For Iran’s Youth, Legacy of 2022 Clashes Shapes Presidential Race 

People walk through the old main bazaar of Tehran, Iran, Thursday, June 13, 2024. (AP)
People walk through the old main bazaar of Tehran, Iran, Thursday, June 13, 2024. (AP)
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For Iran’s Youth, Legacy of 2022 Clashes Shapes Presidential Race 

People walk through the old main bazaar of Tehran, Iran, Thursday, June 13, 2024. (AP)
People walk through the old main bazaar of Tehran, Iran, Thursday, June 13, 2024. (AP)

Atousa joined angry protests against Iran's rulers in 2022 that loyalists like Reza helped crush. Two years on, the two young Iranians' political views remain at odds, reflecting a rift that will shape the outcome of presidential elections this week.

Now 22, Atousa says she will abstain from voting in Friday's ballot to choose a successor to Ebrahim Raisi after his death in a helicopter crash, regarding the exercise with derision. But Reza, 26, a religiously devout member of the hardline Basij militia, intends to vote, a contrasting view of the worth of the election that underscores the division in Iran.

All six candidates - five hardliners and a low-key moderate approved by a hardline watchdog body - have been wooing youthful voters in speeches and campaign messages, using social media to reach the 60% of the 85 million population aged under 30.

"This election, like all elections in Iran, is a circus. Why should I vote when I want the regime to be toppled?" Atousa told Reuters. She declined to be identified by her full name for security reasons.

"Even if it was a free and fair election and if all candidates could enter the race, the president in Iran has no power," she said.

The hashtag #ElectionCircus has been widely posted on social media platform X by Iranians in the past few weeks, while some Iranians at home and abroad have called for an election boycott.

Under Iran's clerical system, the elected president runs the government day-to-day but his powers are circumscribed by those of the hardline supreme leader Ali Khamenei, who has the last word on top issues such as nuclear and foreign policy.

'RELIGIOUS DUTY TO VOTE'

Like many women and young Iranians, Atousa joined protests in 2022 sparked by the death of a young Kurdish woman, Mahsa Amini, in police custody, following her arrest for allegedly violating Iran's mandatory religious dress code.

The unrest spiraled into the biggest show of opposition to Iran's clerical rulers in years.

Atousa, then a student, was arrested during the protests and her dream of becoming an architect was shattered when she was expelled from university as a punishment for participating in the demonstrations.

The Basij, a plain-clothes arm of the elite Revolutionary Guards, deployed alongside uniformed security during the 2022 unrest and helped suppress demonstrations with deadly force.

Over 500 people including 71 minors were killed in the protests, hundreds injured and thousands arrested in unrest that was eventually crushed by security forces, rights groups said.

Iran carried out seven executions linked to the unrest. Authorities have not given any official estimated death toll, but said dozens of security forces were killed in "riots".

"I will sacrifice my life for the leader and the Islamic Republic. It is my religious duty to vote. My participation will strengthen the Nezam (system)," said Reza, from the low-income Nazi Abad district in south Tehran.

Reza said he will support a hardline candidate who champions Khamenei's "resistance economy", a phrase meaning economic self-sufficiency, strengthening trade ties with regional neighbors and improving economic interaction with China and Russia.

The economy is beset by mismanagement, state corruption and sanctions reimposed since 2018 after the US ditched Tehran's 2015 nuclear pact with six world powers.

Reza and Atousa, both born after the 1979 revolution, have regrets about the 2022 demonstrations, albeit for different reasons.

Reza blames the protests for bringing mounting pressure on Iran from Western countries, which imposed sanctions on Iranian security forces and officials for alleged human rights abuses. Iran accused Western powers of fomenting the unrest.

"I wish the protests had not taken place ... our enemies used it as a pretext to mount pressure on our country," he said.

Atousa looks back on that period with sadness.

"I was hopeful," she said. "I thought finally the change will come and I will be able to live a life with no suppression in a free country ... I paid a heavy price, but the regime is still here."



Bedwetting, Nightmares and Shaking. War in Gaza Takes a Mental Health Toll, Especially on Children

A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
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Bedwetting, Nightmares and Shaking. War in Gaza Takes a Mental Health Toll, Especially on Children

A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)
A Palestinian child plays next to empty ammunition containers in Khan Younis in the southern Gaza Strip on May 16, 2024, amid the ongoing conflict between Israel and Hamas. (AFP)

Nabila Hamada gave birth to twin boys in Gaza early in the war, in a hospital reeking of decaying bodies and full of displaced people. When Israeli forces threatened the hospital, she and her husband fled with only one of the babies, as medical staff said the other was too weak to leave. Soon after, Israeli forces raided the hospital, Gaza’s largest, and she never saw the boy again.
The trauma of losing one twin left the 40-year-old Hamada so scared of losing the other that she became frozen and ill-equipped to deal with the daily burden of survival, The Associated Press said.
“I’m unable to take care of my other, older children or give them the love they need,” she said.
She is among hundreds of thousands of Palestinians struggling with mental health after nine months of war. The trauma has been relentless. They have endured the killing of family and friends in Israeli bombardments. They have been wounded or disfigured. They have huddled in homes or tents as fighting raged and fled again and again, with no safe place to recover.
Anxiety, fear, depression, sleep deprivation, anger and aggression are prevalent, experts and practitioners told The Associated Press. Children are most vulnerable, especially because many parents can barely hold themselves together.
There are few resources to help Palestinians process what they are going through. Mental health practitioners say the turmoil and overwhelming number of traumatized people limit their ability to deliver true support. So they’re offering a form of “psychological first aid” to mitigate the worst symptoms.
“There are about 1.2 million children who are in need of mental health and psychosocial support. This basically means nearly all Gaza’s children,” said Ulrike Julia Wendt, emergency child protection coordinator with the International Rescue Committee. Wendt has been visiting Gaza since the war began.
She said simple programming, such as playtime and art classes, can make a difference: “The goal is to show them that not only bad things are happening.”
Repeated displacement compounds trauma: an estimated 1.9 million of Gaza’s 2.3 million people have been driven from their homes. Most live in squalid tent camps and struggle to find food and water.
Many survivors of the Oct. 7 attack by Hamas in southern Israel that precipitated the war in Gaza also bear the scars of trauma, and are seeking ways to heal. Hamas killed more than 1,200 Israelis and took around 250 hostage.
Sheltering near the southern city of Khan Younis, Jehad El Hams said he lost his right eye and fingers on his right hand when he picked up what he thought was a can of food. It was an unexploded ordnance that detonated. His children were almost hit.
Since then, he experiences sleeplessness and disorientation. “I cry every time I take a look at myself and see what I’ve become,” he said.
He reached out to one of the few mental health initiatives in Gaza, run by the United Nations agency for Palestinian refugees, known as UNRWA.
Fouad Hammad, an UNRWA mental health supervisor, said they typically encounter 10 to 15 adults a day at shelters in Khan Younis with eating and sleeping disorders, extreme rage and other issues.
Mahmoud Rayhan saw his family shattered. An Israeli strike killed his young son and daughter. His wife's leg was amputated. Now he isolates himself inside his tent and sleeps most of the day. He talks to almost no one.
He said he doesn’t know how to express what’s happening to him. He trembles. He sweats. “I’ve been crying and feel nothing but heaviness in my heart.”
A relative, Abdul-Rahman Rayhan, lost his father, two siblings and four cousins in a strike. Now when he hears a bombardment, he shakes and gets dizzy, his heart racing. “I feel like I’m in a nightmare, waiting for God to wake me up,” the 20-year-old said.
For children, the mental toll of war can have long-term effects on development, Wendt said. Children in Gaza are having nightmares and wetting their beds because of stress, noise, crowding and constant change, she said.
Nashwa Nabil in Deir al-Balah said her three children have lost all sense of security. Her eldest is 13 and her youngest is 10.
“They could no longer control their pee, they chew on their clothes, they scream and have become verbally and physically aggressive,” she said. “When my son Moataz hears a plane or tank, he hides in the tent.”
In the central town of Deir al-Balah, a psychosocial team with the Al Majed Association works with dozens of children, teaching them how to respond to the realities of war and giving them space to play.
“In the case of a strike, they place themselves in the fetal position and seek safety away from buildings or windows. We introduce scenarios, but anything in Gaza is possible,” said project manager Georgette Al Khateeb.
Even for those who escape Gaza, the mental toll remains high.
Mohamed Khalil, his wife and their three children were displaced seven times before they reached Egypt. His wife and children arrived in January and he joined them in March. Their 8-year-old daughter would hide in the bathroom during shelling and shooting, saying, “We are going to die.”
Their 6-year-old son could sleep only after his mother told him that dying as a martyr is an opportunity to meet God and ask for the fruits and vegetables they didn’t have in hunger-ravaged Gaza.
Khalil recalled their terror as they escaped on foot down a designated “safe corridor” with Israeli guns firing nearby.
Even after arriving in Egypt, the children are introverted and fearful, Khalil said.
They have enrolled in a new initiative in Cairo, Psychological and Academic Services for Palestinians, which offers art and play therapy sessions and math, language and physical education classes.
“We saw a need for these children who have seen more horror than any of us will ever see,” said its founder, psychologist Rima Balshe.
On a recent field trip, she recalled, 5-year-old twins from Gaza who were playing and suddenly froze when they heard helicopters.
“Is this an Israeli warplane?” they asked. She explained it was an Egyptian aircraft.
“So Egyptians like us?” they asked. “Yes,” she reassured them. They had left Gaza, but Gaza had not left them.
There is hope that children traumatized by the war can heal, but they have a long way to go, Balshe said.
“I wouldn’t say ‘recovering’ but I certainly see evidence of beginning to heal. They may not ever fully recover from the trauma they endured, but we are now working on dealing with loss and grief,” she said. “It’s a long process.”