One-year-old Sedigheh Heidari, a baby girl, died on the evening of Thursday 6 August, 2020 when she drowned in a raw sewage channel which flows outside her parents’ home in the Sayahi neighbourhood of Ahwaz city, southwest Iran. She was not the first Ahwazi infant or child to die in such an unimaginably foul and senseless way and is, tragically, unlikely to be the last, with Iranian authorities leaving these fetid open sewers to run outside Ahwazi people’s homes as one more insult and humiliation for the long-oppressed Ahwazis.
Whilst the region is the home of over 95 per cent of the oil and gas resources claimed by Iran’s regime and should, theoretically, be bounteously provided for, the regime takes the resources and wealth, while very deliberately subjecting the indigenous Ahwazi people to conditions of medieval deprivation, denying them the most basic amenities and facilities and even damming and diverting the waters of the two regional rivers, the Dez and Karoon, that once made the formerly autonomous emirate a verdant regional breadbasket.
This deprivation is part of a carefully calculated policy of collective punishment designed to make conditions so intolerable for the Ahwazi people that they will abandon their lands and move to other areas, allowing the regime to permanently eradicate their existence from the historical record and claim that the region and its resources were always ethnically Iranian.
So far, this effort by the regime has been unsuccessful. Though not for want of trying, with Ahwazis refusing to abandon their lands.
Ahwazis are born as second-class citizens in the eyes of the regime, with their Ahwazi ethnicity automatically making them targets for racist abuse and persecution. Most Ahwazi children grow up in conditions of poverty that defy imagination. At the same time, their ethnically Persian Iranian counterparts whose parents are brought to the region to work on the oil and gas fields and in the refineries, live in specially built ethnically homogenous settlements provided with all modern amenities, and properly constructed water, electricity, gas and sewage networks, and attend specially provided schools.
Ahwazis, meanwhile, are routinely dispossessed of their homes and land with no right of complaint or compensation, with hundreds of thousands forced to move to squalid ghetto neighbourhoods around the regional capital Ahwaz and other cities where they live in grinding poverty, denied any but the most menial jobs by the regime authorities.
Open sewage channels are an everyday sight, particularly in these most impoverished areas, posing a severe disease risk, with the stench in the roasting summer heat being almost unbearable, while flooding in the winter often leaves streets and homes submerged by raw sewage. Children playing in the street often slip and fall into them, with a number dying as a result. Complaints to the municipal authorities and pleas for action to repair these unsanitary and dangerous networks, which routinely break down, causing further flooding, are met with indifference.
With no play areas or swimming pools to cool them in the searing summer heat, Ahwazi children play in open sewage channels, exposing them to potentially lethal diseases, including Hepatitis A.
Ahwazis have not forgotten the children whose already deprived, too-short lives were cruelly snuffed out by literally drowning in sewage as a result of the authorities’ criminal negligence. These children’s names, like those of Mohammad Sadegh Zargani, Ali Barwaieh and Mohammad Erfan Obaidawi, have now been added to by one more victim.
Mohammad Sadegh Zargani was two-and-a-half years old on 16 March, 2016, when he fell into an open sewer pipe in Arghavan Street 2 in the Goldasht neighbourhood of Ahwaz city, drowning in liquid sewage. Although his parents, the relatives whose homes they were visiting at the time and frantic neighbours managed to retrieve him, he died at 4:30 a.m. the next morning in the city’s Golestan Hospital.
Despite this horrific death, the news was only briefly reported on local news channels and social media networks by Ahwazi rights groups at the time, with official state media disregarding it completely.
On 15 June 2017, another three-year-old infant child Ali Barwaieh from Ahwaz, fell into another open sewer channel in the Alawi district of Ahwaz city. Although firefighters did launch a search for the child in the foul sewer network, his body was only recovered the next day, at the entrance to the sewer discharge pipe into the Karoon River.
In another tragedy, on 9 May 2018, 18-month-old Mohammad Erfan Obaidawi fell into the deadly open sewage channel in Ahwazi city’s Sayahi district. Although he was pulled out alive, he suffered irreversible brain damage as a result of being deprived of oxygen, dying 14 days later in one of the city’s hospitals.
Only two months later, on 25 July 2018, a three-year-old boy from Ahwazi city, named only as Elias, fell into another open sewage channel behind the city’s Mahan Hall. Although a heroic passer-by leapt into the foul sewer to try to save the child, he was unable to recover him, and himself had to be taken to hospital due to being injured in the rescue bid. A few hours later, the child’s body was recovered by fellow citizens who searched amid the foul effluent until they found him. Again, the news of this heartbreaking and totally preventable death of an infant was only reported in local media and on social media networks, barely being mentioned in major regime media, with only the sketchiest details available of the tragic incident.
The latest victim is one-year-old Sedigheh Heidari, who had apparently tried to follow her mother when she popped round to a neighbour’s house with flour for cooking. When her mother returned, she was unable to find the baby. Ten minutes later, Sedigheh’s 12-year-old brother and his friends, who had joined in the search, saw her lifeless body in the sewer channel and immediately rushed to tell his parents. Although her father immediately retrieved her, Sedigheh was already dead.
Sedigheh’s heartbroken father, Jabbar Heidari, recounted the details, saying, “This incident happened at 10 p.m. last Wednesday (6 August, 2020). The neighbour asked my wife to bring them flour. My wife went to their house to deliver the flour. Meanwhile, my one-year-old daughter, who had been left at home with her older sister, managed to get out of the house, but no one noticed her and she fell in the open sewer in front of the door. She was at that stage between crawling and toddling.”
“After not noticing for a few minutes that she’d disappeared, we looked for her at home, but we couldn’t find her. At that moment, one of her brothers saw that his sister had fallen into the sewer and rushed in and told us – before that we’d been frantic, searching the house for about 5 to 10 minutes to find her. When we pulled her out of the sewage, she was dead.”
Sedigheh’s parents are still traumatised at their beloved baby daughter’s death and still demanding answers from the municipal authorities as to why the open sewage network was allowed to remain uncovered, resulting in this tragedy, despite repeated earlier pleas to repair and cover it.
“When we couldn’t find Sedigheh, I thought someone had taken my daughter, and my mind did not reach anywhere,” her father said. “So far, no official from the municipality, the Ahwaz Water and Waste Water Co or members of the city council have come to express their condolences.”
Adding insult to the grieving parents’ injury, the municipal authority even tried to suggest that its own negligence was not a contributing factor in this tragedy and that authorities could not be sure that she had died in the reported way. “The last thing we heard from the municipality was, ‘We do not know the truth of this incident,’ the grieving father said. “Let them find out what happened!”
Ahwazis will not forget or forgive the authorities that see their children’s health and lives as expendable. Sedigheh Heidari is unlikely to be the last victim of a terrible policy that endangers the Ahwazi innocent children.
By Rahim Hamid
Rahim Hamid is an Ahwazi author, freelance journalist and human rights advocate. He tweets under @Samireza42.