The name of Khavaran, a cemetery southwest of Tehran, has long been associated with the criminal history of the Islamic Republic. Many victims of the 1988 massacre of political prisoners, whose bodies were never identified or returned to their families, are buried here in unmarked, mass graves.
The Iranian regime has tried time and again to wipe out any trace of this gruesome period. But concurrently, the victims’ families have done everything in their power to keep the memory of their loved ones alive. This week, in a Twitter storm using the hashtag “Khavaran Historical Memory” (خاوران_حافظه_تاریخی), thousands of grieving parents, siblings and family members asked the world to hear their renewed call for justice.
In this report we spoke to Ladan Bazargan, the sister of Bijan Bazargan, and Bahareh Monshi, the daughter of Abbas Monshi, both of whom were buried in the cemetery in 1988, why Khavaran is part of Iran’s history and why it must not be disturbed.
Few if any Iranians have not heard of Khavaran, a cemetery that for a long time was used as a burial ground for Tehran’s Christian Armenians and Baha’is. In the 1980s, however, the government also used it to bury executed political prisoners, including the victims of 1988 mass killings.
These people were buried in two unmarked mass graves, wrapped in black plastic bags, without even enough soil poured on top to fully cover them. And in the more than 30 years since then, the Islamic Republic has repeatedly tried to cover up this historical crime for good.
The regime has attempted to destroy this cemetery on several documented occasions. Recently, however, it changed tack. On April 22, Simin Fahandej, Representative of the Baha’i International Community to the United Nations in Geneva, reported that “The Baha'is of Tehran have been barred from burying their dead in [their own part of] Khavaran cemetery, which has enough burial space for at least the next 50 years.
“Representatives of Tehran’s Behesht Zahra Cemetery want to force [the Baha’is] to bury their loved ones in the mass graves of Khavaran. The Baha'is respect all of the deceased; at least let their loved ones be buried with dignity!"
Fahandej also reported that security officials had told Baha’is that the mass graves of the 1988 victims had been destroyed and vacated. Also in April, pictures surfaced from Khavaran showing that the government had succeeded in forcing the families of at least two Baha’is to bury them in the plot where the mass graves are located.
In an open letter to Tehran’s mayor on April 25, 79 family members of the 1988 massacre victims spoke out against this apparently state-sponsored disturbance. “More than thirty years have passed since the killing of our children, wives, sisters and brothers,” they wrote. “According to the evidence, the soil of Khavaran is the burial place of their pure bodies. What is the purpose and intention of this change?
“We urge you to refrain from forcing our Baha'i compatriots to bury their deceased loved ones in a mass grave, and not to pour salt on our old wounds.”
Since then, the families have taken to social media to amplify their message. At 7pm on May 3, they launched a Twitter storm demanding the preservation of what remains of their loved ones. They were joined in this campaign by human rights organizations and political activists.
Painful Stories, Seeds of Empathy
Reading the stories of people whose families were rent apart by the 1988 massacres is no easy thing to do. But the pain of it, participants believe, will in turn help create empathy and mutual understanding.
“Khavaran is not only evidence of the regime’s crime,” said one Iranian Twitter user, Shakib Nasrollah, “but the first time Iranians with very different beliefs stand besdie each other to sow the seeds of a common call for justice, regardless of our beliefs and ideologies. Khavaran is not a history of death or all about the past. It is a starting point for the future.”
Another group retweeted a video of the imprisoned filmmaker, journalist and political activist Mohammad Nourizad, who has called Khavaran the symbol of a “Shia Holocaust”.
Another prominent voice in the Twitter storm came from the “No to Execution!” campaign, which has gathered pace again in the past few years. “Khavaran means no to execution,” tweeted theater director and writer Sholeh Pakravan, the mother of Reyhaneh Jabbari, who was hanged in 2014 after being convicted of killing a man she said was trying to rape her. Pakravan herself was forced to flee Iran after she was harassed and arrested for campaigning against the death penalty in her daughter’s memory.
We Must Not Forget It
For more than 42 years, the history of the Islamic Republic of Iran has been colored by systematic and wide-ranging abuses of its own people. Protests have been crushed in the most violent way possible and protesters and political and civil activists have been imprisoned, grotesquely tortured and executed.
Ladan Bazargan, the sister of Bijan Bazargan, who was executed in the summer of 1988, says: “Khavaran is a national symbol of all crimes committed by the Islamic Republic and must be preserved by fighting tooth and nail, in the hope that coming generations will not have to experience the same thing.”
The regime, she believes, thrives on people’s forgetfulness. “It was by hiding its crimes in the 1980s that the regime was able to commit the murderous attack on the dormitory of Tehran University in 1999, to crush the 2009 movement through bloodshed, to repeat these crimes during the 2019 protests and then to shoot down the Ukrainian plane [Ukrainian Airlines Flight 752],” she says. “So, Khavaran belongs to all of us, because it is about crimes against humanity.”
Bazargan compares Khavaran with the death camps the Nazis established in Europe. “Khavaran must be preserved as it was on the first day, the same way that Auschwitz was preserved, the same way that other symbols of Nazi crimes were preserved.
“Some might say that Khavaran is preserved in our collective memory, and it doesn’t even matter if they build something there. But unfortunately, history forgets. We must remember that there are those who deny the Holocaust even though, after the Second World War, the Allies took pictures of the death camps and recorded Nazi crimes, and even after the Nazis themselves confessed.”
Bahareh Monshi, the daughter of Abbas Monshi, who was executed in 1988, similarly tells IranWire that the Twitter storm is important because although it only testifies to one of the Islamic Republic’s crimes, it stands for all of them.
“Khavaran is not the only mass grave in Iran,” she says. “There are three others in Tehran, and others in Kurdistan, Ahvaz, Lorestan, Tabriz and even Gilan. But Khavaran is a symbol of solidarity for the victims’ families. On the last Thursday of every year, they brave all the harassment and gather at Khavaran.”
Khavaran is also not the only cemetery that has been targeted by the security establishment. Previously the government also destroyed mass graves in Ahvaz, Khuzestan and in Kurdistan. “They have bulldozed Khavaran itself several times,” Monshi says, “with the excuse of renovating the cemeteries of religious minorities. For a while they even closed the gates to Khavaran and did not allow the families to enter. Harassing the families is what they do, all the time. We plant flowers, they uproot the flowers. We even planted a few pine trees, which they uprooted as well.”
Her own father, Abbas Monshi, was serving a six-year prison sentence and due to be released in 1992 when, like others, he was taken away and murdered in 1988. In a letter he sent to Bahareh’s mother from Iranian New Year in 1367 [March 21, 1988], he had written that he would come back to them with the spring and place garlands of violets on their heads.
“My father was hopeful that he would be released,” Bahareh says, “but instead they killed him secretly, at night, and did not even tell us where he was buried. We want to know where the bodies of our loved ones lie, and we want justice for them.”
The only thing these families know is that their loved ones are buried somewhere in Khavaran. They owe this knowledge to the families of other political prisoners who were killed before 1988, who saw that two new ditches had been dug in Khavaran around the time of the massacre.
In the immediate aftermath of the killings, most of the families were isolated and dispersed across Iran. Today, they present a more united front. “The regime did not permit us to hold mourning ceremonies,” Bazargan says, “or to tell anybody about it. The neighbors would not visit us to offer their condolences. They did not allow us to put up death notices or gather around a wreath of flowers to mourn.
“We were very lonely in those days. But today I really feel that people are behind me. I shake the hands of all these friends, and I thank them for caring, for not forgetting this crime against humanity, this national tragedy.”
She adds: “We also know that Iranian Baha’is are also being savaged by the regime. In the past 32 years the Baha’i community has always stood by us. They have told the United Nations about this and protested. Our problem is a criminal regime that wants to wipe out the traces of its crime against humanity. But we shall stand up to them.”