Latest Posts

Iran’s failed Covid-19 vaccination campaign due to ‘political power struggle’

Iran’s Covid-19 vaccination campaign has been rife with complications: videos shared online show queues up to a hundred metres long as people wait for hours to be vaccinated, with doses sometimes running out long before everyone receives their jab. Others show thousands of people rushing to the border with Armenia in search of a dose. According to our Observer, an Iranian doctor, these predicaments are the result of political rivalries and the failure of Iran’s vaccine strategy.

In Iran, a country of 82 million people, only 4.7 million people have received their first dose of the Covid-19 vaccine, while just 2.2 million are fully vaccinated. So far, people 60 years of age and older are the only ones eligible for vaccination. Videos shared online show elderly men and women waiting in line for hours before they can get vaccinated.

A Video Published On May 21 On Twitter Shows Elderly Men And Women Waiting In A Long Queue In Front Of A Vaccination Provider.

Many others – mostly young, middle-class Iranians who are not yet eligible for vaccination and don’t expect to receive their vaccines in Iran anytime soon – have found their solution abroad, either in Dubai or Armenia, the northwestern neighbour of Iran which is easily reached by plane or car.

A video published on Twitter on July 12 shows a group of people who have become angry after waiting for hours for their vaccine.

According to official numbers, which many experts suggest are largely underestimated, 86,000 Iranians have lost their lives to Covid-19. The country was severely impacted by a fifth wave of the pandemic, exacerbated by the spread of the Delta variant.

Read More: Authorities in Iran ‘hiding’ COVID-19 deaths by listing other causes on death reports

Since December 2020, Iranian political leaders have been promising to unroll a mass vaccination campaign using domestically produced vaccines. Iran’s health ministry said they would be providing Iranian vaccines starting this spring. But so far, the vaccines available to Iranians have been Sputnik V from Russia, Sinovac and Sinopharm from China and AstraZeneca vaccines produced in India.

But supplies have not been sufficient to meet the demand for vaccines in Iran. On July 10, Iran’s Health Minister Saeed Namaki announced, “From tomorrow, we will inject 400,000 vaccines each day.” However, according to Iranian media, only around 51,000 doses have been administered daily since then.

Iranian police pushed and hit an elderly man who was waiting in the queue for a vaccine. Video published on YouTube on June 27.

Vaccination has become a political and economic power struggle and rivalry’

Dr. Hadi Yazdani is a physician based in Shiraz, in central Iran. He told the FRANCE 24 Observers why Iran has been seeing a vaccine shortage:

There are a few different factors involved in the vaccination crisis in Iran. On one hand, there is a general problem in the world: there are a limited number of vaccines globally, and countries like India, China and Russia that have promised to provide vaccines to Iran, refused to sell them in the end [Editor’s note: either due to insufficient supply or higher bidding countries].

The Islamic Republic has never tried to establish a normal relationship with the world and, in crisis periods like this, they are not able to ask for any favours

Iranians at the border checkpoint between Iran and Armenia, trying to enter Armenia for a vaccine. Video published on Twitter on July 10.

But the main problem lies somewhere else: some powerful and well-connected parties have managed to convince political leaders that we don’t need foreign vaccines and have blocked foreign vaccine purchases in large quantities.

These groups are powerful and well-connected. They even have pull with the most powerful official in Iran, the Supreme Leader. Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, during a short speech in January 2021, banned “western-made vaccines” from the United States, United Kingdom and even France [Editor’s note: France is developing a Sanofi-GSK vaccine which is not yet in distribution].

Eighteen different Iranian companies have submitted their vaccine licenses in Iran. If we look closely, only two or three companies are scientific ones, the others belong to different political and power factions in Iran. The most important group among them is the Executive Headquarters of Imam’s Directive, also known as Setad, which is making the COVIran Barekat vaccine.

Setad is one of the most powerful and richest semi-governmental bodies in Iran, created in 1989 by Rohollah Khomeini, founder of the Islamic Republic, and now directly controlled by current Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei. Setad, which is valued at around $95 billion, was sanctioned by former US President Donald Trump in June 2019. Setad has promised to provide more than 50 million Barekat vaccines by September 2021, but so far, none have been delivered

‘So far, all they have given to people are just words’

Dr Hadi Yazdani continued:

Vaccination has become a political and economic power struggle and rivalry in Iran. These factions have realised that the Covid-19 vaccination is something that might need to be readministered every year or so. In this case, they look at it as a huge and endless source of money. So they tried to encourage nationalism for “made-in-Iran” products in the vaccination campaign to just fill their pockets.

And so far, all they have given to people are just words. We have not seen any vaccines and there is no available data to verify the efficiency of these so-called made-in-Iran vaccines. Even if these vaccines really work and are effective, there are serious questions about Iran’s ability to produce them in industrial quantities.

Thanks to this vaccination policy or, rather, lack of policy, there has already been a fifth wave of Covid-19 in Iran and, if the situation continues like this, we will have many other waves one after the other.

‘The queues to cross the border to get vaccines are humiliating’

There is, as of yet, no data concerning the number of Iranians who have fled to Dubai or Armenia to get vaccinated, however, Iran’s customs office announced on July 10 that “in the past 48 hours, 1,800 Iranians have crossed the border checkpoint between the two countries”.

Dr. Hadi Yazdani continued:

It’s just normal people who feel that they have been left alone in face of the multiple deadly waves of Covid-19 and have no hope to get the vaccine in their country any time soon, who go to try and find a vaccine anywhere they can. Armenia is one possibility: it’s a neighboring country, it’s not expensive and they have enough doses.

The queues to cross the border to get vaccines there are, in one word, humiliating. As an Iranian, when I see that our government is not capable of exercising its basic duties, providing mental and physical health services and security to its citizens, I feel nothing but humiliation.

On July 7, the Armenian Ambassador to Iran Artashes Tumanyan announced that vaccination in Armenia will be free. However, only tourists who stay in the country for more than 10 days can receive the vaccine.

First published here on France24.

Video of street drug use illustrates Iran’s growing addiction problem

A video posted on Telegram in Iran on May 16 shows dozens of men and women openly consuming drugs on a Tehran street. Some inhale amphetamines while others inject heroin, in a scene that shocked many Iranians. According to our Observers, this video illustrates a growing addiction problem that has become more and more visible in the streets of southern Tehran.

The video was taken in Neshati Alley, a street in an impoverished neighbourhood of southern Tehran. Although the exact date the video was taken is unknown, this phenomenon is becoming increasingly more common. According to our Observers, more and more open drug use has taken place in these neighbourhoods over the past two years.

Places like Neshati Alley, in the Shush neighbourhood, are known as regular gathering points for drug users, many of them homeless.

A 2-minute video recorded on an unknown date in southern Tehran shows men and women openly consuming heroin and amphetamine in the street.

This 2-minute video shows a typical scene in one of southern Tehran’s neighbourhoods. People gathered on the street relax, eat, or even play, but others are openly consuming drugs. At 0:29, the author of the video explains that he is in the Shush neighbourhood, which has become a new hotbed of visible drug use. Despite the protestations of several people on the street, he continues filming the scene, adding, “It’s my neighbourhood. I can do what I want and if you’re not happy you can leave.”

Neshati Alley is located near Shush Square, one of the main crossroads in southern Tehran. © Maxar

Iran has an estimated 5 million drug users, with one in 16 people in the country having consumed drugs. More than half of these are thought to be daily users. According to official sources, overdose deaths in Iran reach 4,000 annually.

‘The population of homeless addicts outnumbers NGO capabilities’

Sima (not her real name) is an Iranian journalist who has worked for decades covering the growing addiction crisis in Iran. She told the FRANCE 24 Observers team about the reasons behind the increased visibility of Tehran’s drug problems:

According to optimistic estimates, we have about 64,000 homeless addicts in Iran. Some neighbourhoods and parks in southern Tehran have been gathering places for homeless drug users for decades, for example, the poor area of Darvazeh Ghar or Harandi park.

About two years ago, police evicted them and installed fences around the park to prevent them from returning. Since then, they moved to Shush Square (Editor’s note: One of the busiest central crossroads of southern Tehran) where the video was recorded.

Spotting drug users in the Shush neighborhood is not surprising, but may be more likely after these evictions. All of the people who used to stay in parks or in the maze-like streets of Darvazeh Ghar, were brought to the surface in main squares and neighbourhoods. They are poor, resorting to petty theft in order to secure money to buy drugs. It makes the neighbourhoods more unsafe.

In addition to becoming more visible, some say that the number of drug users and addicts in the city is increasing. Iran’s State Welfare Organisation officials estimate that the number of homeless people in addiction has even doubled over the past two years.

These homeless drug users generally group together, either for safety or for economic reasons, they become like a family to each other after a while. But unfortunately, they use the same needles and also find it easier to obtain drugs because the dealers can come to just one place.

Police don’t have a regular presence in the neighbourhood – they just intervene during targeted raids or evictions, conducting mass arrests. On many occasions, they even arrest non-users or bystanders.

There are several organisations dedicated to helping people experiencing addiction in Iran, but according to Sima, they lack the proper resources to alleviate the addiction crisis.

NGOs and associations are active, but the population of homeless addicts simply outnumbers NGOs’ logistics and hosting capabilities. The organisations mostly feed them or provide some limited medical or psychological services.

Besides the NGOs, there are many compulsory rehab centers too. When police arrest homeless people experiencing addiction, they send them to the centers. The situation there is horrible: humiliation and violence are common practice, and cases of death are not uncommon. Most addicts have been to these rehabs once or twice, but their success rate is mediocre.

Based on estimations from Iranian experts, 80% of addicts relapse after going to rehab.

Read more: Torture and humiliation reported norm at Iran’s rehab facilities

According to Sima, these rehab centers do little to solve the root causes of addiction that have reached the streets of Tehran.

The only thing we do in Iran to combat addiction, particularly to treat homeless people experiencing addiction, is police methods, such as arrests and forced rehabilitation. However, addiction is a wider issue that needs a comprehensive solution on social and economic scales.

According to official statistics, 70% of prisoners in Iran are charged with drug-related crimes.

Cheap and easy to buy

Neighbouring Afghanistan is known to be the world’s leading producer of illicit drugs, namely opium, which makes drugs more accessible and affordable to people in Iran, compared to other countries.

Mona (not her real name) is another Iranian journalist who has worked on addiction issues for years. She explained what it takes for an average Iranian to obtain illegal drugs.

According to many studies, the average time it takes for someone to buy drugs in Iran is about 30 minutes.

The price of opium is about 7,000 to 12,000 toman per gram (Editor’s note: about 0.26 to 0.46€) and if we estimate an average use of five grams per day, that costs about 35,000 to 60,000 toman per day (Editor’s note: Less than 3 euros per day).

However, these homeless addicts mostly use drugs that are much cheaper and much more powerful than opium.

Other drugs such as heroin and amphetamines can be found at similar prices on the streets of Tehran, making most drug users able to maintain their addiction for the equivalent of less than 3 euros per day.

While these prices are low compared to many other countries, they still represent a significant cost to people in Iran, where a minimum wage salary is around 2.6 million toman, or about 100 euros. This forces many drug users on the street to resort to petty crimes to finance.

Mona explains:

To gain that money men either pilfer or stage fake car accidents. Women may turn to prostitution.

Videos have captured individuals even resorting to stepping in front of cars and faking injuries in order to collect money from drivers.

According to official numbers, Iran has confiscated more than 1,200 tonnes of drugs in the last year, setting a global record.

From hospitals to amusement parks, Iranians grapple with surprise power outages

Lifts and amusement park rides grinding to a halt, businesses, and employees left in the dark, hospital equipment stopping suddenly … People around Iran have been experiencing regular power outages since the beginning of May. While the state energy distributor has tried to schedule these outages to align with energy demands, our Observers tell us that power cuts have been more frequent, and lengthier, than planned.

Iranians have been reporting daily, prolonged power cuts since early May, leading to widespread inconveniences and dangerous consequences. People have been left without air conditioning, internet connections, water, and even life-saving medical devices.

The Iran Grid Management Company (IGMC), responsible for electricity provision in Iran, released a timetable for scheduled power outages around the country, which they say have resulted from insufficient energy production.

As Iranian citizens adapt to these inconveniences, the source of the power outages remains unclear. While an IGMC announcement on May 23 cited insufficient energy production levels, energy officials have pointed to several potential causes.

Some referenced energy-intensive Bitcoin farms in Iran, while others blamed global warming for higher temperatures and therefore an increase in energy consumption from air conditioners. Still, others blame a lack of rain, saying that hydroelectric dams are producing less electricity because there is less water.

Read more on the Observers: In Iran, power outages reveal the secret business of Chinese bitcoin farms

However, some experts claim that Iran’s outdated electrical infrastructure is unable to keep up with the increasing demands of Iran’s population.

The company created a mobile application and website to inform residents when their areas would be cut off, but according to our Observers around Iran, the outages rarely follow these schedules.

Unplanned and prolonged outages have caused plenty of disruption for most Iranians, who are dealing with high temperatures and the continuing spread of Covid-19. But these power outages have also had serious impacts on peoples’ health and safety

In this video, filmed May 23 in Bushehr, Iran, an ambulance technician at Persian Gulf Hospital explains that power outages have interrupted refrigeration systems in the morgue: “The temperature of the refrigerator is about 45 degrees. The body has rotted after three days and swelled, it no longer fits in our vehicle.”

‘Patients who depend on ventilators or other medical tools can simply die’

Nahid (not her real name) is a doctor in northeastern Iran. She explained the impact of these power outages on medical staff and patients:

The main problem in our hospital is that it becomes a huge oven during these power outages. Our ventilation system also stops, which means that it is easier for coronavirus to spread in the air.

The power outages block our workflow. We can no longer use medical scans or X-ray machines to diagnose problems. We can’t use our computers to connect to our patients’ social security cards or issue prescriptions. When the power comes back on, hundreds of people have to queue in the pharmacies to get their medication

In a Tweet posted on May 23, Vahid Rajabloo, a disability rights activist, said: “I was using a physiotherapy machine when suddenly we lost power for two hours. I had severe muscle spasms in my arm and neck.”

All the main hospitals have backup generators for essential equipment, but if they don’t kick in during one of these numerous power outages, or even if they turn on just a few minutes late, it can end in a catastrophe. Patients in intensive care units who depend on ventilators or other medical tools can simply die. Last week, we had two elderly patients in the ICU who were on the verge of death, due to the lack of air conditioning and malfunctioning equipment.

This could have been the case in the operating room of a hospital in Isfahan several days ago. When their hospital lost power, the local generator didn’t work in their unit. The surgeons had to continue using only cell phone flashlights to finish the surgery. And the problem doesn’t stop here.

n a hospital in Isfahan, surgeons continued operating, under the light of cell phone flashlights, even after power went out in their hospital. Photo published May 23 on Telegram and then relayed to Iranian media

Many Covid-19 patients recuperating at home use small ventilators and don’t have backup generators. They need constant electricity in their homes to survive.

This Tweet posted May 25 shares the story of a young girl who depends on a medical device to breathe. The power outages have caused difficulties for her.

Trapped in lifts, theme park attractions

The unexpected power outages have caused equipment like lifts and amusement park rides to grind to a halt, causing injuries and putting an extra strain on emergency personnel.

Ten children were injured in an amusement park in Semnan, in eastern Iran, on May 22 after a power outage caused them to become trapped in playground equipment.

During a power outage, people were stuck in an attraction at the Chitgar amusement park in Tehran, as seen in this video published on May 24 and shared on Iranian social networks.

Construction workers have also become trapped in precarious situations during power outages.

This Tweet posted May 23 reads: “We lost power here in Mashhad, The air pump stopped working while our worker was in the well 50 meters down. He was left without oxygen. At the last minute, firefighters saved his life.”

While Iranian officials have not commented, or provided statistics, on accidents caused by the power outages, local firefighters have provided insight into the situation.

In Mashhad, fire department officials said they performed 180 missions to rescue people trapped in elevators during power outages, in the five-day period between May 19 and 24.

Meanwhile, firefighters in Kermanshah have been carrying out at least 15 elevator rescue missions per day due to the outages. Isfahan firefighters reported saving 100 people stuck in elevators between May 23 and 25.

Without any warning as to when the power may shut off, everyday Iranians are living in a constant state of inconvenience, unsure of when their elevators, lights, air conditioning, water, or internet may turn off.

‘No power and no water’

Sadaf (not her real name) is a mother of two living in the north of Tehran:

Less than 10 minutes after the power goes out, my daughter, who is only two years old, cries in desperation. It’s as hot as hell, around 40 degrees or more. I have to take the kids outside to somewhere cool or to a park, and that’s impossible for me, going up and down seven floors with two children.

We wanted to go somewhere else to escape this situation, but everywhere is the same. Everywhere in Iran is stiflingly warm without air conditioning at this time of year.

And we live in a high-rise building: that means no power and no water [Editor’s note: when the power goes out in these buildings, electric water pumps also switch off]. Can you imagine this during a pandemic, with two children?

Remote work put on hold

Working and studying from home during Covid-19 have also been impacted by the power cuts. Paniz (not her real name), a marketing professional for a start-up in Tehran, explains:

Working together has become literally impossible. Due to Covid-19, we mostly work at home, but as soon as some of us on the team have power, the others lose it. And when we lose power, we lose our WiFi connection. The connection on our phones, if it works at all, is uselessly slow.

Last Sunday, we were supposed to release a huge PR campaign, after months of work, but everything went south: we lost power in our computers at work. Our time and money went up in smoke.

‘As a teacher, I have no idea what will happen when a student loses power during the exam’

Farnoush (not her real name) is a teacher in Shiraz:

It’s a catastrophic situation. Neither I nor any of my students have access to online classes during the outages. National education is nonexistent. However, what scares me, even more, is that students all over the country will have their final exams soon. As a teacher, I have no idea what will happen when a student loses power during the exam and can’t finish it in time. I’m in total panic as a teacher, may God help the children.

Iran’s power grid has a capacity of around 85,000 megawatts. However, recent energy demand in Iran has exceeded this demand by close to 9,000 megawatts. When demand surpasses capacity, electricity distributors cut off the power supply.

In the meantime, Iranian officials have asked citizens to limit their electricity consumption as much as possible to prevent extended blackouts

The real scam behind Iran’s underground female MMA fights

On May 27, a video of what appears to be a professional mixed martial arts (MMA) fight between two women began to make the rounds on Iranian social media. The match, which took place in the suburbs of Tehran, caught the attention of many. It was the first time that an underground MMA fight – forbidden for women in the Islamic Republic – was caught on tape. But according to our Observer, this video actually shows a widespread scam taking advantage of female MMA hopefuls.

Just like underground female bodybuilding competitions or ballet dancing, these female MMA tournaments are kept under wraps but well known among sportsmen and journalists in Iran. Now, for the first time, a video of this phenomenon was released.

The video, which according to our Observer was filmed in Shahriar, a suburb of Iran’s capital Tehran, shows two women fighting MMA-style in a boxing ring located in what seems to be a private villa. We hear two other women coaching the fighters as well as a man who advises the referee on what to do.

In the less than two-minute video published on May 27 on Telegram in Iran, two Iranian women can be seen in a MMA fight. Neither of the women is wearing the headscarf. Some men and women watch the fight as two women coach the fighters.

This MMA fight appears to be the latest example of women pushing the boundaries of the Islamic Republic’s bans on certain activities for women, whether in public or as a part of Iran’s underground scene

Yet, according to our Observers and experts inside and outside of Iran, this video actually depicts a deep scam targeting fearless Iranian women who are hoping to become professional MMA fighters.

‘It’s a scam. These women are victims’

Behzad Majidi is an Iranian sports blogger based in Switzerland who covers MMA fighting, notably Iranian fighters.

Maybe at first glance this video might make us happy, even proud, to see Iranian women who are trying to push the boundaries in the Islamic Republic. But at second look, it actually shows a sad, complex scam to which these women have fallen victim.

You can see the scam in the video. There are two levels for MMA fights: amateur and professional. What we’re seeing in this video is supposed to be a professional-level fight, because the women aren’t wearing protection on their heads and legs [Editor’s note: professional MMA fighters do not wear protective gear during matches]. But these women are fighting at an amateur level.

According to Behzad Majidi, the actions of the two fighters make it clear that they are amateurs: 

At the amateur level, fighters are not allowed to perform certain techniques, or to hit their adversary when they are down. But in this video, the women hit each other even when they have fallen.
It’s clear they have no idea what they are doing and that they are beginners. Their coaches are also beginners and have no idea how to train them. As we can hear in the video, even the referee is a beginner: a man is coaching the referee on how to move, where to look, and what to check for during the fight.
The fight took place in a villa in Shahriar, a suburb in the southwest of Tehran a few weeks ago [Editor’s note: local media in Iran also confirms the location of this event].

Our Observer, well acquainted with the field of MMA in Iran, believes the women in this video are, like others, the victims of a fraudulent con:

The organisers of these underground fights are three men who have special connections with Iran’s Martial Arts Association Federation, making them untouchable.

What they are doing in reality has nothing to do with the sport; they’re not trying to develop Iranian female MMA fighters. They are just running a lucrative business by scamming these young women.

They ask for money to “prepare” these fighters for a real MMA fight. They lure in these young women by telling them, if they win their fights, they can earn lots of money in fights organised abroad by signing contracts with famous organisations, like the Russian “ACA” [Editor’s note: Absolute Championship Akhmat, a leading martial arts organisation].

They rig the fights in Iran between beginner girls, choosing some of them. The selected girls are sent to neighbouring countries like Armenia or Georgia, to compete with real MMA fighters.

The real scam is here: anyone who wants to fight in a professional championship needs to have done around six fights at the amateur level. The managers of female MMA fighters in those countries look for six easy matches for their fighters. The Iranian organisers can then ask for money in exchange for providing easy adversaries to those managers.

While their opponents are real MMA fighters trained by proper MMA clubs in their countries, these poor Iranian girls are poorly trained and have never seen a real MMA fight. We saw in the video how they are scammed in appalling underground training fights. Once they’re dropped in the ring, they won’t stand a chance.

A video of a professional MMA fight in Armenia in 2016 shows untrained Iranian fighters, wearing karate uniforms, going up against professional fighters, and losing easily.

There are several famous male Iranian MMA fighters, such as Reza Mad Dog, who competed under the Swedish flag, or Amir Ali Akbari, representing Iran. However, the sport was still illegal, even for men, until April 3, 2021. MMA remains authorised only for men in Iran.

Behzad Majidi continues:

The Iranian Martial Arts Association Federation is directly responsible for this situation, by banning Iranian women from having proper MMA clubs and federations. If there was an organised, transparent, surveilled club – like exists for many other sports for women in Iran – we could avoid this kind of fraud.

We don’t have any professional female MMA fighters in Iran. Unfortunately, there are many women on social media who claim they are professional MMA fighters, but they all lie to earn money, selling exercise programs, diet plans, or private training sessions on Instagram.

Right now, there are only a handful of Iranian female fighters. Usually they have another citizenship and fight for another country, such as Pannie Kianzad, one of the best MMA female fighters in the world fighting for Sweden, or Samin Kamal Beik who lives in Italy.

Young Iranian women – if they really want to be an MMA fighter – need to leave Iran, subscribe to a real MMA club, train well, learn and fight in a responsible and respectful environment.

First published here on France24.

Hiding a symbolic mass grave of political prisoners by forcing a persecuted minority to bury top of it

Members of Iran’s persecuted Baha’i community were shocked when, in April, the government announced that the only place they would be able to bury their loved ones was on top of mass graves containing political prisoners executed in the 1980s. Activists say this policy is an attempt by the government to erase any trace of the mass executions carried out by the Islamic Republic.

These photos, which were published on Telegram in April, show about a dozen freshly dug graves, two of which contain bodies, in an overgrown patch in Khavaran cemetery, located to the east of Tehran.

But the unassuming field is actually the site of mass graves containing the bodies of political prisoners who were executed in the years following the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the majority of them in 1988.

These photos show graves recently dug by members of the Baha’i community in Khavaran, a site that already contains mass graves from the 1980s. These photos were taken on April 23 and published on Telegram.

According to Article 13 of the Iranian Constitution, the only religions recognised by the Islamic Republic of Iran are Islam, Zoroastrianism, Christianity and Judaism. Baha’ism, which is a monotheistic religion, is considered illegal in Iran. Followers are persecuted and denied fundamental rights, including access to education and the ability to work legally.

“We refuse to do it. It’s an insult to both us and the prisoners from the 1980s”

Simin Fahandej is a spokeswoman for the Baha’i community and represents the international Baha’i community at the United Nations. She told our team about the difficult situation the community has been facing in Tehran:

We’ve struggled since the Islamic Revolution to bury our dead in a respectful manner. Our cemeteries have been systematically destroyed. Our tombs have been attacked and looted. Other bodies were moved from our cemeteries to faraway locations without our knowledge. The authorities even banned us from putting flowers on our graves because that was seen as promoting Baha’ism.

Since the Islamic Revolution, Khavaran has been one of the only locations where we are allowed to bury our dead. Back then, the cemetery was far from everything.

In the 1980s, the Islamic Republic started burying political prisoners in one of the fields in Khavaran. As a result, we don’t bury people in that part – firstly, out of respect for these executed political prisoners and their families and also because of our religious rules that say we shouldn’t bury people in a place that already contains bodies.

However, starting in April, local authorities announced new rules and restrictions that we just can’t follow. They said that we would have to bury our dead either in between existing graves or on top of the mass graves from the 1980s.

They’ve said this, even though there is enough room in other parts of Khavaran for us to bury our dead for the next 50 years. There’s not enough space in between existing graves and we don’t want to bury our friends and family on top of the mass graves. It’s an insult both to our community and the political prisoners from the 1980s.

We don’t know the identities of the two families who were forced to bury their loved ones in this location [Editor’s note: two bodies are visible in the photos posted on April 23], but we absolutely refuse the two options they’ve given us. Right now, there are a large number of bodies from our community that end up sitting in morgues, sometimes for weeks, while we try to find a respectful place to bury them.

We are in a very difficult situation that we’ve already reported to both the United Nations and the European Union. Over the past few years, many of our cemeteries have been destroyed. In 2013, our cemetery in Sanandaj was destroyed. Then, in 2014, the same thing happened to the one in Shiraz. In 2018, the one in Semnan met a similar end. The authorities are trying to do the same thing with Khavaran, I think.

This photo shows a Baha’i cemetery that was destroyed by the Islamic State organisation in Shiraz in 2014. © News Bahai

Over the past two weeks, at least 12 Baha’is were arrested in Iran, which our Observer says is part of the growing pressure on this community.

I contacted the municipal council in charge of cemeteries in Tehran, but its members did not respond to our questions about the new regulations introduced in regards to Khavaran cemetery.

“These practices destroy the proof that could be used to establish the truth”

Raha Bahreini is a human rights lawyer who works as an Iran researcher with Amnesty International. She told the me about the history of Khavaran and what happened there in the 1980s:

After the religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini released a fatwa [Editor’s note: a ruling by a religious leader] in 1988, Iranian authorities started carrying out coordinated summary executions aimed at eliminating political opposition.

On an almost daily basis, they would round up prisoners and bring them before “death commissions” which were made up of officials from the courts, the public prosecutor’s office, the intelligence services and the prison system. These “death commissions” were nothing like real courts and their decisions were made in a crude and extremely arbitrary manner.

They operated outside of the law. They weren’t concerned with actually establishing if the accused were innocent or guilty of any real crimes.

This photo shows one of the mass grave sites in Khavaran. It was taken by a family member of one of the deceased. The exact date of this photo is unknown. © © .

The Islamic Republic tries to keep it a secret how large these massacres actually were. But we believe that at least 5,000 political prisoners were executed only between late July and September 1988 in Iran, based on data from human rights organisations and political parties. We think that the real number must be much higher.

In a 2018 report, we concluded that these murders were a crime against humanity. The Islamic Republic has systematically hidden proof of these killing. By not officially recognizing that these people are dead, they continue to perpetuate the crimes they committed in 1988.

Our research has shown that Iranian authorities have deliberately destroyed suspected or confirmed mass grave sites associated with the 1988 massacre, like Khavaran, in an attempt to hide their crimes.

Over the past decade, Iranian authorities have bulldozed these sites. They’ve built buildings and roads over them. They’ve dumped garbage on them or allocated new burial plots on top of them. This has already happened to mass grave sites in Rasht, Ahvaz, Tabriz and Sanandaj.

These tactics are meant to destroy proof that could be used to establish the extent of these crimes and to obtain justice and reparations for victims and their families. Instead, they destroy these crime scenes so they can deny they happened.

“It’s a symbol of the evil perpetrated by the Islamic Republic”

Reza Moini is a Paris-based journalist with Reporters sans frontières (Reporters Without Borders). Four members of his family, who were members of the political opposition, are buried in the mass graves in Khavaran: his brother, his two brothers-in-law and his cousin.

In the 1980s, they started burying political prisoners who had been executed in Khavaran. First, one by one. So even though the graves were unmarked, families could find the place where their loved one had been buried. Sometimes, families would dig up the bodies in the middle of the night, just to make sure it was actually the body of their loved one.

In November 1988, the authorities told my mother that they had executed my brother and buried him in Khavaran.

Slowly, the families who went to visit the graves began to get to know one another and they formed an organisation called the “Mothers of Khavaran”. During one of these visits, on July 29, 1988, family members noticed shallow trenches where you could see bodies and bits of clothing because the bodies hadn’t been properly buried.

Because mass graves were used, no one actually knows the exact location where their loved one is buried here and, indeed, it is not even certain who is buried here at all. The only thing we know is that there are about 800 bodies or more buried in these graves, according to estimates of the number of political prisoners who were executed in prisons in Tehran, Evin and Gohardasht. At one point, Iranian authorities actually poured cement over the graves.

Even though they risked arrest or other forms of brutality, the “Mothers of Khavaran” would visit the graves every Friday. And on the first Friday in September, a large number of families would gather. But in 2008, the intelligence services banned access to part of the cemetery and the families aren’t allowed to go there anymore.

The wounds of these families are far from closed. We don’t know exactly what happened to our lost loved ones. We just know that they are buried somewhere in Khavaran. The authorities have even banned us from leaving flowers on the graves. We’ve been stripped of a fundamental right to cry for our lost family members. Now, Iranian authorities are trying to remove the last traces of these massacres.

Khavaran is the largest mass grave site in Iran. It’s not just a cemetery: it is a symbol of the evil perpetrated by the Islamic Republic. The authorities are trying to erase the remaining proof of these crimes. They are also trying to pit the Baha’i community against the family members of executed political prisoners, even though both are victims of the cruelty of the regime. The Baha’i community is standing up to this and I salute their resistance.

In a statement published on April 29, Amnesty International called on the Iranian government to halt the destruction of the mass grave sites and allow the persecuted Baha’i to bury their loved ones with dignity.

Beware of fake videos circulating that claim to show a Chinese rocket

Ever since authorities announced that a Chinese rocket would fall back to Earth in an uncontrolled re-entry last weekend, many fake videos of this incident have emerged on social media and have even made their way to international media outlets.

According to state media, the Long March 5B re-entered the atmosphere at 10.24am Beijing time on Sunday May 9, 2021. The coordinates put the point of impact in the Indian Ocean somewhere above the Maldives archipelago and south of India.

Since then, many images have been circulating on social media, mainly on Twitter, supposedly showing authentic images of the Chinese spaceship falling. At least three of these videos have been identified as fake by the FRANCE 24 Observers team.

A video of the Chinese rocket falling? No, it’s a meteor in Australia

This video was shared on Twitter by various users, who claim it shows the moment that Long March 5B re-entered the atmosphere. However, this video was actually filmed in 2016.

If you look carefully, you can see the date and coordinates on the bottom right corner of the video.

Capture d’écran d’un météore tombé près de l’Australie le 18 février 2016 © OverWatch Security

A video of a rocket exploding in the atmosphere? Yes, but it shows a different rocket

Although this video claims to show the Chinese spacecraft, it actually shows another space-related incident.

Filmed on March 25, 2021, these images show the debris of the SpaceX Falcon 9 as it returned to Earth. They capture the second stage of the rocket’s re-entry process, as it broke up during its return to the Earth’s atmosphere. The video was posted on Instagram pages such as the one below.

Video of SpaceX debris published on March 29, 2021.

A video of the rocket as it landed in the ocean? No, it’s probably just of a civilian plane

An Indian Twitter account claims to have received a video via WhatsApp depicting the moment the rocket landed in the Pacific Ocean.

Many international media outlets, such as the UK’s Daily Mail, contacted the ‘owner’ of the video on Twitter to get permission to publish it. Others, such as this Chinese television station or this Italian one, broadcast the clip on air.

I was not been able to find the original source of this video. However, visual clues indicate that it does not show a rocket crash. For example, lights can be seen flashing in a very specific and homogeneous way, like a civil aircraft.

To find out more, I contacted Mick West, an aviation expert and founder of the website Metabunk, who shed led on what we can see in the video.

What we see is an airplane, there are other examples of similar videos on the internet. It has a smoke trail, which at an angle can look odd, but it is just a compressed perspective. The airplane is flying toward the camera and it’s below the camera, which gives the illusion that it is tilted downwards. All aircraft like the one in this video [and also in the one below] are in level flight: this means that they neither ‘go up’ nor ‘go down’.

This video is also filmed in ridiculously low resolution.  This is a common sign of a hoax. If the video were of better quality, it would be easy to see that it is an aeroplane. And the “smoke” we see in the video is a contrail, a type of cloud made of water.

Another simulation and aeronautics expert from ‘The Jetesons Association’, who prefers to stay anonymous, added:

What we see in this video is a plane. A piece of debris is literally falling while the trajectory visible on the video is weakly descending. I also seem to see navigation lights, so there is no way this is a piece of rocket or launcher.

Although there is no evidence to fully certify that this video shows an airplane, one thing is sure: it cannot be the Long March 5B rocket, as visual clues and our aeronautical specialists prove.

Actual footage of the Long March 5B

Long March 5B was launched on April 29, 2021, carrying the main module of China’s new space station, and was on its first of the 11 expected missions to complete the project.

One of the only authenticated videos showing Long March 5B debris on Earth to date can be seen in the video below published by The Guardian news site.

It is common for parts of rockets to fall back to Earth. But this caused great concern because of the lack of accurate information about where the 18 tonnes of debris, a colossal weight not seen for decades, would fall.

‘There isn’t a single stretcher left’ in Iran as ‘apocalyptic’ wave of Covid-19 hits

Iranians are facing a fourth wave of Covid-19 and it is shaping up to be the worst since the start of the pandemic. According to official figures, there are no beds left in life support units anywhere in Iran. And there are no beds available in any units of the 100 hospitals in Tehran, the capital. With no hope of rapid, widespread vaccination any time soon, healthcare workers are at a crisis point.

Around 500 people a day are dying of Covid-19 in Iran, according to official statistics, though the actual number could be higher. The official pandemic death toll has risen to 70,000— a number that, according to Iran’s Scientific Council, has been underreported and could, in reality, be four times higher.

READ MORE: Authorities in Iran ‘hiding’ COVID-19 deaths by listing other causes on death reports

Last year, the FRANCE 24 Observers team published a series of articles about the way the pandemic had severely impacted the country, but all of the healthcare workers that we interviewed in the past few days said that what they are experiencing right now is worse than the situation in 2020.

This video was filmed in a hospital in Nahavand (in western Iran) on April 16, 2021, where there are no beds left. 

‘It’s apocalyptic’

Jamshid (not his real name) is a supplier for medical materials who works with hospitals in Tehran:

There are literally no places left in Tehran’s hospitals. They have filled the cafeterias and the treatment rooms with beds for patients with Covid-19. Some hospitals have been transformed into Covid-19 centers: Masih Daneshvari hospital, for example, is no longer accepting people in their emergency room. There’s no room, there aren’t even any stretchers left. They’ve even moved storage containers into the corridors in order to fit more beds in.

The lack of medication is also putting patients’ lives in danger. For example, a patient is supposed to be given two pills of Kaletra [an antiviral drug, editor’s note] every eight hours. But because they don’t have enough, they have only been giving patients one pill.

Aside from the lack of supplies, the crisis is also putting a huge mental burden on medical personnel. The number of deaths is rising every day, which is incredibly difficult to bear. I hear the same thing in all of the hospitals that I go to: The healthcare workers can’t continue in these conditions.

I have also noticed that more and more people living in the suburbs of Tehran are coming to the capital for treatment because there are no more beds in their area. The hospitals [in the suburbs] are even more saturated than those in Tehran. The family members of patients gather outside these suburban hospitals, sitting or sleeping in their cars or in hospital courtyards. Some courtyards contain bodies waiting to be transferred. There is pain and hopelessness in the eyes of these people. It’s apocalyptic and incredibly hard to witness.

Devant un hôpital de Téhéran, la famille d’un patient, résidant d’une autre ville, dort dans une voiture. Photo prise par notre Observateur le 17 avril 2021.

On April 21, the principal morgue in Tehran reported the highest number of deaths on a single day in 50 years: 150 Covid-19 deaths and 200 deaths from other causes.

These new graves were dug in the main cemetery in Tehran on April 21, 2021. The managers of the cemetery have been preparing deep graves, which can each contain up to four people

‘The health system has already collapsed’

Shima (not her real name) is a doctor in a small town in Mazandaran province, which is located in the north. She has been ill with Covid-19 twice.

In spite of our principles and our professional ethics, we openly instruct people to not go to the hospital because we are sure that they will get even sicker. High concentrations of the virus and its variants are present in hospitals and we can’t do anything about that.

The few respirators that we have are being used. We don’t have any beds or medicine and, soon, we won’t have any more oxygen.

We are completely stretched thin and we can’t take care of the patients properly because we spend our days rushing from one patient to another. Even if a person manages to find a bed, then she will have to pay a lot for nothing — it costs between two and three million tomans for one night [Between €66 and €100, when the minimum monthly salary is €88, editor’s note].

Even if a patient with Covid-19 stays at home, treatment is expensive. They will need to pay eight million tomans [€267] for medicine. They might end up needing bottles of oxygen, as well. For a week of oxygen, you have to spend six million tomans [€200]. So that adds up to about 14 million tomans [€467] for the bare minimum of care even if you stay home from the hospital and try to treat your Covid-19 at home.

To add to that, right now, about 30 percent of doctors, nurses and others are currently Covid-19 positive and some of them have to keep coming to work because of staff shortages. We don’t have any more PCR testing kits. We have nano masks, which are a bit better than surgical masks, but we don’t have any N95 masks. We don’t have gloves. We don’t even have a room for our sick colleagues. They sleep on the ground.

In the last 24 hours [April 21, editor’s note], in the only service in our little town, we received more than 150 patients with Covid-19. We have heard that, every day, two or three of our fellow healthcare workers die of Covid-19 or a heart attack that is connected to the virus and being overwhelmed with work. During the pandemic, we’ve been working two or three times more hours than we did in normal times. Most of us haven’t even gotten a vaccine yet.

At least 533 healthcare workers have died of Covid-19 in Iran since the start of the pandemic, according to numbers compiled by me. Across the globe, at least 17,000 healthcare workers have lost their lives due to the virus, including 3,500 in the United States, the country where the death rate is highest, according to the human rights organisation Amnesty International.

A doctor at the hospital of Navahand (in western Iran) posted this photo illustrating just how much strain healthcare workers are under. “We only have 16 beds in our unit, but we already have 83 patients with just two nurses to treat them. Our colleagues are dying. One day in this wave is like a week during the last one. To stay alive, please don’t come to the hospital,” he wrote.

I’m not sure for the other regions or the big cities, but from what I’ve seen, the healthcare system has collapsed. I’ve never seen anything like it. When, as a doctor, I tell my patients to go home despite their infected lungs, when I can’t do anything but pray for them, for me, it is clear that this health system has collapsed.

According to official figures, Iran, which has a population of nearly 83 million, has so far administered 700,000 doses of vaccine, most of them the Russian vaccine Sputnik V. On January 8, 2021, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei banned the import of any American or Russian vaccines.

This video was filmed on April 16, 2021 in a hospital in Dehdasht, in southeastern Iran.

It’s not official, but the real political strategy is herd immunity’

Hadi Yazdani is a doctor in Isfahan (in central Iran). He described the situation in his town:

I believe the number of deaths has risen for socio-economic reasons. Our economy has been shattered by the American economic sanctions and the Iranian government’s failings. Numerous governments have put in place a system where they give financial support to people to stay at home and, thus, reduce the risk of contamination.

But here there is nothing of the sort, because of Iran’s economic situation. People have to go to work to make a living, which accelerates the spread of the virus. When a person gets ill, they should stay at home for 14 days but, in reality, the person needs to go to work.

And just like in the rest of the world, we have people here who don’t believe in science. Unfortunately, they have some influence and power. They advertise stupid cures, which put people in danger.

Since the start of the pandemic, many Iranians have been criticising the way that the religious authorities have handled the crisis. Some blame the ayatollahs, powerful religious leaders, not just for standing in the way of important health measures but also for promoting traditional Islamic medicine, which they say has cost lives.

READ MORE: Prophet’s perfume and flower oil: how Islamic medicine has made Iran’s Covid-19 outbreak worse

I have had patients who are really sick, whose lungs are infected by the coronavirus, and who will look at me straight in the eyes and say that the virus doesn’t exist.

But even if the government doesn’t say it publicly, their policy for managing the Covid-19 pandemic has been, since day one, that of herd immunity. They haven’t done a real lockdown, they haven’t banned people from flying to countries with high-risk levels and they haven’t really invested in an efficient vaccination campaigns.

I don’t understand why they don’t reinforce restrictions in order to avoid a total collapse of the health system. I think that there will be more waves and without radical political measures, this situation will continue for two more years.

As in other countries, there are different coronavirus variants circulating in Iran. In April, 10 representatives from the Scientific Council announced that the variant that was circulating most widely in the country was the “UK variant”.

On February 28, 2020, Iranian deputy Gholareza Imanabadi publicly accused the health ministry of hiding the real numbers: “I said it clearly, the numbers that were announced are a lie. You can’t hide cemeteries.”

On August 1, 2020, BBC’s Persian-language service reported that they had obtained access to documents that showed that the real death toll from the pandemic was three times that of the official figures.

First published here on France24.

Taliban tribunal gives woman 40 lashes for talking to a man on the phone

It only took 80 seconds for two men to rain down 40 lashes on the woman huddled on her knees as a large crowd looked on. The video of the brutal sentence carried out on an Afghan woman was filmed near Herat and posted on Facebook on April 13. It is a painful reminder of the continued operation of Taliban “courts”, even though they have been banned. For our Observer, it also symbolises the failure of the Afghan government.

According to our Observers, this footage is from late 2020, though it hasn’t been possible to determine the precise date the incident occurred. This date range was confirmed by the governor of Herat on April 15. The video was first posted online on April 13, sparking widespread shock and outrage. The incident took place in Haftgola located near Herat in the Obe district.

A man with a white beard leads the woman, who is covered by a burqa, into the center of a circle formed by local men who are there to witness the punishment being carried out. One of the Taliban “judges” led the victim into the center of a group of men.

After leading the victim into the centre of the circle of spectators, the man with the white beard joins three other men in the circle. They are the “elders”, the self-proclaimed judges who delivered the woman’s sentence. 

The victim is forced to kneel and a man starts to whip her. After a while, another man takes over. In between the victim’s cries of pain, you can hear her saying, “I repent … it’s my fault … I messed up.” 

This video, showing the brutal sentence being carried out on an Afghan woman, was filmed near Herat and posted on Facebook on April 13.

According to our Observers, this young woman was accused of “immoral relations” because she spoke on the phone with a young man. The man was also arrested and is being held in a Taliban prison.

The Taliban court meets three times a week in the district of Obe, on Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays. They deal with complaints filed by locals. Our Observers say that this system exists nearly everywhere in Afghanistan. Sometimes videos of the punishments inflicted by these courts emerge on social media or local media outlets.

These self-proclaimed judges carried out the sentence.

Back in 2015, a video emerged on social media showing a woman referred to only as “Rokshana” being stoned, a punishment handed down to her by a Taliban tribunal. The video got international attention.

Other cases also have been reported in Afghan media. In September 2015, a Taliban tribunal in Sarpol province called for the stoning of a man and woman accused of adultery. Around the same time, another man and woman were shot to death over similar accusations in Ghor. In September 2020, a woman was killed in Sarpol.

“We are afraid to return to the dark days of the Taliban government”

Atefa Ghafouri is a women’s rights activist in Herat.

Two members of the Taliban deliver 40 lashes to their victim, a woman who is kneeling, as a crowd looks on. 

All of the men who attended the whipping were ordinary citizens, just people who live in the area. Lots of Afghans, especially those in rural regions, support these tribunals. In many parts of Afghanistan, the government has zero presence. There is no court where you can go and file a complaint. And even when there is some kind of court, the judicial proceedings are long and expensive, because you have to pay bribes so that someone actually works on your file.

So, unfortunately, the only alternative is a Taliban court, which also happens to be rapid and free. People turn to these tribunals and find solutions for their conflicts and that builds legitimacy. The Taliban then impose their rules. The first victims of this system are women.

Moreover, the Afghan government’s inaction makes these tribunals even more powerful. The men who officiate over these so-called trials feel untouchable. And they are. The authorities have never arrested or even questioned anyone in connection to these tribunals. It’s as if it is totally accepted. As if the government divided the country in two. One part that the government controls and another where the Taliban are in charge, with their own rules.

I asked the government why they aren’t going after these people. Even in the cases that get the most media attention, like the killing of a woman named Farkhonda, none of the people who murdered her went to prison. [Editor’s note: Farkhonda was wrongly accused of burning a copy of the Koran and was killed, then her body was burned].

“With a government that includes members of the Taliban, what will happen to us?”

After 20 years of foreign intervention in Afghanistan and billions of dollars spent, the situation has only gotten worse for women. Especially when we look at these so-called negotiations between the United States, the Afghan government and the Taliban [Editor’s note: The first discussions took place in September 2019. The next session is scheduled to start in Turkey in mid-May.

We women are afraid that the Afghan government is going to sell our rights to the Taliban in order to sign a peace agreement. With a government that includes members of the Taliban, what will happen to us? We are afraid of returning to the dark days of the 1990s under the Taliban government. The extremists are constantly gaining ground. For example, they put posters in the street that instruct women to wear hijabs.

The Taliban claim to have changed their position on women’s rights. But how can we believe them when we see them organise these tribunals with these kinds of punishments literally every day, all over the country? When they continue to assassinate women police officers, journalists and activists?

The US army has spent nearly 20 years in Afghanistan and has poured almost one trillion of dollars into the conflict.

There are no statistics about the number of women subject to rulings by these tribunals. Afghanistan is considered one of the worst countries in the world for women’s rights.

First published here on France24.

Sniper videos a new propaganda tool for the Taliban

The black-and-white videos show ghostly images of men in combat gear sheltering behind ruined walls in the crosshairs of Taliban snipers, who under cover of darkness pick them off one by one. While the Taliban have been known to use thermal-imaging technology for night-time combat for years, the Afghan insurgents are increasingly publishing sniper videos online as part of an apparent propaganda effort. An investigation by the France 24 Observers shows that most of the videos feature thermal scopes that are commercially available for civilian use.

In this screengrab from a video the Taliban published on Twitter on March 11, 2021, an Afghan soldier is seen in the crosshairs of a Taliban sniper. The insurgent group claimed the video shows an operation in Afghanistan’s northern Balkh province.

The latest video was released on March 11 on one of the Taliban’s official Twitter accounts with an English caption that read, “NV Operations, Balkh Province.” The two-minute video shows the sniper taking two shots at a figure in combat gear sheltering behind a wall. A third shot appears to hit the soldier. Three subsequent shots appear to hit three of his comrades, including a shot fired through a hole in a wall.

A similar video published on closed Taliban groups on Telegram in mid-February appeared to show a sniper hitting at least 9 Afghan soldiers in the space of 17 minutes. The video was published as a two-minute edit, with a soundtrack of menacing music reminiscent of a video game.

This video was published by Taliban supporters in mid-February 2021. It is an approximately two-minute edit of what appears to be 17 minutes of footage, during which at least nine Afghan soldiers are hit by a single Taliban marksman.

While different combatants in the Middle East, including Lebanon’s Hezbollah, Iran’s IRGC, and the Afghan army, have in the past used video game footage for propaganda purposes and pretended the images showed thermal imaging from real operations, experts believe these new Taliban videos are authentic. With the Afghan army seldom giving casualty counts of Taliban attacks, it is impossible to verify the circumstances of the individual videos, but experts say they are consistent with recent Taliban battleground activity.

READ MORE: Afghan Police publish US Marine video presented as their army striking the Taliban

According to a UN report published in 2019, for each typical squad of 10 to 16 Taliban insurgents, at least one man is equipped with a sniper rifle with a night-vision scope. Afghan media on March 6 reported Taliban insurgents had killed seven Afghan soldiers in a “midnight attack” in Balkh. And an incident on October 21, 2020 in which 48 Afghan soldiers were killed by Taliban snipers in a single night in northeastern Takhar province gave rise to a parliamentary inquiry.

Where do the Taliban get the thermal scopes?

US and Afghan officials have claimed in recent years that Russia has been providing weapons including night-vision equipment to the Taliban. A Taliban spokesman claimed in 2017 the insurgents purchased such equipment directly from soldiers of the Afghan and US forces, and US officials have noted that equipment issued to their Afghan allies often goes missing.

However most of the Taliban night-vision videos published in recent months came from commercially available thermal scopes designed for civilian use. Thermal scopes are a form of night-vision device that transforms heat into images, meaning that warm-blooded animals, including humans, are visible even in total darkness. A military expert who has followed the Afghan insurgents’ tactics for years, and who requested anonymity for this article, explains:

Military analysts, along with the Afghan army and the UN, have been raising the alarm about the use of thermal and night-vision scopes by the Taliban since mid-2018. The devices have had a direct impact on the battlefield: there is a difference between when the Taliban had a few dozen of these scopes and now that they have hundreds of them.

The devices have tilted the balance of firepower in certain battles and have caused serious damage to the Afghan national army. The videos reveal another problem: the lack of training of Afghan soldiers. They have no idea what to do in these situations.

The Taliban mostly obtain the devices on the civilian market of neighboring countries. Each scope costs between €1,500 and €5,000. They and their supporters publish the videos as a form of propaganda. They want to show their strength against their adversary. The Taliban occasionally post such videos on their official Twitter accounts, but they are more often than not released by Taliban supporters on closed platforms like Telegram, WhatsApp, or private Facebook groups. The Taliban is not a concentrated hierarchical group and its media operations are confusing. It’s not as clear-cut as the Islamic State organisation.

The scopes are widely available for civilian uses, like hunting

Thermal scopes are widely available for civilian uses such as hunting and are a frequent topic of discussion in YouTube videos and on other social media platforms. By watching YouTube videos and comparing them with images published by the Taliban and their supporters, the France 24 Observers team found that most of the Taliban videos were produced using commercially available scopes popular among civilian hunters.

According to our investigation, the majority of the thermal- or night-vision videos published by the Taliban come from scopes manufactured by a handful of companies based in China (Longot), the United States (ATN) and Lithuania (Pulsar).

For example, in the last six months, Taliban supporters published at least three videos showing attacks on Afghan soldiers using thermal scopes made by Pulsar, a brand manufactured by Lithuania-based Yukon Advanced Optics Worldwide. The company acknowledged the similarities between the Taliban images and those produced by their products, but said the devices could be copies “made by a third-party manufacturer”. The company said its products are intended for civilian use only: “We have a strict policy that we do not develop solutions for the military industry, nor provide it for military purposes, nor do our products meet the military standards. Our customers have no authorisation for the export of our products without our consent and without obtaining special export licenses from the government agencies in their countries,” the company said. ATN and Longot did not reply to our requests for comment.

Published first here on France24.

Holding exams in the snow: A sign of ‘ethnic discrimination’ in Afghanistan?

Photos have emerged in Afghanistan showing rows of high-school students sitting on the snowy ground to take the annual university entrance exams. The photographs, taken in Daykundi province in the center of Afghanistan, have nothing to do with social distancing due to Covid-19.

Students in rural parts of Afghanistan have been taking exams in the snow for years simply because the regions lack infrastructures such as exam halls and even chairs. Residents say the problem is especially acute in regions like Daykundi that are home to members of the long-persecuted Hazara ethnic group.

While the season of university entrance exams has not yet officially begun in Afghanistan, in some rural regions officials are holding the exams early, citing logistical problems and lack of manpower.

The latest images from Daykundi were posted on Twitter on March 6 by Arif Rahmani, an opposition MP and member of Afghanistan’s Enlightenment Movement, a Hazara rights group that emerged during the 2016 protests over the cancellation of a major electricity project. “The current government exhibits ethnic and tribal discrimination that will never be forgotten,” Rahmani wrote in a caption with the photos.

The phenomenon is far from new. Photos are published every year of university candidates participating in the national exams, sitting outside in the snow, sometimes in chairs, but often not.

This photo shows students taking the exams in Daykundi province in 2018. © © .

Many Afghans say they have a hard time understanding why their schools remain so poorly equipped given that the country has received more than $137 billion in US reconstruction aid since 2002.

In this series of tweets, Afghans share recollections about taking exams in the snow. The first tweet, in the Dari language, shows exams taking place in Daykundi province in March 2021.

Pashtun-dominated governments have paid little attention to these regions’

Ahmad [Not his real name] is a human rights activist in Afghanistan. He explains the situation:

Afghanistan’s annual university entrance exams must be held in the presence of agents from the Afghanistan National Examination Authority, who are dispatched from Kabul. That’s why the exams are held as early as possible. In the central and northeastern regions, which are notably less developed than the rest of the country, the logistics are complicated.

There are usually many candidates in these regions, such as Daykundi and Bamyan provinces in the center, Takhar and Badakhshan in the northeast. But in many areas, there are no large buildings capable of accommodating the students with the required space between them. Or there might be insufficient electricity to provide illumination. And often the local schools don’t even have enough chairs for the students taking the exams.

Obviously, it’s not fair. There’s a huge difference between a candidate who is sitting on a chair inside and warm and someone else who is sitting on his bottom in the freezing cold.

Unfortunately, these underdeveloped regions are not majority-Pashtun. [Editor’s note: of Afghanistan’s 31 million or so residents, 42% are Pashtun, 27% Tajik, 9% Hazara, 9% Uzbek, 4% Aimak, 3% Turkmen, and 2% Baloch]

Successive Pashtun-dominated governments have paid little attention to these regions, and current President Ashraf Ghani’s government is even worse than his predecessors. While in other regions many things have changed and developed, nothing in these regions has changed for decades. This makes people angry because they believe they are being neglected because of ethnic discrimination.

President Ghani canceled an electrical grid project in 2016 that was supposed to bring electricity to these regions. The cancellation of the project ended up leading to the creation of the Enlightenment Movement, a nationwide mobilisation against his government.

The development portion of Afghanistan’s budget is about $1.8 billion per year, 12 percent of which is supposed to be spent on education. But according to a 2017 report by Afghanistan’s Supreme Audit Office, millions of dollars are missing from the Afghan budget and no one knows where and how the Afghan government spent it.

The corruption index of Afghanistan is one the highest in the world, somewhere between 180 to 165 in the world.

Published first here on France24.