By Ahmad Rafat
The 34-year-old Elahe Tavakolian is one of many Iranians who lost their eyesight after being shot by security forces during the nationwide protest sparked by the death of Mahsa (Zhina) Amini while in the custody of the morality police in September 2022 in Tehran.
Following a television broadcast, Elahe received sponsorship and support to travel to Italy for medical treatment.
During a recent ceremony at Rome City Hall, Elahe received the “Women in the World for Human Rights” award, sponsored by Fondazione Minerva. Ancient Romans worshipped Minerva, the goddess of art and justice.
Tavakolian traveled to Rome on an invitation and, with the support of the Le Iene program, which is broadcast on the Italia 1 channel, owned by the former Italian Prime Minister, Silvio Berlusconi, one of Italy’s wealthiest men.
Roberta Rea, the presenter of Le Iene, and Michele Marelli, who has translated several Iranian novels into Italian, made the preliminary arrangements for Elahe’s trip.
After leaving Iran, Elahe first went to Turkey and then, with their help, traveled to Milan, where she was admitted to the city’s famous San Raffaele Hospital.
Surgeons successfully removed the bullet from her head, after which she moved to Rome. She is awaiting a prosthetic eye.
In a recent telephone conversation with Kayhan Life, Elahe Tavakolian spoke about the events of Sept. 20, 2022, which turned her life upside down.
“Two days after returning to Mashhad [the capital of the northeastern province of Khorasan Razavi] from my pilgrimage to Karbala [in central Iraq], I traveled to Esfarayen [Khorasan Razavi Province] to visit my family and give them some gifts,” Elahe said. “My sister and I took my twin son and daughter to the city center to buy them school supplies. Although there had been a call for a protest, and people had come out into the streets in most cities, I never thought there would be one in Esfarayen.”
“I had taken part in protests in Mashhad, where I lived and worked,” Elahe noted. “We joined the people after seeing them gather in Esfarayen’s main square, Imam Khomeini Square. It had not been 10 minutes since people gathered when they [security forces] started shooting at the crowd with shotguns. After bullets hit them in the legs and shoulders, several people fell to the ground.”
“I suddenly felt pain and a burning sensation throughout my body and head, and fell,” Elahe explained. “I was soaked in blood and thought I had struck my head on the pavement and broken it when I fell, and thought the reason I could see nothing was that I was semi-conscious. A few minutes later, I realized a bullet had hit my eye.”
“The person shooting with a shotgun was a security forces member. He had been a wrestler, so many people knew him. His name is Amin Gholizadeh,” Elahe alleged. “Although he denied being in the streets shooting at people on Sept. 20, he admitted targeting unarmed people with a shotgun on subsequent days.”
“Those were terrifying moments,” Elahe explained. “My entire body was hurting. My 10-year-old son kept shouting: ‘They killed my mother.’ His twin sister was screaming and crying. The crowd surrounded me, wanting to take me to a hospital. However, people in cars locked their doors and sped away when they saw blood dripping from me. Eventually, a very kind couple gave my sister, children, and me a ride to the hospital.”
“Nurses rushed to help me at the hospital,” Elahe explained. “They wiped the blood off my face and put a temporary dressing on my eye. However, the attending doctor left, saying gunshot wounds were not their responsibility. The hospital did not have an eye department or an MRI facility. So, we went to another hospital in Mashhad after a couple of hours.”
Elahe said she was apprehensive about her children, who had witnessed her getting shot, fearing that the experience would stay with them for years. Doctors at Mashhad’s Khatam-ol-Anbiya operated on Elahe, hoping to restore her eyesight without removing the bullet.
“In the beginning, I was hopeful about getting my eyesight back, but my hope diminished with every passing day,” Elahe said. “Finally, a doctor told me nothing else could be done for me in Iran, and I should go abroad for further medical treatment. That was when I thought of leaving the country.”
Elahe experienced great hardship after losing an eye and before leaving the country.
“They [authorities] contacted me right after I shared my story on Instagram, urging me to remove the post and not contact the media. I did not do that,” Elahe explained. “They threatened me anytime I posted any information about what had happened to me. They finally issued the first summons, accusing me of being a leader of the riots, destroying public properties, and forming a group with five members or more to undermine national security.”
“They issued further summons, but I went to court only once to file a complaint and demand an investigation into my shooting,” Elahe noted. “I asked in the complaint why we were fired at given that I and others had no weapons or even a stone and were only shouting slogans.”
Elahe endured threats and harassment until she left the country.
Speaking about her mental and emotional state before leaving Iran, Elahe said: “I was lamenting the loss of my eye and spent the first month in a dark room at my sister’s house. I was frightened by the light and overcome with fear anytime I stood in front of a mirror, combing my hair. Sometimes I would tell myself that my vision loss was caused by anxiety and that I would regain my eyesight once I got better. I could not accept the reality I was facing.”
Elahe was eventually fired by the company she was working for in Mashhad.
“The managing director of the company, who had links with the IRGC [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps], said they employed no one involved in political activities,” Elahe explained. “I faced the same situation anywhere I applied for a job and could not continue my university studies. I had been accepted into the Ph.D. program for international business management, but my interview coincided with my hospitalization, and as a result, I lost that opportunity.”
“Losing an eye, being fired from my job, and being unable to pursue my education disrupted my life,” Elahe lamented. “I had nightmares every night and still do sometimes. I dream I get shot in the other eye. Any sound would remind me of those moments.”
Elahe, a single mother of two 10-year-old children, who divorced her husband five years ago, has now weaponized her pain against those who turned her life upside down.
“I have witnessed and can testify to this regime’s crimes,” Elahe declared. “The bullet they removed from my head in Italy is the evidence of these crimes. The evidence that exposes lies by Hossein Amir Abdollahian (Iranian Foreign Minister) and Hassan Karimi (an IRGC commander), who claimed no one had been shot in the eye or died by bullets.”
“I left behind my country, family, and children to expose the lies and crimes of this regime,” Elahe added. “I can take a step forward even with one eye.”
Elahe said she could not and did not plan to return to Iran under the current circumstances.
“They [authorities] withdrew the warrant after I had arrived in Italy,” Elahe said. “They probably want me to return so they can rearrest me and prevent me from exposing their crimes. However, I plan to stay abroad and file a complaint against the regime in international forums. I also plan to pursue my education in Italy and have my children join me here if possible.”
Many ordinary Iranians and prominent political and cultural figures, including Empress Farah Pahlavi, have contacted Elahe since she arrived in Italy, expressing their sympathy and support.
Elahe will need financial support while her treatments continue and until she learns the language to pursue her studies and get a job. The non-governmental foundation Soleterre and Italia 1 TV channel have paid for her medical and living expenses. However, the financial aid will stop at the end of her medical treatment.