Even as the eyes of the world begin to turn away, Iranian regime forces and affiliated militias have been carrying out and intensifying a large-scale campaign of slaughter, mass arrest and terror against Ahwazi Arabs in the Ma’shour or Bandar-e Mahshahr area of the Ahwaz region, in retaliation for participating in peaceful protests.
Hundreds are believed to have died in the regime’s blitzkrieg against the unarmed protesters in the Ahwaz region alone, with the regime’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) deploying large numbers of troops and militiamen, along with armoured vehicles, drones, helicopter gunships, heavy machine guns, and snipers, against the unarmed protesters since the latest uprising began in mid-November.
The demonstrations began due to a variety of factors, predominantly the worsening living conditions in the already impoverished region, along with corruption, high unemployment, and the regime’s anti-Arab racism and brutality. However, there was also another catalyst that played a part in igniting the protests, namely the suspicious death of a young Ahwazi poet from poisoning believed to have been sustained in regime custody.
A human rights activist from the area, whose name must also be anonymised, explained the dire situation that preceded the protests: “here, local Arab people see no happiness. A few months ago, there was a show called “Iranians got Talent” on Iran TV. This year when a female Arab artist named Fatemeh Abadi from Mahshour won the competition, a wave of spontaneous happiness and celebrations ran all over Khor Mousa (Sarbandar in Farsi), Ma’shour, Koura, known as Talaghani in Farsi and Jarahi, known as Chamran. A rare break in the daily routines of the hard life of these Arab people. A city where four years ago had come to the fore because of the high temperature of seventy degrees.
Having living facilities is vital, but Arab residents of this area get no benefit from mass industrial and petrochemical facilities but unstable and unbalanced development. If there are no dust and sand storms, the pollution also makes it difficult to breathe anywhere anyway. Notably, frequent technical defects in the petrochemical companies’ operations and overall heavy smoke increase the pollution. And even if rainfalls decrease the air pollution, people know the result will be acid rain and people needing admission to hospitals for breathing problems.
Ma’shour Petrochemical Industries generates more than $10 billion annually, but it costs people a lot. Investment in Mahshour infrastructure is minimal. From the hydro systems needed for drinking water treatment, if it is not dirty, it is highly contaminated, with waste and wastewater discharged near people’s homes and left with no treatment. Deteriorated and dilapidated housing in deprived districts of Ma’shour like Fazeh1 and Jarahi town make the life overwhelming for inhabitants. Most of the houses of the Arabs of this area are completely rotten.
Perhaps poverty and social deprivation would be more tolerable if the environment and people’s health were protected. In Ma’shour, tens of petrochemical units are pumping 150,000 square meters of their effluent into the Gulf and the Khour Mousa waters daily. This effluent is highly contaminated with toxic metals, especially mercury. ‘The Ma’shour petrochemical industry uses mercury as a catalyst, and there is mercury in the pollutants that are dumped into the river and sea,’ said Dr Mohammad Bagher Nabavi, deputy director of the marine environment. Nabavi noted on a trip to Ma’shour with the head of the Environmental Protection Agency, Dr Hatami Kia, head of the city’s health network, has provided weird statistics of children born with birth defects, including 270 to 370 children without head within six months.”
On the first day of the demonstrations, Friday, 8 November, Ahwazi citizens took to the streets in the interconnected cities of Khour Mousa, Ma’shour, and Koura, with some protesters blocking the roads leading to the petrochemical and industrial companies’ facilities in the area by setting light to tires laid across the road. Mobile phone footage obtained from the area shows the protesters moving the blockades aside to allow civilian vehicles and those unconnected with the oil industry to pass, only preventing the petrochemical firms’ vehicles from entering and leaving.
Despite being peaceful and non-violent, the protesters’ success in stopping work at petrochemical facilities may have enraged the regime even more than their protests for freedom and democracy; the Ahwaz region is home to over 95 per cent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran’s regime and thus overwhelmingly the source of the regime’s remaining income. It should also be noted that the vast wealth obtained from these oil and gas resources has never benefited the Ahwazi population, who face racist anti-Arab abuse and deprivation on a systemic and massive scale. This has been the case since the early twentieth century, when British guarantees to the Ahwazis were abandoned, which led to Persian conquest and decades of marginalisation.
In Ma’shour, the local police intervened the following Friday, 15 November, and again the next day, but failed to rectify the situation to its satisfaction. At this point, the regime unleashed brute force, deploying special forces on Sunday, 17 November. These forces opened fire randomly at the protesters in an effort to intimidate them and force them to disperse, with many killed and many others wounded in this close-range free fire against unarmed people. Despite this, the protesters did not disperse but became more determined, refusing to abandon their demonstrations. It is noteworthy that not one regime official made any effort to defuse the tensions by speaking with the protesters and finding out about their grievances.
On the morning of Monday, 18 November 2019, protesters in the town of Jarahi were surprised by the arrival of large numbers of heavily armed regime troops and militiamen, along with tanks, IRGC naval forces, and members of the NOPO (the regime’s ‘Counter-terrorism’ Special Force), acting on the orders of the heads of the Amīr al-Mu’minīn Unit of Special Units Command of Law Enforcement Force of Islamic Republic of Iran. These forces were also accompanied by armoured vehicles, drones, helicopters, snipers, and heavy machine guns, along with considerable supporting fighters from the IRGC’s Malik Al-Ashtar brigade. All these forces gathered in the town’s Bathat Square. During this time, the Arab protesters were gathered near a small area of marshland adjacent to the road just outside the town known locally as Hor al-Jarahi.
The military commanders leading the IRGC forces demanded that the protesters end their blockade of the roads in the area. The peaceful protesters rejected this order, and insisted that their demands should be met first, or at least heard. Rather than making any effort to negotiate with the unarmed protesters, many of whom were women and children, the IRGC opened fire using heavy machine guns and other weapons. Some of the protesters took cover in the marshlands, while others ran back into the town and sought shelter there. The intensive gunfire against the protesters in the marshlands continued for four hours, beginning around 10:30 am and finishing at around 2:30 pm, leaving many killed and wounded.
After removing some of the bodies of the dead and arresting the wounded, as well as detaining a number of citizens uninvolved with the protests, regime forces entered the town of Jarahi with the aim of killing or arresting the remaining protesters. Many were shot randomly at close range as they attempted to flee. Although some attempted to escape to the marshlands, they were either shot dead or arrested. Many of those injured were too terrified to seek medical treatment, fearing rightly that the regime would be monitoring hospitals and pharmacies and arresting anyone seeking treatment for gunshot injuries.
A local eyewitness told DIRS, “When the regime was shooting crazily at the protesters in the nearby marshes, we could only hear the screams of children and women and young protesters but after an hour their voices fell silent and the next morning regime forces set fire to the reeds in the marshes. The smell of dead bodies spread. The regime vehicles came and collected the bodies and took them. When the grieving families began wading through the marshes searching for them, they only found the shreds of cloth from their sons’ clothes soaked with blood, and the sound of flies gathering around the blood and the smell of burned flesh of the bodies and bloodstains on the reeds.”
The eyewitness said many families had heard the injured crying out and had tried to rush to save their sons from the marshes, but regime forces had fired at them, with officers using loudhailers to tell them to stay away from the marshes.
The devastated families were forced to listen to the screaming, weeping, and pleas for help for their children, brothers and sisters, without being able to do anything to help them; they left to hear the indescribable screams and smell the burning, after the regime troops set the reed beds alight, even though many of the injured were still alive.
According to credible reports obtained by DIRS from human rights activists in Ahwaz, the regime is even attempting to extort money from the grieving families of its victims, charging them around $4,000 each in order to return the bodies of their loved ones, and even charging them ‘fees’ for the bullets used to kill their children, parents, husbands and wives.
After perpetrating these atrocities in Jarahi, the regime forces moved on to the neighbouring town of Koura, five kilometres away. First, tanks besieged the town and opened fire on the protesters blocking the road to force them to abandon their protests and to allow the regime forces to enter the town. Several citizens were killed in the initial tank bombardment, and the town was besieged from Monday, 18 November to Wednesday, 20 November. A local cleric, the leader of the Friday prayers in the town, intervened and asked the IRGC not to enter the city, in order to defuse tensions there.
Eyewitnesses said that senior Guards officers told the cleric that they had received reports of the presence of ‘ISIS’ members in the town, and that they had been sent there on orders of high-ranking officials, citing Hassan Rouhani, the president of the Islamic Republic, the IRGC leadership and National Security Council officials. The regime forces then proceeded to carry out mass killings in the town, using the supposed presence of ISIS as a pretext, although there has never been any such presence in the area.
As to those killed, we have only been able to confirm the following names:
- Sayed Ahmad Jawawale, aged 5, son of Seyed Nour, from the town of Hay Al- Tafkir known as Andisheh town in Farsi.
- Meysam Maneat, aged 20.
3. Khalid Maneat, son of Wahab Maneat.
4. Ali Ghazlawi, aged 12.
5. Milad Hamidi, aged 19, son of Badr, from Malawi.
6. Ibrahim Motori.
7. Hassan Ghazlawi (Tamimi), aged 23, son of Kazim.
8. Khaled Ghazlawi, aged 16.
9. Ali Baghlani, son of Taher Baghlani.
10. Hamza Sawari, son of Fazel Sawari, aged 25, killed in Ahwaz city.
11. Mohammad Reza Asafi Zargani, aged 20, from Zargan neighbourhood of Ahwaz city.
12. Reza Niesi, aged 16, son of Atiyeh Niesi, from Ahwaz city, killed.
13. Hamza (Muhammad) Bariehi, aged 17, son of Abbas Bariehi from Asieabad district in Ahwaz city.
14. Ali Tamimi, from Zouyeh district in Ahwaz city, injured by a gunshot to his neck, Ali died in hospital.
Kut Abdullah, Bawi town:
15. Maysam Mojaddam, from Kot El Nawasir district.
16. Mojahed Jāmaʿa, from the Islamabad district
17. Mohammad Hossein Ghanevati.
18. Ehsan Abdollah Nejad.
19. Mehrdad Dashti Nia.
20. Mahmoud Dashti Nia.
21. Ahmad Hashemdar.
22. Shabnam Diani (female).
23. Tedeen, last name is not known,
24. Farzad Ansari Far.
Ma’shour area( Bandar-e Mahshahr):
25. Ali Khawaja Albu Ali, from Jarahi.
26. Taher Al Khamis (Hatawi), aged 25, son of Abdullah, from Jarahi, married with a 7-year-old son.
27. Qasim Bawi, son of Mansour, from Jarahi.
28. Mohammed Khaledi, from Jarahi.
29. Adnan Hilali, Jarahi.
30. Youssef Albu Abadi, son of Younis, from Jarahi.
31. Salem Amir Sanjarian (Eidani) from Khour Mousa.
32. Ahmad Cheraghian (Cheraghzadeh), a resident of Jayezan town who was working in Tondgouyan Petrochemical Company, was killed during the Jarahi operation.
33. Abbas Mansouri (Asakareh), Abbas was a street vendor, killed during the Jarahi operation.
34. Ahmad Khajeh Albu Ali (Darris), aged 17, son of Abdul Ali, Ahmad was the only child of the family in Koura. He was killed at a checkpoint at the entrance to the town of Koura.
35. Mohammad Khaleghi, from the town of Koura
36. Youssef Khaledi, from the town of Koura.
37. Mojtaba Ebadi, from the town of Koura.
38. Hamid Sheikhani, aged 35, son of Hamad, was arrested and killed under torture.
39. Mansour Asakareh, aged 41, son of Khalaf, from the town of Koura, Mansour was married with three sons and two daughters. Occupation: owned a three-wheeler vehicle and worked buying and selling materials retrieved from the trash.
40. Majid Mojadam, Son of Said, from Zubidiyeh village in Khour Mousa, he went to Kut Sayed Saleh district to visit his relatives in Karun County near Ahwaz city and was injured during the protests and died in hospital.
41. Razaq Nasser Zadeh (Farahani), aged 42, from Khour Mousa.
42. Ahad Beshareh Doraghi, aged 25, from Khour Mousa, Ahad’s parents had already died, and he was the only breadwinner for his brothers and sisters.
43. Ali Bawi, aged 25, from Khour Mousa.
44. Ali Moradi, from Khour Mousa.
45. Farshad Hajipour from Chaharmahal and Bakhtiari Province.
46. Mansour Darris, aged 30, from Khour Mousa, died in hospital after suffering severe injuries and was buried overnight.
47. Bani Rashid (the first name is not known).
48. Ja’far al-Khamis.
49. Sayed Hassan Mousavi.
50: Hadi Ghorbani.
51. Mohsen Albu Ali, aged 17, son of Latif, from Falahiyeh city, was killed by a sniper.
For some of the murdered, we can share more than simply their names.
Hamid Sheikhani was a 35-year-old married man with a young daughter, who lived in Koura town. He was a national champion in track and field. During the latest protests against gas price increase, along with other young people, he went to Koran Square (Koran gate), located at the entrance of Koura town, to participate in the protests. In the words of one of his friends: “on the day of protest, we suddenly faced numbers of military machines like tanks. Hamid was angry at the presence of forces and ran towards the running tank, then took off his shirt, screaming, ‘look, we have no weapons; why do you come on tanks?’ While he was screaming, a number of guard forces attacked and arrested him, then took him away in a car. He was arrested on 19 November. He was totally healthy when he was arrested, but on 23 November, they called his family and informed them that Hamid had a ‘heart attack’ in jail, and they had to come to receive his dead body. His relatives say there was a string of strangulation bruises around his neck.”
In an interview with a local rights activist whose name is anonymised for his safety said, ” Ma’shour, Koura and Jarahi, which are an interconnected area, should be named as “land of blood and fire”. This area is indeed considered as Iran’s largest petrochemical industry. But these days, Ma’shour, Koura and Jarahi have come to the fore, not because of the petrochemical industry but because of the heinous crimes of the IRGC. This is now an area in which the revolutionary guards carried out the brutal killing with tanks and machine guns during the protests. Last month, as in other Iranian cities, Arab people of this area joined the protests against the regime. But the cries of poor people of this area were met with bullets and tanks. Arab youth blocked roads, so the revolutionary guards attacked them with tanks, shot at the protesters and opened the roads forcefully. Young protesters fled into the canebrake of Jarahi town to save themselves from machine guns. But the Revolutionary Guard opened fire into the canebrake and then set fire to it. The wounded young people were burned alive in the fire. A few days after this horrific crime, the smell of dead bodies called for bereaved families to go searching for their young children’s bodies. The canebrake was massively mowed down to the extent that it looked as if it had been cut with a sickle, there was a sea of blood. What was the crime of these deprived people? Just protesting against oppression.”
The other local activist similarly and bitterly agreed. “Arab people protest at this ethnic oppression. In which country does the government use tanks and machine guns to face public protests? But here is the Iranian regime, the land of crimes, where they burned young Arab protesters alive in the canebrake.'”
The regime officer’s claims that the attacks were ordered by leadership officials provide further clear evidence that the regime is responsible for these crimes against humanity that resulted in the deaths and injuries of hundreds of innocent unarmed protesters in Jarahi, Koura and other towns and areas across the Ahwaz region and that these are part of a systematic regime strategy to terrorise the people into acquiescence.
Regime forces also perpetrated similar atrocities against protesters in the city of Muhammarah, known as Khorramshahr in Farsi, and in Abadan and Falahiyeh, known as Shadegan, Tester, Ramez, as well as in the regional capital, Ahwaz city. As elsewhere, the IRGC and the regime’s infamous plainclothes Basiji militias played the leading role in terrorising and killing the unarmed protesters, as well as in the campaign of mass arrests. The number of those wounded in Ahwaz city alone has reached at least 140, with over 800 being arrested. Only 150 of those detained have been released, with the families of other detainees being denied any information about their whereabouts. Some detainees have reportedly been transferred to other provinces.
One other local activist also spoke to DIRS, and that individual’s name too has been kept confidential. When asked why the regime acted with such excess bloodshed, even by its own dark standards, he said that Ahwaz was not targeted merely because it was ethnically Arab or because the regime believed it could massacre Arabs with no consequences, but that the regime deployed this intense military campaign in order to swiftly crack down so that its petrochemical profits were protected.
In a recent academic presentation, with the paper soon to be published, Aaron Eitan Meyer reminded us that as far back as the 1950s, the American Central Intelligence Agency identified Ahwaz as Iran’s potential Achilles Heel, containing resources without which no regime could maintain control. This is something the Ahwazi people have always understood as well.
While the protests in other parts of Iran have been suppressed, the people of Ahwaz know that this is not nearly over for them. Hundreds or thousands of wounded, and people who had nothing to do even with the most peaceful of protests have been arrested and taken away with no information provided as to whether they are even alive. The families of those imprisoned are left with no hope, fearing that they, like Hamid Sheikani’s family, will receive a phone call in the middle of the night telling them that their previously healthy loved one is dead of a supposedly ‘natural’ cause that was anything but.
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.
By Rahim Hamid, an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. Hamid tweets under @Samireza42.