‘A time bomb’: Anger rising in a hot spot of Iran protests

SULIMANIYAH, Iraq (AP) — Sharo, a 35-year-old college graduate who grew up under a repressive system, never thought she would ever hear loud words of open rebellion. Now she herself is chanting slogans like “Death to the dictator!” With a fury she didn’t know she had, she is joining the protests calling for the overthrow of the country’s rulers.

Sharo said that after three weeks of protests sparked by the death of a young woman in the custody of feared morality police, anger at the authorities is only mounting despite a bloody crackdown that has left dozens dead and hundreds in custody.

“The situation here is tense and volatile,” she said, referring to the city of Sanandaj in the Kurdish-majority home district of the same name in northwestern Iran, one of the hotspots of the protests.

“We’re just waiting for something to happen, like a time bomb,” she told The Associated Press via Telegram.

The anti-government protests in Sanandaj, 500 kilometers from the capital, are a microcosm of the leaderless protests that have rocked Iran.

Led largely by women and youth, they have evolved from impromptu mass gatherings in central areas to dispersed demonstrations in neighborhoods, schools and universities as activists try to dodge an increasingly brutal crackdown.

Tensions rose again in Sanandaj on Saturday after human rights monitors said two protesters were shot dead and several injured after demonstrations resumed. Residents said there was a heavy security presence in the city, with constant patrols and security personnel stationed on the main streets.

The Associated Press spoke to six activists in Sanandaj who said repressive tactics, including beatings, arrests, the use of live ammunition and internet jamming, sometimes make it difficult to keep the momentum going. Still, there are protests, along with other expressions of civil disobedience, such as strikes in commerce and car drivers honking their horns at security forces.

The activists in the city spoke on condition that their full names be withheld for fear of reprisals from the Iranian authorities. Their statements were confirmed by three human rights monitors.

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Three weeks ago, the news of the death of 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in the custody of the vice squad in Tehran spread rapidly in her home province of Kurdistan, whose capital is Sanandaj. Response was swift in the impoverished and historically marginalized area.

By the time the funeral was underway in Amini’s town of Saqqez on Sept. 17, protesters were already filling Sanandaj’s main thoroughfare, activists said.

People of all ages attended and began chanting slogans that were repeated in cities across Iran: “Woman. Life. Freedom.”

The Amini family was pressured by the government to quickly bury Mahsa before a critical mass of protesters formed, said Afsanah, a 38-year-old fashion designer from Saqqez. She was at the funeral that day and followed the crowd from the cemetery to the town square.

Rozan, a 32-year-old housewife, did not know Amini personally. But when she heard that the young woman had died in the custody of Tehran’s vice squad and had been arrested for violating the Islamic Republic’s hijab rules, she felt compelled to take to the streets that day.

“The same thing happened to me,” she says. In 2013, like Amini, she had ventured into the capital with a friend when she was arrested by the vice squad because her abaya, the loose robe that’s part of the mandatory dress code, was too short. She was taken to the same facility where Amini later died and was fingerprinted and made to sign a guilty plea.

“It could have been me,” she said. In the years that followed, Rozan, a former nurse, was fired from the local government’s health department for being too vocal about her views on women’s rights.

After the funeral, she saw an elderly woman step forward and quickly remove her headscarf. “I felt inspired to do the same,” she said.

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In the first three days after the funeral, demonstrators were taken away from the demonstrations during arrests in Sanandaj. At the end of the week, arrests were made against well-known activists and protest organizers.

Dunya, a lawyer, said she was part of a small group of women’s rights activists who had helped organize protests. They also urged shopkeepers to heed a call for a trade strike along the city’s main streets.

“Almost all the women in our group are in prison now,” she said.

Internet outages made it difficult for protesters to communicate with each other and the outside world across the city.

“We woke up in the morning and had no idea what was happening,” said Sharo, the university graduate. The internet returned intermittently, often late at night or during working hours, but was quickly cut short in the late afternoon, the time when many gathered to protest.

Strong security also prevented mass gatherings.

“There are patrols on almost every street and they break up groups even if it’s just two or three people walking the street,” Sharo said.

During the demonstrations, security forces fired shotguns and tear gas at the crowd, causing many to flee. Security guards on motorcycles also drove into crowds to disperse them.

All activists interviewed said they had seen or heard live ammunition. The Iranian authorities have so far denied this, blaming separatist groups whenever the use of live fire has been proven. The two protesters killed in Sanandaj on Saturday were killed by live gunshots, according to the France-based Kurdistan Human Rights Network.

Protesters say fear is a close companion. The wounded were often reluctant to use ambulances or go to hospitals for fear of being arrested. Activists also suspected government informers were trying to blend in with the crowd.

But the resistance actions continued.

“I assure you the protests are not over yet,” said Sharo. “People are angry, they’re responding to the police in a way I’ve never seen.”

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The anger runs deep. In Sanandaj, the confluence of three factors has made the city a ripe ground for protest activity – a history of Kurdish resistance, growing poverty and a long history of women’s rights activism.

But the protests are not defined along ethnic or regional lines, although they have been sparked in a predominantly Kurdish area, said Tara Sepehri Fars, a researcher with Human Rights Watch. “It was very unique in that way,” she said.

Iran has seen waves of protests in recent years, the largest in 2009, which brought large crowds to the streets after protesters felt a stolen election. But the ongoing resistance and demands for regime change during the current wave seem to present the Islamic Republic with its most serious challenge in years.

Like most of Iran, Sanandaj has suffered as US sanctions and the coronavirus pandemic ravaged the economy and fueled inflation. Far away from the capital, on the outskirts of the country, the mostly Kurdish residents are viewed with suspicion by the regime.

In the third week, with universities and schools opening up, students began holding small rallies and joined the movement.

Videos circulated on social media showing students mocking schoolmasters, schoolgirls taking off their headscarves in the street and chanting, “One by one they will kill us if we don’t stand together.”

One student said he plans to boycott classes altogether.

Afsanah, the fashion designer, said she likes to wear a headscarf. “But I protest because it was never my choice.”

Her parents, fearing for her safety, tried to persuade her to stay at home. But she disregarded them, pretending to go to work in the mornings only to look for protest gatherings across the city.

“I’m angry, and I’m not scared — we just need that feeling to get out there,” she said.

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