The wave of anti-government protests which have rocked Iran for nearly five months began in the town of Saqqez, in the Kurdish west. In the face of a brutal and intensifying crackdown, protesters started to meet force with force — targeting security forces in their homes, laying traps for policemen on motorcycles and preparing molotov cocktails.
As the hometown of Mahsa Amini, whose death in the custody of the morality police on Sept. 16 ignited the nationwide demonstrations, Saqqez holds special meaning in Iran.
“This city is really going to go down in history as the birthplace of this movement,” said Hadi Ghaemi, executive director of the Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based advocacy group.
But the city is also a bellwether, experts say, offering a possible glimpse at the future of the movement. As protesters there despaired over the lack of progress and mourned their compatriots — killed or badly wounded by security forces or languishing in prison — some turned to violence, suggesting the next phase of demonstrations could be even more deadly.
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This story is based on telephone interviews with four residents of Saqqez, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for their own safety. The Washington Post could not independently confirm their accounts, but their stories were corroborated by local activists and lined up with the findings of rights groups.
Amini’s funeral on Sept. 17 gave rise to the first large protest in the country, a spontaneous outburst of fury and frustration in this long-marginalized region. The crowd of mourners marched four miles from the cemetery to the municipality building in Qods Square, in the center of town. Special police units were waiting for them, residents said.
As the crowd grew, protesters began chanting “death to jash,” a term which means donkey in Kurdish, a reference to Kurdish security forces who work for the government. Officials came out of the building and tried to convince the crowd to disperse, but no one was in the mood to go home.
Some demonstrators began throwing rocks at the police and chanting more controversial slogans, including “death to Khamenei,” a reference to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the highest authority in the country. The police responded by opening fire with metal pellets, eyewitnesses said.
“People scattered in every direction,” said a 35-year old resident of Saqqez. “I saw one guy get shot in the eye. Then they started shooting tear gas.” Another man, 45, said he saw dozens of people wounded in the initial volleys the officers fired at the crowd.
The clashes between protesters and security forces continued throughout the day. The tone had been set.
Across Iran, more than 500 people have been killed and nearly 20,000 arrested since protests began, human rights group Hrana estimates, though reporting restrictions make exact numbers impossible to determine.
“The regime’s Pavlovian reaction to any protest is to nip it in the bud to prevent it from growing. But its violence fueled, not extinguished, the public’s fury,” said Ali Vaez, Iran project director for the International Crisis Group.
Reinforcements were called in to Saqqez — plainclothes forces and members of the powerful Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) — to carry out arrests, according to multiple residents. Security forces targeted hospitals and clinics to look for wounded protesters, subsequently tracking down doctors or nurses who had treated them.
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“The hospitals became the center for arresting protesters,” said a 27-year old resident who was shot in the back with dozens of pellets on the fourth day of protests. “You couldn’t get medical treatment.”
Unable to get proper care, the man turned to YouTube, searching for videos on how to remove pellets. Family members helped. If a pellet was close to the surface of the skin it could usually be squeezed out, he said; those that were embedded deeper had to be dug out with tweezers or a needle, which risked infection.
Channels on the Telegram app popped up to aid protesters. One called nisthmani joan, which has more than 250,000 subscribers, was particularly influential, residents say. The channel posted calls for protests, telling people where and when to gather, as well as tips on what kind of clothes and protective gear to wear.
A pattern of nightly protests and violent crackdowns continued for two months until 17-year old Daniyal Pabandi was killed by security forces on Nov. 16. He was shot in the stomach at close range from a car, according to the Kurdish human rights group Hengaw.
That was the moment, residents say, that some groups among the protesters decided to start going after security forces directly. One week after Pabandi’s death, Shaho Shira, a member of the IRGC, was killed in Saqqez by “anonymous attackers,” Hengaw reported.
Local Kurds working with security forces were an easy target since protesters knew where they lived and, in some cases, had known them for years. Several of their houses were hit with molotov cocktails to send a message, residents said.
“We burned their shops. We burned their cars. We harassed their wives and children,” said the 27-year old, who said there were four or five Kurdish members of the security forces in his neighborhood. “They left the neighborhood and stopped their role in the crackdown.”
Forces who had been brought in from outside of Saqqez, such as the special police units, were not spared, according to the 35-year old man. Metal wires were drawn across roads frequently used by the police, who often ride with two officers on a motorcycle, to knock them over at high speeds.
The authorities stepped up arrests in the city and reports began to emerge of torture in custody. A 34-year old said one of his friends who had been picked up was not the same after he was released from detention. He did not eat or speak much and couldn’t sit comfortably.
Another friend who was arrested said his feet were put into a bucket of water and electric cables were inserted. “His feet were so swollen he couldn’t walk,” the man said.
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The judiciary also stepped in to punish protesters and their families. Bail amounts were set so high that few families could afford them. Property deeds were accepted in lieu of cash, residents say.
“All the land deeds and deeds for shops are at the Saqqez courthouse,” said the 27-year old resident. “We’ve taken two deeds from our family and another deed from a friend.”
Protests have slowed in recent weeks, but people in Saqqez are preparing for the next confrontation. The roots of their anger have not been addressed by the government.
A close relative of Amini, who asked to remain anonymous because of safety issues, said in a telephone interview from Saqqez that there has been no progress in her case. Asked if it was possible that the people responsible for her death would be brought to justice, the relative replied: “In the Islamic Republic, of course, no.”
Protesters in Saqqez say they have gained valuable experience in recent months. Empty soda bottles and gas canisters are being stockpiled to make molotov cocktails, the 27-year old resident said. Old tires are saved so they can be burned to block roads.
“We’re ready for the next clash,” said the 27-year old. “All it needs is a spark.”