'I did this for my country': Iran's blinded protesters proud of their sacrifice

Activists tell The National more than 400 people were shot in one or both eyes

A woman holds a portrait of Mahsa Amini during a demonstration in Istanbul, Turkey. AFP
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Less than 24 hours after he lost his sight, Saman had to flee the hospital he had stumbled into the night before, blinded by a security officer in Tehran’s Valiasr Square.

As he lay in his hospital bed, a nurse rushed in and warned him he was being hunted.

“There were two police officers asking for everyone who was shot,” he told The National from an undisclosed location outside Iran.

“The nurse told me they were looking for bed number 25. My bed. They were looking for me. I ran to the check-up room and fled when they went into my room.”

The 31-year-old is one of hundreds of protesters who lost their sight while taking to Iran's streets last autumn following the death of Mahsa Amini in morality police custody.

Saman, who worked in trade, joined protests in Tehran on the day they began, as Ms Amini was being buried hundreds of kilometres away in the Kurdish city of Saqqez.

“I arrived at the square at around 8.10pm and people had already gone home,” he said.

“I was just looking around, on my motorcycle, and I noticed a police officer near me.

“He recognised me. As soon as I saw him, he raised his gun. It was so close and so fast that part of my eye flew out.”

Mersedeh Shahinkar, 38, had also been at the protests from the beginning. Two weeks in, her 60-year-old mother decided to join her, believing her age would protect her and her daughter from the throng of security forces outside their home in Tehran.

Hours later, Mersedeh was left permanently blind in her right eye after security forces opened fire on her, her mother and an elderly friend standing at a bus stop.

“I was shouting at them, screaming at them to not shoot my mother … and I turned around and they shot me in the eye from 10 metres away.”

Rights groups and optometrists have said Iranian security forces deliberately shot at protesters to blind them, claims denied by Tehran as “propaganda”.

An activist working with Mersedeh and Saman is part of a wider group that has helped more than 400 blinded protesters get treated both inside Iran and abroad.

Many of them are denied treatment in Iran, with hospitals “refusing them even eye drops”, the activist said, wishing to remain anonymous following recent threats to her and her family.

“One girl was shot through the window of her home”, with others shot at close range in the hands, arms and legs, particularly in the south-eastern city of Zahedan, where security forces killed dozens of people in a single day, she said.

Mersedeh has long opposed the mandatory hijab and strict dress code imposed on Iranian women. A personal trainer before she was injured, she used to film exercise videos with no hijab and would uncover her hair while walking outside.

“I wasn't going to the street just because of the hijab, we don't and didn't want the Islamic Republic. They are destroying our country,” she told The National via video call from outside Iran.

“Women in Iran don't have any rights.”

'Guns have no power'

“I wasn’t scared or afraid of them at all,” Mersedeh said of security officers during the protests. “If I saw them, I would change direction to pass them without a hijab. They were insulting me but I didn't care.”

After she was shot, she was taken to hospital by a passer-by, with ambulances deemed too unsafe to use, as they often took protesters straight to jail.

“We went to a walk-in clinic, and the receptionist said the government said they aren’t allowed to treat any injured protesters,” she said.

For the next 14 hours, she drifted in and out of consciousness while waiting for a doctor who could treat her.

“I only felt bad for my family. Everyone was crying, but I am proud of myself. I went to the street for Iran and for my daughter,” she said.

“When it happened, I accepted it. But seeing my family react, that was the most painful thing.”

Several operations later, she went back to protest in an eye patch despite severe pain and soon went viral on social media.

“I had to sleep on my stomach for two months. I couldn't look above or around me due to the pain,” she said. “I have very bad pain, even when I exercise. So for now, I’m only walking.”

Her home was raided, and following warnings from relatives of security officers, she fled the country with her 11-year-old daughter.

Saman spent two weeks in hiding before fleeing abroad, where he has kept his current location a secret from even those closest to him.

Although now out of Iran, he still feels unsafe.

“I'm going from city to city, because they’re looking for me,” he said.

He has no vision left in his right eye, but has not had any medical treatment since the night he was shot. He said he has been warned he may have a brain haemorrhage if his injuries are left untreated.

“I lost some of my teeth and I have a lot of headaches” he added, pointing to above his eye. “A lot of pain here.”

“I don’t want to receive any help. It’s not fair to other people. I did this for my country.”

Most blinded protesters were shot in Saqqez and the western city of Mahabad, Rebin Rahmani of the France-based Kurdistan Human Rights Network told The National.

Both Saman and Mersedeh cannot return to Iran, but have continued to speak out about the situation in their home country.

Mersedeh continues to post online and hopes for a better future for her daughter.

“I never stopped talking. I’m trying to help people know how to protect themselves,” said Saman, revealing his most recent tattoo, which says “for freedom” in Farsi alongside a bleeding eye.

“Guns have no power. People have power.”

Updated: July 24, 2023, 2:50 AM