Since November, hundreds of schoolgirls in Iran have been hospitalized after experiencing nausea, dizziness, respiratory and neurological symptoms, allegedly due to toxic gas attacks at their schools. Some reported heart palpitations or numbness in their hands and feet. Many said they smelled tangerine and rotting fish before falling ill.
The suspected poisonings have affected anywhere from 800 to over 1,000 students, according to multiple news outlets. On Wednesday, the BBC reported that a new wave of these still-unexplained attacks affected 26 schools across five cities—the largest number since 18 students were first reported to be poisoned at an art conservatory in the religious city of Qom on November 30.
“My daughter and two of her friends say they heard something like an explosion and immediately afterwards an unpleasant smell—something like burned plastic filled the air,” an anonymous parent from Pardis, a suburb of the Tehran province, told the BBC. “They were asked to leave the class and go into the yard. Many of the students started collapsing in the yard. There are kids with asthma and heart problems in my daughter’s class.” In that school alone, a total of 200 students have been hospitalized, and one student is reportedly in a coma.
While no person or group has claimed responsibility, the attacks are suspected to be punishment for young women’s involvement in the fatal anti-government protests that have swept the country since the death of Mahsa Ahmini, the 22-year-old Kurdish woman who died in September while in the morality police’s custody after being arrested for wearing her hijab “improperly.”
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According to the Wall Street Journal, while some politicians suspect that religious fundamentalists who oppose women’s education are to blame, opposition groups abroad are pointing fingers at the Iranian government itself. And as the WSJ points out:
Iran doesn’t have a history of fundamentalists targeting girls’ education, which the Islamic Republic has promoted for 40 years. Girls and women comprise more than half of students in universities.
Meanwhile, according to Reuters, Iranian state media quoted one senior cleric criticizing the government for the disorder and misinformation: “Officials are giving contradictory statements...one says it is intentional, another says it is security-linked and another official blames it on schools’ heating systems.”
A government probe indicated that the poison found in this most recent round of attacks contained nitrogen dioxide—a compound that disappears quickly and is hard to trace, according to the WSJ. “Observations indicate that the enemy is behind these actions,” head of parliament’s education, research, and technology commission Alireza Monadi said. Nitrogen dioxide is also responsible for much of the air pollution in the country, as it is expelled from vehicles and power plants.
And investigations have reportedly been in motion prior to this week’s attacks, according to the Guardian—and found that the poisonings in the cities of Qom and Borujerd were intentional. An anonymous doctor who specializes in treating patients who have been poisoned told the outlet that a “weak organophosphate agent” was most likely used with the intention of “[scaring] the protesters by using extremist groups [radical Islamists] inside and outside the country.” “Never before have I treated someone who was poisoned with organophosphate agents,” they said. “The only cases I treated were workers who were exposed to these agents in agricultural pesticides.”
Targeting schools has been a consistent (and devastatingly effective) strategy for those hoping to instill fear and inflict harm on young protesters. In December, 1,200 students across multiple universities experienced mysterious food poisoning the night before they were set to attend mass protests. The poisoning, allegedly caused by “water-born bacteria,” also led to severe illness and hospitalization for many.
The “biological terrorism” has prompted immediate action and intervention from outside forces like the United Nations. “As the Islamic State Iranian regime hates girls and women, I call on women across the globe—especially schoolgirls—to be the voice of Iranian students and call on the leaders of democratic countries to condemn this series of poisonings and isolate Khamenei’s regime,” New York-based Iranian human rights activist Masih Alinejad told the Guardian.
As these attacks persist, reports from all over the country continue to be harrowing: In a video posted by BBC Persian on Wednesday, a woman says that students at the Sepehr Misbah girls’ primary school in Kermanshah heard an explosion before immediately falling ill and needing emergency care. In another, footage shows dozens of young girls in Tehransar lying in hospital beds while hooked up to oxygen tanks. Amidst their fear and anger, parents appear to have little faith that justice will come from these attacks:
“Nobody believes they will investigate these attacks,” a parent told the BBC. “I have no hope in the system. But I hope the world will hear our voice and stop supporting these child killers.”