At the heart of the Iranian insurgency, the Kurds now face a mounting crackdown



Security forces with heavy weapons roam the streets of Sanandaj, Kurdistan’s provincial capital, in armored vehicles. They’re firing into the homes of terrified residents living under a near-total communications blackout.

“Sanandaj is now a military area where weapons of war are being used,” a 30-year-old woman in the city, about 250 miles west of Tehran, told the Washington Post via voice message. Like other locals in this story, she spoke on condition of anonymity for fear of reprisals from the security forces. “Almost every home in town is affected,” she said.

Iran’s long oppressed Kurdish population was at the top of the month-long uprising against the government. Now she bears the brunt the government’s intensifying efforts to quell the unrest – a possible one Harbinger of what awaits protesters elsewhere in the country.

In interviews with The Post last week, three residents of Sanandaj described it a military occupation of their city, which has been almost entirely cut off from internet and phone service since mid-September. The Post has not been able to independently verify its accounts, but they have been consistent with findings from rights groups and previous raids in Kurdish areas.

“The consolidation of authoritarianism” in Iran “has often been accomplished through the suppression of the Kurdish movement,” said Djene Rhys Bajalan, a professor at Missouri State University who specializes in Kurdish history. “The road to tyranny leads through Kurdistan.”

Protesters in Nowshahr, northern Iran, rolled over a police car on September 21 during the fifth day of protests sparked by Mahsa Amini’s death in police custody. (Video: Storyful)

The demonstrations are now sweeping across the country first gained speed in the province of Kurdistan. It is the hometown of Mahsa Amini – or Jina Amini in her homeland Kurdish language – whose death in police custody last month reignited long-simmering anger at the iron rule the spiritual leaders of Iran.

But for the Iranian Kurds, who make up about 10 percent of the population, the protests are also part of a long tradition of resistance against the Islamic Republic. One of the main slogans of the demonstrators – “Woman, life, freedom” – has its roots in the regional Kurdish struggle.

“Men and women of all generations have come together to fight for rights that have been trampled on for 50 years,” the 30-year-old woman told the Post. “We will be on the streets until the day we find some peace from this constant injustice and oppression.”

The Kurds are one of the largest stateless ethnic groups in the world with tens of millions living in communities across Iran. Iraq, Syria and Turkey. In Iran, they are typically Sunni Muslims who face increased discrimination from Iran’s theocracy Shia government.

Kurds have long fought for their own autonomous region in northwest Iran – a movement that Iranian authorities have sought to crush.

Tehran responded quickly and violently to the outbreak of protests here in September, quickly blaming foreign instigators and dissidents for the unrest.

In the first five days of the protests, all those killed – seven people, including a 16-year-old boy – were from Kurdish communities. A month later, human rights groups estimate that about thirty Kurds, including five children, were killed out of about 200 deaths nationwide.

A man was killed in a vehicle in Sanandaj, Iran, on October 8 amid ongoing protests over the death of Mahsa Amini. (Video: Storyful)

Exact figures are hardly possible to confirm “either because of communication failures or because [people] are too scared to speak,” said Rebin Rahmani, board member of the France-based Human Rights Network of Kurdistan.

Iranian authorities have stepped up attacks on Kurdish hotspots like Sanandaj for more than a week, said Baha Bahreini, an Iran researcher with Amnesty International.

“They turned the city into a military base,” a 37-year-old businessman told the Post. “Sanandaj is fully militarized.”

Local residents told the Post they were afraid to leave their homes. But despite the danger, they said, protesters still take to the streets every day, usually in the evenings.

The businessman said various security forces, including the feared Basij unit of the elite Revolutionary Guard, are attacking people indiscriminately.

“They have that look of hate and resentment towards us,” he said. “The brutality you see on videos is real.”

Repressive tactics: How Iran tries to stop Mahsa Amini protests

in the a video circulating online shows a man like a bullet went through the window of his house in Sanandaj, through a wall and into another room.

“There have been many disturbing reports of live ammunition being fired constantly throughout the night and reports of tear gas or other ammunition being thrown at the windows of houses to prevent people from going to the windows and onto the street to watch,” Bahreini said.

The violence will not end “without urgent action at international level,” Bahreini said.

“We know the system,” she said. “Over the years there have been constant waves of protests and murders with impunity.”

Kurds make up half of Iran’s political prisoners and a disproportionate number of those executed, according to a 2019 UN report, part of a history of brutality against the country’s Kurdish communities.

The Pahlavi monarchy, which ruled Iran from 1925 to 1979, tried to centralize control by assimilating 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 Shia revolutionaries, who were victorious in 1979.

When the Iran-Iraq war broke out in 1980, Iran’s new spiritual leaders intensified their efforts to crush the Kurdish resistance.

“The Iranian state has heavily militarized the region,” Bajalan said, adding that the state “condemns any form of political activism as separatism.”

Armed Kurdish groups seeking autonomy in Iran have regularly fought with government security forces. Many have sought refuge across the border in Kurdistan, Iraq’s autonomous Kurdish region.

Iran has hit back with attacks across the border in Iraq. including two last month who accused Kurdish groups there of involvement in the protests. Kurdish authorities said ten people were killed, including at least one child, in strikes on September 28.

As protests rage on, Iran carries out strikes against Kurds in Iraq

Iran’s Interior Minister Ahmad Vahidi, during a visit to Sanandaj on October 11, blamed “terrorist and separatist groups” with an “ugly and bad history” of collaborating with Saddam Hussein, western countries and Israel, the IRGC-affiliated Fars, for the unrest in the City responsible news reported.

The 37-year-old businessman in Sanandaj denied allegations that the protesters were armed. “People are fighting without weapons,” he said, and are being met by security forces with “military-grade weapons.”

This was confirmed by a 65-year-old woman, who described a scene she witnessed as she drove through Sanandaj on October 8 when she heard cars honking and saw black-clad riot police with masks covering their faces. Police chased passers-by, she said, and threw tear gas at a group of women who were not wearing headscarves. Closer to her home, she heard continuous gunfire and then saw a group of young people flee the scene.

Just days earlier, she said wistfully, she had seen women and girls without headscarves performing a Kurdish dance at night in a local park, their hair glowing in the moonlight.


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