There is nothing like the smell of tear gas in the morning. Today, when we caught the first whiff of tear gas at 10:30 AM, a tense atmosphere had already settled on Enghelab Avenue. Judging the numbers though, we knew if people could meet up at Enghelab and march, the day would be like 25 Khordad. Four hours later when I walked out of the area, alone and sick with worry, the day looked like no other in the past six months. I am tired and incoherent, but let me start the story from the night before.
Saturday – Tasou’a
A friend and I decided to walk up Niavaran Avenue in the evening. We were not planning on going up to Jamaran where Khatami was giving a speech, as it was already 6:30 PM and too late for that, but we still wanted to see how large a crowd would show in the area. Traffic was at a standstill and people had started honking here and there when we got to the Police station on Niavaran across Jamshidiyeh. A crowd was walking down towards Niavaran chanting “Allah-o-Akbar”. Some bystanders were watching from the sidewalks, and we stopped as well. A man, holding a little boy’s hand, asked me in an Esfahani accent “what is happening? How come there is a protest here?” I told him that Khatami was at Jamaran.
When we passed Jamaran Street, Police had already blocked the entry points to the area and was redirecting traffic off Niavaran. Jamaran was packed with cars all the way up as far as the eye could see, and police were not letting anyone else drive up anymore. We turned back.
Halfway between Jamaran and Jamshidiyeh, the crowd we saw earlier had grown much larger, and was walking down Niavaran towards us, chanting slogans. Many people came out of their homes to watch, and we stopped on the sidewalk too. We started debating whether to join the procession or not and my friend was uneasy and against it.
A few minutes later, the first shot of tear gas effectively ended our debate. We immediately decided to join the crowd in fleeing. As we ran, security forces kept firing more tear gas, each time a little closer. Someone opened their garage door and some people ran inside. We continued running up Niavaran when another tear gas landed right in front of us. There was no time to change course. We jumped over the canister, through the cloud, and landed on the other side. I continued running, but I couldn’t breathe anymore. I gasped for air. My throat wouldn’t open up. I stopped, and pictured myself laying on the sidewalk. I breathed in again. Useless. I thought my poor friend who was altogether against going to Niavaran would have to drag me out of the scene now. I would slow him down. We’d be arrested. I tried breathing in once again. This time it went through. I started running.
A little further I saw the Esfahani man and his child running. A guy behind me yelled at the man: “why did you bring the boy to this place?” The Esfahani answered: “Did I know Niavaran would be like this?”
Half an hour later, we were out of the area. We made our way through the back alleys off Niavaran, and choked all the way home. I took a pill for the nasty headache that followed and that was that.
I got to Enghelab Avenue with some of the closest and dearest people to me. We were five. People were walking west on the sidewalks and there was some chanting and few V signs, but hordes of security men and anti-riot police were present.
When we got to the corner of Hafez and Enghelab, the first gang of riot police on motorcycles showed up and fired tear gas to disperse the crowd. We ran up Hafez and turned West towards Vali-Asr. It was clear that the security forces’ goal was to prevent people from getting to Enghelab avenue, but the sheer number of people who were still coming to the area gave us hope that taking over Enghelab might be possible.
A large crowd had gathered on Vali-Asr, chanting slogans. I looked north and saw more people coming towards us. The chanting went on for about ten minutes, until a group of anti-riot bikers showed up from the south and started firing tear gas again.
We ran up Vali-Asr and sat on the sidewalk for a while, lit a few cigarettes and waited out the effects of the tear gas. The crowd started moving back towards the intersection and chanting once more.
The game had begun. Government forces would disperse the crowd with tear gas and beatings, but people would come back and take over the intersections as soon as they were gone.
We walked up to the corner of Taleghani and Vali-Asr. People were making roadblocks using sandbags provided in bins around the city for the snow. There is no snow this year, but they come in handy in war too. After a short session of chanting, there was a serving of tear gas for everyone again. We ran up Vali-Asr. A man was sitting on the sidewalk surrounded by a few people. Someone said he had been shot in the leg. I took a peek.
I remember we were sitting on the sidewalk again and recovering from tear gas when some bikers appeared and started beating people. They drove past us and turned around. One of the last bikes stopped in front of us about ten meters away and the guard riding in the back pulled out his tear gas gun, pointed it at us and said: “shall I shoot you?” My only reaction was to look at him. After asking the same question a couple of more times, they drove off.
We got up and started walking toward Hafez Avenue on Taleghani. By now the area was full of smoke from tear gas and burning trash bins. There were battles fought at every intersection, where the Basij and anti-riot guards would attack and drive people back, and a few minutes later people would rush them and take the intersection back. Occasionally we would see clouds of thick dark smoke rise up and we knew they were Basij and Police bikes that were set on fire.
We got back to Hafez Avenue, ran into some friends and everybody agreed that it was time to get back to the car and drive out of the area.
Back at the car, there was no point in getting in, as a large crowd was swarming in the street, marching west. It seemed like many separate masses had finally come together at that point. We joined in, marched and chanted.
We turned northbound on Hafez Avenue, and then turned west on Taleghani. It seemed like the idea was to keep marching west parallel to Enghelab Avenue, but at the Taleghani and Vali-Asr intersection a large group of security forces showed up and a battlefront was formed there. The security forces started firing tear gas into the crowd and those at the frontlines were picking the canisters up and throwing them back. The crowd started to slowly move back toward Hafez, as there was no room to run because of congestion. We were also helped by the fact that a breeze was blowing west, pushing the tear gas back towards the anti-riot guards, so we could take our time.
We inched back toward Hafez when suddenly riot police showed up on the bridge and started to throw rocks down at us. I don’t know how many people got injured there. We were now stuck between tear gas from the west and flying rocks from the east, so everyone just stopped and took cover. Some people at the eastern front picked up the rocks and started throwing them at the riot police on the bridge to drive them away from the edge. At some point, the rock hurling stopped momentarily and the riot police backed off, so we decided to run for the bridge and take cover under it. In the mess, a friend and I got separated from the other members of our group.
Once we got under the bridge, I noticed people had blocked the northern end of it with burning garbage bins and rubble. I saw two fire trucks stuck in the crowd a little further up Hafez Avenue. Apparently the greens had taken over one of them since someone was shouting “Ya Hossein” from the truck’s loudspeakers and people were responding with “Mir Hossein”. Some were trying to break into the other truck when the driver said in the loudspeaker: “We are firemen…please…we are with you.” But people kept rocking the truck and climbing it. Finally the driver said: “Ok…ok…death to the dictator….death to the dictator,” which was met with wild cheers from everywhere.
We ran into Taleghani and tried to make our way back to the car, hoping the others would do the same. There was war at every intersection, and we had to run away from batons, chains and rocks everywhere, so the decision on which way to turn became almost random. When we turned south on Nejatollahi Street, we saw a group of Basijis driving up on their bikes. One of them was waving a gun above his head and screaming. It was time to run again.
We finally got close to the car. We were about fifty meters away when a group of Basijis attacked from the front and we had to run into a narrow street. When we came back, the goons were gone. I asked my friend to wait there for just a minute while I went to check if the others in our group were there already. Another attack came from the front. I ran back and realized more Basijis were coming out of the very street my friend and I were just in. In the chaos that followed, I lost her.
I decided to wait on the sidewalk for a minute to see if I can see her. Three old women in black chadors and an old man were sitting on a ledge on the sidewalk and I sat next to them. A few seconds later, the group of Basijis attacked a brown Peugeot with their clubs and smashed it to smithereens before us. Four people were in the car. One of the Basijis spotted us on the sidewalk and ran towards us. He then stopped, turned around and yelled at the others that they should come get us. I told the man and the women next to me that it was time to go. They got up and one of the women said “but we can’t run.’ I told them it was better not to run anyway, as Basijis tend to ignore you when you walk, that they like their prey running. So in the bedlam, we walked away together and soon disappeared in the back streets.
I was now alone and very worried about the others. We have a rule for days like this. Whenever you are separated, you walk out of the area to somewhere quiet, find a ride and get yourself home or somewhere safe. I did the same and hoped that everyone else would too. On my way out and everywhere I turned, I was met with a group of unleashed Basijis wielding chains and clubs, but I finally made my way through the side streets to 7-Tir Square.
I walked north, past the Basij and IRGC forces stationed at the unusually quiet 7-Tir and waited for a taxi. There were no cabs at the square, and after waiting for a while and chatting with others next to me, a man stopped and gave us a ride up Modarres Freeway.
“Were you in the war zone today?” the driver asked me.
“Yeah. It was hell. The police were chasing people with cars today.”
“They were trying to run them over. I was running for my life right here on Karim Khan a little earlier.”
I found myself at a friend’s house by 2:30 PM. Mobile service was cut off, so the rest of the afternoon was about waiting, teary-eyed, to hear from the rest of the group. Everyone was fine.
* * *
On 13 Aban I said I had never seen so much violence perpetrated before me in my life. Ditto for Ashura. The difference is that on Ashura the security forces were subjected to the people’s wrath as well. I didn’t mention every rock that hit a head, or every baton that landed on bone in my story above. They are just too many and on days like these I generally remember snapshots of events anyway. The area was a warzone though.
It was clear that the security forces had completely lost control of the situation and were resorting to hit and run tactics. They would attack the crowds with clubs and tear gas and quickly retreat. There was almost no attempt at crowd control or holding an area. For this reason they stepped up their fear tactics, such as smashing cars and flashing guns, in order to get the people to just leave. But people kept coming back with sticks and stones.
I still believe violence will be detrimental to the green movement in the long run, but today may have been a necessary evil in the face of a regime that leaves its people with no outlet. The violence on the part of people was controlled and targeted. Had they chosen to turn to rioting, central Tehran could have been laying in ashes by now. Not a single gas station was protected in the area I covered. Ashura was a mere slap on the regime’s wrist.
If Ashura doesn’t wake the regime up to the fact that people are getting tired of being punching bags, then I guess all hell has to break loose before they realize it. It should also give a little message to the mercenary forces: that the money they are paid for beating people up on the streets may not be worth it the next time. I imagine they had many casualties today as well, but the regime certainly will not be publishing those.
I just remembered one of today’s strangest scenes. It was on Somayyeh Avenue and close to Hafez. Amidst the smoke and screams, while people were running in all directions, and while rocks were flying in the air not thirty meters away, we came across an old couple. The man was probably in his seventies, tall, and blind. The woman was wrapped in a black Chador. They were standing on a green prayer rug, their shoes neatly set on the sidewalk. Like two ghosts, not among us anymore, they were praying; perhaps for this war to end someday.
(Late post, due to the lack of a “proper” internet connection.)