By Javad Motevali
November 29, 2019
The lights of the internet in Iran had gone out – as if the country had been sent back to a time before mass communication. Scattered and contradictory reports of the fuel price protests and violence across Iran were received from different parts of the country. Domestic media made no attempt to broadcast the protests because of the internet shutdown. And citizen journalists, civil society activists and others inside Iran had no way to communicate with the outside world.
But then the crisis subsided. The suppression of the protesters was carried out by each pillar of the Islamic Republic – from the police to the Basij paramilitary forces to the Revolutionary Guards. And gradually internet access has returned to the country. Some areas remain cut off and access to credible news is still not available, but connection was also sufficiently restored for eyewitnesses to the protests to send their videos, photos and testimonies to the media.
Social media networks were once again filled with footage of the unrest – many of them showing incidents of violence by security forces against unarmed protesters.
Eyewitnesses in some cities, including Shiraz, have offered shocking testimonials of the protests. The following is from a teacher in Shiraz who was present when security forces cracked down on protesters in the suburb of Golestan.
The teacher, whose name is being withheld to protect the eyewitness’ identity, told IranWire: “The conflict in our neighborhood was terrible. It’s like we were in the middle of a battlefield. It was a martial law; except, they didn’t announce it. Every night around 6pm there was gunfire and we heard screams – the screams of a person who had been shot – and then an officer giving orders to his colleagues to catch the person. Several times we heard two shots fired, one after the other; this was when they shot someone twice in the back, to make sure they had been killed. People were killed so easily. I’m sure at least 10 people were killed in our alley.”
“These statistics are just lies,” the teacher added, pointing to official figures and media reports on the casualties. “Young people were killed. Bodies weren’t returned to families without them first being ordered to pay. We were in tears during those evenings. There was so much shooting, so many screams, that it was useless to try to distract or entertain my sister’s children by playing videos or cartoons.”
The teacher also spoke of the dangers posed to ordinary Iranians by security forces and plainclothes police officers during the first two days of the protests.
”My sister, with her 8-year-old son, wanted to come to Golestan from Sadra on Saturday. It’s usually less than ten minutes by car. My sister said that it was a terrifying drive because the driver was holding a knife as he drove – for fear of being attacked by the security forces. He would drive, stop to ask protesters which roads were open, and then continue; it took them two hours to make the journey, through fire and spoke. My sister said that the city looked like a war zone. She and her son were so frightened – they couldn’t stop crying for two days. She had shot a three-second video and thank God they got out of that mess because the videos shows only fire.”
Golestan is in western Shiraz. On the edge of the suburb there is a prominent shopping center, set on a square and a major avenue, and in that area there are a large number of banks.
The teacher said that in Golestan, “not a single bank branch was spared. All the traffic signs were stolen. They have destroyed public telephones and removed anything that was attached to the ground. I saw the branches of the Melli, Mellat, Tejarat, Resalat, Kosar, Shahr, and Qavamin banks, and they were all torched. The windows of the Maskan and Saderat banks were broken. They removed the ATM machines. Furniture from the bank branches had been thrown into the street – those these were not burned.”
The witness says that the ransacking of the banks was not the work of ordinary Iranians.
“The floor above Resalat Bank was a residential flat,” the teacher said. “Protesters came to the bank but they didn’t cause any damage – they said they would not harm people’s homes. Less than 10 minutes later, the Revolutionary Guards and the Basij paramilitary forces surrounded the protesters from behind. The Guards set fire to the bank and the residences above, just to blame the people and say that it was a riot, and that they were foreigners or affiliated to ISIS. The shop and the house was set on fire and everyone who was there saw that it was the Guards who caused the fire.”
The teacher said that he went out the following day, November 17, using his own car, to see the situation firsthand. “It was raining. Municipal workers were clearing the rubble. And the Guards were standing in front of the banks. They were so numerous that we were afraid to open the car windows.”
“Neither the United States nor anyone else supports us or sympathizes with Iran,” he added, noting the lack of response from the international community to the protests. “Our city is now like a war-torn city, and who knows how long it will take to repair the damage.”
The eyewitness said that the widespread and harsh suppression of the protests was intended to make the consequences of protesting too high for ordinary people.
The teacher emphasized that the clashes happened across the city – but that in some areas the situation was even more severe.
“I heard in Ma’ali Abad, the situation was much worse than ours. The clashes were far more horrific, in Mulla Sadra Street, the Adelabad Prison Road intersection, and south of the city, where people are much worse off. In places like Kuzegari in the south of Shiraz, where lower-income people live, the security forces opened fire on the people.”
The teacher also heard stories from his students when the schools were reopened – even though students and teachers were banned from discussing the protests at school.
“One of my pupil’s mother said that their relatives in Sadra City [a suburb of Shiraz] had gone into the street to see what was happening, when an airborne helicopter opened fire. A bullet struck the relative in the head and killed him.”
The teacher also said that, in addition to the indiscriminate killing and destruction, there were many arrests in neighborhoods across Shiraz.
“The father of one my pupils said they had seen, from the window of his sister’s house, a car carrying 15 heavily armed officers. The security forces hid behind the trees of a neighborhood park, just a short distance from the protesters. They lined up, ready to chase the protesters. Anyone on their way home was detained and taken away where they were beaten by these men. Then the officers sprayed something in their faces and they fell unconscious. When they fell, the officers threw them into their cars and took them away.”
While there is widespread fear over the fall-out from the protests, there is also sympathy and compassion, including from unexpected sources.
“The father of one of my students is a police officer. We asked him: what should we do? He said: ‘Do not be afraid. The people escaping from the Revolutionary Guards are not dangerous, they are ordinary people, innocent citizens. They may need help and refuge. Help them. Let them stay with you until things calm down. But never let them fall into the hands of the IRGC,’ he added.”
Reports have also emerged that some security officials have received large sums of money to return the bodies of protesters to their families. The Numbers range from 20 million to 100 million tomans ($1,600 to $8,000).
“In Shiraz, the authorities do not return the bodies of those killed to their families without first receiving 40 million tomans ($3,200),” the teacher said. “They demand a heavy bail for prisoners as well, but because most of the detainees are from the poorer classes of society, they cannot afford to give any title deeds as bail. So they all go to jail.”
The teacher said that security in Shiraz is still tight now that the protests have subsided. Flights were cancelled after the internet was shut down, and the presence of security forces is still overwhelming. Security forces wearing riot gear and masks patrol the streets, stores and are stationed ever ten meters, and are even watching over bus stops.
The protests may be finished for now – but Shiraz still feels like it is under siege.