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The Arab Spring's Forgotten Uprising

Never heard of Ahwaz? That's because, officially, it's called Khuzestan and is home to one of Iran's longest running independence movements—a movement that Iran has been fighting and brutalizing to keep quiet.

Ahwazi national flag.

The Arab Spring swept across the Middle East last year, toppling authoritarian regimes in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, and Yemen, while violence still rages on in Syria. Global commentators speculated about whether the Arab Spring would reach Iran and reignite the anti-Ahmadinejad Green Movement that was brutally suppressed after it started protesting election results in 2009. However, as soon as protests started this February, the police moved in to prevent a repeat of the tragedy that unfolded a few years back. Foreign news coverage then became severely limited, after news bureaus were threatened with closure and their staffs with deportation if they dared print anything negative.


However, the clampdown didn't stop the protests. Two months later, Iranian Arabs in the western province of Ahwaz took to the streets of the capital, which is also called Ahwaz, and were attacked by the security forces, who fired live ammunition into the crowd, killing 15 and wounding dozens more.

Never heard of Ahwaz? That's because, officially, it's called Khuzestan and is home to one of Iran's longest running independence movements—a movement that Iran has been fighting and brutalizing to keep quiet. If the name rings a bell at all, it's probably from the 1980 Iranian embassy siege in London, which was carried out by Ahwazi separatists demanding the release of Arab prisoners in Iranian jails.

Ahwaz is a mainly ethnically Arab province that was an autonomous state before 1935. Ever since, Ahwazis have been protesting both peacefully, and not so peacefully, to regain their independence. But, surprise surprise, Iran isn't listening. And not only is it not listening, it's shooting protesters and often torturing and executing the ones it captures while branding them traitors and heretics.

Unsurprisingly, Ahwazis are getting tired of demonstrating, and there's now talk of armed insurrection. I got in touch with Kamil Alboshoka, who was forced to flee Iran and now works as an Ahwazi human rights campaigner, to find out exactly what's going on.

VICE: Hey, Kamil. Can you tell me a little bit about Ahwaz please?
Kamil: Ahwaz is a very rich and fertile land, with many rivers that help it sustain its vast agricultural output. Ahwaz is Iran's third richest province by GDP, but the country now suffers. Ahwaz is rich, but its people are not. We're not allowed to study our own language, not allowed to engage in politics, not allowed to wear our traditional clothes, not allowed to use our traditional names, and we're not allowed to have our own economy. The country is in a really bad situation.


How did it all start?
It was independent before 1925, then Iran attacked my country, occupied the land, and killed thousands of people. In 1935, Iran officially declared that Ahwaz was a part of the country, then they changed the name to Khuzestan in 1936. Since then, Iran has moved thousands of ethnic Persians to Ahwaz to change the demographic of the land. Now there are nearly two million Persians in Ahwaz, but they live in the centers of the towns and they don’t mix with people, exactly like Kosovo in the past, or like the West Bank. They're Persian settlements and they have the power to take agriculture from the people. The economy is run by them and they're supported by the Iranian state.

So the 1979 revolution changed nothing?
No, nothing changed. It just became worse, because, in 1979 Persians weren't supposed to take power again—it was supposed to become a federalist state. During the revolution, the ethnic Turks started the demonstrations across Iran, and Arabs blockaded the oil and gas in Ahwaz, so that made the previous regime close down. Before Ruhollah Khomeini took power, he told them he'd give them rights to speak their language, rights to be federalist, and rights to have a percentage of their economy, but didn't fulfill any of his promises. The only thing we have left now is self-determination.

Did anything change when Iran and Iraq went to war? Did Ahwazis fight for Iran or Iraq?
Well, the majority supported Iraq during the war, because Iraq wanted to help us as fellow Arabs. In Iran, every boy must serve in the army for two years, so many of them joined the army and were forced to fight Iraq against their will. We're geographically different to Iran, culturally different to Iran, ideologically different to Iran, our food is different to Iran and our mentality is different to Iran. Everything is different to Iran.


Do you know of any Ahwazis who went to Iraq to fight for them?
I know thousands of Ahwazis living in Iraq and they told me that 5,000 Ahwazis were killed fighting for Iraq. We had an army in Iraq and an organization, called the Arabic Movement for Ahwaz, but many of the Ahwazis who fought for Iraq are now in hiding because the Iranian intelligence services have been hunting them down ever since.

Are the Iranians killing them if they find them?
Iranian intelligence services are, yes, but Iranian services are now part of the Iraqi government. Malaki, Assad, Jafari and Hakeem are all agents for Iran. Iraq is not safe for our people at all.

Ahwazi protesters throw stones after being attacked by Iranian security forces in 2005.

How did you get involved in the Ahwaz independence movement?
On the 15th of April, 2005, I participated in a demonstration in Khailafia. It was a very peaceful demonstration to begin with—we simply wanted the world to hear our voice—but the Iranian regime began shooting at the crowd and ended up killing a lot of people. I believe more than 350 people were killed during 25 days of demonstrations.

Did they shoot at you while you were protesting, or when they found out where you lived?
No, they shot at us during the demonstration. They injured 6,000 and, according to Iranian reports, there have been 36,000 people arrested since then because of the demonstrations. Some only spent a day in detention, whereas others are still there. My best friend was arrested, along with his brother, and sentenced to 35 years in a prison outside of Ahwaz. His older brother was executed.


Did you get arrested?
Yeah, I was detained for 28 days. I was blindfolded and had no idea where they had taken me. They began torturing me on the first day with electric cables, wooden blocks, and lead pipes and continued until they had to release me on bail, due to lack of evidence. I had to sign in at the police station every month and say I wasn't part of any dissident group. I was, of course, but I had to keep it a secret.

The body of Kamil's uncle, Soltan Alboshoka.

Did any other members of your family have trouble from the Iranians?
They raided my home when I wasn't there, killed my uncle, and arrested the rest of my family, including my 80-year-old grandfather. They shot my uncle 20 times because he refused to surrender and didn’t return the body until my family paid nearly $3,000, which included the price of the bullets used to kill him. My mother was held for seven days and my father, cousins, brothers, and grandfather were all held and tortured for 15 days.

Jesus. What was their "crime"?
They accused them of having links to other countries and banned Ahwazi parties, and being a threat to the state and to God. They also arrested a lot of my friends and some of my teachers. They’re targeting the educated. When my friend, Mohammed Asakira, was in detention, the intelligence services killed his 14-year-old son and wouldn’t let Mohammed attend the funeral.

What happened to you at that point?
I only had one option at that point, and that was to flee. I first went to Orumieh in the far north to find someone to smuggle me out of the country, stayed there for one day, then hiked through the mountains into Turkey the next day and started my journey to the UK.


Are you worried the Iranian intelligence services might come after you?
They haven’t come for me yet, but I know they're looking for all Ahwazi dissidents. I don’t really know what’s going to happen, but I’m ready for anything.

You've mentioned before that Ahwazi refugees are safe here in the UK, but not in other European countries?
When I left Turkey, I only wanted to go to a western European nation, because they’re so much better organized and democratic. There’s poverty and corruption in eastern Europe, so it’s easy for Iran to operate there against Ahwazi activists. There’s a strong Ahwazi community in western and northern Europe.

Kamil's four friends and two cousins, five of whom face the death penalty.

Were there demonstrations in Ahwaz when the Arab Spring started?
There were protests in April commemorating the sixth anniversary of the demonstrations I was arrested at. The regime killed 43 people, injured 90, and arrested 200 at that demonstration, but the international media wouldn’t touch it. Iran executed three Ahwazi brothers last week for being involved in that demonstration, and we're really concerned about six Ahwazis who were arrested at the same time. Two of them are my cousins and the others are my friends. Iran has sentenced five of them to death and the other to 20 years in prison, and they've all been denied access to their lawyers and families. One of them is 27, with a wife and baby child who doesn’t recognize her father. The other cousin is 25 years old, and he was tortured for four months, whereas I was only tortured for seven days. Try to imagine that.


What’s their future?
I’ve no idea because we don’t trust the regime, they’ve been tortured throughout their detention and Press TV (Iranian state propaganda TV) forced them to "confess" in an interview to using weapons against the regime. It’s just not true. I’m very concerned because of those executions last week. That fate could await my friends. One of my friends was arrested in 2005 and is still in prison, his younger brother was executed, and two others escaped from prison while on a hospital visit.

A recent public hanging in Iran. Last year, 360 people were executed, making Iran one of the largest proponents of capital punishment in the world. 

What’s the method of execution used against Ahwazis?
They hang them, or end up killing them during torture. My cousin, Nasser, was only 19 years old when he was arrested in January, and he died after four days of excessive torture. We hope that, after Syria falls, the Arab Spring and media attention will shift towards Iraq and Ahwaz.

Do you see an armed uprising coming to Ahwaz, like in Syria and Libya?
Well, we believe in peaceful demonstration because we know Iran very well; it's nothing like Europe and far worse than Syria. If Iran wants to kill our people, then it's our right to protect ourselves, but we try to stay peaceful—we don't ever want to give Iran more reasons to kill our people.

If you had the chance, and there was an uprising, would you go back to Ahwaz to fight?
If my people were in danger, I would definitely go back and fight. I'll always support Ahwaz in any way I can.

Would you support air strikes against Iranian nuclear facilities?
Yes, they should attack Iran. We Ahwazis know what the Iranians are like—they're untrustworthy—and they’re lying about not building a nuclear bomb.

If the West did attack Iran, do you think it would be a good chance for the Ahwaz to rise up?
Yes, but they’d need to finish the job. If the Ahwazis and other ethnic groups rose up, then the West left, Iran would take revenge on us by killing thousands. The regime is like a cancer on the world, and while it's still in power, there won’t ever be lasting peace in the region.

Since I spoke to Kamil, another Ahwazi has been tortured to death. Ali Rez Gobishavi, a 37-year-old from the village of Abu Debeyan was arrested, along with 50 others, as Iran prepares for demonstrations around Eid festival on the 19th of August. Kamil told me people were ready for an uprising, but others have called for calm until the situation in Syria is resolved. Whatever happens, Ahwaz will be a region to keep an eye on in the near future.

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