As IranWire has reported, hundreds of Iranians have sustained severe eye injuries after being hit by pellets, tear gas canisters, paintball bullets or other projectiles used by security forces amid a bloody crackdown on mainly peaceful demonstrations. Doctors say that, as of now, at least 580 protesters have lost one or both eyes in Tehran and in Kurdistan alone. But the actual numbers across the country are much higher. The report concluded that such actions by the security forces could constitute a “crime against humanity,” as defined by Article 7 of the Rome Statute.
IranWire has explored this question more deeply in an interview with Professor Payam Akhavan, a prominent human rights lawyer, special advisor to the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Court and a former member of the Office of the Prosecutor of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia.
IranWire is aware of more than 50 serious eye injuries sustained by protestors and bystanders over the past five months. With the help of independent ophthalmologists, we have reviewed the medical records of around a dozen individuals and compiled a comprehensive medical report.
In the series of reports “Blinding as a Weapon,” IranWire presents the victims’ stories told in their own words. Some have posted their stories, along with their names and pictures, on social media. Others, whose real names shall not be disclosed to protect their safety, have told their stories to IranWire, which can make their identities and medical records available to international legal authorities and the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the situation of human rights in the Islamic Republic of Iran.
This is the story of Elham, a 35-year-old woman who had left the door to her house open so that protesters could take shelter when attacked by security forces. She was herself shot and lost an eye. More than six months after the incident, Elham wants to remain anonymous. She fears retaliation by security forces but also of the judgment of her relatives and other people in her community.
“I look at myself once every few days. Before I go to work, I look at a glass. When I see that my eyelid is hanging down, I get heartsick. I look at my eye in the mirror but my eye does not look at me,” she says while crying. “It is so dastardly to shoot at the eye.”
Elham received a master’s degree in mathematics, married three years ago and moved to the southern province of Hormozgan, where she works for a commercial firm.
She is the family’s youngest child. She lost her mother in 2015 and his elderly father keeps repeating, “I am sure your eyesight will return because you have such a kind heart.”
Elham’s eye was blinded during a protest in a city in Hormozgan province on November 11, 2022.
“I Always Remember his Smirk”
That night, Elham heard loud noises in the street and stepped out. She noticed several women hiding among the trees. Members of the security forces on motorcycles shone their flashlights toward the trees and kicked every woman they saw.
“I was frozen. Several women leaned out of the windows of the apartment opposite to our home and started shouting ‘You rascals! Let them go. Why are you beating them?’ One of the agents who were riding on the backseat of the motorcycles jumped down, turned his gun toward the windows and threatened everybody to go inside. My husband and I were so terrified that we were unable to move.”
The agents left and Elham and some neighbors approached the young women, who asked them to leave the doors to their homes open so they could take shelter in them. Elham and her husband returned home and did not close the door. Right at that moment, the voices of protesters soared again.
“I never believed that they would start shooting,” Elham says, with a lump in her throat. “I was 10 meters from my home when they started shooting at people. The motorcyclists drove into the crowd…In the midst of that crowd [a motorcyclist] raised his gun and pointed it at me. A car was next to me. I saw the smirk in his eyes. I heard a noise like they were throwing sand and pebbles at the car and suddenly the colors mixed together in my eye. Then everything went black and my eye started burning.”
Elham put her hand over her eye and ran to her home. The yard was filled with protesters. She sat in a corner and burst into tears.
“After that night, I kept telling my relatives that the shooter smirked at me before firing, but they didn’t believe me and said I was hallucinating. But when Ghazal Ranjkesh wrote that she has had the same experience, they believed me. I always remember his smirk.”
In hospital, an eye doctor examined her eye and diagnosed a hemorrhage in her vitreous humor. He prescribed eyedrops and Elham returned home.
“I kept saying that I could not even see the light but he said, ‘Don’t worry, you’ll be fine soon.’ When we left the clinic, I kept vomiting, perhaps because I was terrified. It was a very difficult night. When my eyeball was moving, I could feel that my eye was stuck to something,” the woman says.
Elham used the eyedrop for three days. Then a sharp tiny piece of metal came out of her eye: a pellet. Another doctor told her that it was nothing serious and her cornea had been scratched. He assured her that the eye would heal after a month.
But after a month, Elham noticed that her eye had shrunk and was constantly red and tearful. She visited a prominent eye specialist outside the province.
“When I sat down for the eye exam, the doctor suddenly shouted, ‘What happened to this eye? The retina has been detached, the eye has developed a cataract and it is still bleeding,’” Elham says.
After a fundoscopy (examination of the back of the inside of the eye) and sonography were performed, the doctor told her through his secretary to come back three months later.
Elham took her medical records and visited another eye specialist on November 26. That doctor said she must undergo two surgeries to remove the cataract, take out the blood clot in the vitreous humor and inject medicine behind the retina.
After the surgeries, Elham’s eye looks normal but the eyesight is gone.
Dr. Rouzbeh Esfandiari, a former doctor with Tehran Emergency Services, tells IranWire, “The sonogram shows that her left eye was traumatized. The eyeball wasn’t ruptured and the lens wasn’t displaced, but the eye developed cataract. There is no foreign object in the left eye. The most important damage is that there is increased density in the back part of the eye because of the hemorrhage. Also, in the lower area next to the nose, the retina has been damaged and a 12-millimeter area on the retina has separated.”
Back to “Routine Life” after Suicidal Thoughts
People around Elham – medical staff, relatives and friends – treated her in various ways. Some admonished the woman and some ridiculed her, while others tried to comfort her: “What made it much more painful for me was how I was treated by my relatives who constantly blamed me or, instead of comforting me, told me, ‘You must thank god because many were hurt much worse.’ And sarcasms hurt a lot.”
“Only my husband kept telling me, ‘You are my hero.’ And I kept telling myself that I was strong. Those days I couldn’t imagine I would be able to return to a routine life. I even thought of committing suicide. I told my husband that he could choose to leave me, but he stood by my side. And now, relatively speaking, I am back to routine life.”
Hoping for Justice
“I don’t know whom to sue,” Elham says in anger. “Eventually somebody among them will squeal and reveal who gave the order to shoot at the eyes and who pulled the trigger. Not everybody is ruthless enough to blind people. I live in the hope that I will witness that day.”
When asked what she would tell the shooter if she meets him, she sobs: “Don’t know. I might cry. I might just cry and tell him: ‘How could you? You could have targeted the hand or the foot. Why the eye? How could you?”