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 Drowning in Ahwaz:  An Infant’s Wretched Death Symbolises a Region’s Struggle

Another Ahwazi infant drowned in human waste on Monday, 15 February, the latest child to die a wretched death due to the Iranian regime’s indifference to the miserable existence of the country’s marginalised and impoverished Ahwazis. Two-year-old Daniel Nasseri fell into an open sewage drain in the Kot Abdullah neighbourhood of the regional capital, drowning before frantic family members could rescue him from the fetid waters, which have risen due to rains and flooding.

The child’s death, which happened despite frequent warnings after similar previous tragedies, is perhaps a good metaphor for the plight of the Ahwazi people, left to drown in a fetid sewer of the Iranian regime’s creation.

The situation facing Ahwazis, the indigenous people of south and southwest Iran, is little better than that of tiny Daniel Nasseri; despite the region being the richest in Iran in terms of natural resources, containing over 95% of the oil and gas reserves, as well as the majority of its water resources, most Ahwazis languish in conditions of medieval poverty, denied fundamental human rights and brutalised for any protest at the systemic injustice and racism they are subjected to.   Recent reports suggest the already horrendous poverty in the region is worsening, with women and children routinely seen scavenging in dustbins and skips for food; while the regime likes to claim that this poverty is caused by sanctions, these same sanctions apparently don’t affect the regime’s ability to fund weapons and militias across the Middle East.

The regime has also made a series of new discoveries of oil and gas fields recently, pleasing the leadership in Tehran and its international partners; as ever, the only part which the Ahwazi people see of the massively lucrative mineral resources on their lands are the choking air pollution from the oil and gas wells across the region belching out noxious atmospheric waste day and night, and the pools of oil leaching into the groundwater, poisoning the region’s once renowned rich agricultural lands and the freshwater rivers, with the latter already largely depleted by the regime’s massive upriver river-damming and diversion program, which has led to widespread desertification.

Adding insult to injury, Ahwazis are denied any but the most menial jobs at these oil and gas fields and the related vast petrochemical plants that scar the landscape across the region; instead, ethnically Persian workers are lured to the region from other areas of Iran by offers of well-paid jobs and homes in specially constructed and well-landscaped settlements provided with all amenities, where Ahwazis are banned from living.  The regime, which is always keen to criticise Israel’s settlement-building, is deathly silent on its own racism towards Arab and other minorities in Iran and its construction of ethnically homogenous ‘Persian-only’ settlements.

Like the oil and gas fields and the petrochemical plants, these settlements are built on land taken from Ahwazis, whose homes and villages are expropriated and razed by the regime with little or no warning; it’s not uncommon for heavily armed officers from the infamous Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) to turn up supported by Basiji, unarmed regime thugs, with armed vehicles and bulldozers, giving families a few hours to quit their homes and land before driving them out and demolishing their homes or whole villages. Any complaint to regime officials about this grotesque inhumanity, monstrous systemic injustice and open anti-Arab racism is likely to see the complainants or protesters arrested as “troublemakers” and very probably imprisoned on fabricated charges.

With no money or resources, most of the dispossessed are forced to either move to other areas of Iran or to squalid shantytowns like Kot Abdullah built around the Ahwaz cities. These teeming, poverty-stricken areas, starved of the most basic infrastructure and amenities by the regime, are natural breeding grounds for disease which spreads fast due to the overcrowding.  

The lack of potable freshwater adds to the Ahwazi people’s suffering, with this problem affecting the whole of Ahwaz due to the regime’s aforementioned river-damming and diversion program that sees millions of gallons of water transferred daily to other regions of Iran.  In the past few days alone, a member of the local council for Qajariyeh 2 Village in the rural Ismail district reported that seven villagers had been infected with Hepatitis A due to drinking contaminated water.  The council member, Abdul Amir Soleimani-Zadeh, told the state-run IRNA news agency that although drinking water problems had previously receded for a time, around a month ago villagers again began suffering gastrointestinal problems, including diarrhoea and nausea.

“At first, we assumed the people – who include children – had been infected with the COVID-19 coronavirus, but tests showed it was Hepatitis A due to drinking polluted water,” he said.  Local villagers told the agency they have no access to safe drinking water, with the local water refining facility being only built for show and not actually operating, adding “Our children have got chronic diseases due to the polluted water.”

Elsewhere in the region, hundreds of Ahwazis are still living in wretched displacement camps that were supposed to be temporary a year after being driven from their homes by horrendous flooding that afflicts the region in winter, exacerbated by the regime opening the sluices on the upstream dams to release water pressure.  Many see the regime’s failure to rehabilitate or restore their homes and lands or allow them to return to do so themselves as part of a deliberate regime policy of demographic change achieved through ethnic cleansing by stealth, using the flooding as a means to drive the indigenous Ahwazis from their land which can later be resettled by ethnic Persians.

Collectively, these grim and worsening conditions and the lack of any hope for improvement in the foreseeable future leave many Ahwazis feeling the world has abandoned them.  Left without jobs, food, money or even drinkable water amid a global pandemic, Ahwazis are struggling to survive.   Perhaps the only surprising thing about the high suicide figures among young Ahwazis is that they’re not even higher.

Despite the regime’s hopes that Ahwazis will give up and abandon their lands and identity, however, even in the face of intolerable injustice, unimaginable suffering, poverty and racist persecution, Ahwazis continue to defy the state that’s tried to crush them for decades.  Even when life is at its most hopeless, the Ahwazi people will not surrender to despair or allow little Daniel Nasseri and all the other innocent victims of the regime’s cruel policies of neglect to die in vain.

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