The long oppressed Kurdish population of Iran has been at the tip of the month-long anti-government uprising. Now he bears the weight intensified government efforts to quell the unrest – a possible a harbinger of what awaits protesters in other parts of the country.
In interviews with The Post last week, three residents of Sanandaj described a military-style occupation of their town, which has been almost entirely cut off from the Internet and the telephone since mid-September. The Post could not independently verify their accounts, but they were consistent with the findings of rights groups and with past crackdowns in Kurdish areas.
“The consolidation of authoritarianism” in Iran “has often been consummated by the repression of the Kurdish movement,” said Djene Rhys Bajalan, a professor at Missouri State University who specializes in Kurdish history. “The road to tyranny passes through Kurdistan.”
Protests are now sweeping the country first gained momentum in the province of Kurdistan. It is the birthplace of Mahsa Amini – or Jina Amini in his native country Kurdish language – whose death in police custody last month stoked long-simmering fury against the iron rule Iranian religious leaders.
But for Iranian Kurds, who make up around 10% of the population, the protests are also part of a long tradition of resistance against the Islamic Republic. One of the protesters’ key slogans – “Woman, Life, Freedom” – has its roots in the Kurdish regional struggle.
“Men and women of all generations have come together here to fight for their rights that have been denied for 50 years,” the 30-year-old told The Post. “We will be on the streets until the day we find some peace in the face of this constant injustice and oppression.”
The Kurds are one of the largest stateless ethnic groups in the world, with tens of millions of people in communities spanning Iran, Iraq, Syria and Turkey. In Iran, they are usually Sunni Muslims, subject to increased discrimination by the Iranian theocracy. Shia government.
The Kurds have long been fighting for an autonomous region in northwestern Iran – a move that Iranian authorities have sought to crush.
Tehran reacted quickly and violently to the outbreak of protests here in September and was quick to blame the unrest on foreign instigators and dissidents.
During the first five days of protests, all of those killed – seven people, including a 16-year-old boy – were from Kurdish communities. A month later, rights groups estimate that around 30 Kurds, including five children, were killed among some 200 deaths nationwide.
Exact numbers are almost impossible confirm “either because of communication cuts, or because [people] are too scared to talk,” said Rebin Rahmani, board member of the France-based Kurdistan Human Rights Network.
For more than a week, Iranian authorities have been stepping up attacks on Kurdish hotspots like Sanandaj, said Baha Bahreini, Iran researcher at Amnesty International.
“They’ve turned the city into a military base,” a 37-year-old businessman told the Post. “Sanandaj is fully militarized.
Residents told the Post they were afraid to leave their homes. Yet despite the danger, they said, protesters continue to take to the streets every day, usually in the evening.
The businessman said various security forces, including the dreaded Basij unit of the elite Revolutionary Guards, were attacking people at random.
“They have this look filled with hatred and resentment towards us,” he said. “The brutality you see on the videos is real.”
Crackdown tactics: How Iran is trying to stop the Mahsa Amini protests
In a video circulating online, a man demonstrates how a ball went through the window of his house in Sanandaj, through a wall and into another room.
“There have been many disturbing reports of constant live ammunition firing throughout the night and reports of tear gas or different munitions being thrown at the windows of houses to prevent people from going to the windows and looking the streets,” Bahraini said.
The violence would not end “without urgent action at the international level”, Bahrain continued.
“We know how the system works,” she said. “It has been constant waves of protests over the years and killings with impunity.”
Kurds make up half of political prisoners held in Iran and a disproportionately high number of those executed, according to a 2019 UN report, part of a history of brutality towards Kurdish communities in the country.
The Pahlavi monarchy, which ruled Iran from 1925 to 1979, tried to centralize control by assimilating the Kurds, sometimes by force, and reducing the power of tribal leaders, Bajalan said.
Iranian Kurds joined the protests to overthrow Reza Shah Pahlavi – and continued to fight against the Shiite revolutionaries who won in 1979.
When the Iran-Iraq War broke out in 1980, Iran’s new religious leaders stepped up their efforts to crush Kurdish resistance.
“The Iranian state has heavily militarized the region,” Bajalan said, adding that the state “condemns all forms of political activism as separatism.”
Kurdish armed groups seeking autonomy in Iran have periodically fought with government security forces. Many have sought refuge across the border in Kurdistan, the autonomous Kurdish region of Iraq.
Iran retaliated by carrying out strikes across the border in Iraq, including two last month, accusing Kurdish groups of participating in the protests. Kurdish authorities said the September 28 strikes killed 10 people, including at least one child.
As protests rage, Iran carries out strikes against Kurds in Iraq
Iranian Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, during a visit to Sanandaj on October 11, blamed the city’s unrest on “terrorist and separatist groups”, with an “ugly and bad history” of cooperation with Saddam Hussein, Western countries and Israel, IRGC-affiliated Fars. News reported.
The 37-year-old businessman from Sanandaj denied accusations that protesters were armed. “People are fighting unarmed,” he said, and are met by security forces with “military-grade weapons.”
This was echoed by a 65-year-old woman who described a scene she witnessed while driving around Sanandaj on October 8, when she heard cars honking and saw riot police dressed in black with face masks. Police ran after passers-by, she said, and fired tear gas at a group of women not wearing headscarves. Closer to home, she heard continuous gunfire, then saw a group of youths running away.
A few days earlier, she said wistfully, she had seen women and girls without hijabs doing a Kurdish dance in a local park at night, their hair shining in the moonlight.