They go from cemetery to cemetery, looking for unmarked graves. Wherever there is one, they squat over it, hoping that their children might be resting in peace down there. They mark the tombs with flowers or pieces of stone. Soon after, Iranian agents rush in and demolish the markings. For their part, they go back and replace the marks. Wherever there is a broken tombstone, they replace it with a new one. It's an endless challenge between bereaved relatives and people hired to destroy dissidents' graves.
In Iran, thousands of fathers and mothers whose children have fallen victim to the Islamic Republic's heavy-handed response to protests are deprived of mourning for their loved ones.
Culture of destruction
Destroying graves in Iran started almost immediately after the downfall of the country's last king, Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and the establishment of the Islamic Republic, dominated by the clergy.
Spearheading the attacking graves and mausoleums was a cleric, Sadeq Khalkhali, renowned for presiding over five-minute trials and issuing death verdicts.
Backed by the Islamic Republic founder, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, Khalkhali decided to demolish Cyrus the Great's mausoleum in Pasargadae, south of Iran. A public outcry forced him to retreat.
Nevertheless, armed with dynamite and bulldozers, Khalkhali managed to demolish the mausoleum of the founder of the Pahlavi dynasty, Reza Shah.
Soon, destroying graves and tombstones of minorities and dissidents, including Baha'is and Yarsanis, formed a part of the daily life of the supporters of the Islamic Republic.
Cemeteries have been frequently under attack, while thousands of dissidents' bodies are buried in unknown graveyards and unmarked mass graves.
In May 1980, Iran's first Shari'a Judge, Sadeq Khalkhali, first destroyed Reza Shah's mausoleum with a sledgehammer, then with a bulldozer crane, and finally with dynamite, to "disappoint" the Shah's supporters.
However, he failed to find the body of Reza Shah.
Forty years later, the Iranian intelligence agents destroyed the young wrestler Navid Afkari's grave, while his father and brother were preparing his tombstone. They were behind bars for hours. Navid Afkari was executed on September 12, 2020, and buried at night. Afkari was among thousands of protesters who demonstrated against the Islamic establishment in November 2019 who were killed, wounded, detained, or later executed.
Unknown fate of the 'missing'
Since the summer of 1988, the Khavaran cemetery has been recognized as the notorious graveyard of thousands of prisoners executed while doing their terms behind bars. The graves in the cemetery are unmarked. Iranian authorities do not allow the families of the dead to mourn in the graveyard. The identity of those buried in Khavaran is still unknown to their relatives. Initially, Khavaran was a traditional burial ground for "unofficial" religious minorities "because they were apostates and should not contaminate Muslims' resting place."
Destroying the dissidents' graves is the sign of the authorities' fear, a member of a Khavaran mothers' group, Mansoureh Behkish, tells Radio Farda.
"This is a sign of the establishment's fear," said Behkish, who lost six members of her family in the mass execution of prisoners in the 1980s. "By destroying the graves, the regime wrongly thinks that it would frighten the victims' families and silence their voices. All the pressures the regime has exerted on the victims' families have had no effect, but intensifying peoples' dissatisfaction with Iran's rulers. As they destroy the graves, people's voices get louder."
The beginning of this 41-year-old tradition of destroying tombs was the breaking of the tombstones of sections 33 and 41 of Behesht Zahra cemetery only a few months after the victory of the 1979 Islamic revolution. Block 33 belonged to the executed members of armed rebel groups, the Mojahedin Khalq Organization and the Marxist People's Fadaiyan, during the Pahlavi era. In Block 41, a number of those executed after the Islamic Revolution are buried. This part of the cemetery was attacked many times and has few graves with proper marks and tombstones. However, the survivors and families of those executed have somehow tried to mark the graves with pieces of stone or iron and concrete.
In a report on section 41 of Behesht Zahra cemetery, the state-run Mehr News Agency referred to it as an "abandoned section" where "most of the tombstones are completely smashed, and it is difficult to read the inscriptions on them. Some have placed a small iron door on the tomb instead of a stone. The tomb no longer has any marks, except for the small stones that are placed around the hypothetical grave. Others have built cement tombs. There is no image of the deceased among the broken graves' fragments, and only the name and surname are written, which are also broken. In the dark and gloomy environment of this section, everyone has cautiously tried to write the fewest words on the tombstones."
Most of those buried in this section were executed or killed by the Islamic Republic in 1979, 1980, and 1981. Gravestone designer and artist Barbad Golshiri tells Radio Farda, "This section of Behesht Zahra is a branch of Khavaran."
Barbad, the son of the renowned contemporary novelist Houshang Golshiri, believes that cemeteries across the globe are similar to huge libraries and museums. "The cemeteries preserve the history in it and removing a section of it amounts to the removal of a volume in a history book. That is systematically happening in Iran," he tells Radio Farda.
Khavaran in the east of the Iranian capital city, Tehran, is an outright emblem of the Iranian regime's intelligence services' stealing and confiscating the dissident corpses and their destruction of graves. The mass grave has become the symbol of the prisoners executed in the 1980s. The Iranian regime's security officials continue to prevent the victims' families from visiting the cemetery and impose many restrictions for gathering in Khavaran.
The member of Khavaran Mothers, Mansoureh Behkish, lost six family members, including one sister and four brothers in the 1980s massacre. The family never received their loved ones' bodies.
Speaking to Radio Farda, Behkish says, "We presume that my sister Zahra, and two of my brothers, Mahmoud and Ali, are buried somewhere in Khavaran. For my other brother, Mohsen, who was executed in 1985, they gave us several a grave in the Behesht Zahra cemetery but never handed over his body. They neither gave us a tombstone nor a sign. In the beginning, they used to give the families a number, handwritten with a market on the wall of Khavaran. For example, they used to tell the families to go four steps forward, and there was the tomb of your loved ones. Some families searched the place at night or clandestinely, and found the buried bodies of their loved ones, but many did not."
Behkish notes that the intelligence services of Iran insist on removing any signs referring to their victims. "They did not deliver the bodies or, if they did, they would smash [the graves.] This is what they did from the beginning. They did not give a clue. Many victims' names are not in the computer system of Behesht Zahra or cemeteries in the other cities. At least, I know that the only victim whose name is registered in the Behesht Zahra system is my brother, Mohsen. In the beginning, his name was in the system but later removed. My mother died in 2015. We managed to bury her in the same grave where my brother was presumed to rest in peace. However, the names of Mohsen and my mother are not in the cemetery's computer anymore."
Khavaran has been destroyed many times in the past years. According to Behkish, "During all these years, Khavaran was demolished many times. They used to smash the roses (the remains of the victims) one after another. Families were detained, beaten, and tortured. They wreaked havoc on the families, but the families of Khavaran firmly stood with praiseworthy resistance during these years. They are still firmly resisting. Twice in December 2008, they bulldozed and razed Khavaran to the ground. They destroyed all the marks and signs left by the families. They ruthlessly persecuted the families, thinking that they could obliterate the memory of the victims. "However, as we see, the case of the victims and their demands, equality, liberty, justice, and better livelihood are publicized more than ever."
The Iranian regime's tradition of confiscating corpses and smashing tombstones was not limited to the 1980s and the Khavaran mass grave. Under intelligence agents' pressure, many families whose children were executed by Iran or killed in street protests were forced to bury them at night without the conventional ceremonies. Many families are still looking for signs of their children's burial places.
Ramin Hossein Panahi, Zanyar, and Loqman Moradi were executed in Rajai Shahr Prison in September 2018. In an interview with Radio Farda, Ramin's brother, Amjad Hossein Panahi, said, "Over two years, and we have no information about their burial place. They did not hand over the victoms' bodies. This is the suffering we endure. My mother has been restless for two long years, and in these two years, she has visited all the cemeteries in Iran. Whoever says that my brother is buried somewhere, my mother rushes to visit those cemeteries, in Tehran, Karaj, or anywhere else. This is the suffering that this regime has inflicted on parents and others after Ramin's execution."
According to Panahi, "The Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) Intelligence Organization, and the Ministry of Intelligence have jointly buried the bodies of Ramin, Zanyar, and Loqman. The provincial officials have admitted that, at the request of the IRGC and the Ministry of Intelligence, the burial place of the three has been kept secret. Although in the past two years, my mother has gone to many places, she has not yet received a tangible response from the government and judiciary, or even provincial officials."
Farzad Kamangar, Habib Golparipour, Zanyar, Loqman Moradi, and Shirin Alam Hooli are among the Kurdish political prisoners who were executed in recent years, and their bodies have not been returned to their families. Amjad Hossein Panahi says, "During these years, I have seen many people like Ramin and Farzad, whose burial places are not known. There were also a few cases where they buried the victims at night, including Ehsan Fattahian, who was executed on November 10, 2009, and 24 hours after his execution, they told his family that they had buried him in a cemetery in Kermanshah. However, the family was not allowed to hold a funeral. Less than a month after his death anniversary, they smashed his tombstone."
According to Panahi, "Not handing over the corpses of the victims to their relatives is first and foremost a kind of psychological torture for the families, and secondly, in the intelligence authorities' own words, they do not want to establish a spot where families and activists may hold gatherings."
Speaking to Radio Farda, a prominent cleric and member of the Assembly of Scholars and Teachers of the [Shi'ites] Seminary of Qom, Mohammad Taqi Fazel Meybodi, says, "They should not cause suffering to the survivors; punishing the victims' relatives is not permissible. Not delivering dead bodies is a kind of psychological torture for their relatives. What sin have these survivors committed? It is never permissible in Islam to inflict mental torture and punishment on a deceased person's survivors. This is against Shari'a."
Even the gravestones of many of the participants in widespread anti-regime protests, killed by the security forces in the streets of different cities across Iran, have not been spared from systematic attacks and vandalism.
The tombstone of 27-year-old Pouya Bakhtiari, one of the November 2020 protest victims, was broken. In another case, agents sprayed acid on the tombstone of Kianoosh Asa, one of the victims of the 2009 demonstrations. They also cut down the saplings planted on his grave.
Born on March 20, 1985, Kianoush Asa was shot and wounded after the IRGC's paramilitary Basij forces opened fire on people during an uprising and demonstration in Azadi Square in Tehran on June 15, 2009. Asa was transferred a hospital in Tehran, and hours later, IRGC intelligence agents abducted him and several others who were wounded in the uprising. Agents immediately took them to an unknown location. On June 24, 2009, Iranian authorities informed Asa's family that their son had died.
The tombstone of Neda Aqa Soltan, another protester killed in the 2009 protests, was also smashed and barraged with bullets. Her mother has announced that she would not change the broken tombstone so that "it would go down in history as a reminder that [today's] Zahak (a mythical Persian ruler) was even terrified of Neda's tomb and memory."
The family of another victim of the 2009 uprising against the Presidential election's controversial outcome, Mostafa Karimbeigi, has also not changed his broken tombstone. "Our loved ones do not need a tombstone. I prefer my brother's broken grave to thousands upon thousands of tombs with their golden domes," his sister Maryam Karimbeigi tweeted. "There lies a mountain of honor and courage, something that cannot be found in the living members of the Islamic establishment, let alone in their dead ones."
It is not only the government's opposition, critics, and the protesters whose gravestones are frequently under attack. The intelligence authorities and their hired plainclothesmen have not even spared the tombstone of the victims of the Ukrainian International Airline's passenger plane downed outside Tehran by two IRGC rockets last January.
A relative of Siavash Ghafouri-Azar and his wife Sara Mamani, Babak Ghafouri-Azar, has shared that they had broken the tombstones of Siavash and Sara and removed the pictures of them from their graves.
Mohammad Taghi Fazel Meybodi, a member of the Assembly of Teachers and Scholars of the Shi'ite Seminary of Qom, has views that are mostly different from traditional jurisprudence. He categorically dismisses the government-backed vandalism as "haram."
Speaking to Radio Farda, he claims, "I do not know where this trend originated. The grave of someone who has died or even been executed is respectful. All faithful people are bound to pray for the deceased and respectfully bury their bodies according to the [Islamic] rituals. Just as namaz (Islamic prayer) is obligatory, so is the burial of the dead bodies and paying respect to the graves. In other words, any kind of insult to a human being, whether dead or alive, is indecent and forbidden in Islam."
Meanwhile, no Iranian officials accept responsibility for these destructions. Those who damage the tombstones always remain anonymous.
Tombs designer and illustrator, Barbad Golshiri, says, "I can testify that when my father's grave was broken and taken away, I found the person in charge of Imamzadeh Taher [cemetery] and took him to the grave. I asked him, 'Aren't you responsible?' He said 'they (unknown people) have stolen the stone, and if they (unknown intelligence agents) intended to break a tombstone, they would have smashed (renowned contemporary poet) Shamloo's grave.' I told him that they had repeatedly smashed Shamloo's gravestone. He said Shamloo's fans were responsible for it. 'They smashed Shamloo's tombstone to use it an excuse for making noise in favor of him,' he said. In other words, they (authorities) believe that any voice raised in support of history and commemorating somebody means making noise in favor of somebody."
Houshang Golshiri's son also says, "The tombstone was made of two pieces of bronze and shabaq (jet, hematite, or a mineraloid stone). They took the bronze piece, which was not an easy job; it needed a crowbar and lots of time to remove the stone. I do not believe that no ordinary person can have such a safety net to remove the stone and take it away."
The tombstones of many Iranian writers, poets, and intellectuals have been broken many times, including Houshang Golshiri, the novelist, and prominent poets, Ahmad Shamloo, Sohrab Sepehri, Abbas Kiarostami, and Mohammad Ali Sepanloo.
Protesting frequent attacks on their father's grave, the children of Ahmad Shamloo announced, "Let our people have a poet whose grave has no stone."
Barbad Golshiri has reconstructed his father's tombstone in a broken form: "I did it so that the fracture remained engraved in history and reflected on the stone. That is, the breaking date, the removal date, must be registered, as well. A cemetery is like a public museum. It is extremely founded on written and unwritten laws and regulations. There is something in the cemeteries that is less common elsewhere. A graveyard is a particular place that tangibly embodies memories. When one says that they will visit Imamzadeh Taher's cemetery, where two of the victims of the Islamic Republic Political Chain Murders are buried, they also relay a message, saying that they are seeking justice. The cemeteries reflect the geography of justice."
Baha'i citizens are another group whose cemeteries in Iranian cities and villages are being demolished in an organized and systematic manner. In some cases, they have even dug up graves, exhumed, and removed Baha'is' bodies. For example, in November 2018, the body of a Baha'i citizen, Shamsi Aqdasi, was buried in the Gilavand area of Damavand. Four days later, they informed her family that her body had been found in the deserts around Jaban in Damavand County.
Earlier, the intelligence and security forces warned Gilavand Baha'is that they no longer had the right to bury their dead in the city. Similar bans have been applied many times in other cities of Iran. The authorities have banned the burial of Baha'is in many cities, including Tabriz, Kerman, and Ahvaz.
In 1993, the Baha'i International Community announced that local authorities had shot down Baha'is cemetery in Ahvaz and erected a wall on its gates.
The Yarsani citizens' graves are neither safe from attacks nor disrespect. Their cemeteries and mausoleums have been repeatedly damaged and destroyed in Kermanshah, western Iran, and other parts of the country.
In October 2020, the tombstone of Massoud Golzari, a professor of archeology, was broken in the Behesht-e Zahra's Namavaran (celebrities) section. According to the Yarsan civil activists Assembly, Iran's intelligence and security forces used a bulldozer and destroyed Qarahdash Takestan.
The Yarsan, or Ahle Haqq, is a syncretic religion founded in the late 14th century in western Iran. The total number of Yarsanis is estimated at around 2,000,000 or 3,000,000. They are primarily found in western Iran and eastern Iraq and are mostly ethnic Goran Kurds.
The 41-year history of the Islamic Republic has been intertwined with cemeteries that the government has called "cursed", forcing them to be abandoned and subjected to constant disrespect. Apparently, the Twelver Shi'ite clergy-dominated establishment wants to rule over the cemeteries as well.