From Protester to Fighter: Fleeing Iran’s Brutal Repression to Take Up Arms Across the Border

Iraqi Kurdistan

A teenage dissident chased a group of smugglers across Iran’s western border. For three days, Rezan trekked up a rocky ridge and through minefields along a circuitous route made by seasoned smugglers to evade the country’s heavily armed Revolutionary Guards. The journey was too dangerous to rest for much more than a few stolen moments at a time.

“I knew that if we were spotted by an officer, we would be killed immediately,” said the 19-year-old Iranian-Kurdish activist, who is being identified to CNN by the pseudonym Rezan for security purposes. He was on his way to the border with Iraq, one of Iran’s most heavily militarized borders, where rights groups say many have been shot dead by Iranian security forces for crossing illegally, or smuggling illegal goods.

He fled his hometown of Sanandaj in western Iran, where security forces were causing death and destruction at protest sites. Protesters were arrested arbitrarily, some shot dead in front of him, he said. They were beaten a lot in the street. In the second week of the protests, security forces pulled Rezani’s uncovered hair, he said. He saw them being dragged down the street, screaming in agony, his friends being forcibly arrested and the children being beaten.

“They pulled my hair. they beat me They dragged me away,” he said, recounting the brutal repression in the Kurdish-majority city. “At the same time, I could see the same thing happening to many other people, including children.”

Sanandaj has seen the largest protests in Iran, the largest outside Tehran, since the uprising began in mid-September.

Rezan said he had no choice but to make the long and dangerous journey to Iraq with the smuggler. Leaving the official border crossing nearest to Iran (a mere three-hour drive) could have led to his arrest. Staying in Sanandaj could have resulted in death at the hands of the security forces.

“(Here) I can get my rights to live as a woman. I want to fight for women’s rights. I want to fight for human rights,” he told CNN in northern Iraq. After arriving here earlier this month, he decided to change his attitude. No longer a peaceful protester, Rezan decided to take up arms, joining an Iranian-Kurdish militant group with positions in the arid valleys of Iraqi Kurdistan.

A man walks past the body of a vehicle weeks after it was attacked by Iranian drones and missiles.

Rezan is one of several Iranian dissidents who have fled the country in the past month, fleeing the regime’s violent efforts to crack down on demonstrations sparked by the arrest of 22-year-old Iranian Kurdish-Iranian woman Mahsa “Zhina” Amini. the police for wearing the hijab incorrectly.

The number of dissidents who have left Iran since the protests began is unknown. In the Kurdish-administered region of northern Iraq (KRG)—which borders mainly Kurdish western Iran—many exiled activists keep a low profile, hiding in safe houses. They have said they fear reprisals against families at home, where mass arrests have become routine in Kurdish-majority areas.

According to eyewitnesses and videos on social media, people in these regions have endured some of the harshest tactics used by Iranian security forces in their brutal campaign to suppress the protest movement.

In Kurdish-majority regions, there is widespread evidence of security forces firing indiscriminately into crowds of protesters. The Iranian government appears to have deployed members of its elite fighting force, the Revolutionary Guards, to those areas to deal with the protesters, according to witnesses and videos from protest sites.

Iran’s Revolutionary Guard usually fights the regime’s battles further afield, namely in Iraq and Syria, propping up brutal dictatorships and fighting extremist groups like ISIS.

The Iraqi Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK) says it has no hand in the protests that have reached Iran over the past month, but says it is ready to help Kurds in western and northwestern Iran take up arms.

For the Kurds, the increased crackdown in the western part of the country underscores decades of well-documented ethnic marginalization by Iran’s central government. These are grievances shared by Iran’s other ethnic minorities and predate Iran’s clerical rule.

The nearly 10 million Kurdish population is Iran’s third largest ethnic group. Governments in Tehran – including the western regime of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, who were overthrown in 1979 – have viewed the group with suspicion, as they seek to break away from the long-standing state and establish a republic alongside Kurdish communities in neighboring countries. .

Crouching in the shade of a dusty tree in a valley with her sisters in northern Iraq, Rezan clutches her AK-47 rifle, her husky voice bemoaning the lingering fear of Iranian reprisals. After fleeing Iran, authorities there called his family and threatened to arrest his siblings, he said.

But she said her family supports her militancy, with the mother vowing to bury all her children rather than hand them over to the authorities. “I’m carrying a gun because we want to show the Iranian Kurds that they have someone behind them,” Rezan said from one of the bases of his militant group, the Kurdistan Freedom Party (PAK). “I want to protect the Kurds there, because the Kurds protect themselves with stones.”

Protesters across Iran are unarmed. However, Iran blames Kurdish-Iranian armed groups in Kurdish-majority Kurdistan for fomenting unrest in Kurdish-majority areas. Since the protests began, drones and missiles have hit Iranian Kurdish targets in Iraq, killing dozens of people.

General Hussein Yazdanpanah, head of the Kurdistan Freedom Party, accuses Tehran of using it as a

Last Saturday, the head of Iran’s armed forces accused Iraq’s semi-autonomous Kurdistan region of hosting 3,000 Iranian-Kurdish militants and vowed to continue attacking their bases unless the government disarms the fighters.

“Iran’s anti-terrorist operations will continue. No matter how long it takes, we will continue with this operation and bigger ones,” said Mohammad Hossein Bagheri, Chief of the General Staff of the Iranian Armed Forces.

PAK and other Kurdish-Iranian armed groups in Iraq say they have not supported the protests in any concrete way. But they have called on the US to intervene on behalf of the protesters, saying they are ready to help the Iranian Kurds take up arms if the crisis in Iran escalates.

“What is happening on the street with the demonstrators was not designed on my basis,” PAK leader General Hussein Yazdanpanah told CNN. He was speaking from the group’s barracks that were hit by Iranian missiles and drones on September 28, killing eight militants.

On September 28, one of the barracks of the militants of an Iranian-Kurdish armed group located in Iraqi Kurdistan was attacked by Iranian drones and missiles.

“(Iran) is using us as a scapegoat for Iranian protests and to take the media’s attention away from Iran,” said Yazdanpanah, who believes he was the target of the attack.

“I will not hide the fact that I am a military supporter of my people,” he said, standing amid the destruction of his base near the town of Altun Kupri. The stench of two militants killed in the attack, but whose bodies have not yet been recovered, rises from the rubble.

“For a revolution to succeed, there must be military support from the people,” he added. “(Iran) wanted people to question that principle. (By bombing the base) they wanted to tell them that there is no military support to protect you.’

Across the country, protesters with various grievances — related to the dire state of Iran’s economy and the exclusion of ethnic groups — have united around a movement against the regime sparked by Amini’s death. Women have been at the forefront of the protests, arguing that Amini’s death at the hands of the notorious morality police highlights the plight of women under the Islamic Republic’s laws that restrict their dress and behavior.

Iranian Kurds also reflected their grievances in Amini’s death. The young woman’s Kurdish name – Zhina – was banned by a clerical establishment that bans the names of ethnic minorities, apparently to sow ethnic divisions in the country. Amini was also crying for help in her native Kurdish language when she was forced into a van by morality police, according to activists.

A blurry image of a family fleeing the western Iranian city of Saqqez — Zhina Mahsa Amini's hometown — last month, where Iranian security forces have tried to violently quell protests.  The family says they fear the long arms of the Iranian regime, as well as the relative safety of Iraqi Kurdistan, where they now live in hiding.

The first major protests of Iran’s current uprising broke out in Amini’s Kurdish-majority town of Saqqez in western Iran, which has also been violently repressed. “When we were in Iran, I joined the protests with my friends. Two days later, two of my friends were kidnapped and one of them was injured,” said a man who fled from Saqqez to Iraqi Kurdistan, who CNN is not naming for security reasons.

Sitting on a rug under a tree to avoid identification of their safe house, the man and his family said they are worried about the long arms of the Iranian regime. The family covers their faces with medical masks, the man wears long sleeves to cover his identifying tattoos, and a plastic tarp is hung to hide from the ever-present fear of Iranian drones.

He and his family decided to leave Iran in the early days of the uprising when security forces saw his friend killed near a mosque, the man said. “How can they say they are an Islamic republic when I saw them kill my friend outside a mosque?” he asked in disbelief.

Of the eight militants killed in the September 28 Iranian attack, six were killed underground in freshly dug graves draped in the Kurdish nationalist flag.  Two of the bodies have not yet been recovered.

He said the community could not retrieve his friend’s body until night fell, after which the dead were secretly buried. His testimony is similar to several accounts CNN has heard since the start of the uprising in Iran. Many in the Kurdish areas of Iran have complained that they have decided not to receive medical care for injured demonstrators in hospitals, fearing arrest by the authorities. Witnesses say some have even avoided sending the dead to funeral homes for fear of reprisals against family members.

Since their escape, the Iraqi Kurdistan dissidents say they are still in contact with the relatives they left behind. Every phone call to their families brings news of an intensified crackdown, as well as reports of people continuing to defy security forces and pour into the streets.

“As far as I know, my family is part of the revolution and the revolution continues to this day,” Rezan said. “They are willing to die for our rights.”