Iranian security and intelligence forces, assisted by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias, have expanded their brutal attacks and mass arrests in the Ahwaz region, detaining dozens of volunteer aid workers for helping people left destitute by flooding in the region. The detainees include three poets from the region – Hassan Torfi, Aref Sawari and Gassan Saedi – as well as cultural activist Shehab Sayahi.
The detainees’ ‘crime’ was to form popular committees to help the thousands of Arab people displaced by the catastrophic flooding that has so far destroyed 270 villages and 11 towns, along with thousands of acres of farmland, and displaced an estimated 500,000 people. These committees are necessary due to the fact that, while the regime has collected millions of dollars in foreign aid, it has not distributed the aid to the flood-battered Ahwazis.
At least 38 Ahwazi aid workers and activists have been detained since Wednesday, April 17th; many of those detained are writers and poets, forced to take action after the regime-exacerbated catastrophe. The detainees have been identified as:
1 – Rasul Fartousi 2 – Poet Ibrahim Badawi 3 – Poet Amin Silawi 4 – Poet Ali Mousavi (Bougdemi) 5 – Hassan Bait Ishaq6 – Imad Haidari 7 – Ali Nasri 8 – Hatem Dahimi 9 – Poet Ahmed Badawi 10 – Mahdi Sharifi 12-Qasem Tamimi 13-Aref Serakhi 14-Fouad Badawi 15-Kazem Marwani 16-Mohsen Zweidat 17-Habib Krushat 18-Masoud Harizawi 19-Naji Al-Sawari 20-Haydar Silawi 21-Ali Kazem 22-Mahdi Farhani 23 Adnan Karim 24- Hamza Sahi 25. Mahdah Sawari 26. Ahmed Kabbi27-Yaqoub Kabbi 28. Masood Mansouri 29. Ibrahim Dahimi 30. Ibrahim Badawi 31. Sajad Khedairy 32. Adnan Mousavi 33. Ali Torfi 34. Sayed Hashim Mousavi.
The arrests come as the IRGC and regime security bodies intensify their efforts to punish the popular committees formed to help the people whom the regime has abandoned and to collect donations for food, clothes and tents; senior regime officials are apparently outraged that their own negligence has become common knowledge outside the region and are taking their rage out on the already suffering Ahwazi people. Moreover, in many cases, the regime is actively trying to force the already traumatised dispossessed people to move to other non-Arab areas of Iran, which many Ahwazis are suggesting is another regime effort at demographic transfer.
The IRGC has been targeting the Ahwazi committees by using its hated affiliated extremist militias from across the region, such as the Iraqi ‘Popular Mobilisation Units’ (Hashd al Shaabi), Lebanon’s Hezbollah and Afghan Fatemiyoun militia. These forces are reportedly attacking the people already suffering as a result of the flooding, not only in Ahwaz but also in Lorestan and other regions.
The authorities were reportedly angered by the publication of photos, videos and reports documenting the regime’s deliberate policy of changing the floodwaters’ course so that they would submerge residential areas and farmlands, causing a humanitarian catastrophe, rather than letting the waters run along the river beds to the delta area where oil and gas rigs and refineries are located; the regime apparently resents the world becoming aware of this evidence that it is more interested in protecting oil and gas resources than human lives.
After visiting the area and seeing the Ahwazi people organising the aid efforts, the head of the regime’s infamous Qods Force, Qassem Soleimani, deployed large numbers of IRGC forces, as well as Iranian-backed militias from across the region, supposedly to aid the flood-stricken people; in fact, these forces have been attacking the people they are nominally there to protect in order to prevent any protests at the regime’s negligence as anger rises among the dispossessed people, most of whom have been left with nothing.
Ahwazi Human Rights activists in the region and abroad have strongly condemned the arrest of the volunteer aid workers and activists, demanding their immediate and unconditional release, as well as condemning the regime’s militarisation of the region and deployment of violent foreign militias, many of which are placed on international terror lists alongside the IRGC. Furthermore, the activists have called for greater international condemnation of these repressive practices by the Iranian regime against the unarmed and defenceless Arab people of Ahwaz, who are already traumatised after being dispossessed by flooding.
As well as rerouting the water so as to protect oil and gas installations, at the expense of the indigenous Ahwazis’ homes, lands, and livestock, the regime, particularly its IRGC arm, has been actively working to prevent the flooding from reaching state-owned sugarcane farms and refineries; again, this has been achieved at the expense of the local people.
When local people came together to protect their homes, working frantically to build berms and barriers to defend their village and farms from flooding, regime forces and militias tore the emergency barriers down, using bulldozers and earthmoving equipment, to let the water flood these areas. In one village on April 4th, the troops’ and militias’ reaction to the protests of despairing farmers and villagers seeing their possessions washed away was to beat those who protested and to target them with tear gas and live bullets. At least one farmer named Aboud Khalaf Rabiei was killed, with others wounded.
Despite the crackdown, villagers managed to alleviate some of the floodings by making holes in some of the earthen berms that had been built by regime forces beside the Karoon River to protect its state-owned sugar cane plantations, which were themselves built on lands previously confiscated by the regime.
It is impossible, however, for the indigenous Ahwazi people to get anywhere near the oil fields and refineries in the Howeyzeh marshlands. Once areas renowned for their natural beauty, they are now a bleak, lifeless and heavily polluted wasteland, empty except for oil rigs and associated facilities; the IRGC has deployed tanks, heavy artillery and massive numbers of troops, along with militiamen to protect these areas and stop the people of the region from destroying the berms and barriers built to surround them.
The area at the delta is the natural escape route for the waters from the region’s rivers; the region built massive dams upstream on these rivers (whose floodgates were opened to release pressure on the poorly built structures in the recent flooding, adding to the intensity of the catastrophe), diverting the waters to other areas of Iran. The destruction of the ecosystem has also led to massive sandstorms during the summer season; the Ahwaz region that was once a regional breadbasket now swings between sandstorms and desertification and disastrous flooding, with little ability to sustain agriculture.
Ahwazi sources said that Iran’s regime not only extracts oil from the Iranian part of Howeyzeh marshlands but also steals oil from the Majnoun field of Iraq with the tacit consent of the Iraqi government and militias loyal to Qods Force and its commander Qassem Soleimani.
Land without people
Several Chinese companies working with Iranian counterparts affiliated with the Iranian Oil Company are also operating in the fields of Howeyzeh wetlands. Others are directly and indirectly affiliated with and unofficially owned by the Revolutionary Guard. These fields are also located within the oil-rich region described in the Dictionary of the Iranian Oil Company fields as “West Karoon for Oil”, bounded by the Karoon River to the east, Howeyzeh marshlands to the west, the city of Khafajieh to the north, and the city of Muhammarah to the south.
The Iranian government signed an agreement with the Chinese government five years ago whereby Chinese companies would extract oil from Howeyzeh marshlands fields for ten years, importing it for five years free of charge as a sign of Iran’s gratitude for China’s supportive political and economic positions towards Iran’s regime. Under the terms of the agreement, in return for the oil extracted by Chinese companies, the companies would allow these oil facilities to be run by the Revolutionary Guard after the first five years. Nearly four years have elapsed since the agreement, with only one year remaining. It is therefore simple to see why the IRGC personnel so zealously guard these oil wells and associated installations. For the five years after 2020, China will pay the price of oil extracted from these wells through goods that will be exported to Iran, thereby circumventing the international sanctions imposed on the Islamic Republic of Iran.
Although Western firms are not openly involved in the regime’s deals, the silence of Western governments regarding the catastrophic and unprecedented environmental and humanitarian disaster in the region and the regime’s abuses has raised suspicions amongst many analysts that this is being carried out with tacit Western support. In Ahwaz, many people are asking whether China’s regime is really the only party involved with the regime or whether Western investors and firms are silent partners in these crimes.
Attorney and researcher Aaron Eitan Meyer, who was asked to comment on this aspect of the ongoing issue, said, “the fact that these oil deals have been allowed to be made, with blind eyes turned to their clearly intended purpose of circumventing necessary international sanctions, speaks to a lack of commitment on the part of world governments. Whether sanctions work or not largely depends on how strictly they are enforced. And attention needs to be paid right now to the fact that the sanctions scheme has an enormous hole in it that the Iranian regime has been exploiting.”
This disaster is not confined to the basins of the Dez and Karkheh rivers but also affects the Karoon river, with floodwaters diverted by the regime spilling over its banks and destroying farmlands, palm tree plantations and villages along its banks, as well as spilling over into villages and districts of Falahiyeh city in south-eastern Ahwaz.
The people’s reaction
The Ahwazi people have long bitter experience of the Iranian regime’s efforts to displace and dispossess them and deny them their heritage and natural resources. Since the initial occupation of the then-autonomous emirate in 1925 and the discovery of oil and gas there – the region holds over 95 per cent of the oil and gas claimed by Iran – and ever since, there have been efforts to enforce demographic change in order to deny the Arab people their autonomy, freedom and fundamental human rights.
Despite facing persecution and systemic injustice, the Ahwazi people have continued to stand up for their rights, with generations of activists being imprisoned and often executed for their courage in the face of Tehran’s brutality. Rather than decreasing following the 1979 revolution, this brutality has increased markedly ever since. Unable to compete with the regime militarily, the people have used every other form of resistance, including music: the Howsa is a traditional Ahwazi resistance song that those dispossessed in the most recent floods have been singing to boost their morale whilst constructing earthen berms. Ahwazi women have also played a crucial role in the relief efforts alongside the menfolk, working shoulder to shoulder to try and save their homes and lands.
Several parts of the regional capital city of Ahwaz saw massive protests denouncing the government’s deliberate negligence, with demonstrators vowing to protect their lands and asserting their Arab identity, as well as their refusal to be ethnically cleansed.
DIRS spoke with an Ahwazi woman who lost everything in the floods, including two of her children, who drowned. She left destitute, along with her family, including a severely disabled, chronically ill son. Like thousands of others, she has been left stranded in a deserted area without shelter, clean water, food or medical aid.
The distraught woman told DIRS, “I have a child with a disability and illness, and I had two children who died, and my house was washed away in the floods. We need help from the good people and the government. As you can see, my son is 17 years old, and I have difficulty assisting him; I cannot move him anywhere – we have nothing.
Doctors did not give us anything, they gave us only pills for headaches, and we have to pay to buy them. The State charity board (Behzisti) does not give us anything. They only pay two million riyals ($12) a month as support, and I pay one million riyals for medicines.
My son is older now, and he has some needs such as medicine, shaving, bathing, and clothes, while he is ill and cannot work. He is physically disabled, and I have two children who died. All my children are disabled, and two of them have died.
All the homes were destroyed in the floods, and all my belongings in my house, like a fridge and everything else, were destroyed. So I do not have anything. I only have my child, nothing else, and my son is sick, so I need help.”
Other footage shows an Ahwazi elderly man who says the regime is trying to encourage us to leave our homeland. He says, “They told us that we will pay you about 500 million Iranian riyals ($3500 each family) until you move to the city of Yazd. They also said that we will provide you with accommodation in the city of Yazd, but I do not know the name of the person who asked us to leave our areas so that they could pay an amount to us. I do not know they were from the Basiji faction, the IRGC or any other bodes, but I am sure that they were from governmental bodies. They assured us that we are willing to pay you about 500 million riyals as a loan from the bank until you move from your areas. But we told them that we could not return the loan because we have no money. So, they said: “We are ready to give you homes in the city of Yazd, and it is better for you to move”. They said you should move it is good for you because the flooding continues and will last for a long time. We are from the village of Garma in Khanafra.”
Speaking to DIRS about the media blackout and the absence of official international actions regarding the large-scale human rights abuses and crimes committed against the Ahwazi people, Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based international law attorney whose focus is on assisting human rights defenders, said, “The regime has already relocated 300, 000 people. It claims to have moved them to more secure locations; however, it is obvious that given the deliberate nature of the flooding the scheme was to deprive the Ahwazis of their land and to depopulate Ahwazi lands. It is unclear whether they will be given homes to live in or in any way compensated for that property. In fact, from recordings such as the one above it is evident that while the regime has made promises to the locals, the reality points in a different direction.”
“A regime that employs foreign militias to assist in forced relocations and to prevent any protests is not a regime that looks to compensate anyone or to improve anyone’s life. Rather, what we are observing is a mass confiscation of property. It violates human rights and international laws to engage in ethnic cleansing, which is what we are observing right now. This is not mere forced displacement as a result of a war or a natural disaster, but a human rights violation, an atrocity. We see that from the violent attacks on the Ahwazi farmers who did not wish to move or have their property taken from them in this process. The regime is looking to create an ethnically homogeneous area filled with Persians who have been induced with incentives to move from other parts of the country.”
“There has been no coverage of Ahwaz in the US media at all, and hardly any mention of the situation in general, even though the presence of Hezbollah and other terrorist groups indicate Iran’s willingness to engage some of the worst actors designated by the US in furthering of this mass ethnic cleansing operation, which is to the detriment of US interests in the region. Even the gathering of designated terrorist organisations to intimidate peaceful civilians is not generating mass coverage and outrage. By staying silent, the US media is complicit in this atrocity. They will soon pat each other and the back and receive Pulitzer prizes next year for the alleged courageous reporting. But by refusing to address mass oppression of Ahwazi Arabs through this flooding and mass relocation, the media is actually playing an ignoble role in covering for and strengthening the terrorist IRGC and the regime. With their silence, the US media is acting like an agent of the regime itself. Likewise, the human rights organisations which have failed to comment on, much less to condemn the deliberate political role of the regime in this situation are not worthy of that role.”
“Anyone who truly cares about the human rights, and not merely virtue signalling for brownie points in activist circles, should be on the front lines of exposing this devastating abuse and raising public awareness, breaking through the Iron Wall of silence generated by the regime and its agents in the West. Where is the UN in rebuking the regime for its oppression? Where are Amnesty International and Human rights watch? Where are all the watchdogs and supposed critics? Why do they only jump on popular and well-known causes that generate easy publicity and money for themselves?”
“For too long, the discourse on human rights has been defined by a limited number of actors with an agenda, which benefit by staying silent on the atrocities committed by the most powerful actors. They are nowhere to be found when it is time to give voice to those who are in need of help, who are not there for the “cool” factor.”
What can be done
The inescapable question now is what can be done? Unfortunately, for the Ahwazi people desperately clinging to what remains of their lands and livelihood, there is not much more that they can do. They will continue to protect what they can and assist each other despite the concerted efforts of the regime, but without meaningful foreign aid reaching them, their plight will only worsen.
Meyer responded to the question by identifying several avenues to be pursued. “First,” he said, “the world’s attention must be drawn not only to the emergency, but to the ongoing plight of the Ahwazi people. The world must know, so that it can then see why it must care. Second, regional and international powers alike must acknowledge the humanitarian catastrophe and take immediate action. That includes the United States, which must scrutinise the unlawful use of Iraqi oil fields to circumvent sanctions, and condemn this humanitarian disaster and Iran’s crimes against humanity alike. It also includes China, which must be confronted with the fact that the regime’s means of protecting its companies’ assets may cause China to suffer diplomatic harm, whether now or in the long term. And third, the United Nations and its agencies can no longer sit idly by, nor can any international bodies. The relevant UN special rapporteurs must demand entry to the Ahwazi region, and if denied, demand UN action.”
Speaking for the Ahwazi people collectively, both in our homeland and outside of it, we call for the support of the world’s governments and immediate assistance. We will not be forced off of our land, even if the Iranian regime diverts millions of gallons of floodwater to Ahwaz. Our homes are gone. Our livestock has been washed away. But we are still there, and our children and our elderly need help urgently. So we will keep pushing for international assistance on all levels, diplomatic, economic and legal. But we will not be forced out.
By Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.