PainScapes; the Geography of Collective Resistance

The “Historical Memory Law” was passed in Spain in 2007, seventy years after the Spanish Civil War which left over five hundred dead, and thirty-three years after General Franco’s dictatorship. Under this law, the state helped in the exhumation of mass graves in different parts of Spain and the identification of victims therein. The law was a product of the concerted efforts of a generation whose grandparents were killed by Franco and buried in mass graves. They sought the truth about what had happened to them and were determined to unveil Franco-era crimes. Consequentially, Spanish government developed an interactive map of mass graves and disappeared people.

Inspired by the map of mass graves in SpainPainScapes provides an interactive map with the exact or approximate locations of mass graves across Iran.

The United Nations has defined a criminal mass grave as a burial site containing three or more victims of execution.

According to the UN Working Group on Enforced or Involuntary Disappearances (WGEID), “a detention, followed by an extrajudicial execution, is an enforced disappearance proper, as long as such detention or deprivation of liberty was carried out by governmental agents of whatever branch or level, or by organized groups or private individuals acting on behalf of, or with the support, direct or indirect, consent or acquiescence of the government, and, subsequent to the detention, or even after the execution was carried out, state officials refuse to disclose the fate or whereabouts of the persons concerned or refuse to acknowledge the act having been perpetrated at all.”

Three political prisoners executed during the 1980s whose burial places and details of deaths were not disclosed by the Iranian authorities were recognised as victims of enforced disappearances, almost three decades later by the UN WGEID. (Read moreHossein RahemipourRoghieh and Abdolreza Akbari-Monfared.)

PainScapes is the result of three years of research conducted by Justice for Iran on mass graves and forcibly disappeared individuals in Iran. Over two hundred individuals, including survivors, families of victims, and activists in Iran and abroad contributed to the project.

PainScapes provides a public interactive map on which the exact or approximate locations of over 70 mass grave sites are pinpointed. An investigation into a further 50 sites continues.

PainScapes is a visual, auditory, and written platform which provides detailed information on 30 mass grave sites. Each location is accompanied with a detailed map, historical report, description of its current status (even if it is destroyed), photos and video clips of the site, as well as video of victim testimonies in Persian and English. In some cases, the identity of the perpetrators is also published.

We call on the public to visit the platform, learn about mass graves, and then take action and contribute to this collective resistance against the omission of mass graves and victims buried therein from history.

PainScapes is not an accomplished project but is ongoing until experts find direct and independent access to the mass graves. The enterprise needs support from witnesses, informed sources, researchers, and activists.

PainScapes is not a mere story of affliction, but also an emblem of collective resistance; it depicts the resistance of individuals who use modern technology to prevent history from omitting the victims of the 1980s mass atrocities.

PainScapes is not only a narrative of pain and suffering for those who lost their lives and their families, but is also a geography of collective resistance. It is the resistance of all those who strove to keep the history of the enforced disappearances of the 1980s in Iran alive. This collective resistance has been recorded by some of the most modern tools today’s technology has put at our disposal.

PainScapes is a brief effort to restore collective historical memory and to record a part of Iranian history that has been censored and distorted. This platform is dedicated to those who have lost their loved ones, whether through enforced disappearances or death.

Methodology

The research began in 2016 with the identification of over 120 mass grave sites based on the data collected from families of victims, political activists, and informed locals. All the information  we gathered has been verified by eye-witnesses, survivors, and families of victims. They also helped us acquire information about the exact location and background of mass graves, their current status, and the names of individuals believed to be buried there.

We published several appeals calling on people to provide us with either general or specific information about particular localities suspected of having mass graves. Following this, many people sent information, photos, and videos of mass grave sites across Iran.

Security restrictions in Iran prevent researchers from directly accessing the mass grave sites. Those collaborating with the project from Iran are also in danger of persecution. Therefore, the research has been more arduous than its counterparts in other contexts.

Despite the security situation, to date, we have interviewed 124 people, including survivors of the 1980s mass atrocities, victims’ families, political and human rights activists, and informed locals. Of witnesses, 37 reside in Iran and others live abroad. During the course of the interviews, new mass grave locations were discovered and added to the original list. We kept publishing appeals for videos and photos of the grave sites. As a result, a high number of locals and family members of victims contacted us, and despite the risk of harassment and detention, sent us photos and videos of the mass graves. They urged their friends and relatives to help them record evidence of Human Rights violations committed by the Islamic regime. A number of Human Rights activists voluntarily took the risk of travelling to some of these localities to verify our information through their reports, photos, and videos. They helped us locate the exact or approximate locations of mass graves on satellite and physical maps.

We found that the Islamic Republic regime has been engaging in the process of systematic destruction of mass graves across Iran, particularly, in the last two decades. Satellite imagery obtained from Google Earth revealed the state of the mass graves before and after their destruction, and provided evidence of the destruction of these graves by the government. A total of 200 individuals in Iran and abroad helped advance this research.

The project received the support of international Human Rights associations including the Amnesty International, Truth Justice Memory Centre (Turkey), Transitional Justice Working Group (Korea), Indonesia People’s TribunalRegional Network for Historical Dialogue, and Dealing with the Past, etc. The research is also greatly indebted to JFI staff who contributed their hours of voluntary hard work for its development. Further costs of the project were borne mainly by four Iranians, three of whom were family members of victims or former political prisoners themselves. They wish to remain anonymous.

Summary of Research Findings

PainScapes’ investigation shows that most individuals who were believed to be buried in mass graves were political prisoners and sympathisers or members of opposition organisations against the Islamic Republic of Iran. In some cases, victims were killed without first being arrested or imprisoned (JahromNajaf AbadQaemshahr) by the state military or paramilitary forces during the 1980s period of crackdown on political dissent.

Mass graves in Iran were mostly created during the course of the 1988 massacre targeting political prisoners. Thousands of political prisoners were executed secretly in different cities across Iran in the summer of 1988, shortly after the end of the eight-year long Iran-Iraq War. Many of them were arrested in the early 1980s on charge of being a member of or supporting political opposition organisations. They had been sentenced to imprisonment through revolutionary courts after summary trials where they were denied the right to defend themselves, personally or through a lawyer. Some were serving their sentences at the time, but a number of them were kept in prison after their sentences were fulfilled because they refused to express remorse for their actions.

A few mass graves were created in the early 1980s to bury executed political prisoners (Abbasabad – Kelardasht RoadQazvin and Borujerd). In the list of mass grave sites, there are only two locations which appear to be the result of killings that occurred in the decades after the 1980s repression.

PainScapes has identified 120 sites across Iran that are believed to contain mass graves. Seventy-seven of them, in 51 cities and 22 provinces, are pinpointed on the map, and others whose locations are not specified by sources are under investigation. Some sources, for example, give reference to a mass grave on a road between two cities without specifying where exactly on the road it is located.

The green marks () on the map indicate confirmed mass graves. The burial of victims in these graves was either testified for by eyewitnesses (KhavaranQorvehIlamLahijan, etc.), confirmed by both eyewitnesses and the authorities (AhvazQaemshahr), or were acknowledged by perpetrators (Najaf Abadand Jahrom).

The orange marks () indicate suspected mass grave sites. They are locations which a significant number of families and locals believe to be the burial place of the victims of the 1988 massacre. They were informed about the graves by cemetery staff, grave diggers, officials in the Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), or the Judiciary involved in killing and burying the prisoners (Ahwaz, Shiraz, Dezful).

The grey marks () on the map show the mass graves noted by only one or a few sources. The exact or approximate locations of these graves are clear, but Justice for Iran could not verify them independently or acquire exact information about their formation and background. They are included in the PainScapes map, so that people who have information about these sites can insert their information through the platform and take the investigation one step forward.

Moreover, research limitations including lack of direct access to the sites, lapse of time, and poor memory of witnesses which may have resulted in errors; these errors are expected to be resolved with the help of other witnesses and sources.

PainScapes research indicates that the authorities, except in one or two cases (AhwazIlam and Ardebil), never officially or implicitly acknowledged the mass graves. The families of victims were prohibited from holding commemoration or decorating gravesites with flowers and memorial messages. The families have been subjected to persecution and detention for seeking truth and justice.

Mass grave sites have been constantly subject to deliberate, extensive destruction including bulldozing, road and building construction, waste dumping, and creation of new burial plots. These actions destroy the evidence that could one day be used to provide truth, justice, and reparation to the victims and their families. Mass grave sites have been always under close surveillance by security agents therefore, it is likely that judiciary officials or intelligence and security bodies are involved in decision-making processes related to their desecration and destruction.

Read more: Criminal cover-up: Iran destroying mass graves of victims of 1988 killing, a report released by the Amnesty International and Justice for Iran.

How to use the PainScapes platform

On PainScapes, is a page dedicated to each confirmed or suspected mass grave site. It contains a brief history of the grave site, its exact location on the map, and an account of its current status. You can access the information page by clicking a grave site’s location pin as depicted on the map or by selecting a grave site from the list of all the sites on the ‘Mass grave’ page.

In the “Timelines” section, you can find more details about the history of each mass grave site, and in the “Audio & Visual” part, the associated photos, video footage, and testimonies are presented. In some cases, we have identified the officials responsible for the murder and following burial of the victims in the “Perpetrators” section. For some places, under “Enforced disappeared persons”,there are information about some victims who might have been buried and there as well as the supporting documents about them.

On each page, we urge you to break your silence and take action after reading, watching, and listening to the materials provided by the website.For example, you shall endeavour to record and publish truths that have been hidden for decades, or to stop the destruction of mass grave sites, by going to the locations and publishing or distributing videos and photos. A list of actions which we recommend you to take can be found on the “take action” page.

In each section, there is a form enabling you to securely send us information about any confirmed or suspected mass grave sites. Through this, you can contribute to PainScapes project and can help us expand the platform.

A separate page, titled: Submit information, also exists so that you can send relevant information and documents to us.