Reports of gas attacks on Iranian schools resume as students vow to continue education
Hundreds of students have been hospitalized since November.
LONDON -- It was in early March when Fereshteh, a 42-year-old mother of two, said she received a phone call from a friend claiming there had been a chemical gas attack at a girls' school in their small town in Iran's Isfahan Province. She ran all the way to her daughter's high school, fearing for her only daughter's safety.
"I felt my heart coming out of my chest with fear. I don't know how my feet dragged me to Roshana's (her daughter) school," Fereshteh said. ABC News has agreed to use pseudonyms for her and her 16-year-old daughter so that they could speak freely of their experience.
Even after finding her daughter safe, Fereshteh told ABC News she did not let either Roshana or her 11-year-old son go to school for five weeks, fearing for their wellbeing.
Over 7,000 students in Iran have been affected by at least 290 similar incidents at schools involving "poisonous substances" from November through March, according to the Human Rights Activists News Agency (HRANA), a press association established by Iranian human rights advocates. The mysterious poisonings have primarily targeted schools for girls, the agency said.
Hundreds of schoolgirls have been hospitalized as a result of these "targeted chemical attacks," United Nations officials said in a statement March 16.
"We are deeply concerned about the physical and mental well-being of these schoolgirls; their parents and the ability of the girls to enjoy their fundamental right to education," the U.N. statement said.
Some protesters and activists allege that the gas attacks are an attempt by government forces to close schools after mass protests that roiled the country in the wake of the suspicious death of Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman who died under mysterious circumstances shortly after being arrested in September for allegedly not wearing a hijab.
Women's rights activist Masih Alinejad claimed in an interview with ABC News that the attacks are the Islamic Republic’s "revenge" on women for their leading role in the ongoing anti-regime movement.
The Iranian government initially dismissed the reported attacks as rumors, but Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has since called the poisonings an "unforgivable crime." "If there are any people involved in the matter, and there certainly are... the perpetrators must be given the most severe of punishments," he warned in a statement March 6.
Amid the closing of schools for the two-week Persian New Year holidays in late March, many parents and observers had said they hoped the gas attacks would be over. However, a series of apparent attacks were reported in several cities across the country in early April, especially in the Kurdish town of Saqez, the hometown of Amini.
Despite her mother's reluctance for her to attend school, Roshana said she decided to return to school after the New Year break. "I know I am not safe, but I think if these attacks mean that there are people who do not want girls to get educated, I'd be giving them what they want by not going to my classes," she said.
"It is very tough. I do not know what is right and what is wrong. But I do trust my daughter's decision," Fereshteh said. However, she still does not let her son go to school. "I know it damages his learning procedure, especially at this age, but he has respiratory problems, and a gas attack can make him very sick."
The alleged gas attacks were first reported in November in the holy city of Qom when 18 schoolgirls were hospitalized after feeling sick at a school. Similar events soon spread to over 100 cities, affecting both girls' and boys' schools and university students, according to activists.
The attacks have re-ignited new protests against the Islamic Republic. The regime was already under pressure with the women-led protests over the suspicious death of Amini.
Videos shared online by activists and human rights groups appear to show students on hospital beds suffering from respiratory problems, dizziness, nausea, with some complaining they feel numb in their limbs. Some victims said they smelled citrus fruit or rotten fish before feeling sick, according to Iranian media reports.
"No dystopian novel can beat the story our students live now. Poisoning defenseless girls at schools by chemical gases is the worst thing that one can possibly imagine," Said Shadi, a 26-year Tehran-based tutor, told ABC News.
In February, Iran education minister Yusef Noubri dismissed the first alleged gas attacks as "rumors," saying the students had underlying illnesses. "A smell was felt in some schools, and some students went to the hospital. Some of these students have underlying diseases and are being treated; then rumors are raised," he said. The government's position on the issue changed as the attacks spread throughout the country.
Authorities announced the arrest of several suspects in connection with the suspected poisonings shortly before the Persian New Year. However, some Iranians have expressed doubt that the main culprits have been arrested amid the ongoing attacks.
Some said they do not believe the regime has a "real intention" of arresting or punishing those involved in the poisonings.
"They (authorities) use the traffic cameras and their intelligence to arrest women who do not wear a hijab. If they are serious in their claim, why they do not use these resources to identify the ones attack on innocent kids," Shadi said.
In early March, Iranian President Ebrahim Raisi ordered the Interior Ministry to probe the incidents, with the assistance of the health and intelligence ministries, the state-run IRNA news agency reported.
"We talk about the attacks a lot. Some of us think it is them (the regime). Some of us believe they want us to stay at home just like what the Taliban is doing to the girls in Afghanistan," Roshana said.
The White House said last month that the Biden administration does not know what is causing the apparent attacks and called for the Iranian government to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation.
"It's deeply concerning news coming out of Iran," National Security Council spokesperson John Kirby said. "Little girls going to school should only have to worry about learning. They shouldn't have to worry about their own physical safety, but we just don't know enough right now.
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