from a UN website of a report that had accused Israel of establishing an “apartheid regime” that dominated Palestinians.

UN undersecretary Rima Khalaf resigned last Friday after resisting Guterres’ request to remove the document, which had drawn US condemnation.

Guterres’ spokesman, Stephane Dujarric, claimed it had been published without consultation with the UN secretariat.

Khalaf had headed the UN Economic and Social Commission for Western Asia (ESCWA), a Beirut-based UN body.

Guterres is due to travel to Jordan next week to attend an Arab summit and hold bilateral meetings expected to focus on the wars in Syria, Yemen, Libya and the Israel-Palestinian conflict.

ipj/kms (dpa, AFP, AP)

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Police raid Berlin homes linked to market attacker Anis Amri

Investigators have raided the homes of two suspected associates of Anis Amri, the man linked to last month’s deadly Christmas market attack in Berlin. Officials declined to confirm whether the men have been detained.

Berlin police stock photo (picture-alliance/dpa/B. Pedersen)

German police raided a refugee home and a flat in Berlin on Tuesday in connection with its investigation into Anis Amri, the man suspected of killing 12 people in a deadly attack on a Berlin Christmas market last month.

Investigators searched a refugee home, where a 26-year-old Tunisian man they believe knew Amri is living.

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Police suspect the man had known Amri since at least 2015 and was in contact with him shortly before the day of the attack on December 19. The federal prosecutor’s office said there is a “suspicion that the suspect knew of the attack plans and possibly helped Anis Amri.”

Investigators also raided the apartment of Amri’s former flatmate, who they also suspect was in contact with Amri and may have even been a possible accomplice in the attack.

The so-called “Islamic State” (IS) jihadist group has claimed responsibility for the attack, in which Amri plowed a truck through a Christmas market in Berlin’s Breitscheidplatz, killing 12 and injuring around 50 people. After a four-day long manhunt that stretched across Europe, Amri was shot dead by Italian police in Milan on December 23.

The prosecutor’s office said Tuesday’s searches focused on gleaning new information into Amri’s behavior before and after the attack.

It did not confirm whether the two suspects had been taken into custody, but said it plans to provide an update on the investigation on Wednesday.

Berlin police last week arrested a 40-year-old Tunisian man over alleged ties to the attacker, after authorities found his phone number stored in Amri’s mobile phone, which had been found at the scene of the attack. He was released the following day after authorities determined he was not a “possible contact person for Anis Amri.”

Amri identified as a threat in February

German media reported Tuesday that investigators had indentified Amri as a potential threat in February last year, but determined he was unlikely to carry out an attack.

Anis Amri (picture-alliance/dpa/Bundeskriminalamt)Amri was shot dead by Italian police in Milan on December 23

Citing security documents, daily newspaper “Süddeutsche Zeitung” reported that German authorities had received intelligence showing Amri had been in contact with IS members.

“Süddeutsche Zeitung,” along with German broadcasters NDR and WDR, also reported that the 24-year-old Tunisian migrant had sought to acquire weapons for an attack in Germany.

However, officials decided there was insufficient proof that Amri posed an acute threat that could be presented in court.

In the wake of the attack, German lawmakers have called for tougher security measures, including increased public surveillance and expanded powers for Germany’s internal security agency.

In her New Year’s address on Saturday, Chancellor Angela Merkel said radical Islam was “without a doubt the most difficult test” facing Germany.

dm/cmk (Reuters, dpa, AFP)

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