NIMROZ -- Amid a roar of engines and clouds of dust, Sattar Amiri clambers into a pickup truck with his wife and infant son in a remote Afghan frontier town, ready for a perilous drive through the desert.
Like the thousands of desperate migrants around him, he has only one goal -- to reach Iran.
"I have no choice," said 25-year-old Amiri.
"There is no future in Afghanistan."
In Zaranj, the provincial capital of Nimroz, human smugglers say the flow of would-be exiles now reaches 5,000 to 6,000 a day -- four times more than their number after the fall of the Afghan government last August.
At night, the most daring try to scale the imposing wall that separates this arid city from Iran, braving the risk of being shot by border guards.
But when the sun comes up, thousands of men, women and children pile into old four-wheel-drive vehicles on a longer journey through mountains and deserts via Pakistan.
Afghanistan has been plunged into financial crisis following the collapse of the Afghan government last August, which has worsened an already dire humanitarian situation after decades of war.
Many Afghans are scrambling to leave their country for Iran or beyond in search of work to send money back to their families.
Others fear being targeted by the current Kabul administration because of their association with the previous Afghan government or the US-led foreign forces, the last of whom withdrew from Afghanistan on August 31.
Amiri lost his job as an army mechanic when Afghanistan's military collapsed six months ago and said since then he has "not even managed to earn 1,000 AFN" (about $10).
In desperation, he sold his house in Mazar-e-Sharif to finance his family's escape to Iran, where he plans to take any job he can get.
Almost a million Afghans left their homes between August and December last year in an attempt to flee, according to a recent report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM).
'They will really kill me'
In the city's dilapidated hotels, migrants sleep on carpets while waiting their turn to cross, despair and fear etched into their faces.
Mohammad, a former policeman, is trying to reach Iran after having twice been beaten by authorities, who demanded a service weapon he had already handed in.
"If they come a third time, they will really kill me," said the 25-year-old from Daikundi province, declining to reveal his full name.
While widespread reprisals have so far not been reliably reported, the United Nations says more than 100 people -- mostly security personnel -- with links to the previous government have been killed.
Behind the wheel of his 4x4 pick-up truck, Hamidullah has doubled the price for driving migrants across the desert.
"We used to take 30 million IRR (about $120); now it's 60 million," said the grinning 22-year-old, who pays local Afghan authorities part of his profits to operate.
Every day, hundreds of drivers park their vehicles in a Zaranj lot, where they pile the men into the bed of the pickup, and cram women and children into the cab.
AFP reporters counted about 300 trucks in the lot one day last month, each filled with about 20 people -- or some 6,000 migrants a single day.
AFP also filmed the battered vehicles making their way for hours along rutted desert tracks -- sometimes reaching speeds of up to 120km per hour.
When they reach the Pakistani border, the migrants are handed over to smugglers on the other side, and a treacherous journey by foot begins toward the Iranian border.
For Maihan Rezai, the long journey ahead is unthinkable.
As a member of the minority Shia Hazara ethnic group, the 20-year-old design student would be easy prey for fighters from Jundullah, a radical Sunni operation responsible for numerous kidnappings in the desert.
In the past, they would behead their captives, but now, they hold them and demand ransom, he said.
So Rezai and his friends aim to climb the border wall, which stretches from Zaranj and beyond, as far as the eye can see.
Assault and torture
The refugees' smugglers know the best place to cross, and are supposed to bribe the guards to turn a blind eye to those scaling the barrier walls at night, but sometimes they cut corners to save money.
The barrier is a five-metre-high concrete wall topped with barbed wire and dotted with watchtowers manned by armed guards.
"The smugglers lie to us," said Maihan, who has already made several failed attempts.
In the last six months, between 70 and 80 fleeing Afghans have been killed by Iranian bullets, local authorities told AFP on condition of anonymity.
But even if you make it over the wall, the euphoria is often short-lived.
Iran, already hosting 3.4 million Afghans in 2020, has been deporting more than 2,000 people a day recently, according to local officials.
Each deportee has his or her own terrible account of torture and mistreatment by the Iranian military and Iranian employers.
Assault and torture in places where Afghan deportees are being held by the Iranian police have become routine, said Zia-ul-Haq Zia, a resident of Balkh province whom Iran recently deported.
Iranian soldiers extort money from Afghan deportees on the way to the Afghan border under various pretexts, and if anyone does not pay, he or she will be severely beaten and tortured, he said.
Farzad Azimi, a resident of Kabul, said Iranian forces arrested him when he was working in Tehran.
After spending a week in a camp for undocumented immigrants under harsh conditions, he was forcibly returned to Afghanistan.
"More than 30 people are kept in each room for several nights," he said. "Even women and children were detained in extreme cold without any appropriate arrangements to keep them warm."
"Proper food was not available, and if they [Iranian authorities] brought food, they would sell it for four times higher than the market price."
The Iranian soldiers would pick whomever they wanted to beat and take all the money the person had in his pockets, Azimi said.
Still, Sadat Qatal and Waheed Ahmad plot their attempt from their spartan Zaranj hotel room, their four children alongside them.
Ahmad's brother made it across in January -- one of only a handful among 80 who tried that night, he said -- and phoned from Iran to recount his success.
"He told me that many died," the 30-year-old shudders.
"All this is because of hunger ... if we still had hope, we would never leave the country."