By SHAHED ALAVI
Source: Iran Wire
“From the very beginning, the Revolutionary Guards intended to open fire. They warned they would do so unless we evacuated the area. Nobody paid any attention. We thought that, like the police, they were just bluffing. We could not believe they would attack people with a heavy machine gun. But they really did. They counted to three and opened fire. When the shooting started, people fled. Some escaped into the town of Jarahi [Chamran] and some sought refuge in the marshland, but the Guards’ heavy machine gun targeted the marsh as well. Several people were killed then and there. Some died in the marsh. A few people who were on the balconies of their home in Jarahi’s Eghbal Street behind the marsh were injured and apparently one of them was killed.”
This eyewitness report sheds some light on the brutal crackdown that had, until just the last few days, remained largely obscured from global attention due to an internet shutdown after nationwide protests spread on November 16, triggered by the increase in fuel prices.
The port city of Mahshahr, or Ma’shour as Iranian Arabs call it, is a city of nearly 300,000 people and at the center of Iran’s petrochemical industry. But now Mahshahr is in the news not because of petrochemicals but because of the bloody events that took place there after the government’s communications blackout fell over Iran.
Omid, an alias for a resident of Mamku district near the town of Jarahi where employees of the petrochemical industry live, was one of the first residents of Mahshahr with whom IranWire was able to speak. Omid reports that news of the deployment of heavy military equipment in the two towns of Jarahi and Taleghani is correct: “They searched the area using drones. Troop carriers and Toyotas equipped with heavy machine guns were deployed in the area. And it was with these machine guns and armed drones that [the Guards] shot at people and protesters.”
Omid says that his own observations are backed up by what he has heard from friends and other people he knows. “In Madar Square, before the entrance to Jarahi, the Guards shot at people and even at the injured who were going to Naft Hospital. I even heard that a child who was playing in Jarahi park was shot dead.”
Fear of Talking on the Phone
The total shutdown of the internet on the evening of November 16 made it almost impossible for Iranians inside the country, including residents of Mahshahr and the wider province of Khuzestan, to tell people outside the country what was going on. In the followings days phone connections also became unreliable – and even when people were able to make calls they were afraid to say anything beyond exchanging pleasantries.
But even before the internet was blocked, various reports had emerged describing the violent crackdown on protesters in Khuzestan. According to Amnesty International, as of November 19, at least 14 people were killed in Mahshahr; IranWire published the names of 10 who died during those protests.
On November 17, while the internet was still down, Gholamreza Shariati, Khuzestan’s provincial governor, claimed [Persian link] that “[thanks to] military forces and law enforcement, the unrest is over and peace has returned to the province.”
But just the next day, on November 18, reports suggest that a police officer was killed in fresh clashes in Mahshahr. And while that evening Mahshahr’s governor, Mohsen Biranvand, claimed that the unrest in the city was over, he also refused to state the number of casualties and said he would share the information at a later time.
In an interview broadcast on state television on November 26, Interior Minister Abdolreza Rahmani Fazli said that the protests, or “disturbances” as he called them, had been serious and, as an example, pointed out that protesters had blocked the road between Mahshahr and Bandar Imam for three days. According to the interior minister, protesters had taken to the streets in approximately 18 cities in Khuzestan.
The protests also provoked a rare outburst of anger on the floor of the Majlis, or parliament, directed at President Hassan Rouhani.
“What have you done that the bastard Shah didn’t do?” shouted Mohammad Golmoradi, the member of parliament for Mahshahr, before being accosted and restrained by other members.
Some observers concluded that Golmoradi knew the extent of the violence against protesters in Mahshahr but could not openly talk about it in parliament. But on November 30, the same Golmoradi denied the possibility of a massacre in the marshland of Jarahi.
On the same day, in a press conference, Deputy Interior Minister Jamal Orf said the reports of the number of people killed were “exaggerations” by foreign media and Amnesty International. He added that Iran’s attorney general would “soon” disclose the true figures.
New Map of the Violent Crackdown Emerging
The information – eyewitness accounts, verified statistics from various parts of the country, as well as the photographs and names of the dead – that is slowly coming to light is creating a new and horrifying map of the violent crackdown of protesters across Iran. Mahshahr was one of the last Iranian cities to be reconnected to the internet. Information emerging from this port city is now confirming the scattered reports that IranWire received during the internet blackout.
Omid, the pseudonymous resident of Mamku near Jaragi, told IranWire that the interior minister was right when he said the protesters had for three days blocked several key Khuzestan roads. But Omid insists the protesters were hurting no one and only wanted their voices to be heard.
“The majority of the protesters were from extremely poor suburbs of Mahshahr,” Omid said. “They were protesting against poverty, inequality and unemployment. And they still are. Of course, by blocking the roads, the commuting lanes for businesses were almost at a standstill, private cars could not travel and petrochemical companies had stopped working. But isn’t blocking roads a peaceful form of protest?”I
Reports received by IranWire indicate that protesters in Mahshahr had blocked three main roads — between the town of Sarbandar (Khor Musa) and the ports of Mahshahr and Bandar Imam, between Jarahi and Mahshahr, and the Ahvaz highway between Mahshahr and Bandar Imam.
Killings in Sarbandar (Khor Musa)
IranWire also spoke with Mr. Javanmir (an alias), a resident of Sarbandar. According to him, protests in Mahshahr county, including in Sarbandar, started on Friday, November 15, the same day that the hike in gas prices was announced. “The protesters had gathered at Sarbandar’s three-way junction and on Monday they blocked the road completely,” he said. “Starting on Saturday, the employees of the port who live in Sarbandar could not go to work. On that day the police and even Mohammad Tabesh, Bandar Imam’s Friday Imam, came to ask the protesters to leave, but there were no clashes and the police did not resort to violence. However, protesters roughed up the Friday Imam very slightly.”
According to Javanmir, during the next three days there were sporadic clashes between the police and the protesters who had blocked the road. The police fired shot at people to disperse them and a number of protesters were injured. He said at nights shots could be heard. The situation changed when the Revolutionary Guards arrived. “The police could not cope with the people,” he told me. “All roads were blocked and the best that the police could do was to protect its own station. But on the third day the forces of the Revolutionary Guards’ 3rd Marine District arrived, with white Toyotas equipped with heavy machine guns and troop carriers. There is a salt hill that overlooks Sarbandar’s highway police station. The hill was made from seawater for industrial purposes.
The Guards’ sharpshooters climbed the salt mound from behind and took positions on the top. They targeted people and were shooting to kill. At least six people were killed there.”
Javanmir says the Guards behaved “savagely.” A they were moving in on the night of Monday, November 18, they shot randomly at people to terrorize them. “For instance, that night they shot and injured a street vendor who was selling dates by the name of Reza Asakereh in Sadoughi Bazar in Sarbandar,” he said. “They took him to Hajieh Narges Clinic but they could not save him and he died. When he was shot, he was standing up and was busy wrapping up his merchandise and fell victim to the savagery of these forces.”
Javanmir says that at least five other people were killed by the Guards’ sharpshooters stationed at the top of the salt mound. “One was Farshad Hajipour, a Bakhtiari from Lordegan [in Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province], a laborer who worked for a petrochemical company. The second one was Mansour Daris-Jom’eh, 33, who died in the hospital on Tuesday, November 24. His family had to bury him at night.”
But the case of Ahad Bashara Doroughi, a young man of 22 who was killed on the same day, is even more heartbreaking. “Ahad worked for an MDF [Medium-Density Fiberboard] workshop near the highway police station,” Javanmir said. “He was shot from the back in the waist and as he fell down his head hit the curb and was severely damaged. Ahad’s parents are dead and he was the breadwinner for a family of three and the guardian of his two sisters. But I have reliable information that those unconscionable people charged the family 35 million tomans [over $3,000] to deliver them the body. An uncle of Ahad who is better off managed to get the money together.”
Javanmir says that one of the most painful things is that the families of the dead often ask the hospital and the medical examiner to register the cause of death on the death certificate as “accident” to escape having to pay the so-called “bullet money.”
“These families are very poor and cannot afford to pay a lot of money to get the body,” he said. “But it is very important for them to bury their loved ones themselves so they pressure the doctors not to register the cause of death as having been shot.”
Violence in the Taleghani Suburb of Ramhormoz
Taleghani is a suburb of the city of Ramhormoz in Khuzestan, and its main population is made up of very poor margin-dwellers, predominately Arabs. On the morning of Friday, November 15, young protesters occupied gas stations and prevented cars from getting gas. Through an intermediary, IranWire was able to contact one of the injured protesters, who has taken refuge in another to town. We will call him “Hamad.” According to Hamad, he had not set fire to any building or public property, and the said the protesters had not hurt anyone. “We just wanted to protest,” he said. “Preventing the sale of gas at new prices was a protest against the new policy.”
By Friday night these young protesters had joined others in Mahshahr and its suburbs and had blocked roads around the city. The protests were largely peaceful and without clashes for the first few days, but the situation changed on Monday, November 18, after the protesters heard the news about a violent crackdown in Jarahi and the killing of people who had taken refuge in the marshland. They decided to resist and entrenched themselves on the bridge leading to Mahshahr.
“Taleghani district covers an area of 16,000 square kilometers and close to 50,000 people live in this small area,” Hamad said. “It was 5pm on Monday [November 18] when the security forces’ attack on the district started. They arrived with heavy machine guns and armored troop carriers and gradually pushed us back into the town by shooting, injuring and killing us. We resisted and a very small number of us had taken up arms to defend themselves but these arms were useless against their machine guns.”
The clashes continued until 2am on Tuesday and then paused for an unknown reason, only to start again on Tuesday morning. “By around 10am the sharpshooters were stationed on top of a tall building and were hunting people,” he said. “I was injured by a sniper bullet. They were shooting from afar and it seems that’s why the shots were not lethal. But the sharpshooters did kill a young boy by the name of Danial.”
In the meantime the drones were flying over the city for surveillance and Hamad witnessed another death. “One of the guys climbed to the top of a car to see what was going on and he was shot down by sniper fire,” he says. “This was the second person whose death I saw.”
Foreigners Brought in to Kill Iranians
A little later, troop carriers entered the town, followed by soldiers on foot.“Their Arabic accents and their looks showed that they were not Iranians,” Hamed said. “A few hundred of them were from the Fatemiyoun Brigade [Iranian-led Afghans who fight in Syria on the side of President Bashar al-Asad], the [Iraqi] Popular Mobilization Forces and the [Lebanese] Hezbollah. There were perhaps 40 to 50 Iranian Revolutionary Guards.”
Another person with IranWire talked to confirmed that non-Iranians were part of the offence helping to crack down on the Mahshahr protests.
Hamad says the indiscriminate shooting of machine guns lasted for a few hours. “The aim was to terrorize,” he said. “You can still see the bullets lodged in the walls of many buildings. Even some of the oil pipes, which are very thick, were damaged by machine gun fire.”
A little more than an hour later, the military were in control of the town. Salman Hashemi, the town’s Friday Imam, tried to stop random shooting and the troop carriers from damaging cars but, according to Hamad, “they shot over his head to scare him. He threw his turban to the ground in front of a carrier and pleaded with them to stop.” It appears that the commander of the troops told the Friday Imam that he had orders to clean the town from Salafists and followers of ISIS. “They called us Salafists and ISIS to justify killing us,” he said.
“Our biggest crime is that we have no jobs and no future. It seems that anybody who is unemployed and protests automatically becomes a member of ISIS.”
Hamad says that among the military forces there were those with long, yellow beards – he does not know whether they were members of Fatemiyoun or Hezbollah but he says they were leading the attack and it was quite possible that some of them were killed by the people defending them. “They had come to kill us and, to be honest, I don’t care if they were killed, but I hope they were not killed by the hunting rifles of our friends because tomorrow they would kill them and say these were the same ISIS members that they had come to kill,” he told me.
According to Hamad, on the same day, clashes over the arrests began. The authorities filled three big buses with the town’s men and took them away. “It was the local Basijis that guided the arrests and they were indiscriminate,” he said. “They even arrested people who had not been in the protests. Only God knows what they will do to them.”
This report of mass arrests was confirmed by “Mahmoud,” another resident of Mahshahr IranWire interviewed. Quoting a friend who had been in Taleghani on Tuesday, he says that they went from house to house and arrested people.
Hamid Sheikhani, a 35-year-old architect and the father of a seven-year-old child, was one of those arrested in Taleghani. According to his family and friends, he was arrested when he stood in the path of a troop carrier to prevent it from entering the town. They say that he was healthy and active when he was arrested, but on Saturday, November 23, his lifeless body was handed over to his family who were told by the officials that he had died in prison as a result of a stroke. A source, however, told IranWire that when they were preparing the body for burial they found a bullet hole on his neck, meaning that he had been summarily executed. His family have remained silent because the life of one of Hamid’s brother had been threatened.
According to Hamad, the bodies of the five killed in Taleghani have been returned to their families and they have been buried. He says that at least 45 were injured and that “some of the injured have been arrested or have been hospitalized and, of course, have gone into hiding. In total, more than 60 were arrested.”
Mahshahr Town Center
Hamid, also a pseudonym, is a resident of Mahshahr itself and works for a petrochemical company. He says that that the protests in the city center started on the afternoon of Friday, November 15, and had spread to University Street and the Taleghani Intersection by 7pm. The police closed the road but on Saturday morning “company employees were still allowed to go to work … colleagues who live in different parts of the city were saying that some roads had been closed the night before, in some places tires had been set on fire and there had been shooting in some areas, but there had been no clashes. We went to work on Saturday morning but at 3pm we were no longer able to use the [transport] service to return home because the road from Sarbandar to Mahshahr had been closed. The night shift did not arrive and we remained at our workplace for the night.”
“Leila,” a resident of Besat, a town next to Jarahi, who works in the center of Mahshahr, says that in the evening of Friday, November 15, people had peacefully gathered outside the governor’s office. “In some places people had set tires on fire and the traffic had stopped. The beltway was also closed. The protesters were trying to bring in petrochemical workers into their protest as well. It seems that in some places they had used teargas but, in general, the protesters were not treated very harshly. The situation, however, changed on Saturday.”
Quoting his sister, Hamid said that in the evening of the same Saturday, close to the Iran Khodro repair shop in the town of Rajaei, east of Mahshahr, a number of plainclothesmen shoot at a gas station in an industrial area a few hundred meters away. “My sister says that they were plainclothes officers but she did not see whom they were firing at, although she says that she believes if they did not want to set the gas station on fire then their targets must have been people in that area.”
According to Leila, eyewitnesses said on Saturday at least two protesters had been killed in Mahshahr. “You could hear shooting in parts of the city and the police were breaking the windows of cars that had been left on the streets as a sign of protest,” she said. “Of course, I cannot confirm that anybody was killed on that day but there can be no doubt that some of the protesters were injured. On Sunday the situation continued in the same way and there were more people gathered outside the governor’s office.”
Hamad, like Omid, says that what must be emphasized is that the protesters were not bothering people who were not joining the protests — people like him, who were going to work or minding their own business. “When they call them ‘hoodlums’ it means that they were assaulting people, [threatening their] lives, safety and property,” he said. “But the protesters that I met and my sister and my colleagues met were not bothering anybody. They were protesting against the government. I can testify that in Mahshahr no business was set on fire and there was no looting.”
Hamad says that throughout Saturday night his sister and other relatives in Mahshahr could hear scattered shots. On Sunday morning, when they were at work, they were told to leave company premises and the port area and to return home.
“At 10am on Sunday morning, the streets I was crossing were all littered with burnt tires,” Hamad says. “There were tree trunks lying in the middle of some streets. It looked like a war zone. But the road to my home and the streets that I crossed were not blocked. I do not know whether the protesters had left temporarily, or what. I only saw one car with broken windows near the Airport Bridge in Mahshahr. Besides this I saw no damage.”
According to Leila, some people had raised the flag of Al-Ahwazieh (the Arab Struggle Movement for the Liberation of Ahwaz, a separatist movement) on top of the Petrochemicals Bridge.
“They pulled [the flag] down soon enough, but those who pulled it down said that the people who had raised it were not Arabs,” says Leila, “and you cannot be a member of Al-Ahwazieh unless you are an Arab. So it seems that the security forces themselves wanted to turn a peaceful protest into a violent one, through provocation and to have an excuse for crushing the protesters.”
According to Hamid, the clashes under the Azad University overpass were more serious. “Sunday afternoon, when I went out on an errand, I saw a large number of security forces and Basijis,” Hamid says. “It was very messed-up there and even the lampposts were leaning [on an angle]. Everywhere the ground was strewn with burnt tires and broken glass. On Monday I stayed home, but by talking on the phone with my friends I knew that things in the city and its suburbs were very chaotic.”
Hamid says that on Tuesday it was calm inside Mahshahr. The roads were open and they returned to work.
“We passed by the main entrance to the Taleghani district [in the city],” Hamid says. “Security agents with black uniforms could be seen everywhere. The district was practically surrounded. Two troop carriers had blocked the main road into the district. There were also some Toyotas with heavy machine guns. I must add that the road had been closed before I got there, because an hour earlier my sister had not been able to get past it.”
A source tells IranWire that on Wednesday night in Mahshahr, the clash between protesters and the security forces intensified and the Revolutionary Guards shot at people with heavy machine guns. Hamid says he has not heard about it and cannot comment.
Hamid says that at 4pm on Tuesday, after returning from work, he and his sister had gone out to buy a domestic item when, in Mahshahr’s Sepah Street, they saw a “light armored unit” with troop carriers, heavy machine guns and other military equipment.
“This was the first time I had seen such a force,” he says. “The next day, at work, our Arab colleagues were saying that they had seen masked soldiers who spoke with a different accent from Iranian Arabs and even Iraqi Arabs. According to three of my colleagues, their accent was closer to Syrian or Lebanese.” Hamid added that, except on Thursday when there was some unrest, he has not seen or heard any other disturbance; but that the presence of security forces is still very heavy.
Jarahi: “There must be more bodies lying in the pits”
According to a driver who works the route to Bandar Imam, who spoke to IranWire, “there must be more bodies lying in the pits” of the one-square kilometer marshland in Jarahi. Many others believe the same.
It is reported that on November 18, a police officer by the name of Rezvan Sayadi was killed during the clashes between protesters and security forces and was buried in Dezful, the city of his birth. People say that in response to the death of this officer, the Revolutionary Guards used heavy machine guns to shoot at the marshland for more than 10 minutes. There are residential buildings on the other side of the marsh, and since these machine guns have a long-range, some people who were standing on the balconies of their homes on Eghbal Street were injured or killed.
One of those killed in Jarahi Square by the random shooting of the Revolutionary Guards’ heavy machine guns was a street vendor by the name of Abbas Mansouri, who sold fruit in the square next to the marsh. “Ebad”, a resident of Jarahi who was there on Monday, says that Abbas was the only son of his family and had married four months earlier: “He was not a protester. He was trying to close up his stall and to get away from danger when he was shot by the Guards’ machine gun and died immediately.”
It was reported on social media that in the process of crushing protesters in Jarahi Square, security forces set fire to the reeds in the marshland. Another man who asked to remain anonymous sent IranWire videos of the burned locations. “Considering the large area of the marshland, setting fire to reed beds next to the road was not meant to burn the whole area. The goal was to make escaped protesters run so that they could shoot them.”
According to Ebad, it was not clear who first started shooting in Jarahi Square, which overlooks the marsh. “It is true that Captain Sayadi was killed there but, from the very start the Revolutionary Guards intended to shoot and had no qualms about it. They warned they would shoot unless we evacuated the area. Nobody paid any attention. We thought that, like the police, they were just bluffing. We could not believe that they would attack people with a heavy machine gun. But they really did. They counted to three and opened fire. But I don’t really know whether the police captain fell to the ground before or after the Guards started shooting.”
If the officer was shot from the direction of the marsh, it is not clear when those who shot him had concealed themselves among the reeds. According to Ebad, after the reed beds were searched, a total of three firearms were found.
“When the shooting started people escaped,” he said. “Some escaped into the town of Jarahi and some sought refuge in the marshland but the Guards’ heavy machine gun targeted the marsh randomly as well. A number were killed right then and there and some died in the marsh. A few people who were on the balconies of their homes in Jarahi’s Eghbal Street behind the marsh were injured and they said that one of them was killed.” He said a 20-year old woman also lost a leg after being shot at close-range by Revolutionary Guards equipped with heavy machine guns.
A friend of Leila’s who lives in the town of Besat near Jarahi told her that the protesters there were definitely not armed. “Somebody supposedly shot from the direction of the marshland at the Revolutionary Guards and killed an officer but it is not clear at all whether he was a member of Al-Ahwazieh, a protestor or one of the security forces,” Leila said. “Nobody really knows anything. But how did the Guards’ respond to this one shot? They unleashed a barrage of heavy machine gun fire at everybody there. People escaped and some of them entered the marsh and the Guards started shooting at the marsh with three heavy machine guns and even a helicopter. They were shooting indiscriminately, exactly like ISIS. Of those who were injured and were taken to the hospital in Mamku [Besat], eight or nine died on arrival.”
Ebad added that, based on the information that he received from friends and family, more than 20 protesters were killed in the shooting. He also believes that security forces did not set the reeds on fire to kill protesters. “People did not die from the fire but from the heavy machine gun fire that cut off any part of the body that it hit,” he said. “I am going to send you a picture of a couple of reeds sprouting again. It is a beautiful thing. In any case, I believe they set the reeds on fire to terrorize people.”
Leila said it was not clear how many people were killed in that particular shooting. “The security agents took away the bodies of all those killed and it is not clear whether they have handed over all the bodies to the families or not,” she told me. “Nobody knows. Nobody knows how many people were killed in the marshland and how many of the injured died there. The only thing that we know is that they asked the families for money to return the bodies — somewhere between 10 to 30 million tomans [between US$870 and $2,600], depending on the age of the victim and the number of bullets in his body.”
Regarding the 20-year-old woman who was shot while standing on the balcony of her home, Ebad said that her leg was completely shattered and they had to amputate it. “Now they say sorry and that they woill issue her a certificate that will give her the benefits of a wounded veteran. They destroyed her future, they destroyed a life, and now they are being generous. The bastards.”
According to Ebad a number of people have also gone missing and it is not clear whether they have been killed or have been arrested. “Ali Atighi, the son of Saeed and a resident of Jarahi, went missing on Monday, November 18 and nobody knows what has happened to him. As far as I know, there were 10 bodies at the hospital morgue and people here say that 13 have been killed. But it must be more because close to 20 people are missing. Of course, they might be under arrest or perhaps they are hiding somewhere.”
But perhaps one of the most shocking aspects of the crackdown in Mahshahr is the situation for ethnic Arabs who live in a shantytown called Gama (Vali-e Asr) township, a place that is so poor and so deprived that, Ebad says, it seems like something out of another time and place. “Since Monday the security forces have been attacking this township every other day and have arrested almost every man and boy there,” he said. “They have tortured them and then they released some. The most painful case is that of an 11-year-old boy who cannot speak one word of Persian. He was arrested as well, was beaten and was then released. He is now in a very bad psychological condition. It is not clear why they have arrested these people and what confessions they expect to force from them.”