The families of executed political prisoners and human rights groups have created an interactive map of mass graves in Iran 30 years on from one of the Islamic Republic’s most horrific crimes against its people.

The bi-lingual multimedia project, PainScapes, documents what happened to the bodies of thousands of political prisoners killed in a mass execution ordered by Ayatollah Khomeini’s “death panel” in August 1988, as well as to the remains of dissidents killed during a brutal crackdown earlier that same decade. The Islamic Republic has consistently denied the 1988 massacre took place, and the existence of the mass graves. But through maps and testimonies from the family members of those killed, the PainScapes project, led by human rights organization Justice for Iran (JFI), aims to record these crimes.

When information emerged that authorities were destroying mass graves in Ahvaz, says said Shadi Sadr, Co-Director of JFI, “we realized there won’t be a chance in the near future for us to access information about these sites. That’s when we started this project.”

JFI launched the project in London on August 28, coinciding with the thirtieth anniversary of the 1988 mass executions, and a day ahead of the International Day of the Victims of Enforced Disappearances. The launch, at the Asylum Chapel in Peckham, south London, included accounts from surviving prisoners and families of those who had been killed, as well as experts and researchers on mass graves and disappearances in Iran and other countries.

“PainScapes is not just a narrative of pain and suffering for those who lost their lives and their families; instead, it is a geography of collective resistance – the resistance of those who endeavor to prevent the atrocities of the 1980s from being forgotten.This resistance has been documented using the most advanced technology available today,” said Sadr.
The revelations about the mass graves were published in a joint report by JFI and Amnesty International, “Criminal cover-up: Iran destroying mass graves of victims of 1988 killing,” which was published in April.

The Power of Testimony

As part of ongoing PainScapes initiative, Justice for Iran also produced a series of short films presenting testimony and personal accounts. The films were presented at the London event, which also featured two panel discussions, in Persian and in English. The audience heard from victims’ families, political activists who survived the crackdown of the 1980s, and experts on enforced disappearances and mass graves in Iran and around the world.

The PainScapes interactive map marks more than 70 confirmed and suspected mass graves in Rasht, Bandar Anzali, Dezful, Jahrom, Mashhad, Isfahan, Ghaemshahr, Ilam, Ahvaz, Sanandaj, Ghorveh, Shiraz and Tehran. Iranian authorities have banned people from holding memorials or commemorations at the sites. The project is ongoing, and so far researchers, families of the dead, survivors and local activists have identified mass graves in 120 sites around Iran, and current research suggests a further 50 grave sites may be discovered.

The project and its map extend to Iran the educational and historical value set out by the Spanish government when it published a map of mass graves of people killed during the Franco era (1930s), which it did in 2011.

Chowra Makaremi, a researcher at France’s National Center for Scientific Research who published an account of what her grandfather experienced during the 1980s based on his notes, reiterated the value of collaborative resistance, whereby networks of families and NGOs document the “heroism” of people killed by despotic regimes. “We must cherish these new paths of resistance,” she said at the London launch, pointing out that in many cases technology was making these initiatives more effective. But she also spoke of the importance of understanding that “new forms of state violence” were being instituted, since Iran had begun bulldozing over or building on the sites of mass graves — a process she described as a “double erasure.” According to JFI, authorities have destroyed or are threatening to destroy 16 confirmed and suspected mass grave sites in Iran. As has happened in Israel, Makaremi says, authorities are not only “selling public space for economic gain” but they also aim to “cover up history” and “counter memories of violence” as a means of “reshaping frontiers.”

Khatareh Moeini, whose family members were killed during the 1988 mass executions, described what it was like when he first visited the site of the graves, where he saw “black body bags sticking out of the ground.”

“On December 10th 1988, when we entered Khavaran and saw the mass graves, the [victims’] mothers lost their senses. It was a horrific scene. We never thought or could even fathom that such a matter would be hidden from us for over three months.”

He spoke of how authorities removed photographs of the dead from the site when the families brought them there to pay their respects to the dead.

“Every time we’d go to Khavaran [authorities] would arrive in less than an hour or 30 minutes, and the dirtiest thing they would do is come riding bulldozers. First they would separate the youth, and tie us to the wall with a rope so we couldn’t move. Then they’d force our parents onto the ground and pry the [victims’] photographs away from them. One of the scenes I’ll never forget is my father holding my brother’s picture, refusing to let it go as they tried to force it from him. They would take away the photographs and toss them away from the families, onto the ground. They would run the pictures over with a bulldozer.”

The North Korean Project

It’s not only the Spanish experience that has been instructive to Iranians. Sarah Son from the North Korean Transitional Justice Working Group spoke about the difficulties of collecting evidence about the country’s “six decades of human rights violations,” including secret killings and burial sites – a situation not so dissimilar from Iran. She said piecing the truth together is an ongoing process, given that the authoritarian regime practices strict information control and relies on a well-established system of peer surveillance, making it impossible to verify the grave sites. But the organization knows of more than 35,000 people that have fled the country, and it had carried out about 500 interviews with these people about what had happened there. Together with archive satellite imagery and the stories of escapees — many of whom have independently pointed out the same points on the map where atrocities took place or people are buried — the group has been able to build a basic map.

For Iranians, too, the process of mapping their past is long and painful. They too have also endured decades of human rights violations, and as the Iranian regime continues to deny them their universal freedoms and suppress their quest for knowledge, even about the fate of their own relatives, the need to set the record straight has never been so compelling and needed. As Mohammad-Reza Ashough, a survivor of the 1988 Dezful massacre, puts it:  “Thirty years have passed, but I still have various feelings. Hatred, resentment, and anger are such that, when you’re reliving those moments, you cannot forget.”