VAN, Turkey - Decades ago, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan prompted thousands of people to flee to neighboring Iran. Now, many of these refugees are once again seeking a new home in a new land, Turkey, desperate to escape the dire economic conditions fueled by U.S. sanctions on Tehran.
Tens of thousands made the dangerous, cross-border trek last year into Turkey, a U.S. ally that is already heaving under the burden of refugees fleeing unrest on its borders.
Turkish authorities are grappling with nearly 4 million refugees. This is the world's largest population of displaced people, according to the United Nations, including more than 170,000 registered Afghan refugees. Turkey has struggled to contain the influx even as aid agencies say the number of arrivals from Iran is on the rise.
In the eastern Turkish city of Van, about 50 miles west of the Iranian border, a growing number of Afghan refugees are forced to sleep on the streets and in public parks and bus terminals, barred by Turkish authorities from traveling farther. Many of them were either born in Iran or lived there for years.
This fresh crisis is one of the unintended consequences of President Donald Trump's "maximum pressure" campaign, which his administration hopes will compel Tehran to negotiate an end to its nuclear energy and ballistic missile programs.
The strategy includes a broad trade embargo with restrictions on banking transactions, oil exports, supplies to Iran's automotive sector and more. Last month, Iran abruptly raised the price of gas to shore up funds for cash handouts, setting off a wave of nationwide unrest, including in areas with large Afghan communities.
Afghans make up the largest group of people crossing the border illegally into Turkey, according to Interior Ministry data. The government says more than 184,000 undocumented Afghans crossed last year - up from about 100,000 in all of 2018. The government does not distinguish between Afghans who lived in Iran before crossing into Turkey and those who simply transited through Iran.
Many more Afghans have slipped over the border undetected, local refugee aid organizations say, the majority of them fleeing hardship in Iran.
Refugees who have made the journey describe harrowing treks over rugged terrain littered with the corpses of those who perished along the way. Some collapsed from exhaustion or were separated from their families amid the chaos and wandered off in the dark. Others say they were shot at by Turkish or Iranian security forces or abandoned by smugglers charging the equivalent of thousands of dollars to hustle them across.
Ramazan, a man from Afghanistan's Ghazni province who uses only one name, recently arrived with his three children. As they walked through the mountain passages at night, he said, his wife fell from the ridge. He could hear her screams from the canyon, he said, but the smugglers forced them to keep walking.
"We walked for 24 hours. We could see the bodies of people who fell to their deaths. People had broken arms and broken legs. Some of the elderly were left behind," said Maryam Fazly, an Afghan mother of six who said she had lived in Tehran for 10 years.
The soft-spoken widow from northern Afghanistan was sitting forlorn with her children in a grassy lot at the main bus terminal in Van. They had arrived just days earlier, fearing they could no longer survive in Iran.
Police have ordered refugees to squat at the bus station while local authorities prepare to register the new arrivals. Once processed, they are either transferred to another city, moved into a guarded tent camp or, in some cases, deported to Afghanistan, a place many of them have never even seen.
Iran hosts about 1 million Afghan refugees who are registered with the United Nations and permitted to work in certain industries. Afghans began arriving in large numbers following the 1979 Soviet invasion of their country.
Aid agencies and the U.N. say that as many as 3 million Afghans live in Iran, most of whom are undocumented and, therefore, uniquely vulnerable to economic and social strife.
On a recent afternoon at the Van bus station, dozens of Afghan families napped together on woven carpets in the grass while women bathed children in a small fountain and hung laundry on a rusty chain-link fence. One man in a gray suit, an Afghan who said he had lived in Iran for 30 years, wandered the parking lot with a warm kettle, pouring tea for his fellow refugees.
"A lot of Afghans are leaving Iran for Turkey because of the economic situation. Everything got worse for us because of America's new policies toward Iran," said Tamana Ghulami, 20, a refugee who had lived in Tehran with her Afghan husband, an out-of-work tailor.
The couple traveled to Van with relatives who say they left Afghanistan over the summer because of threats from Taliban insurgents in their farming village in the north. The extended family said they sought a more stable life in Turkey or Europe.
"In Iran, there are no jobs and there are even fewer jobs for Afghan refugees," said Ghulami, a turquoise-and-gold-patterned scarf framing her face. "Everything is expensive, and we have no authorization to work. We knew that we wouldn't even be able to afford having children if we stayed there."
Ghulami's tale of poverty and insecurity was echoed by dozens of other refugees at the bus station. In Iran, they said, they had eked out a meager existence as part of a migrant underclass, taking menial jobs as day laborers, farmhands, tailors and blacksmiths. They faced discrimination at work and on the streets, living under the constant threat of deportation and regular abuse by police.
When the United States reimposed sanctions in 2018, Afghans were among the first to suffer the fallout. Imports fell and prices rose, putting basic food items out of reach for many Afghan families. Business owners halted payments to employees or laid off workers, citing the drop in trade.
"I worked in the basement of a shop making shoes. But even as prices grew higher, my salary stayed the same," said Reza Ahmadi, 23. He said he left Afghanistan as a child when the Taliban were in control and had lived in Iran ever since.
"When the sanctions started, our boss stopped paying us on time or he would pay us less than what we were owed. One day I would have work and the next day there would be none," he said. "It was so hard."
According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, the largest of only five international nongovernmental aid agencies working in Iran, even the delivery of aid to Afghan refugees is at risk because banks are refusing to transfer money because of the sanctions.
"We are hitting brick walls on every side," Jan Egeland, the organization's secretary general, said in a statement.
As a result, Egeland said, "the number of Afghans in need has nearly doubled and pushed almost 3 million people into emergency levels of hunger."
Rajaba Rezai, 50, arrived in Iran from Afghanistan's Samangan province as a teenager. Despite Iran's labor restrictions on Afghans, Rezai said, he eventually managed to open a plastics manufacturing workshop in the city of Qom, where he produced rubber sandals sold in local bazaars.
But the Trump administration sanctioned Iran's largest petrochemical holding company and more than three dozen of its subsidiaries. Soon, the synthetic plastic polymer that Rajaba needed to manufacture the shoes became unaffordable. Then, customers stopped placing orders. So, after more than three decades in Iran, Rajaba sold his factory and fled to Turkey with his wife and children.
"We could barely tolerate our lives before, but then we simply could not handle the situation anymore," Rajaba said from his sparse apartment in Van. "I had no money and no life. We decided to escape from this hell."
Rajaba, like the other refugees, described a perilous trip across the border with his wife, who was pregnant at the time.
At a cemetery north of Van, the growing number of freshly dug graves is a testament to the dangers of the journey - and how many are making the trek.
Seyyed Mustafa Hashimi, an Afghan who has lived in Van for more than a decade, oversees the burials. In recent months, authorities have had to expand the cemetery to accommodate the rising number of Afghan refugees dying along the way.
Some of those buried here, on a gentle slope near the central train station, were killed in road accidents as smugglers transported them from the border. Others perished on mountain trails and were retrieved by Turkish forces. Most of them died this year.
Many carried no identification. Their graves include a simple cement marker painted with a mix of numbers and letters.
"If the morgue cannot find their families, either dead or alive, they will call me and I will bury them - without any name, without anything," said Mohammed Hussein Soltani, 34, an Afghan imam who volunteers to wash and prepare the bodies for burial.
"They lost hope in their lives, so they came here," he said. "But there is no solution."
WASHINGTON - House Democrats charged with prosecuting the impeachment case against President Donald Trump on Wednesday scaled back their fiery language following a scolding from Chief Justice John Roberts as they began laying out their case for Trump's removal from office for pressuring Ukraine to help him win reelection.
But as Democrats softened their tone if not their message, Trump and his fellow Republicans dialed up their partisan rhetoric, with GOP senators largely ignoring Roberts's admonition and leveling scathing attacks against the trial's prosecutors.
Democrats also appeared to shut down talk of a deal to secure testimony from former national security adviser John Bolton by offering to trade testimony from the son of former vice president Joe Biden, who was the focus of Trump's alleged pressure campaign on Ukraine. Biden himself said he would refuse such an arrangement.
The Republican barrage was led by Trump himself, who in Davos, Switzerland, called the top House managers "sleazebags" while denouncing his impeachment as a "hoax" and "disgrace" to his presidency.
"I watched the lies from Adam Schiff. He'll stand, he'll look at a microphone, and he'll talk like he's so aggrieved," Trump said at a news conference from the World Economic Forum in Davos, referring to the House Intelligence Committee chairman leading the prosecution.
On Schiff and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y., another impeachment manager and longtime Trump foe, the president added: "These two guys - these are major sleazebags. They're very dishonest people. Very, very dishonest people."
On the way to Washington on Air Force One, Trump stirred up a veritable Twitter storm as he tweeted and retweeted messages primarily about impeachment, particularly from his Republican defenders - a barrage that marked the most tweets of any day of his presidency, with 125 as of 4:25 p.m., according to Factba.se, a website that tracks Trump's tweets and speeches.
That posturing provided a sharp contrast to the Democratic House managers, who struck a chastened tone in the Senate chamber Wednesday after the Roberts admonishment issued in the early hours of Wednesday. Saying that the Democrats had "adrenaline going through our veins," Schiff began opening arguments Wednesday afternoon by expressing gratitude for the senators' attentiveness.
And Nadler, whose accusations that GOP senators were engaging in "treacherous" behavior angered Republicans, made sure to thank Roberts and the lawmakers for "your temperate listening and your patience last night as we went into the long hours."
"I think that was an attempt to shift the tone," said Sen. Josh Hawley, R-Mo. "A lot of senators were offended last night at saying that a vote against their amendments was treachery, that it was a vote against the United States."
The politics of the trial on Wednesday rippled not only in Europe and in Washington but in Iowa, where 2020 Democratic presidential candidate Biden was confronted with questions about whether he would be willing to testify in the proceedings.
The former vice president - who, along with his son Hunter has been the target of political investigations that Trump had asked of Ukraine - said he would not participate in any witness swap as part of the Senate impeachment trial, as some Democrats have been discussing.
"The reason I would not make the deal, the bottom line is, this is a constitutional issue," Biden said in response to a voter's question in Osage, Iowa. "We're not going to turn it into a farce or political theater. I want no part of that."
Some Senate Democrats had started grappling with the prospect that they might have to greenlight witnesses desired by Republicans to subpoena key Trump administration officials. Such a decision could be made if a majority of senators agree to call witnesses after listening to opening arguments and questioning the two sides.
But Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., told reporters Wednesday that any deal with Republicans on a witness trade involving the Bidens is "off the table." His remarks echoed those of Schiff, the lead impeachment manager, who said "trials aren't trades for witnesses."
Schiff laid out high expectations for senators as the trial got underway, calling on them to "decide what kind of democracy that you believe we ought to be" and what Americans can expect "in the conduct of their president."
As he continued his remarks, Schiff called Trump "the key player in the scheme" to pressure Ukraine for investigations that could benefit him politically in exchange for a White House meeting and the release of nearly $400 million of military aid. Both coveted items were of a "great consequence to Ukraine," Schiff said, particularly the funding meant to help the small Eastern European nation guard itself from Russia.
"Everyone was in the loop," Schiff said. "[Trump] directed the actions of his team. He personally asked a foreign government to investigate his opponent. These facts are not in dispute."
Trump, who had wanted Ukraine to investigate the Bidens as well as a discredited theory that Ukraine worked with Democrats to interfere in the 2016 election, insists that he has done nothing wrong and that a rough transcript of a July 25 call with Ukraine's president, Volodymyr Zelensky, exonerates him of any wrongdoing.
But if the Senate does not hold Trump accountable, Schiff warned, "the damage to our democratic elections, to our national security, to our system of checks and balances will be long-lasting and potentially irreversible."
Even on the first day of opening arguments, the seats of many Republican senators and a handful of Democrats were empty as Schiff wrapped up his remarks. Some members were standing against the back wall to stretch their legs, but others stayed out of the chamber for an extended period, even though the rules call for senators, like jurors at any trial, to be in their seats the entire time.
During breaks outside the Senate chamber, Republicans dismissed the proceedings and said they were learning nothing new as they kept up their attacks on the House managers, particularly Nadler.
When asked whether Trump's attorneys had also deserved their admonishment by Roberts, Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, responded, "No," saying Nadler "is embarrassing."
"And it's outrageous," Cornyn added. "At some point, you got to call it what it is."
The heated rhetoric from some Democrats on Tuesday risked turning off a small slate of influential GOP senators in the center of the procedural fight over witnesses and documents.
"Well, I took it as very offensive," Sen. Lisa Murkowski, R-Alaska, said of Nadler's performance. "As one who is listening attentively and working hard to get to a fair process, I was offended."
At a news conference in Davos, Trump said he "can live either way" with the Senate's decision about whether to call witnesses at his impeachment trial, but he argued that testimony by former national security adviser John Bolton could pose national security and other concerns, including that Bolton left the administration on bad terms.
"You don't like people testifying when they didn't leave on good terms," Trump said.
Democrats seized on another portion of Trump's news conference, when he praised his legal team and added: "Honestly, we have all the material. They don't have the material."
Rep. Val Demings, D-Fla., one of the House impeachment managers, said that comment provided more evidence of obstruction of Congress. But Jay Sekulow, one of Trump's lawyers, responded by defending the president's executive privilege rights.
"This isn't nonsense," Sekulow said. "This is really what the Constitution is about."
Meanwhile, Trump said in an interview on Fox Business Network that he would like to see an "acquittal fairly quickly." He also called the Democrats pressing the case against him "totally nuts."
But the White House set aside one avenue to end the proceedings quickly, at least for now, deciding against filing a motion Wednesday to dismiss the charges.
That does not preclude his lawyers from filing such a motion later, but Senate Republican leaders have warned that such a move would not have majority support from senators until fuller trial proceedings take place.
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The Washington Post's Mike DeBonis, Karoun Demirjian, John Wagner, Felicia Sonmez, Paul Kane and Rachael Bade in Washington and Matt Viser in Osage, Iowa, contributed to this report.
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Video: Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) on Jan. 22 said Democrats will continue to press Republicans to make the impeachment trial "more fair" after they voted down amendments to the rules to allow witnesses and review documents.(The Washington Post)
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