Victims and Witnesses
An account of the street protests in Tehran following the announcement of the 2009 presidential election results
Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation
June 14, 2010
Kian Amani is an Iranian photographer and documentary filmmaker, whose photographs and films have been featured in the media and displayed at various exhibitions around the world. Last year, in addition to photography, he made two documentaries on the events surrounding the Iranian presidential elections and the ensuing clashes. He has also made a film on the problems faced by homosexuals in Iran and the infringement of their rights. This photographer and documentary filmmaker was stabbed and hit with batons, and arrested twice by so-called plain-clothes officers in the course of the post-election clashes in Iran, on 16 June 2009. In his interview with the Abdorrahman Boroumand Foundation (17 May 2010, Washington DC), he talks about what he witnessed during the days of popular protest in Tehran between June 2009 and February 2010.
I started taking photographs and making films about election-related events a month before the elections. On Election Day, I was taking photographs on the streets of Tehran and at voting booths. I work as a photographer and documentary filmmaker. I have been doing this work for various international newspapers, news agencies and publications for some 10 years. On Election Day, I had a permit for taking photographs. But the day after the clashes broke out, the [Islamic] Guidance Ministry's Press Department announced unofficially that we were no longer permitted to file reports and take photographs of the clashes.
They expelled most foreign journalists from Iran the day after the elections. As for Iranian journalists, they either arrested them on the streets or injured them and smashed their cameras.
The violence became serious the day after the elections, in other words on 13 June. On that day, I was taking photographs at Vanak Square and Mirdamad Street, when clashes erupted between the people and the police. They attacked the crowd, beat them up with batons, and arrested many people. They also arrested me late in the evening at Madar Square. Two police officers in plain clothes assaulted me. They asked me, 'Who are taking the photographs for?' I told them that they were for a British magazine. Then they forced me to mount on a motorcycle, with one person seated in front and another behind me. We headed toward the deserted alleys off Mirdamad. When we reached the spot where the rest of the forces had congregated, they told their commander: 'Sir. We have arrested a foreign photographer'. Having realized my mistake, I said: 'No. I am a local journalist'. They inspected my identity card and proceeded to kick me and hit me with batons. They said, 'Report to the Security Police tomorrow to pick up your photographs.' I did not go because I knew that I would be arrested. But had they known that I was taking photographs for foreign media, they would not have released me.
That day, after the election results were announced, the people took to the streets and the city's main squares. Clashes broke out between the people and police in almost every part of Tehran.
At the places I visited, it was the police that initiated the violence. They attacked the crowd with stones, teargas, and batons, and arrested many people. When that happened, the people reacted and embarked on setting garbage cans on fire and blocking the streets. And the clashes became more and more intense. There were large crowds of people at Vanak Square and Mirdamad and the government forces were unable to control them. On that day, many people and several police officers were injured. I was alongside the people on the streets on the days that I was documenting the developments and clashes. Whenever they attacked us, I would flee with the people. Whenever we found ourselves stuck in a blind alley, people would open their doors and hide us so that we could avoid arrest. There was no possibility of dialogue between the people and police. One side was there to protest, and the other to crackdown on the protest.
The average age of protestors on the streets was between 25 and fifty. They included both men and women. I believe that in the past year, women have been at the forefront of resistance and symbols of Iranians' courage.
On that day, I saw several policemen beating up a girl with batons. With the help of the crowd, the girl, who was no more than 25-years-old, was taken inside the house of one of the people who resided on Mirdamad Street; her face was covered in blood.
The following day, I resumed taking photographs. I was on the side streets around Vali-e Asr Avenue when clashes erupted again. Government forces and police sought to disperse the crowd by pushing them away from the main avenue toward the side streets. At the entrance to every side street, there were some dozen policemen; they attacked the people and pushed them back. The people responded by hurling stones at them. The government forces were using that method to avert clashes on the main streets. There was constant sound of ambulance sirens. As I headed home from Motahhari Street around seven in the evening, I was again arrested. My camera was in my bag and I was talking on my cell phone. The officers thought that I was filming them with my cell phone. After I was detained, they searched my bag and again deleted my photographs. They were offensive. They used expletives, pushed and shoved. In so doing, they were trying to humiliate people, while I think that they were the ones who were humiliated.
On 15 June, I joined the crowd as they rallied from Ferdowsi to Azadi Square, and I took photographs. However, I was not present where the people were shot at from a Basij headquarter. The following day, I learnt that they had killed many people. On that day, protestors were to take part in a silent rally. News of such a rally had spread from ear to ear the previous days.
In my opinion, the silent rally was not a good strategy. If the people were to realize their rights, they could have done so in that period because at that time the government forces were not sufficiently organized to deal with such a large crowd, nor had they predicted such a crowd. I don't know why they decided to stage a silent rally.
The next day, the protestors congregated in front of the Voice and Vision [state-run radio and television building]. I also went there to take photographs. There were no problems. Then I headed to Vanak Square, where clashes had again broken out. The difference this time, however, was that the police were joined by the forces of the Basij and [Islamic Revolution] Guards Corps [IRGC], and they were attacking the people in a mobilized manner.
At the entrance to Ghandi Avenue, the people were standing about 100 meters away from the Basij and IRGC plain clothes forces. The plain clothes forces were attempting to disperse the crowd by hurling stones, and firing teargas and shots in the air. The crowd, for their part, responded by hurling stones at them. Amid the clashes between the people and plain clothes forces, I hid behind the buxus trees on the sidewalks and embarked on taking photos of the clashes. In the course of the clashes between the two sides, I was spotted by several plain clothes officers who proceeded to attack me. I started to run and escape toward the crowd when a girl who was also trying to flee the scene fell on the ground. I stopped to help her, and in the process dropped one of my cameras. To retrieve my camera, I had to go back a few meters, at which point the officers caught up with me. About half a dozen of them started to assault me; they kicked me and assaulted me with knives and batons. And they smashed my cameras. Then they dragged me on the ground toward their forces. They beat me up again as we approached the 21st Street off Ghandi. As I kept pleading with them that I was a journalist, they said, 'it is you lot who take photos of us and depict us as terrorists,' and they continued to beat me up for a few more minutes, at which point the people turned on the forces and I managed to flee the scene. As I was running away, the forces started to fire shots at the crowd. One of the bullets hit a young man of about 18 years of age in the chest, and another hit another youth in the leg. The young man who was shot in the chest was not that tall. His hair was auburn and slightly curly. Apart from me, there were two other photographers on the scene who took photos of both young men who were shot. However, I believe that they have not published the photos in fear of their lives. The young man who was shot in the leg shouted defiantly, 'Come on. Attack me. I have been shot but I don't care.'
Then with the help of the two photographers on the scene who stopped a passing motorcyclist, I was put on the motorbike and the driver was told to take me to a hospital.
I could not go to a hospital alone. So I went home and contacted two of my friends. They came and took me to a small hospital in Khajeh Abdollah, which appeared to be safe. When we got there, a doctor took me to an empty room and asked why I had come to that hospital. I told him that I had done so because we noticed that there were no police forces in front of it. The doctor, however, told me that the hospital belonged to the Intelligence Ministry. He told me to leave the hospital immediately after treatment, and proceeded to treat my wounds quickly. Luckily, the knife wound was not very deep and there was no need for stitches. As we were leaving the hospital, we were stopped by the hospital guard who asked us what had happened. I told him that I was a journalist and was injured in the clashes. He then asked for our addresses and home telephone numbers. We gave him the wrong details, but he followed us to the hospital entrance gate and made a note of the number plate of my friend's car.
In the course of these several days, they arrested or injured many journalists and photographers. They arrested one of our colleagues two days after the elections and took him to Kahrizak detention center. They poured petrol over his body and laid him naked in the sun. The heat caused the petrol to vaporize, burning the skin on his chest.
They had also arrested the nephew of one of my colleagues. He had been kept in the detention center for a month and was subjected to so much torture that he would not talk to anyone after his release. Afterwards, he managed to escape the country with the help of human traffickers. I saw a photo of him which was taken after he had left Iran. In the photo, he appeared very depressed and had evidently been subjected to a great deal of torture and harassment in Evin Prison.
On 9 July, I and one of my friends drove to Vali-e Asr Square. But it was not possible to take photographs owing to the large number of government forces and the very tight security. If you were driving a car and aroused the slightest suspicion, they would remove your number plate and spray the windshields with paint to enable their colleagues to arrest you further down the road.
On Quds Day, I joined three of my colleagues and we headed to Karim Khan Street. We joined the crowd and took photos as far as Laleh Park, and then returned to Karim Khan. It was around one in the afternoon, when we felt that clashes between the people and government forces were about to break out. We thought it would be better if we moved our car, which we had parked near Karim Khan, and then return to the street.
We drove from the side streets toward Haft-e Tir Square, where they had set garbage cans on fire. But there were also a large number of government forces. Suddenly a car rammed into our car and quickly drove passed. A person who appeared to belong to the Basij was lying face down on the roof of the car. The driver of the car was a man and there were three female passengers in the car. In fact, the man who was lying face down on the roof of the car had held on to the car after attacking its passengers and was trying to prevent them from getting away. Further ahead, there was a traffic jam and the driver of the car was forced to stop. The man on the roof fell to the ground and on getting up embarked on smashing the car windows. A few plain clothes officers came to his assistance. A new building had been constructed on that square which I later learnt was the new IRGC detention center, called Mersad, which in contrast to its beautiful exterior is a torture chamber for freedom seekers. It is a building that has no windows, hence impossible to see any of its interior. And from a distance, several satellite dishes are visible on the roof.
The most significant event after Quds Day was Ashura [day of mourning to mark death anniversary of the third Shi'a imam]. The night before, I contacted a few friends to see how many of them intended to turn up the next day. In the morning, I joined three friends, one girl and two boys, and we headed toward Hafez Street. One of our friends lived on Hafez Street and we could, therefore, take refuge there, if necessary. At 10 o'clock we headed towards Hafez, Taleqani and Enqelab streets, and stayed around the three streets until one in the afternoon. The next day, I learnt that the peak of the clashes were on those three streets. I would never have believed that government forces would embark on killing innocent civilians on a day which is revered by the Islamic Republic. I had expected many clashes, but never in my mind did I think that they would embark on such a massacre and on such an occasion.
As we were crossing Taleqani Street toward Vali-e Asr, suddenly three police cars zoomed past us and stopped some 100 meters ahead. They then proceeded to spray teargas and pepper gas at the protestors. The difference I noticed in the crowd on that day was that almost all of them had come to protest in small groups. The protestors were taking care to avoid arrest in the wake of the government warnings that those arrested on that day would be handed down heavy sentences.
On that day, I took both photographs and films. We were on the street until about one in the afternoon. Then we went to the roof of my friend's house, from where it was safer for me to take photos and film the scene. The people were rallying along the street and chanting slogans. Some wore black clothes and beat their chests under the pretext of mourning. They were chanting slogans against the leader of the Islamic Republic. My friend's cousin told us that they had thrown someone off the Hafez Bridge. Meanwhile, the sound of gunfire was audible from Vali-e Asr Square. Afterwards, a video footage of a police car driving over a young man on Vali-e Asr Square was posted [on the internet]. Sadly, the youth died. The same evening, I managed to upload some of the photographs and films that I had taken, albeit with great difficulty owing to constant internet breakdowns.
In the afternoon, as the number of protestors gradually diminished on Hafez Street, the government forces grew in strength and took control of the street. Then, some fifty people, most of whom were veiled women, turned up and chanted pro-government slogans, while Voice and Vision cameras tried to magnify their presence.
In the evening, we headed toward west Tehran. But the clashes had now died down. Later, I saw in the news that the person who had been thrown off the Hafez Bridge had died.
On the night of Ashura, which is known as Sham-e Ghariban (Night of the Homeless), I went to Ekbatan [residential district]. Young people had congregated there and lit candles to remember those who had died in the recent months. They were chanting anti-government slogans. There were only a small number of police and Basij militia on Ekbatan. They could not do anything other than looking ill at ease as they watched the people. And to irritate them, the people paraded past them, chanting slogans. This continued until about 10 pm that evening.
The day after Ashura, I saw many of my friends and colleagues. Some of them had been injured, and several arrested.
My next presence was on 11 February, my final days in Tehran. On that day, I was sitting in an apartment in Ekbatan, the windows of which faced Karaj freeway. From the window, we could see busloads of government supporters arriving in the capital from towns and villages west of Tehran, such as Karaj. They arrived in a steady stream one after the other to take part in the 11 February rally and help government forces prevent Green Movement supporters from taking over the streets in which rallies by government supporters were held every year [on 11 February].
I then went to Azadi Square without my camera. It was interesting to note that almost half the crowd present at Azadi Square and Azadi Street on that day were either plain-clothed Basij or IRGC forces, or government supporters who had arrived on buses from nearby towns and villages. I then returned home.
Since I had taken photographs of 11 February ceremonies in the previous years, I knew that the presence of Green Movement activists on the streets around Azadi Square would be a mistake, because the government would use every means to take control on that day, which is considered the most important day in the history of the Islamic Republic.
In the first week after the elections, again I thought it was a mistake that they [Green Movement] announced the routes for their rally, because government officials would be able to take measures to control the areas in advance and would not allow a million people's presence on the scene. In my opinion, the best way would have been for every person to come out in their own neighborhood because in that way, government forces would not be able to control the population of a huge city like Tehran.
In all the time I was with the people on the streets, I never saw any weapons in the hands of any of the protestors. It was always government officials who initiated the violence, and the people's only defensive weapons were stones which they would throw at government forces.
Unfortunately, in my final days in Iran, the circumstances had become such that, everyday, I feared being arrested. I was very unhappy when I left Iran because I knew that I might not be able to return for a long time. I hope that the Iranian people will realize their wishes soon and lay the groundwork for the establishment of a free country based on democracy.
Many people who until a year ago were not political, have now become political. They have become sensitive about issues. Such was not the case two years ago. For example, a year ago, perhaps the contents of only 10 of my friends' Facebooks was political, where as now some 90 percent of my friends are involved in political issues.
I am confident that the Iranian people will soon realize their demands and will do away with the despotism of the past 32 years. But I believe that the majority in the Green Movement must attempt to clarify the rights of the minority groups in the movement now so that when the movement achieves victory, they may be able to be clear on their demands, recognize the role played by all the minorities - be they religious, tribal, gender or any other - in the movement, and respect equal rights for all. In that way, we will not witness any breaches of the minorities' rights, as we did at the outset of the revolution. In my final months in Iran, I started work on two documentaries. One is about homosexuals in Iran. Recently, however, I have noticed that many transsexual friends believe that we should first wait for the Green Movement to succeed and pave the way for a new government, and then see to the wishes of minorities such as homosexuals. But with due respect for all dear friends, I believe that the time to see to the needs of the minorities in the social and political future of Iran is now. We must not forget that Ayatollah Khomeyni has also failed to fulfil many of his pledges after the revolution. Not only he ignored the rights of minorities, but he also imposed harsh conditions on the majority of men and women of the Iranian population. We must not forget what Ayatollah Khomeyni said after the revolution's victory when asked about the hejab [veil] for women. He said, 'Now is not the time to raise such issues. There are more important matters which we should first deal with!' And we have seen the consequences of that. For 30 years, many Iranian women have been imprisoned behind the veil and deprived of their most basic rights.
I hope we do not forget that in history empty hands have always won over bullets, and that in the future we will not be witness to despotism and inequality in Iran.