Roughly a month has passed since the Iranian regime horrifically and brutally suppressed nonviolent protests that spread across the entire country, but nowhere worse than the region of Ahwaz. And as reports manage to trickle past Iranian efforts at censorship, it is clear that even in Ahwaz, one city suffered the most heinous attack, the city of Ma’shour.
The city of Ma`shour, in the Ahwaz region in present-day southwest Iran, is the home of Iran’s largest petrochemical industry. But in recent days, Ma`shour has come to the fore as a result of the heinous crimes committed by the IRGC and its affiliated militias during the recent protests that swept through the country. It has gained tragic renown as the city in which the Revolutionary Guards carried out brutal mass murders with tanks and machine guns during the protests.
As witnesses have managed to come forward with their stories, the full scale of the IRGC’s crimes has become apparent, along with the IRGC’s use of its terrorist proxies to carry out the slaughter. As one young woman, whose identity – like those of all witnesses quoted herein – must be maintained strictly confidential due to the near certainty of regime reprisal, explained, “The interesting thing was that the majority of armed forces who were shooting and beating the Arab protesters were speaking Arabic but with different Arabic accents spoken in regional countries such as Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon. They were ruthless and sprayed the chests of unarmed protesters with bullets.”
Attorney and analyst Aaron Eitan Meyer, who has written about the protests and advocated for international intervention throughout, responded by stating that “this shows how disgustingly worthless mainstream coverage of the protests – and of Iran itself – has been. We have Newsweek writing propaganda for the regime by nonsensically claiming that somehow Iran is keeping ISIS at bay, while everyone pointedly ignores the fact that Iran has actively deployed its foreign terrorist clients within its borders in order to commit clear crimes against humanity. It’s no longer even a rhetorical question to ask how evil can flourish, because we have the answer – with the knowing complicity of nations, private corporations and others who are willing and eager to help even the most horrific, irredeemable regime maintain its ill-gotten power.”
With a population of around 120,000, Ma’shour city consists of 5 residential areas, namely Jarrahi, Koura, Khor Mousa (Sarbandar or Khomeini port), and the old and new city areas. The overwhelming majority of Ma`shour’s residents are Arab, although there are a number of non-Arab incomers who immigrated to the city for economic reasons or were transferred there by the regime in Tehran as an effort to alter the demographic composition in favour of Persian-speaking settlers. And the interplay between the Tehran-run petrochemical industry and the destitute across Iran was what nearly sparked into a full-blown conflagration.
One local said to the authors that the top Iranian employees in Ma’shour are called “flying employees” because they come to work and fly back the same day to Tehran, and they also bring in their relatives to fill in all jobs from tea or coffee maker to housekeeping staff. The local added that, despite all regime welfare services and incentives, the employed incomers are not able (or willing) to live there due to the poor air quality, and they only come and go back to where they’re from, while Arabs who are deprived and lack any services live in miserable conditions. He concluded by saying that “the suicide rate is rising here, young people have lost hope for future; you are deemed criminal when you born Arab, you are condemned to deprivation when you born Arab.”
Irina Tsukerman, a New York-based international human rights lawyer, adds: “The protests in Ma’shour, largely populated by Arabs, are not just about the petrol prices, but rather about the long-decades of systematic racism, discrimination, and marginalisation of the population by the Iranian authorities. Although the regime’s malignant expenditures on foreign adventurism and terrorism abroad have thrown all of Iran into economic decay and deprivation, the level of poverty in Ma’shour like other Ahwazi Arab areas is abysmal and defies description. The unemployment rate is far higher than in most other parts of the country; Ahwazi Arab workers face abuse and are frequently denied even the meagre wages out to them in factories created on their lands. The regime has done everything possible to drive the local Ahwazis to the brink, denying them any hope for the future and any possibility of reasonable sustenance. The city is flooded with toxic waste and pollution from its 18 petrochemical plants.”
It is amply documented that disproportionate numbers of Ahwazi people get sick with cancer. Despite the region being oil-rich, the majority Ahwazi population is denied access to these resources. Anger, despair, high suicide rates, and erasure of cultural identity mark the Ahwazi population here. These conditions have been ignored by international environmentalist activists and human rights bodies for decades, as the situation spiralled out of control, finally reaching its boiling point with the unravelling of recent events.
Much of Ahwaz, as a region, rose up in protests even before the start of the fuel protests in the centre of the country; the initial reason was the brutal assassination of a popular dissident poet named Hassan Haidari by the authorities. However, the price hike, closely related to the regime’s self-serving and grotesque expenditures, including the spending on the IRGC activities in Europe and Iraq, which had targeted Ahwazi opposition groups, renewed the wave of anger and frustration among the population and reinvigorated the struggle. The regime exercised brutality all across the country; it had shut down the internet so that the exact numbers of those arrested, wounded, or killed remain unknown. Some sources estimate the number of killed to be as high as 300 people, and at least 7000 are thought to be under arrest. Ahwazis in the past and current protests are known to have suffered disproportionate numbers of detained, killed, and wounded, as the regime has been responsible for ethnic-based repression even more so than response to general political opposition. It has used crushing measures to suppress revolts in Ahwazi cities like M’ashour, at the same time painting the Ahwazis rising up and demanding their fundamental rights to be met, as separatists and terrorists, isolating them from the rest of the population despite the fact that they share in the cause of the opposition to fuel, and despite the fact that the regime owes equal treatment and basic dignity and respect to all its citizens. To this day, this information is largely ignored by the Western media, which has done little to cover even the extent of the protests across the country, much less taken the time to understand the issues specific to Ahwaz and particularly, M’ashour slaughter. But without understanding the dynamics of the regime’s internal oppression, the West can never develop a successful approach in responding to Tehran’s external aggression. The IRGC and its terrorist minions have treated the protesters with sadistic and unconscionable cruelty, which amounts to war crimes and which should be brought up before the UN Security Council and the ICC.
The cries of the poor people of the M’ashour area were met with bullets and tanks. When the Ma`shour youth blocked roads leading to the Petro-chemical facilities by setting tires laid across the road on fire, the Revolutionary Guards attacked them with tanks and shot at the protesters, opening the roads with violent force. Young Ahwazi protesters fled into the canebrake to save themselves from the machine guns. But the Guards fired directly at the canebrake and then set fire to it, causing wounded young protesters to burn to death.
A few days after this horrific crime, the stench of charred corpses became so strong that it reached the families across the city, causing them to venture outside in search of their young children’s remains. The canebrake blazed as if it had been cut with a sickle; there was massive bloodshed. Footages show the grieved families saying, “What was the crime of these deprived people? They had the goal of protesting extensive oppression. In which country does the government use tanks and machine guns to face public protests? But here is the Iranian regime where they burned young people alive in the canebrake.”
After more than two weeks of media coverage and under the pressure of public opinion and the widespread dissemination of news and videos about Ma`shour slaughter, Iranian regime officials finally took responsibility for the massacre, with what amounts to a shrug. Local television effectively admitted to the crime with “no comment”. As usual, while referring to the protesters as foreign stooges and separatists, they said: “The security guards quashed the hooligans’ plot, and dismantled the rioters’ scheme who were hidden in the canebrake.”
From the very first day of the uprising, the regime spread suspicions and disinformation about Ma`shour and other Ahwazi areas protests, and spoke of a big supposed conspiracy that was foiled. In fact, the regime knew exactly what it had committed in Ma`shour during the first days of the protests and was trying to conceal its bloody hands until the world stopped paying attention. To whitewash its crimes and to avoid responsibility for the human rights abuses, Tehran tried to justify its slaughter through a defamation campaign against the Ahwazi protests by spreading news about foiling a large and global conspiracy engineered and funded by the Iranian regime arch-enemies such as Israel and the USA in Ahwazi areas, especially Ma`shour.
Notwithstanding the disinformation campaign, it is no secret that most Ahwazis, who have long bitter experience of the regime’s brutality and anti-Arab racism, especially in reaction to any dissent, expected the regime to deploy Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) forces, with people bracing themselves for the possibility that they would attack demonstrators and, at worst, kill or wound a few more protesters and arrest a few dozen others.
Having spoken with numerous people from the area, we have managed to piece together a number of accounts of what occurred, both from these conversations and from multiple reports and posts on social media, which were only recently reopened for Iranians after being shut down completely by the regime whilst its forces were perpetrating these crimes.
As one eyewitness explained, nobody was prepared for the brutality that ensured. “Iranian regime forces began to harassing and attacking and beating the protesters without announcing an advance warning. [This was] while the young men were standing and sitting in the middle of the road demanding their rights to work, life, wealth, security and health. They were ruthless and sprayed the chests of unarmed protesters with bullets. At that time, the poor Arab protesters started falling one to the other on the ground, and then others desperately rushed to the adjacent marshes located near the gathering place, which is located at the entrance of the Jarahi city. These forces did not stop killing and wounding the local people. Rather, they continued shooting indiscriminately at those who were taken cover in the waters and reeds of the marsh. They also fired indiscriminately at neighbouring houses, and this resulted in the largest number of deaths and casualties.”
Another eyewitness explained, “We didn’t care what they said because we thought they were threatening us like they did in the previous demonstrations. But they started randomly firing at the people with machine guns. When the IRGC forces began shooting, people, both women and children and others, fled to the Jarrahi town and some took refuge in the nearby marshes, but the [IRGC troops] shot them indiscriminately without any mercy. Many people were killed in the marshlands and dozens were injured.”
The heinous nature of the crimes committed by Iranian regime forces during the past few weeks against innocent unarmed civilians, including women and children, have caused outrage even among Ahwazis accustomed to the regime’s inhumanity, as well as other peoples worldwide, with Brian Hook, the US Special Representative for Iran, and President Donald Trump condemning the hideous massacre that killed more than 130 people, as well as leaving dozens of wounded and hundreds more detained.
One of the citizens from that city said in an interview that the massacre in Ma’shour was similar to an earlier one in Muhammarah city (Khorramshahr) forty years earlier in 1979 by the regime’s forces when Ayatollah Khomeini first came to power, in which over 500 Ahwazi Arab protesters were slaughtered and hundreds more wounded or arrested and disappeared forever for demanding self-rule for the Ahwaz region. Many of those detained during that massacre, which subsequently became known as Black Wednesday, are still missing to this day, with women and children once again counted among the victims.
Several eyewitnesses said that protests had been growing in the city after the suspicious death of a prominent Ahwazi poet assassination of a well-known Ahwazi poet, Hassan Haidari, who died of poisoning shortly after his release from a regime prison; he reportedly told medics and his family that he had been poisoned whilst in custody. A large number of people took to the streets to protest against this and against the regime’s repression and deteriorating conditions in Ma’shour, the regional capital Ahwaz city, as well as in other cities like Falahiyeh (Shadegan) and Muhammarah. These protests grew and were joined by other large-scale demonstrations across Iran when the regime drastically increased oil prices and thus raising the prices of food and other essentials, adding further pressure on the already struggling people. Other eyewitnesses first noticed the growing protests after the ethnic minority groups around the nation, along with Persian citizens, rose up in response to increased taxes on their oil.
Another eyewitness, who lost many of his relatives in the regime massacre, said that the IRGC forces deployed heavy military equipment in the Jarahi and Koura districts in Ma’shour while shooting randomly at people. The forces also searched the area with UAV drones and helicopter gunships, he said, explaining that the military forces also brought in other vehicles and weapons, including tanks, in preparation for attacking the Koura district.
Other eyewitnesses provided similar accounts of how the Revolutionary Guards deployed large numbers of troops and militiamen in the city of Ma’shour over the four days between November 15th-19th to crush the protests. All witnesses spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of punishment by the Revolutionary Guards, with any communication with external media criminalised by the regime as ‘treason’.
One recollected, “I was looking for my little brother after the massacre in the Jarrahi marshes and saw a number of Revolutionary Guards’ tanks heading to the Koura neighbourhood. We were terrified and the pain was unimaginable after they killed several people in Jarrahi and dozens others in Khour Mousa.”
Another witness, still traumatised by his experience and what he had seen, explained, “The citizens of Koura neighbourhood said ‘We have two options: whether or not we die under torture by the regime or to resist the Revolutionary Guard forces, then the world, especially the United States government , might support our revolution against the repressive and brutal regime.’ Thus, for four days, the protesters succeeded in controlling Koura and Tanideh Street in Jarrahi, and most of the neighbourhoods of the city of Ma’shour, and a number of suburbs of the city. The clashes were fierce, so the IRGC escaped due to the people’s intense resistance and the people were able to control the main road leading to the city and the adjacent petrochemical industrial complex.” The witness broke down in tears, saying, “All the citizens of Ma’shour were awaiting action by the international community to stop any other crime in the city. All people were waiting for rapid intervention of the world because this is a heinous crime.”
Residents said that local security forces and riot police officers had attempted to disperse the crowd and open the roads but failed. Several clashes between protesters and security forces erupted between 15th November and 19th November, but the IRGC failed to control the city.
When Revolutionary Guards reinforcements arrived in the city of Ma’shour on 19th November, they prepared to storm the Koura neighbourhood and the other areas of the city. There were violent clashes, and local people were able to control new areas temporarily. But the disconnection of the internet and the lack of communication between citizens and the world meant the regime forces were able to enter the neighbourhood using tanks and helicopter gunships to mow down anyone attempting to stop them. As a result, many citizens were killed instantly, according to residents interviewed by phone.
A 19-year-old man told DIRS that he was shot in one leg on 19th November, one day after the regime forces stormed the Koura district, which is among the most impoverished neighbourhoods of Ma’shour. He said: “I had hope that the world would act to stop the crimes of the regime, but we lost hope after the massacres that took place, and the world didn’t even pay attention to what happened”. He confirmed that he could not go to the hospital because the regime had already arrested a number of wounded people there.
Another young woman from the city said that, following the initial attacks by IRGC forces on peaceful protesters, there were running gun battles for several days between IRGC forces and local Arab people, who traditionally keep guns for hunting at home. While hunting weapons are no match for large-calibre machine guns, seeing children mowed down by the IRGC proved too much, and many locals turned to active resistance. She said: “Despite the battles being terrifying, at the same time it gave hope to the citizens that other cities in Iran would revolt forcefully until the brutal regime will be defeated”. I asked her if any member of the Revolutionary Guards were killed in the clashes, and she replied in the affirmative, saying, “A large number of them, including a senior commander in the Revolutionary Guards, were killed in the clashes”.
Human rights organisations reported that one of the unprecedented features of these brutal reprisals by the regime against protesters across Iran was the targeting of children, with at least 18 children, the youngest aged four, being shot dead by IRGC troops and affiliated militias, with several of these in Ma’shor and other Arab cities in Ahwaz.
The identity of the youngest victim, a four-year-old girl reportedly shot dead by IRGC forces in the Jarrahi area of Ma’shour, has not yet been released. Local witnesses say that at least six children and two women were among the victims in the regime’s massacre in the town, though only one, 17-year-old Ahmed Alboali from the Koura neighbourhood, shot dead on 17th November, has so far been named.
Among the other child victims identified in the Ahwaz region are 12-year-old Ali Ghazlawi and his brother Khaled, aged 16, who were shot dead in the main square in Muhammarah (Khorramshahr), along with 17-year-old Mohsen Mohammadpour.
Another child, 17-year-old Ahmad Ja’awla from the town of Andisheh in Tester (Shooshtar), was reportedly shot dead by the regime’s infamous plainclothes Basij forces, with a phone video of his death being uploaded online. In the regional capital, Ahwaz city, 17-year-old Mujahid Jama’I was killed on 16th November in the Kot Abdullah area, and another 17-year-old, Mohammad Berihi, was killed on the 18th and 16-year-old Reza Neisi was killed on 19th November, all shot dead by IRGC forces.
The threat is ongoing, and when the wind blows from the canebrake, it is difficult for anyone to not shudder in fear at what they might smell. The world cannot take its eyes away, or limit its investigations into what has already happened. For it is still happening, and the regime will not stop unless the world forces it to do so.
Co-authored by Rahim Hamid and Kamil Alboshoka
Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.
Kamil Alboshoka, an Ahwazi researcher and International law specialist based in London. Alboshoka tweets under @KAlboshoka