"For some protesters in Iran, their blind eyes are like a medal of honor"
On September 14, 2022, Iranian journalist exiled in France since 2010 Aïda Ghajar revealed, with supporting photos, that Mahsa Amini was in a coma in a Tehran hospital, after his arrest by the morality police. From October 2022, Aïda Ghajar, 40, dedicates herself body and soul to a subject she covers for IranWire from abroad: the systemic, repeated and intentional use of projectiles targeted at the eyes of protesters during demonstrations in the streets of Iran. In several months, she collected a hundred testimonies from victims who were now blind that she shared in a long report to explain and denounce this modus operandi. Maintenance.
Aïda Ghajar, Iranian journalist exiled in France. © Louise Huet / RFI
By: Louise Huet
RFI: How did you become interested in this subject of the blindness of protesters in Iran?
Aïda Ghajar: It goes back to the end of October, in 2022. One of my sources in my network in Iran contacted me to tell me that a young girl had lost her eyes during a demonstration. I knew that this way of aiming at the eyes was a weapon already used in other countries, but it was one of the first times I was alerted to this subject in Iran. So I called this young woman. She told me her story: she was arrested in the first week of protests after Mahsa Amini's death. She spent ten days in prison and then, once out of detention, immediately returned to protest.
In October, she took a paintball, a kinetic impact projectile, in her eyes. She then sent me pictures of her face and all her medical documents, which I then passed on to our network of doctors in Iran for them to look at, check and give their opinion. The conclusion confirmed that the injury was caused by a paintball.
I quickly realized that his case was far from isolated. Little by little, I collected the testimonies of other victims who also lost their eyes. I spoke with doctors, relatives of the victims and the victims themselves before publishing all these stories. In late November, medical officials and doctors in Iran issued a report testifying about the number of patients they were seeing with eye injuries. In November 2022, doctors claimed that according to statistics in just 3 hospitals in Tehran, more than 500 people had lost their eyes. In Kurdistan, doctors counted at least 80 people with the same injuries. So from September 2022 to March 2023, the main figure available is that at least 580 people in Iran lost one or two of their eyes in the protests. Personally, I have the documents and contact of more than 100 different victims.
Once this first story was discovered, why did you decide to focus exclusively on this issue of blindness of the eyes?
I took a slap in the face when I realized that for more than 40 years we have been counting the number of opponents and protesters killed in Iran, but we have very little documentation of the living victims, those who must continue to live with their wounds, whether physical or psychological. We do not often let the wounded speak, even though they are the ones who can testify to their daily lives. The international media talk a lot about the protests and violence taking place in the streets of Iran, but the cameras rarely dwell on prisons, hospitals, refugee camps. People don't know how this violent situation affects people in the long run. That's why I decided to dwell on this subject.
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Concretely, what have you discovered about the use of blindness as a weapon of war? How does law enforcement operate?
Together with colleagues at IranWire, we detailed everything in two reports, a very general and comprehensive one published in January 2023 and one focused on the ophthalmological impact of these projectiles. With the documents collected, I was able to identify a repetitive pattern, a systemic and systematic use of this technique of war. That is why in our two reports, we speak of a "crime against humanity" to describe this method as blindness. It has been observed that during the demonstrations, the police, armed from head to toe, observe the crowd and then fire tear gas at the demonstrators. Then, they use lasers to signal to other police officers to target the leaders of the demonstration first. That's when they pull out their guns and shoot, either thin metal balls or large plastic balls containing metal, which instantly hurt on impact. Other protesters participate from their cars honking their horns. We have seen that the police also attack these vehicles with their batons and rifles to break the windshield. The pieces of glass then project into the eyes.
There are victims in every city, and they are of all types: men, women, young, old... What you have to understand is that law enforcement chooses these people. Everything is intentional: they target the protesters who are on the front lines, those who can encourage others to join the protest. The accuracy of the impacts and the medical scans of the skeletons testify to this intention: when there are more than 20 bullet holes around the eyes, it is good that the person was targeted. As the doctors quickly pointed out, we also know that this information was public, known. So the government knew exactly what was going on, but did nothing to stop it.
Screenshot of images collected by Aida Ghajar, showing Iranians blinded during the protests. © Aïda Ghajar / IranWire
Why do law enforcement prioritize eye targets? What do they represent?
The eyes are not just any part of the body. For me, they are a window with which we immortalize and retain the truth. So when the police target this part of the body, it means that they want at all costs to close this window so that the protesters can no longer testify and can no longer see, literally, the crimes around them. That's exactly what they want: to keep us in the shadows. They also cripple the people to put pressure on others. The eyes are visible, so an eye injury immediately induces a label, so everyone in your neighborhood will know that this political regime can attack you in the same way if you go to protest against them. It is a warning, a deterrent. Blindness is also a way to prevent victims from returning to protest. Because after their injuries, most stay at home for months, to treat their eyes and therefore can no longer participate in the fight physically. Their relatives are busy taking care of them and caring for them, and therefore will not go to the streets either. When you maim and handicap someone, you maim the whole community, an entire society.
What are the consequences for blinded victims?
The consequences? Their lives, a few times. Some victims died from these eye injuries. Economically, it is a disaster. The insurance does not cover the costs of treatments. Physically, according to doctors, the suffering is horrible, unimaginable. You come to want your eyes removed to stop the pain. Psychologically, it is also terrible because victims can find themselves alone, isolated, destroyed. Sometimes their families cannot support and provide for them, and may even reject the person from the household since this injury is the ultimate sign of participation in protests. Losing your eye or eyes obviously alters your physique and self-image. If they have an eye left, as soon as these people see their reflection, they will constantly be reminded of the pain they carry within them. There is a proverb in Persian that Iranians have the most beautiful eyes in the world. Our eyes are a mark of our identity, of our history. And this diet takes everything we have: beauty, physical, mental, life, hope.
However, it should also be noted that for some victims, these eye injuries are like a medal of honor. A symbol of resilience and resistance, despite the pain. Some accept their disability as a war trophy and show themselves in public or appear on social networks with eyes blinded, without patch and head high, to show that they have not given in to despair. This is also why the government has started arresting and imprisoning some of these blind people: to prevent them from inspiring others.
As an Iranian journalist, how do you manage to work on this subject of blindness? Isn't that too hard psychologically?
Of course it's very hard. Every time I get new testimonies from blinded victims and speak with them for the first time on the phone, as soon as I hang up, I go into the shower and cry. I don't think I'll ever let go of the guilt I carry for leaving Iran. But doing this journalistic job is my weapon, my responsibility. This is my way of fighting this criminal political regime, of being the voice of my fellow citizens, and of telling the truth about the situation in Iran. I transfer my anger, the grief I carry and everything I left to come here in exile, into my work. It's what keeps me alive and gives me hope. I need to tell myself that I did everything I could to take action and try to help them.
You are the journalist who revealed that Mahsa Amini was in a coma. How did you get this information?
On September 13, 2022, I noticed several tweets on Twitter that indicated that an Iranian girl had been arrested by the morality police and was now in the hospital. We had neither his name nor precise information about his situation. I called my sources in Iran, and I got the name of the hospital, the name of the victim and the contact of his brother. So I called him and he immediately wanted to testify. He told me everything and then insisted that I name him in the article. I was afraid for him, but he said, "I have nothing to lose. They killed my sister. I want to shout Mahsa's name all over the country. He then sent me the photos of Mahsa Amini in a coma in the hospital, and I published the story on September 14. Two days later, it was learned that she was indeed dead.
Were you aware that this news was going to be the spark that would ignite the Iranian people?
No, I have not thought about it, at least not to this extent. For me, I was just doing my job as a journalist, as I have done hundreds of times before. In the months before that, several other more or less similar stories of young girls arrested for such obscure reasons had already taken place, so this was nothing new. But this time, it was one deal too many. The people were ready, and angry.
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