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Some Iranian children are literally climbing mountains to access online school

Some Iranian children are finding virtual school harder than others. Photos have recently emerged on social media of children in rural areas who literally have to climb a mountain every day to find an internet connection strong enough so that they can attend their online classes. People have been especially shocked by the image of a child who fell and was injured on his dangerous hike to access the internet. We spoke to one teacher who feels utterly helpless in the face of the situation.

Iran has one of the highest Covid-19 rates in the Middle East, with more than 43,000 officially recorded deaths. However, even officials at the Ministry of Health admit that the actual number of dead is likely three or four times that number.

Most schools across Iran have been closed, except for a few schools in rural areas. The Iranian government is pushing for all students to stay home and attend online classes using an application called Shad, which was developed by the Ministry of Education. However, to participate in distance learning, children need a strong internet connection or, at the very least, a cell phone.

Even though the number of Iranians with access to the Internet has increased dramatically over the past ten years, the digital divide remains a real issue. Many students living in rural areas face serious connection issues, unlike those in large towns where mobile networks are accessible.

“Is it fair that these children have to give up their studies and [the chance to go to] university?” asks the person who filmed this video in Golzamin, a village in central Iran.

However, some children in rural areas have shown an incredible determination to attend their online classes. Some walk for kilometers and climb to the tops of nearby hills or mountains to tap into 3G networks, despite how dangerous the journey may be.

Several teachers and activists have spoken out about the situation, publishing photos and videos of children walking across the mountains, cell phones in hand, trying desperately to find an internet connection solid enough to enable them to participate in their classes via the Shad application.

This photo was taken in Avaj in central Iran.

One photo, in particular, underscores just how terrible this situation is for many children. On November 7, a photo of a young boy with blood all over his face was posted online, shocking viewers across Iran. The young man took a bad fall on a mountain near Rumoshtik, a town in eastern Iran when he was trying to connect to the application so he could attend online classes.

This photo shows the boy who took a bad fall near Rumotshik. It was posted online on November 7.

“Politicians sitting in air-conditioned offices with a strong 4G connection are the ones overseeing plans for distance learning.”

Hermidas (not his real name) is a teacher who works in a rural region in northeast Iran. Before, he taught a class of about 20 or so students. For the past two months, however, he’s had to teach using a smartphone and the internet. Distance learning has been really challenging for many of his students:

We’ve been doing online classes since September 22, when the fall semester began. We immediately realized that less than half of the children had a smartphone and none had access to an internet connection at home. After a few days and speaking to lots of parents, we realized that there were locations high up in the nearby mountains where you could get internet access. Since then, the children from the village have walked 45 minutes to reach that spot every day. And, right now, it is particularly cold.

A child from Dolbi, a village in southeast Iran, climbing a mountain in order to get a stable enough internet connection for the children to access their classes online.

Another problem is that these children don’t have their own cell phones, so they have to borrow a phone from a member of their family who sometimes needs it. So, sometimes, they can only have it for a few hours before they have to give it up.

Morally, I feel like I am trapped at an impasse. How can I ask these children to climb a mountain? If there’s an accident, I will feel responsible. Thankfully, for now, nothing has happened to any of the children who are in my class but I fear that in the weeks to come, with the snow and the cold, it will be almost impossible to hold class.

“Some of the young girls, who were brilliant students, are no longer taking my classes”

Another consequence of this situation is that young girls who were brilliant students are no longer taking my classes. I lost all of my female students because their parents don’t want them to climb the mountain [Editor’s note: The region is extremely conservative and most young girls need their parents’ permission to go anywhere].

As for the boys, there are about four or five who only attend intermittently and I have to catch them up on the lessons. I know that some of them borrow a neighbor’s telephone in order to attend class. The children try to share information among themselves. Other times, I’ve called to check in on students who I haven’t seen for a long time but, often, I struggle to reach them.

This student built a little hut in the mountains in the province of Sistan-and-Baluchestan, where he can get internet and participate in online classes. This photo was posted on Twitter on November 14.

I went to school once to give the students a lesson in-person. Some of the children had no idea what I was talking about because they hadn’t been able to attend the virtual classes. Even so, they are usually full of energy and curiosity and eager to learn. One of my colleagues in the region was able to continue giving in-person classes [Editor’s note: The Iranian government has made exceptions for small villages without internet access and for teachers who live near the schools where they teach]. However, I don’t live in the region where I teach so I have to do it virtually now.

Politicians sitting in air-conditioned offices with a strong 4G connection are the ones overseeing plans for distance learning. They don’t know what it’s like outside their ivory tower. They aren’t interested in what things are like for village children. They launched this online learning system months ago. They could have come up with a solution to supply emergency internet access or given cell phones to children from poor families. They could have made the internet free in these areas, but they did nothing.

Child suicides reported by some Iranian media outlets

Several media outlets, including the BBC Persian service, have reported that at least eight children living in rural areas who were unable to attend classes online have committed suicide in recent weeks. He says he, sadly, isn’t surprised by this horrifying statistic:

We haven’t had any cases in my class but I understand the danger. These children believe that the only way for them to escape poverty is by going to school. Right now, for example, it’s their poverty preventing them from going to virtual school, learning and gaining the chance to ascend the social ladder. This situation reinforces pre-existing inequalities and feeds into the shame they feel that they are not on equal footing with their classmates.

We must never forget how important the idea of studying is to our culture and what a strong force social pressure is in Iran. Each year, there are cases of students committing suicide after they get bad grades.

The Iranian government, for its part, denies that any children have committed suicide because they are unable to attend school online. They also say that they haven’t reported any cases of children being injured while climbing mountains.

Iranian influencer poses with skulls, artifacts in an unexplored archeological site

Iranian Instagram influencer Soheil Taghavi posed with skulls, bones, and pieces of pottery at the unexplored Tasuki archeological site in southeast Iran in a video that he hoped would go viral. But many people across Iran were shocked by the video, especially lovers of history and archeology. Our Observer explains that even moving the smallest object in this kind of site can jeopardize future digs and ruin important discoveries about the past.

On Instagram, Soheil Taghavi describes himself as a tour guide. He has 29,000 followers. In the videos that he posted of his visit to the Tasuki archeological site, Taghavi digs in the ground and pulls out skulls and bones, then poses with them in front of the camera.

“I gathered up the best preserved pieces for you”, he says at one point. “Now is the moment to share my page so your friends can see these cool things, too,” he says, smiling.

The Tasuki archeological site has not yet been excavated but, according to estimates, it contains signs of life from 4,000 BC.

‘Just touching these artefacts with bare hands could damage them’

Fatemeh Aliasghar is an Iranian journalist who has written extensively about archeological sites.

Even though this site has been listed on the national register of historic sites, it hasn’t yet been excavated.

“I’ve gathered some of the pieces of pottery I found, take a look and enjoy them,” Taghavi says in this publication.

The Tasuki site is located about 24 km from Shahr-e Sukhteh, which is a Unesco world heritage site, so the people who lived there probably had a similar lifestyle. Shahr-e-Sukhteh is from around 3,200 BC. But it is also possible that those who lived in Tasuki had a completely different culture, one that is unknown to us. But in any way that you look at it, we are talking about an important archaeological site.

All the more so because this site is located in a fairly isolated area, far from towns and other human activity, which makes us think that it is well preserved. Moreover, you can see in Taghavi’s videos that he is handling well-preserved skulls, bones and pieces of pottery, which would contain crucial information about the people who lived there.

Taghavi picked up bones and skulls and moved them. But you need to have specific training and use specific tools in order to avoid causing damage. Even just touching these artefacts with your bare hands could damage them. He also moved them and posed them for photos and videos. But the location of each piece of bone and each piece of pottery represents important information, which was destroyed by his thoughtless actions.

When archaeologists find pieces of pottery, they can reconstruct them and try to reassemble them into their original form. But when the pieces are scattered, it becomes impossible to put together the puzzle.

“Illegal digs in Iran are commonplace”

Taghavi tries to put together the pieces, saying “play with them and put them back together!” even though these pieces might very well come from different objects, which might come from different centuries, maybe even from different groups of people who lived on this site at different periods.

These images are also revealing because they show the utter lack of oversight of Iran’s archaeological sites.

Most of them don’t even have guards and even the most well-known sites only have two or three people there to keep an eye on dozens of square kilometres. Illegal digs are commonplace in Iran. The Organisation for Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism, which is supposed to take care of their preservation and their security, don’t report most of these illegal digs in order to save face. That’s exactly what is happening with Taghavi: to hide their incompetence, these officials haven’t initiated even the smallest of legal proceedings against him.

“It’s really a human skull, make some noise!” writes Taghavi.

“I am sincerely sorry. All I wanted was to show the beauty of Sistan-and-Baluchestan,” he said. He also thanked several local officials with the Organisation for Cultural Heritage, Handicrafts and Tourism. Alireza Jalalzaei, who runs the branch of this organization in Sistan-and-Baluchestan, said on December 7 that he had reprimanded Taghavi. Some of our Observers say that Taghavi’s actions could be punished with up to ten years in prison and a fine of several hundred euros.

This isn’t the first time this influencer has pulled such a stunt. In 2018, he covered the ground with coloured powder at an important geological site on the island of Hengam in the Persian Gulf as part of a celebration inspired by the festival of colours in India.

Taghavi caused this damage to a beach on the island of Hengam in 2018.

Shahr-e-Sukhteh, the site neighbouring Tasuki, is from the Bronze Age and has been listed as a Unesco World Heritage site since 2014. There are between 25,000 and 40,000 graves there. The oldest artificial eye was discovered there, as well as the oldest game of backgammon and the oldest caraway seeds. A human skull found there revealed beginning attempts at surgery, and an earthenware goblet found there is decorated with what archaeologists considered the oldest example of drawn animation.

How sheep smuggling has become a lucrative yet dangerous business on the Iran-Iraq border

The financial crisis currently gripping Iran has led to a dramatic increase in sheep smuggling across the border with Iraq, a region that is home to many Kurds. While some sheep owners are making a large profit from this illegal activity, it’s dangerous for those on the ground. Several locals have been injured during clashes between smugglers and the Iranian police, who have arrested dozens of people in the region.

A lot of smuggling takes place in the predominantly Kurdish regions surrounding the border between Iran and Iraq. Some of the most common items carried across the border are cigarettes, alcohol and electrical appliances.

Smugglers are known locally as “kulbar”. Each year, several dozen of them die, killed by Iranian border guards, landmines or the harsh winters in this mountainous zone. The FRANCE 24 Observers team has reported several stories on the kulbar operating in this region.

In the past month, several videos documenting sheep smuggling – the latest lucrative but dangerous activity to emerge in the region – have appeared on social media. A video posted on Telegram on November 8 shows border guards firing at a group of men who look like shepherds. According to local residents, this footage was filmed in Dowlahtu, a village in the West Azerbaijan province in western Iran.

This video shows border guards trying to arrest smugglers near Dowlahtu. You can hear several shots being fired.

The men who look like shepherds are, in actual fact, smugglers who are trying to transport these flocks over the mountains so they can sell them for a higher price across the border. None of the security forces or smugglers were injured during this incident.

Another video was filmed 900 kilometers from Dowlahtu, where the first video was filmed, in the Hawizeh Marshes in Khuzestan Province in southeastern Iran. It appeared in Iranian media on November 2.

This video shows smugglers trying to transport sheep from Iran to Iraq using a boat to cross the marshlands separating the two countries.

Two other videos were also filmed on November 5, this time in Zarduyeh, a village located 400 kilometers from Dowlahtu in the Kermanshah province. In the first video, you can hear the Iranian security forces firing their weapons and see pick-up trucks filled with sheep. The second video shows villagers, mostly women, and children, throwing stones at the security forces to chase them out of their village.

In this video, filmed in Zarduyeh, you can hear the sound of gunshots and see sheep who were seized by Iranian security forces. 

The smuggling is taking place all along the border, as shown in the videos appearing on social media. Videos have been uploaded from Dowlahtu, the northwest, to Zarduyeh, in the far southwest. 

Comme on peut le voir sur cette carte, le trafic de moutons a été documentés dans plusieurs villages à la frontière entre l’Iran et l’Irak du nord-ouest au sud-oues © .

The Kurdish regions of Iran are underdeveloped and the unemployment rate there is high. Many people turn to smuggling just to get by. The unemployment rate in Iran is around 10 percent but it is 14.8 to 16.9 percent in the Kurdish regions of Kermanshah and Khuzestan, according to official statistics. However, many Iranian economists say that the rate is probably much higher.

Sometimes even local officials get involved in smuggling. On November 3, local media outlets reported that Chavos Koresani, a member of the village council in Ravian, was killed by Iranian border guards while traveling as a “kulbar”.

‘The security forces seized sheep belonging to the villagers in Zarduyeh, making them angry’

Sirvan (a pseudonym chosen for his security) lives in the village of Zarduyeh. He witnessed a raid by Iranian security forces on November 5.

On that day, security forces came to our village because they were interested in the sheep smuggling that young men here had started getting involved in. They buy sheep in Iran and then transport them over the border into Iraq because the price of meat is much higher there than in Iran.

It’s true that the exchange rate between the toman and the dollar makes this an extremely lucrative operation. According to local media outlets, you can sell a sheep for twice as much in Iraq as in Iran. While a kilo of sheep’s meat goes for about 45,000 tomans [equivalent to €1.41] in Iran, it goes for 100,000 tomans the kilo in Iraq [Editor’s note: equivalent to €3.15]. On average, a sheep weighs about 50kg, which means you can make roughly 87 more euros per sheep if you sell it in Iraq. In a country like Iran, which is suffering from sky-high inflation and an economic crisis, and where the minimum monthly salary is just €60, that is a big difference.

Sirvan continues:

The day of the incident, border guards as well as the Iranian Revolutionary Guard staged an ambush near the border, which is just after my village. They seized quite a few sheep and put them in their truck. While some of those sheep were clearly being smuggled, they also rounded up some of the sheep belonging to locals.

That’s why the villagers were so angry. When the convoy was passing by, they stopped it to say that some of the sheep that had been seized belonged to them. The security forces didn’t want to hear anything about it and the tone quickly got heated. Then, the villagers, mostly women, and children started to throw stones at the security forces, who then responded by firing several shots. Thankfully, no one was injured. At least three men were arrested and a further 20 received a court summons.

In this video, a group of mostly women and children from the town of Zarduyeh throw stones at the security forces to chase them away from the village. 

The kulbar are just hired to do the dirty work’

Sirav says that most of the profits from this kind of smuggling ends up in the pockets of the “big fish”, not with the kulbar.

In our region, most of the people who work as smugglers don’t do it as a choice; they do it to survive. Most of them are young. There is no work around here. All of the border regions in Iran are in the same situation. I know a brilliant young man who has a doctorate in management who is working as a kulbar. There are large numbers of extremely qualified people like him in the region.

Moreover, most of the money from the smuggling doesn’t go to the kulbar. The kind of people who end up working as kulbar don’t have enough money to buy a big flock. They are employed by wealthier smugglers who buy the sheep in Iran and then sell them, using the messaging app Telegram, to smugglers on the other side of the border, in Iraq. The kulbar are just small fries hired to do the dirty work of crossing the border. They are paid several hundred thousand tomans to undertake the 40 kilometre journey [Editor’s note: meaning they would make up to €30 for a trip]. And it is an extremely difficult trip over the mountains that can take two or three nights.

They travel in a group. There is a scout who goes ahead to make sure the road is safe. Then others bring the sheep as if they were just any old shepherd tending to a flock. Sometimes, border guards will stake out a hiding place and then ambush them [Editor’s note: as you can see in the first video filmed in Zarduyeh].

For the time being, there are no official statistics on the number of kulbar killed while smuggling sheep. But according to a local human rights organization, at least 79 people working as kulbar lost their lives in 2019 while carrying out smuggling operations on the border between Iran and Iraq.

Another video of police violence in the Islamic Republic: ‘Iran’s George Floyd’

On October 24, a video published on Persian-language media showed Iranian police using tear gas and an electroshock weapon on a man who was handcuffed to a pole and could not move. The video was shared widely on social media such as Telegram, with users calling the man “Iran’s George Floyd”. In the aftermath of the video, the man died in an ambulance on the way to the hospital.

The recent pattern of Iranian police violence intensified with the death of this man in Mashhad, in northeast Iran, on October 24 after “shame parades” of suspected criminals took place in several cities over the last few weeks.

The victim was 30-year-old Mehrdad Sepehri. According to Iranian media, his wife’s family called the police after a family disagreement. When police arrived, they handcuffed Sepehri to a pole and continued to harass him even though he posed no threat, as seen in this video.

Sepehri became unconscious on the way from the police station to the hospital and was pronounced dead in the ambulance. The cause of death is not yet confirmed.

After this video was shared online, many Iranian users began to call Mehrdad Sepehri the “Iranian George Floyd” on social media. The reaction intensified after another video, showing the victim’s body in a morgue with several bruises all over his body, was published.

‘Mehrdad Sepehri, Iran’s George Floyd’

Following the backlash, Iran’s state broadcaster rushed to help the Iranian police justify the death. In several reports, Iran’s state television presented the victim as violent, despite evidence shown in the video online.

Meanwhile, Mashhad’s military prosecutor announced on October 25 that the victim’s family has filed a suit against the police officer. He has been arrested and an investigation has been opened into the case.

Read more : ‘Iran’s Hidden Slaughter’: a video investigation

This has been the third incidence of police violence in Iran in the last three weeks. On two separate occasions, Iranian police have killed men in the process of arresting them in Esfarayen and in Shahriar.

While videos showing police violence in Iran are not rare, the persecution of the offender often is.

In some cases, officers might even be praised by police for their use of force, as seen in the beating of a young girl for “immoral behavior” in June 2019.

Afghan Police published US Marines video presented as their army striking the Taliban

On October 12, the Afghan National Police posted a video on Facebook that they said showed Afghan helicopters bombing Taliban positions in Helmand province.

The conflict between the Afghan Army and the Taliban in Helmand Province in southern Afghanistan has been intensifying since October 9. Both sides are using social media to show off what they perceive to be their military successes. But it seems like the Afghan police were a little too quick to post one particular video that they said showed the army striking Taliban positions. Turns out this video shows, in reality, a training exercise carried out by the United States Marine Corps in Arizona, USA, in 2017.

The video, which was later picked up by numerous Afghan media outlets, was filmed in night vision mode and shows a helicopter bombing a compound. On the Facebook page of the Afghan National Police, the video garnered more than 20,000 views.

Afghan Police page: ‘Last night, Helmand was turned into a cemetery for the Taliban.’

The Afghan National Police posted this video along with the caption “Last night, Helmand was turned into a cemetery for the Taliban”. The video picked up more than 20,000 views.

The Afghan National Television station shared the same video with the same caption

But, in reality, this video isn’t recent and it wasn’t filmed in Afghanistan. It was first posted on the “airalimages” YouTube channel back in April 2017 and the caption says it shows US Marine Corps engaging “targets during an urban close-air support exercise” in Yuma, Arizona, USA.

This is the original video uploaded to the ‘airalimages’ YouTube channel in 2017.

How can you find the original?

If you look closely at the video posted by the Afghan police, you can see a watermark at the bottom right-hand side of the video that says “Airalimages”.

I searched this name on YouTube and pulled up a channel that publishes military videos, most of them showing the US Army. Then, I looked through the archives of this channel for a video filmed with night vision and found the exact same video published by the Afghan police and several media outlets.

The conflict between the Afghan Army and the Taliban in Helmand Province has displaced at least 35,000 peopleThe United Nations reported that “several civilians were killed, including women and children” in recent fighting.

Despite an agreement with the United States government and ongoing peace talks between the Afghan government and the Taliban in Doha since September, the Taliban has refused to accept a ceasefire and are continuing their campaign in Afghanistan.

How Iranian police publicly shame suspected criminals

In a video posted online on October 7, Iranian police humiliate suspected criminals in the middle of the street, forcing them to yell out, “Forgive me! I won’t do it again”, and repeat insulting statements about themselves in front of a crowd. The growing number of public shamings are just one example of how the Iranian police are flexing their muscles, to the detriment of human rights, and acting outside the judicial system.

This video shows armed men in ski masks beating up five men in the back of a pick-up truck as hundreds of people watch. The masked men are Iranian police officers and the men they are publicly humiliating were arrested on suspicion of committing violent crimes. The scene took place on Jomhouri Avenue, one of the main streets in Tehran.

Eyewitnesses filmed the scene and posted it on Twitter. The footage shows a large crowd watching what happens from the side of the street, many of them filming with their cellphones.

According to Tehran police, these five men were accused of having entered a mall, armed with knives, and robbing and assaulting several shoppers as well as carrying out muggings in the same neighborhood where the public shaming took place.

Tehran’s Chief of Police, General Hamid Hadavand told media outlet Farsnews that this shaming would be “a lesson for other [criminals], to show them that they have no power, that they are nothing”.

Violent criminals and ex-convicts are classified as “Arazel” by the Iranian police and judicial system. Most are members of small neighborhood gangs that smuggle drugs or alcohol, carry out robberies, or are responsible for sexual assaults. On October 2, Madjid Mirahmadi, the deputy head of intelligence and security for the Iranian armed forces announced that special police forces meant to target these Arazel had been created in each province and had been operating since August 10.

“False hegemony,” wrote this social media user, sharing a video of the public shaming carried out by Iranian police.

The Iranian police often carry out this type of public shaming before the suspects even see a judge, with support from at least a part of the population, who are horrified by the insecurity gripping the country. Back in 2013, police shamed one suspected criminal by parading him around, dressed up as a woman.

Read on the Observers: Outcry in Iran after police punish man by dressing him like a woman

“Dignity and human rights don’t mean anything for certain Iranian officials”

Though no one in the crowd seems to have opposed the public shaming while it was happening, there was an outcry when videos of the incident were posted online, especially because the men being shamed hadn’t even been convicted of a crime.

“This display shows us that, for certain Iranian officials, dignity and human rights don’t mean anything. When you see what they are doing in public, only God knows what they do to them behind closed doors”.

“Dignity and human rights don’t mean anything for certain Iranian officials”

Though no one in the crowd seems to have opposed the public shaming while it was happening, there was an outcry when videos of the incident were posted online, especially because the men being shamed hadn’t even been convicted of a crime.

“This display shows us that, for certain Iranian officials, dignity and human rights don’t mean anything. When you see what they are doing in public, only God knows what they do to them behind closed doors”.

Some activists compared the public shaming carried out by Iranian police with those carried out by the Islamic State terrorist organization in Iraq or Syria. 

“Comparison between a public shaming carried out by the Islamic State organization in Iraq (March 2015) and the Islamic regime in Iran (Octobre 2020),” tweeted one commentator with irony.

According to Iranian criminal law, which is based on sharia, judges can condemn criminals to this kind of public shaming, known as “Tasshir”, which means “make known [the suspected criminal]”. But this practice is criticized by Iranian lawyers, who say it is illegal. Human rights activists have also criticized this type of punishment.

This method has been used since the very beginning of the Islamic Republic in 1979, especially against political prisoners, then against so-called “violent criminals.” There’s been an uptick in usage of late. In the past two weeks alone, the police have organized at least three public shamings in Tehran as well as in Rasht, in the north of the country.

Ex-cons used to quell protests or on the front lines in Syria?

While Iranian authorities claim to have waged war on the “Arazel “, it’s not rare for convicted criminals to be solicited by the security forces.

In just one example, in October 2015, General Hamedani, the former commander of the Revolutionary Guards in Tehran, confirmed that they had employed three battalions of ex-convicts to clamp down on protestors taking part in the 2009 Green Movement. According to certain Iranian media outlets, there is also proof that some Azarels have been deployed to the front lines in Syria to fight alongside forces loyal to the Syrian regime.

Even so, the public shamings of suspected criminals continue in Iran. Marzieh Mousavi, an Iranian photojournalist, documented one of these public shamings in Moshirieh, a neighborhood in Tehran on October 6. She posted photos of this incident on her Instagram account and commented that she had already photographed one of the men being publicly shamed nine years earlier in the same neighborhood.

“I’m still thinking about it… Good education, punishment… After nine years, the same man, same neighborhood, same story,” wrote Mousavi in this post on Instagram.

Mousavi said, in her post, “according to police, the man has become more dangerous and violent than he was nine years ago”. 

Mousavi’s observation and post raise the question if these ongoing public shamings are any kind of deterrent to crime. 

Violence, suicide and addiction: an unprecedented economic crisis plunges Iranian society into chaos

Videos of fights breaking out in front of supermarkets or currency exchange offices in Iran have become so common on social media over the past few years that many people don’t even find them surprising anymore.

These fraught scenes illustrate the stress caused by the economic downturn that has swept the country, accompanied by rampant inflation and currency devaluation. Experts and observers describe an unprecedented crisis that has led to violence and significant psychological distress amongst those fighting to stay afloat.

Every day, large crowds gather in front of currency exchange offices in the capital, Tehran, and other Iranian cities. The people in these queues are hoping to preserve their meager savings by converting them into US dollars, as their own currency rapidly devalues. Fights are common amongst those scrambling for a place in line.

The video below, shared on social media on September 8, is one example. It shows a man and a woman fighting in front of a currency exchange office in the Eskan commercial center in northern Tehran.

These incidents, which are frequently filmed and posted on social media, show just how fed up many Iranians are. The cost of living is rising every day, a result of both the poor economic management of the country as well as the economic sanctions imposed by the United States after Iran left the nuclear deal in May 2018. Inflation is rising while the Iranian currency, the toman, has lost more than seven times its value since 2017. In September 2020, a dollar was equivalent to roughly 28,000 toman.

This video, filmed in Tehran, was posted on Telegram and Instagram on July 6.

For the past ten years, Shervin (not his real name) has been making a living importing computers and selling them in Tehran. He described the economic situation in the country, where the inflation rate is somewhere between 41 and 130%, according to wildly variant estimates:

We used to import merchandise from the United Arab Emirates and China. But since May 2018 and United States President Donald Trump’s decision to reinstate sanctions on Iran, we’ve become dependent on smuggling. However, this is expensive, so we have to sell the merchandise at increased prices.

The other problem that we encounter in my company is that we depend on economic activity to make a living. We sell tools for companies and their employees. When the economy is stalled, it is difficult to import and to export. The unemployment rate is high. People aren’t working much and they don’t need to buy a computer.

The devaluation of our currency against the dollar also affects our business. In the past, we bought computers or parts when the exchange rate was about 15,000 toman per dollar. We calculated our costs and profits from these rates. But later, when we wanted to buy the same products, the exchange rate had changed and the buying price increased.

We didn’t make enough on the products and, thus, lost money. As a result, we weren’t able to buy the same amount of merchandise.

This fight took place in a queue for subsidized meat in 2019 in Bomehen, located in eastern Tehran. 

“We sell products for five to seven times their real price”

Now, we always verify the exchange rate and have to increase the price as a result. Because the exchange rate can change very quickly, we try to avoid being caught unprepared and so we sell the products for five to seven times more than their real price. Moreover, there is very little competition in the market right now.

Importing is a difficult business and not many people do it. We know the other importers who survived the economic crisis. This allows us to know who is importing what and what each person has in stock.

If a person in Iran really needs a computer then they will buy it no matter what the price – even if it is three to four times more than the price in dollars– because there just aren’t any other options.

The cheapest system units that you can find in Iran cost about 15 million toman [Editor’s note: Equivalent to 476 euros. In France, the cheapest system units start at about 60 euro]. And it’s not just us. It works the same way whether you are selling pens or refrigerators. That’s why prices are skyrocketing. And since 2017, sales at my company have been plummeting. We are getting nearly a third less sales than we used to.

Saeed Madani is a well-known researcher in sociology in Iran. He told us about how the economic difficulties the country is facing are aggravating societal issues and affecting the mental health of those impacted.

Over the past few years, several universities have researched “anger” within the population and the violence that can sometimes stem from poverty and economic problems. These studies establish clear links between unemployment, a decrease in income and inflation and a rise in violence and crime.

According to the Iranian National Bank, 20% of Iranians live under the poverty line. Other independent studies have put the figure closer to 35 or 40%.

People here have become desperately poor. In years past, people were often facing deprivation on one front. For example, they might have a house but struggle to have enough to eat. Now, we are seeing people who are experiencing deprivation at all levels. They can’t pay rent or any of their bills and they don’t have any money for food or medical care.

A fight broke out in this queue for people seeking to buy subsidized chicken in Tehran in 2019.  

Iran is also experiencing persistent, or generational, poverty. Studies have shown that now more than ever, when you are born into a poor family, you stay poor.

Moreover, the people living under the poverty line are actually working, but still not making enough to get by. In Iran, when someone makes less than 3.5 or 4 million toman per month? [Editor’s note: 111 to 126 euro], you can consider that they are living under the poverty line. However, many workers and government employees make minimum wage, which is 1.83 million toman per month? [Editor’s note: equivalent to 58 euro].

This explains the anger and violence growing within society. Iranians are trying to improve their situation, but the context is getting worse. They are angry about it and angry at society.

A rise in suicide is another horrible consequence of the worsening economic situation. Forty years ago in Iran, there were about 250 suicides per year. Today, there are around 5,000 per year. The numbers have really increased over the past decade. The suicide rate has risen to eight for every 100,000 residents. It’s nearly at the global rate, which is 9.8 per 100,000 people.

A fight breaks out amongst people queuing for dollars at a currency exchange office in 2018 in Tehran

Another form of self-harm is addiction. Both addiction and depression are on the rise, sometimes triggered by people’s economic problems.

A study published in 2016 revealed that unemployment (in 16% of cases) and inflation (in 76% of cases) had had an impact on people involved with drug trafficking in Iran. [Editor’s note: according to official statistics, the number of addicts in Iran has doubled over the past nine years for a total of around three million people].

“People are fighting to not fall into poverty”

Other people blame those around them or society in general for their poverty and economic hardship. That explains the violence. When people are waiting in line to exchange their toman for dollars or buy subsidized products, fights break out because they see others as obstacles that could prevent them from improving their own daily existence. They aren’t trying to get rich. These are people from the middle class who are fighting to survive, to not fall under the poverty line. That’s why the fighting between them is so ferocious.

Other types of violence have also become common, including domestic violence and violence towards women, child abuse, and elder abuse. And we think the number of street fights has doubled in the past ten years.

According to the Iranian judicial system, about 50% of people arrested for small-scale theft over the past ten months didn’t have a criminal record. They did it because of the current economic climate and it is a completely new phenomenon in Iran [Editor’s note: in August, there was a widely publicized case of a father who stole diapers for his 18-month-old child].

People steal because they don’t have another choice. And because they’ve never stolen before, nor had contact with thieves, the police catch them easily.

Today, between 25 and 30% of Iranians suffer from mental health issues and need help. That’s the situation. And the economic, social, and political climate in Iran doesn’t leave much hope for improvement.

On August 5, Iranian President Hassan Rouhani announced a new economic plan to ease some of the hardship, without sharing any more details. A few weeks later, on September 14, after numerous debates around measures within the plan, Eshaq Jahangiri, the Iranian vice president explained that it had been canceled.

Online videos falsely claim that face masks can cause CO2 poisoning

To wear a mask or not to, that is the question that has been fiercely debated online since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic. One of the claims made by opponents of the protective face coverings is that masks can lead to suffocation from the carbon dioxide (CO2) we exhale. Proponents of this theory have posted videos online in which they use gas detectors to claim that the amount of CO2 we breathe when wearing a mask is extremely dangerous. However, there is no factual basis for that claim. We take a closer look.

In a flurry of videos posted online, social media users – most of them American – explain that wearing a mask can be dangerous for your health. To demonstrate this, they use a gas detector, which can be bought in a hardware store for somewhere between 40 and 100 euros, to “measure” the CO2 level inside their masks.

In the videos, the meter goes wild when they start to breathe, indicating a high level of carbon dioxide in the space between their faces and their masks. They claim that this shows you can get carbon dioxide poisoning if you wear a mask and, thus, that you need to avoid wearing one at all costs.

The Dave Sims YouTube channel often shares conspiracy theories about masks as well as anti-vaccine propaganda.

“These machines are used for measuring CO2 in a large space, not behind a mask”

I contacted MSA, the company that manufactures the “ALTAIR 5X Gas Detector”, which is the machine used in some of these anti-mask videos. We asked a representative from the company if this machine can actually measure the level of CO2 in a mask. They responded without hesitation:

This machine is a portable gas detector that should be used to evaluate if the air is dangerous or combustible in a room or a confined space – so we are talking about much larger areas than the interior of a mask.

When you place the machine behind your mask, then the person wearing it will breathe out and displace the oxygen. This sets off the alarm. The same thing would happen if a person breathed out directly into the tube.

Because of the sensitivity of the sensors, combined with the lack of space behind the mask, there isn’t enough time for the meter to drop back down to zero before the next breath, which means the alarm just continues going off.

Because of this, these machines aren’t suited for any kind of medical test and the warnings and alarm on the screen don’t indicate anything important.

This video was posted by Del Matthew Bigtree, one of the most well-known anti-vaccine figures in the United States.

Doctors launch a counter-attack with their own video demos

A number of doctors and nurses made their own science-based videos in response to the flood of videos claiming that wearing a mask could lead to CO2 poisoning. In some of the videos, they put on a mask – or even several masks – and measured the level of oxygen in their blood. They demonstrated that wearing one, or even several masks, doesn’t reduce the level of oxygen in your blood.

However, several scientific studies conducted years before masks had become such a polarising issue did suggest that wearing a mask could provoke minor changes in the level of oxygen in the human body.

For example, a study carried out by the University of Başkent in Turkey in 2008 measured the blood oxygen levels of surgeons to see if they could be affected by the masks they wear when carrying out operations. The study showed that wearing a mask for an hour led to a small decrease in the level of oxygen in a person’s blood and a mild increase in their heart rate.

“The level of CO2 increases when you wear a mask, but it remains a reasonable level for the human body”

I discussed these studies with Ewa Messaoudi, who handles the regulation of protective respiratory devices at AFNOR, the French organization that implements product standards:

It’s important to take into account that this kind of protection is always a constraint for the human body. We don’t wear a mask for respiratory comfort, we wear it to protect ourselves against an existing risk. What’s important to establish is if the mask allows the human body to meet its physiological needs for the limited period when it is being used.

When we develop masks, we model them on technical specifications based on human factors, like European norms of standardization.

So, yes, the level of CO2 does go up when you wear a mask but it remains an acceptable level for the human body. That’s the case for masks certified by the CWA 17553 [Editor’s note: the Committee Workshop Agreement of the European Normalization Committee, which provides information about these masks on this document].

Iran: 7-year-old boy is latest child to lose arm to crocodile while fetching water

A crocodile attack on a 7-year-old boy has refocused attention on the plight of villages in Iran’s southeastern Sistan and Baluchistan Province that lack running water. Residents say their children have no option but to fetch water from lakes and rivers, exposing them to the dangers of drowning and attacks by a species of marsh crocodile known locally as “gandos”.

On Aug. 11, a 7-year-old boy named Amirhamzeh from the village of Houttag was attacked by a crocodile as he was fetching water for his family. His parents sent him to neighboring Pakistan for treatment, but the doctors were forced to amputate his left hand.

While Iran does not publish statistics of crocodile attacks, locals say they are a regular occurrence. Last year a 9-year-old girl lost her arm in a crocodile attack, and an 8-year-old boy lost a leg.

Sistan and Baluchistan is one of the most underdeveloped provinces of Iran, a poor region that shares 1100 km of border with Afghanistan and Pakistan. Many of the arid province’s villages are not connected to the country’s water system and depend on nearby lakes and rivers as their only source of water – a source they share with Gandos, a species of marsh crocodile found only in southeastern Iran, Pakistan, and India.

Amirhamzeh, 7 years old who lost his left arm after a crocodile attack on August 11.

According to local officials, a study of one county, Chabahar, showed that only 19 percent of its villages were connected to the water pipe system, despite pledges for at least six years to bring running water to the entire province.

In 2020 people rightfully expect water pipe in their village

Ziba [not her real name] is a social activist in Sistan and Baluchistan who focuses on rural poverty and travels regularly to the province’s villages.

There’s nothing new about gandos attacking humans in our region. It’s thanks to social media that people all over Iran know about it now. Until a few years ago many Iranians didn’t even know we have crocodiles in Iran! The situation has gotten worse in recent years, though, because of the severe drought in our region. Humans and gandos have to compete for sources of water that are becoming more and more scarce – and that results in more attacks.

Women and children in Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province collect water from a “houtak,” a small lake they depend for their everyday consumption of water. The user lists the name of children who have drowned while collecting water in recent years.

“People respect the gandos “

“Gandos are harmless during most of the year. They normally do not attack humans, but they become aggressive during the summertime. That’s when attacks happen – I can’t remember a single attack that occurred in winter. In the hot season, water levels are lower, and that makes the gandos aggressive. Summer is also their mating season.

Despite their attacks on humans – including children – people here love and respect the gandos. It’s not the crocodiles’ fault. We live in 2020, and people should have the right to have a pipe with running water in their village. I’m not even talking about treated water. A simple pipe from a local lake or one of the two dams in the region would allow give a village a safe source of water, but the authorities don’t care apparently. We just have a few tanker trucks that bring water to the villages. It’s not enough.”

A satellite image from the south of Iran’s Sistan and Baluchistan province shows dozens of “houtak,” small lakes that are often near or inside villages. These lakes – the main source of water for the locals – are also a habitat for crocodiles known as “gandos.”

“Some people say, “Why get water from a lake if you know it’s dangerous?” That’s because they have no idea about the reality on the ground. Not going to the lake means not drinking and not washing. How can they go without drinking and washing? And gandos move around a lot, so you never know where they are. You could be in a high-risk zone or not.”

Villagers in Sistan and Baluchistan posted this photo of a marsh crocodile they have dubbed “Rostam”, after a legendary hero in Persian mythology, because of his huge size.

“Some locals say the government should put fences around the lakes to minimize the risk of attacks. But I’m not sure it’s a good solution: gandos need to get out of the water sometimes, so fences could destroy their habitat.

Another problem is the lack of medical facilities in the villages. With the kind of injuries that crocodiles cause, saving a child’s arm or leg from amputation can require medical attention within minutes. But the victims sometimes need to drive for hours to reach a properly equipped medical center, even going outside the province.”

How do governments push false news about Covid-19?

In this episode of Misinfodemia, Seema Yasmin talks to me about how governments push false news and how social media platforms both help and hinder the fight to tackle misinformation and disinformation. I talked about how Iran’s government is hiding the real number of corona virus victimes and how we worked on it in France24.