Riddled With Metal Pellets, an Iranian Protester Heals in Hiding Abroad

SULAIMANIYA, Iraq — When Masoud, a 27-year-old computer programmer, returned to his family home in Tehran, bleeding after being shot by security forces with dozens of metal pellets, his father urged him to go to the hospital.

Going to the hospital, though, for protesters wounded at the antigovernment demonstrations that have been sweeping Iran, would mean almost certain arrest.

“He said they will put you in prison for just a year and it would be over soon,” Masoud said of his father’s advice. “But everyone knows that you don’t get put in prison in Iran for just one year.”

The New York Times is not using Masoud’s full name because of fears for his safety.

The demonstrations in Iran erupted after the death of a young Iranian woman, Mahsa Amini, in custody in September. It is impossible to reliably estimate how many of those wounded in the protests have escaped the country because most have gone into hiding. Some, like Masoud, have managed to cross land borders into Iraq, including Iraq’s semiautonomous Kurdistan Region, or were able to get onto flights leaving Iran.

The Norway-based monitoring organization Iran Human Rights says at least 326 people, including 43 children, have been killed in the protests. Thousands more are believed to have been wounded.

A demonstration in Tehran in September to protest the death of the 22-year-old Mahsa Amini in police custody.Credit…Associated Press

Masoud’s decision to join the protests speaks to the multilayered reasons young Iranians have for participating in the uprising. Ms. Amini, 22, died in custody after being arrested on accusations of improperly covering her hair, and the demonstrations over her death have widened to encompass broader calls for the end of the Islamic Republic.

More on the Protests in Iran

Cities across Iran have been embroiled in demonstrations prompted by the death of a young woman, Mahsa Amini, while she was in police custody.

  • A Women-Led Uprising: Casting off their legally required head scarves, Iranian women have been at the forefront of the demonstrations, supplying the defining images of defiance.
  • Economic Despair: While Iranians have a range of grievances to choose from, the sorry state of Iran’s economy has been one of the main forces driving the protests.
  • Memorials: Back-to-back memorial services for Ms. Amini and Nika Shakaram, whose deaths have become symbols of the uprising, appear to be galvanizing protesters.
  • The Crackdown: Hundreds of minors have been detained for joining the demonstrations, and many others have died in the crackdown, according to Iranian lawyers and rights activists.

“The death of Mahsa was the spark,” Masoud, dressed in fashionably torn denim jeans and sneakers, said from a house in Sulaimaniya, in the Kurdistan Region of northern Iraq. “After she was killed, I started to see all the poverty, the bad situation in Iran, and I decided this kind of life has to end.”

Five weeks after crossing the border into Iraq, Masoud says he still has more than 50 metal pellets under his skin, one of them in his left ear, affecting his hearing. After leaving home, he said that he was taken by friends to a doctor who was secretly treating protesters. A photograph shows eight of the pellets in a metal medical basin, while X-rays show other pellets all over his body.

The day after he left, Masoud said his mother had called to tell him that plainclothes security officers were outside the house asking about him.

The Center for Human Rights in Iran, a New York-based advocacy group, said that an Iranian judiciary official reported in October that about 1,000 protesters had been charged in Tehran in connection with what the official called “riots.” On Sunday, official news media in Iran said that one protester who was accused of setting fire to a government building had been sentenced to death.

Masoud has X-rays showing pellets embedded all over his body.
He says he still has more than 50 metal pellets under his skin.Credit…Hawre Khalid for The New York Times

Masoud had not told his mother and father that he was out protesting.

“They kind of support the government, and they don’t support the protests,” he said about his middle-class parents, pointing to a generational divide in Iran which he says has been fostered by younger people’s online exposure to the outside world.

Taken in by the Iranian Kurdish party Komala, which he said helped him escape Iran, Masoud spends almost all his time indoors and online, including monitoring the news from home. He says that he is afraid to go out because of the longstanding presence of Iranian agents in Sulaimaniya, which is in a part of Iraqi Kurdistan that maintains cordial relations with Tehran. He doesn’t know the city or the language.

Iranian opposition groups, including Komala, tread a fine line in Iraqi Kurdistan, where the regional administration is under increasing pressure from both the Iraqi and Iranian governments to disarm them. Iran on Monday launched missile and drone strikes across the border against Iranian opposition bases in Iraq, killing two people. In late September, Iran bombarded bases across the Iraqi Kurdistan region with missiles and suicide drones, killing at least 19 people in the fiercest attack in a decade.

Masoud says he is not a member of Komala and is not interested in training as a fighter, but having helped him cross and given him a place to stay “now they are kind of like my family.”

He said the protest that he attended on Sept. 21 in the Parvaz district of Tehran had started off peacefully but minutes after protesters began chanting for an end to the government of the Islamic Republic, security forces had opened fire.

After his wounds stopped bleeding two days later, he spent a week in Iran’s Kurdish region before being helped to cross the border, he said.

Members of the Iranian Kurdish opposition group Komala in the mountains near Sulaimaniya, Iraq, this month. Masoud says that Komala helped him escape Iran.Credit…Emily Garthwaite for The New York Times

Masoud, speaking in Farsi through a translator, describes himself as apolitical, but he said that his views about the Iranian regime had been forged partly when protests rocked the country four years ago and he helped put badly wounded protesters in ambulances.

Asked whether what he had gone through was worth the sacrifice, Masoud struggled to rein in tears.

“I’m devastated by that question,” he said. “I don’t know whether to cry or what to say. I lost everything that I had. I have no family, no country.”

After a pause, though, he said that, despite the cost, he felt compelled to take a stand.

“There has to come a time when the dictatorship that ruined the lives of 80 million people ends, and it has to be started by young, brave people like me,” he said.

Sangar Khaleel contributed reporting.

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