Three environmental activists were killed on the evening of June 28 in a fire locals and activists say could have been started by soldiers for the Revolutionary Guards.
June 2020 in Iran will be remembered for at least two distinct but linked phenomena: the re-emergence of coronavirus in Iran, which claimed and affected huge numbers of lives, and raging fires that ripped through mountainous areas and forests across the country, destroying some of Iran’s most cherished areas of natural beauty and fragile ecosystems.
Forest and rangeland fires began in Iran in early June and continue to cause destruction. The Bozin and Marahkheil Protected Area in Bayangan, Paveh district caught fire twice in less than a month. In addition to destroying nearly 430 hectares of the region's pristine nature, the fire killed the three environmental activists.
Mokhtar Khandani, a well-known civil activist in Paveh and the spokesperson for the Jiway Environmental Association, said his Jiway Association colleague Yasin Karimi and Balal Amini, a civil activist from Paveh, were trying to put out the fire at around 7pm on Sunday in the Jaleh section of the protected area, and died after the wind changed direction, destroying the woods they were trying to rescue.
The fire started in the area on Thursday, June 25, and was initially contained by the Jiway Association activists and other groups who had arrived on the scene to help on the evening of June 27. They had no equipment to fight the fire effectively. Azad Sheikh-Vaeisi, the commander of the Kermanshah Environmental Protection Unit, said officials had not arranged to send helicopters to extinguish the fire, adding that the unit was short of extinguishers and in some instances had tried to fight the fire using leaves.
But whatever control they gained did not last long, and on June 28 the fire was raging through the mountain again. Rescue groups headed back to the area, including activists from the Jiway Association, who left another fire they were fighting in a valley to attend to the fire there. They were soon in danger themselves and became surrounded by fire.
According to Soran Mahmoudi, one of the Jiway Association’s 12-person team, the direction of the wind changed at around 7pm.
A Paveh activist who was involved in the rescue operation said that members of the team had ample experience fire-fighting in mountainous areas. “In such situations sometimes you can find safe areas where there is nothing left to burn. Unfortunately, the three members of the team were extinguishing the fire from one of these points in the valley, but the speed and intensity of the fire made it impossible for them to escape. They were trapped with fire all around them.”
Balal Amini was carrying a leaf blower for fire-fighting at the time. The specialist equipment, which runs on gasoline and is very light and portable, directs an intense blast of air toward the fire to cut off the blaze’s force and trajectory and to help extinguish it. “It appears that when the fire reached Balal and he fell to the ground, the plastic guard of the blower melted after a few minutes of intense heat and the gas tank exploded,” the activist said.
Reporting on the tragedy, Mehr News Agency raised the possibility that there had been a landmine explosion in the area, but the activist said that was unlikely. “The impact of the blast can be seen behind Balal, and perhaps that is why it was thought that the activists may have lost their lives because of anti-personnel mines exploding.”
According to the rescue team, although the bodies of all three activists were badly burnt in the fire, it was evident that they died from smoke inhalation.
The bodies of all three victims arrived in Paveh on the morning of Monday June 29. As they arrived in the city, mourners gathers, holding up a sign that read: "Martyrs do not die."
According to a member of the Jiway Association, the group were determined to bury all three victims in a tomb next to each other and hold a symbolic ceremony to commemorate their self-sacrifice. "The IRGC imposed a security situation in the city and deprived us of taking any initiative. The bodies of our fallen friends, who were handed over to the forensic medicine organization, will be sent to the villages and their hometowns by the IRGC.”
Mokhtar Khandani, 42, originally from Nosud, had lived in Paveh for many years and, in addition to his environmental activism, was a part of the Kermanshah earthquake rescue team, as well as part of public campaigns to help people with coronavirus and public campaigns to help underprivileged communities. He had organized two events to support these causes and was very popular among the local people.
Yassin Karimi, a 50-year-old resident of the village of Shamshir Paveh, was the father of three children. He worked as a school employee and was an active member of the Jiway Association. Balal Amini, 33, was born in the village of Inakhi near Paveh and lived in the city. Amini, who was married and had two children, was a hairdresser. Balal Amini was also a nature photographer and posted some of his photographs on his Instagram page.
One of the Jiway Association members who was part of Sunday's rescue team said it was hard for him and his colleagues to cope with the tragic death of the three “environmental martyrs" said he know it would not be the last time. The group will continue to face hardship, not just because of the dangers of what they are fighting for, but also because of the negligence and incompetence of government officials. They have very little access to necessary equipment, and they are always in danger of losing their loved ones.
According to the activist, lack of resources and necessary equipment to control fires effectively and reduce the risks to environmentalists is an ongoing problem, and a catastrophic factor in the deaths of the activists in the recent fires. Sahib Veisi, a member of the board of directors of the Jiway Association, discussed the issue in detail with IRNA.
According to environmental activists in Kurdistan, government agencies’ failures to control fires in the mountains of Kurdistan and the Kurdish regions of Iran has posed a significant risk to the natural environment and has endangered the lives of activists, many of whom fight these fires without any equipment or resources.
However, it is obvious that the activists' complaints are not only about the government's failure to help non-governmental organizations. "Not only do they not help, but sometimes they are initiate such fires, whether unintentionally or by plan, or out of carelessness and disregard for the vital importance of the environment."
This is the second fire in the Bozin and Marahkheil area in the last month. The first engulfed the area from May 26 to May 28, destroying 380 of the 24,000-hectare forest area and killing a soldier who was battling it. It was confirmed by officials that military forces stationed in the area had started the fire.
Azar Valizadeh, the deputy supervisory officer for the Department of the Environment in Kermanshah and Sardar Ali Akbar Javidan, Kermanshah's police chief, both confirmed the fire broke out on May 26 near the police regiment's border checkpoint. On this occasion, officials accepted responsibility, but this has not always been the case.
The “Security Threat” of Iran’s Cherished Environment
An environmental activist from Marivan who has worked to protect mountains in the area for years says the government lights fires deliberately on a regular basis: "In general, any part of the forested and mountainous region of Kurdistan that has rich vegetation is a potential threat to the security apparatus — and in particular to the Revolutionary Guards — because they think this vegetation can provide camouflage for opposition forces and their movement in these areas."
He says authorities have repeatedly tried to destroy the region's vegetation and forests to reduce the so-called security threat. "Sometimes during military maneuvers, bullets are shot and set fire to dry plants in the summer heat. Tens of thousands of hectares are scorched, destroying the land, plants, animals and reptiles."
The activist says the deliberate arson, which is being carried out in various ways and using a range of methods, destroys vegetation in Kurdistan’s mountainous regions with the aim of gaining more control over security in the region — effectively implementing a scorched-earth policy. “Is this policy about destroying all resources available to the enemy force? Well, they consider the Kurdish opposition to be their enemy, and they don't care about the effects of this destructive policy, which will completely destroy life in these areas. For us, these mountains are not only nature in the common sense, but are also part of our culture, history, and way of life. By destroying nature, the Guards also rob us of life, past and future. Whom and what are they going to rule over?"
He added that the IRGC sometimes uses local mercenaries to set fire to the area in exchange for a small sum of money. The recent fire in the Bozin and Marahkheil area on June 28 is said to have happened when two people shot across the border, setting plants on the dry land on fire. Two other activists who were detained by Kurdistan security officials confirmed what their colleague said: "People on the other side of the border have no interest in setting fire to mountainous areas, as they know this fire can spread. What is more logical, and given the IRGC's history and practices in the region, it is likely that they paid mercenaries to set fire to the area's pastures and natural resources to provide security."
The fires also engulfed sections of mountain terrains in the protected area and around the cement-producing district of Javanrood. A resident told IranWire that many people in the area made a living extracting gum resin from wild pistachio trees, and that nearly 300 locals who had been preparing to set off to the mountains were affected by the blaze, which he agreed was the work of the Revolutionary Guards (IRGC). "A few days ago, a Guards commander in the area named Major Parvaneh ridiculed us and said the area should be cleared so we have more security. A number of people told him not to do anything, but they deliberately set the area on fire. So not only have they destroyed our income, but they have also destroyed our nature. Is there anyone who will listen to us?"