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Ahwaz in 2018: Anger and resilience in the face of Iranian brutality

Ahwazi people continued to endure massive rights abuses in 2018 as the regime persisted in its efforts to crush all those demanding the most basic of human rights. Despite the regime’s relentless oppression, however, the firestorm of anger has continued to grow, with workers, farmers and teachers joining the protesters’ ranks.

Over the past year, there have been three major protests in Ahwaz, including those entitled the Uprising of Land, Uprising of Dignity and Uprising of Thirst; these are in addition to protests over pay and deteriorating conditions by workers, teachers and farmers.

In the human rights arena, not a single day in 2018 went by in Ahwaz without a human rights violations, including forced disappearances, repression, injustice, the destroying of homes, the killing of innocent civilians, and the regime’s devastating environmental policies which wreak havoc not only on the ecosystem and agriculture but on the lives of farmers, rural communities and millions of people suffering due to the massive pollution and lack of clean water resulting from these policies.  

Those following Ahwazi affairs admit that it’s difficult to enumerate the Ahwazi popular uprisings which have sprung up repeatedly for decades, despite the regime’s efforts to crush resistance. However, many international reports have now shed light on a number of these uprisings, belatedly bringing the world’s attention to the regime’s medieval repression and persecution of Ahwazis still happening in the 21st century.

It should be stressed that as the location of over 95 percent of the oil and gas reserves claimed by the Iranian regime, the Ahwaz region should, in theory at least, be among the most affluent regions in Iran. Instead, the majority of Ahwazis live in conditions of medieval poverty with one of the highest unemployment rates in Iran, with 850,000 living in slums, according to a recent report from the state-run IRNA News Agency.

According to a recent IRNA interview with the Director-General of Social Affairs for Khuzestan governorate (the Farsi name conferred on Ahwaz by the Iranian regime, which refuses to acknowledge the Ahwazi people’s legitimacy), “850,000 Khuzestan residents(Ahwaz Region) are deprived and live in slums.”

Defending the Land

Ahwazis welcomed 2018 by continuing with a massive uprising that began in late 2017, which came to be known locally as the ‘Uprising for Land’.This first began as protests in solidarity with residents of al-Jalizi village, a small rural hamlet in the Musian ( Datshat  Abbas) district, where Iranian security services had attempted to seize villagers’ plots of land.

The villagers heroically stood up against the regime security services’ brutality, which particularly targeted women.  When video footage from mobile phone cameras spread on social media showing the security forces’ brutal attacks on the villagers, protests sprang up in cities and towns across Ahwaz in solidarity with the people of Jalizi.

The protests against this instance of regime brutality lasted for several weeks, with regime security forces arresting many of the villagers who protested at their lands being seized, as well as detaining many of the demonstrators who participated in peaceful protests against the regime’s brutality. These protests also ended up merging with other demonstrations against the deteriorating conditions in Iran that have gripped the entire country. 

The Uprising of Dignity

In March 2018, an Iranian state TV programme incited further protests when it very deliberately omitted the presence of Ahwazis from their homeland in a segment on the different peoples in Iran, despite Ahwazis’ millennia-long presence as the indigenous people of the region.  

As video clips of the programme spread on social media platforms and the internet, thousands of the Ahwazis, already angered at decades of injustice and racism, poured on to the streets to express their fury and resentment at Iran’s policies designed to deny and simply eradicate their presence in Ahwaz.

Despite knowing the lethal dangers of speaking out against the regime, Ahwazi men and women filled the streets across the region, chanting slogans vowing that they would never abandon their Ahwazi lands and identity.

Ahwazi women, angered by the regime’s misogynistic chauvinism as much as by the oppression, injustice and racism of its anti-Ahwaz policies, have played a central role in the protests alongside their male counterparts, marching alongside them once again to assert their shared pride in Ahwazi culture, heritage and identity in what became known as the Uprising of Dignity.

The regime reacted to this uprising, as always, with its customary savage repression and attempts to crush dissent through intimidation and brutality. Although the regime refuses to issue details on the numbers arrested and imprisoned during these or other protests, activists in the area estimate that around 1,500 were detained for participating in these demonstrations.

The Uprising of Thirst

Protests continued to grow at the escalating water crisis in Ahwaz in 2018.  This crisis has steadily worsened in recent years, with villages, towns and cities across the region suffering a chronic lack of potable drinking water due to the regime’s disastrous river-damming and diversion project. Whilst Ahwaz was once known as the breadbasket of Mesopotamia, with generations of local farmers and fishermen supplying the region with crops, livestock and all kinds of seafood, the regime’s massive project to dam the two major regional rivers near their source and divert the waters to other, non-Ahwazi regions of Iran via a network of vast pipelines has devastated the region to an unprecedented degree.  Large areas of Ahwaz that were once farmland and date-palm plantations are now arid desert, while much of the water that remains is brackish, saline and undrinkable even by livestock.  Without filtration plants or any water treatment works in any areas but the settlements built to house ethnically Persian settlers, the Ahwazi people are left with a water supply unfit for consumption, causing outbreaks of diseases which have been particularly devastating to the most vulnerable – children and the elderly. 

The Protest in  Ahwaz

This already terrible crisis worsened in 2018 with water supplies being completely cut off in the cities of Muhammarah and Abadan during the sweltering summer months of May and June when temperatures regularly climb to over 500 Celsius (122o Fahrenheit). The regime did nothing to resolve the ensuing problems, leading to widespread anger. 

Adding insult to injury, reports also emerged that the regime would be supplying Iraq with water from Ahwaz via an extension to the aforementioned pipelines, with similar agreements also signed between the regime and other regional nations to transfer water from Ahwazi rivers to those countries. Ahwazis, already facing life-threatening water shortages and undrinkable water supplies, reacted to this with understandable outrage.

In the midst of this dire situation, the people of Muhammarah and Abadan held anti-regime protests, calling on the leadership in Tehran to resolve the severe water crisis in the area.

As word of these protests spread across the region, thousands of other Ahwazis took to the streets in solidarity with the residents of the two cities during May and June, sparking what became known as the ‘Uprising of Thirst. The regime reacted, as always, with brutality and repression, arresting many protesters and failing to take any action to resolve the water crisis.

  Nawares Café massacre

Another of the main incidents in Ahwaz in 2018 was an atrocious massacre by regime forces of innocent people in a popular café in April.   The Nawares Caféwas a well-known local café in the regional capital where young people liked to meet up for coffee. On the night of April 3 2018, a group of young Ahwazis had gathered to discuss the protests and coordinate further peaceful demonstrations.  Determined to quell the protests and to send a message to the people to deter future demonstrations, IRGC personnel barricaded the doors of the crowded café and set it alight. Twenty-four young people, including an infant present at the café with his parents, burnt to death in the blaze. As always, none of those responsible for starting the fire were prosecuted, although witnesses were well aware of their identity.

 Farmers and workers

The number of labor-related protests in Ahwaz and across Iran surged in 2018, with thousands of workers in various sectors taking to the streets on a near-daily basis, usually over salaries withheld for months as the financial crisis in Iran worsened.

In Ahwaz, the angry workers demanding their long-overdue salaries included personnel from the state-run sugar refineries and steel manufacturing plants, as well as municipal workers and staff members of the company running the subway metro. As usual, Iranian authorities punished the workers for protesting, arresting and prosecuting those demonstrating whilst taking no action against those withholding their pay.

Demonstrations by workers at the nominally privatisation Haft Tapeh sugar refineries in Ahwaz have become an everyday event, with the disgruntled personnel now protesting for two years at the abuses by company management since the privatisation process, with many peremptorily fired whilst others have suffered massive wage cuts which don’t extend to the firm’s directors or other management personnel.

Arrests prior to Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha

2018 saw the highest ever number of arrests in Ahwaz in the four decades since the regime took power, with 5,000 Ahwazi people, including men, women, children and elderly citizens, detained on the flimsiest of pretexts.   Many of these people were arrested during the uprisings and protests, with a number also detained during festivals and other public events.  Two hundred of the villagers in  Jalizi who took part in the demonstrations as mentioned earlier against the regime’s seizure of their lands were detained, with many of those arrested being women. In the protests in solidarity with them that followed, known as the ‘Uprising of Dignity,’ around 2,000 people were arrested.  In the ‘Uprising of Thirst,’ meanwhile, the number arrested exceeded 1,000.

In addition to these arrests, the regime also routinely detains activists and other randomly selected people not involved in any protests ‘preemptively’ as a precautionary measure to deter people from participating in demonstrations, as it did with a large number of people in the period before the fifteenth anniversary of the 2005 uprising and before Eid al-Fitr and Eid al-Adha.

The regime claims that these arrests are made in order to hinder coordination between activists that happens before these occasions.

The regime also continued its persecution of prominent Ahwazi cultural figures, detaining well-known analysts, poets, thinkers, writers and others.

Iranian authorities also continue their constant efforts to dismantle any activist networks and prevent future uprisings through near-daily harassment, detention, and persecution of activists, who are often tortured before being released on massive bail payments. If this fails to force activists to abandon their activities, the regime routinely confiscates their homes and properties.

Mass arrest and extrajudicial executions

In October, following a deadly armed attack on a regime military parade in Ahwaz, more than 700 Ahwazis were arrested by regime forces and held incommunicado, with many tortured; the detainees included women and children.  Twenty of these detainees were reportedly executed without any trial in the infamous ‘black prisons’ run by regime intelligence services; their families only found out about their deaths after receiving brusque phone calls from regime officials informing them that their sons had been hanged. The bereaved families were informed they had no right to receive their loved ones’ bodies, to know their burial place, or even to hold the traditional funeral rituals and mourning ceremonies (since the regime feared that such gatherings might lead to demonstrations).  Such heinous acts which are, in fact, simply a way to further terrorise the people into submission are, tragically, not unusual.

Suicide in Ahwaz

According to the Iranian regime’s own official figures, an average of five to six Ahwazis commit suicide every week, with the people worn down by hopelessness, poverty, and despair.  

The causes of this tide of misery aren’t hard to find; despite the vast mineral wealth in the region, which holds over 95 percent of the oil wealth claimed by Iran, the level of state neglect in Ahwaz is catastrophic. For many young Ahwazis, even having a home is far beyond their wildest dreams, with whole areas of Ahwaz still in rubble as a result of the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88 despite the passage of 30 years. Meanwhile, unemployment in the region stands at 50 percent, far above the national and global average, adding to the woes of those already facing poverty, persecution and endemic racism at the regime’s hands, leading many young Ahwazis to succumb to desperation and hopelessness.

 Air and environment pollution

Since 2011, the eponymously named regional capital, Ahwaz, has held the unenviable position of annually topping the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) list of the world’s most polluted cities. A toxic combination of the pollutants from unchecked oil and gas drilling, petrochemical refineries which dump toxic chemicals directly into the surrounding atmosphere and water supply, and other industries which are unchecked by any environmental regulations, combines to make a toxic atmosphere. This is further worsened by the desertification resulting from severe water shortages mentioned earlier in the report that leads to choking and heavily polluted sandstorms.

According to environmental official, the once renowned marshlands  of Falahiyeh area between 70 and 80 percent of there are now gone, with the vast areas that once rivalled the Florida Everglades for the variety of marine life shrinking from 155,000 hectares to only 28,000 due to drought and the regime’s river-diversion program that worsens the drought in a self-reinforcing cycle.

Adding to the environmental devastation in 2018 were massive fires in the Hor al Azim marshlands as a result of a huge oil spill, with the fires causing a massive pall of thick black smoke that hung over local towns for several days, with many people taken to hospital due to breathing difficulties as a result.  

 

 

Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. You can follow him on his twitter account: https://twitter.com/samireza42

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