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A Day to Remember

by HAMID FAROKHNIA in Tehran

18 Jun 2011 15:46Comments
iran-blog-post.jpgFirsthand reflections on a defining date for a new generation of Iranians -- June 15, 2009.

[ comment ] Every generation in Iran seems to have key events etched in its collective memory, an ensemble of milestone dates and shared experiences that define its national identity and sense of selfhood.

An older generation had September 1941 and the 1953 coup. The following generation had February 1979. And now the new generation has June 12 and June 15 -- the dates, respectively, of the 2009 presidential election and the peaceful march by more than a million people on Azadi Square that followed. The latter, in particular, seems to resonate deeply with many. For it was on that day when millions of mostly young people came out to the streets for the first time in their lives to make a keenly felt statement to themselves and the world at large. And since the march went unmolested for its first few hours, it gave an extra sense of liberation and catharsis both to its participants and those who heard about the remarkable event. For a few rare hours, millions of Iranians actually felt as if they owned their own country.

Unfortunately, though, as day gave way to dusk and as the armed enforcers of the status quo came out onto the streets, violent attacks against peaceful protesters broke out with a ferocity that left dozens killed and injured, along with hundreds arrested.

I happened to be there from the very start and witnessed much that transpired -- including organized attacks against the protesters -- firsthand.

***

It was around a quarter to two when I got to Revolution Square. Already there were about 1,500 people milling around. There were also hundreds of security personnel waiting nervously for any trouble. Both sides were checking each other out.

By two, the crowd began to surge westward to Azadi Square as Mir Hossein Mousavi had called for the day before. The crowd had scarcely marched 50 yards when a column of special riot-control armored cars appeared from the opposite direction. Each of the vehicles was painted in black and carried several heavily armored NAJA (state police) agents. No one then knew if the regime was going to follow through on the threats it had issued all morning that it would crush any attempted demonstrations. The column of cars drove past the crowd, which had swelled to several thousand, without making any effort to disperse it.

The next major hurdle was a Basij base lying less than a kilometer away. As we approached the base, I saw a dark column of smoke rising further ahead. By this time, many more people, perhaps nearly ten thousand, had joined the march from every direction and I was no longer in the front ranks. The smoke was from a burning motorbike, the emblem of the Basij militia. I was told that Basijis had tried to stop the march by force and been beaten back. Inside the base, we could see hundreds of armed militia members watching the crowd with rage and surprise. Some volunteers from the demonstration had wisely chained their arms together around the perimeter of the base to preclude any possible attack by marchers, which would have precipitated a bloodbath.

As I looked around, I could see a remarkable cross section of the citizenry marching together. There were the elegantly attired, the shabbily dressed, the traditionalists in chador, the cosmopolitan types, people with baby strollers, and people from non-Persian ethnicities. In short, a rainbow representing every sector of Iranian society. The mood was relaxed, bordering on jubilant. The crowd was clearly enjoying itself as if it felt it had won back the street for the first time in anyone's memory. There was a spirit of humor in the air. One sign in green read "We offer a free bath to Ahmadi." Another said "A proud member of the specks of dirt," referring to Ahmadinejad's characterization of protesters the day before. Near the Labor Ministry building, people chanted in unison: "It is called the Ministry of Labor, but it has nothing to do with labor."

By four o'clock, the pace of the march was slowing as more and more people poured in. Bystanders, some of them clearly supporters of the regime, watched the proceedings with great interest and perplexity. At the halfway point to Azadi, I climbed a truck parked on the street to gauge the size of the crowd. There were people covering the width and length of Enghelab Avenue as far the eye could see in each direction -- at least several hundred thousand. (There are no exact figures. Estimates range from 700,000 to 3 million.)

By the time I arrived at the square itself, so many people were congregated there that it was impossible to get to the central section. So instead I walked around the perimeter. It seemed that everyone was on hand. I saw many old friends and acquaintances as well as leading cultural and political figures. Mohammad Reza Khatami, brother of former President Khatami, was attracting a lot of attention from the young demonstrators. Mousavi himself turned up later but I didn't see him. It was now around six-thirty and I decided to head back to see what else was going on. The remarkable thing was that even two kilometers away, the street was packed with people still marching toward the square. This was past seven, or more than five hours after the start of the march!

So far, with the exception of some NAJA personnel who were chatting with each other in a sedate mood, there was no sign of an impending attack from the other side. Did this mean that Supreme Leader Khamenei was hearing the voice of the people?

In a few minutes, I got my answer. It was eight-thirty and I was walking along with several hundred others eastward across from the University of Tehran. Right in front of the entrance, I noticed three bulky men in white vests -- the customary outfit of operatives from a branch of the intelligence services -- dragging a young man, perhaps 19 years old, down the pavement toward Daneshjoo Street. As two pulled on his legs, the third yanked on his hand. He had apparently dropped down to make it harder for them to move him. The trio and their captive cut across our path, quite oblivious to our presence -- very foolishly as it turned out. The protesters started chanting, "Let him go, let him go," which the trio ignored. Within seconds, fights broke out. One of the goons was cornered by a few protesters. He was clearly trained for this, swinging a powerful fist 360 degrees to keep everyone at bay. He was eventually subdued and got a thrashing from the crowd. At the same moment, a second agent brought a taser out, which sparked luminously in the dark. He was set upon by the protesters too. The motorbikes parked nearby went up in flames almost simultaneously. As for the young man whom the crowd had liberated, no one knew what happened to him. (He must soon have felt like one of the luckiest Iranians alive, as reports emerged of the torture of many of those who were arrested.)

Within seconds, half a dozen men in suits appeared on Daneshjoo Street, apparently tipped off by the third agent. One of them brandished a large-caliber handgun, which he started shooting in the air wildly to frighten the crowd away. Instead, remarkably, every male within sight ran toward him even as he continued to fire. This was no "bunch of sissies," as elements in the regime had derisively referred to young secular people. Far from it. They were all extremely brave souls. What was even more remarkable was that this was a year and a half before the Arab Spring that shook the world and altered the popular "fear factor" in much of the region.

The gun-toting man and his companions ran for their lives and disappeared in the dark. But almost immediately, about two dozen vigilantes with clubs and long knives appeared from the same direction. Clearly, this was a major staging point for the regime. They were screaming -- perhaps because they could see their bikes burning -- and calling for blood. To my great surprise, about 60 NAJA riot-control agents appeared out of nowhere and created a human wall separating the protesters and the vigilantes. If they had not, it seemed as if scores could well have been killed right then and there. With the exception of some hardcore vigilantes throwing rocks at the protesters, everyone dispersed.

As I prepared to go home after a very long, eventful day, I overheard two people say that the Basij had opened fire on the protesters, killing some. It was bound to happen. I hopped on a bike-taxi and made it back to Azadi. The biker was adroit and maneuvered expertly through the traffic jam, which had hardly eased. It was about ten o'clock by now. There were people gathered around the Maghdad Basij base, where I was told four people had been killed. Some were crying inconsolably, and I could see blood on the pavement. Further ahead, at the so-called Base Number 113, there was a similar scene. I was told that one or two militia members had opened fire with their AK-47s on unarmed demonstrators and had killed a few people.

Later, the Revolutionary Guards claimed that the bases were "attacked" and the defenders were instructed to respond violently to ensure that the crowd could not get their hands on the weapon caches and start a small-scale civil war.

In an official statement of the sort now eerily echoed by ones emanating from the Syrian regime, General Ali Fazli, commander of Tehran province's Revolutionary Guards, said that shots were fired only in the air and those killed were murdered by their own comrades. "The person you see in the videos climbing the electricity pole sporting a green scarf around his neck is clearly shot from behind by the hooligans themselves," he said weeks after the carnage. "After that, no bullets were fired on them, though there were shots fired in the air to ward off the intruders. Unfortunately, three or four people were mysteriously killed in this incident."

Clearly, the Revolutionary Guards or Basij could have warned the protesters in advance that certain public sites should not be approached because they housed weaponry. Instead, a trigger-happy militia was more than ready to flex its muscles and terrorize the people as a means of putting an end to their peaceful protests.

Poster by Vipez via Flickr.

Copyright © 2011 Tehran Bureau

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