Numbing Transition from Life to Death

After Ayatollah Khomeini seized power in Iran, the nation’s 4 million Sunni Muslim Kurds rejected his rules and his religious beliefs and demended independence. Khomeini sent in his Revolutionary Guards, who slaughtered thousands of Kurds using mock trials.

On August 27th, 1979, in Sanadaj, nine Kurdish rebels and two former police officers were tried and sentenced to death. Their execution by firing squad was documented in startling detail by the above photograph, published in Ettela’at, a Tehran newspaper. A United Press International staffer in Tehran saw the photo and went to Ettela’at to obtain the photo. He then transmitted it via wire to UPI’s European office. On August 29th, various international newspapers including the New York Times put the photo on their frontpages. For security reasons, the name of the staffer was never revealed.

The photographer’s name had also remained unknown. The editor of the Ettela’at was afraid of government reprisals and didn’t mention the name of the photographer. Predictably enough, the Revolutionary Guards later invaded the newspaper’s office and confiscated the photos. They didn’t shut the newspaper because it was the oldest paper in the country, and damage done by such a shut-down would’ve been much worse.

The photo, named Firing Squad in Iran or more poetically, “the Numbing Transition from Life to Death” was the only anonymous winner of a Pulitzer Prize in the 90-year history of the award. In 2006, an Iranian photographer Jahangir Razmi revealed that he was the photographer and claimed the award. The irony was that Razmi had been the official photographer of Iranian Presidents since 1997. See all the photos he took that fateful day here.

Khomeini’s Frenzied Funeral

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June 6 1989: To cover-up the humiliating funeral of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the Iranian authorities tried to confiscate every roll of film taken in a crowd estimated at 2 million. One of such photos made it to The Associated Press in London next day and it shows the emotional outpouring at the funeral that reflected both Iranians’ grief over the death of the leader who seemed to embody their revolution and the emphasis Shiite Muslims place on martyrdom and death. When the Ayatollah’s coffin was brought to Behesht-e-Zahara cemetery in Teheran, wailing mourners ripped the body from the flimsy box and fought to touch it. — the New York Times

Westerners found [it] as bizarre, frightening — and ultimately incomprehensible, wrote Time. As a helicopter brought the open wooden coffin containing the mortal remains of the Imam, nearly a million mourners thrust forward in the blistering heat and choking dust to touch the body and snatch a piece of the linen burial shroud, leading to an ignominious exposing of the remains.

The corpse spilled to the ground, bare feet protruding from beneath the white shroud. As the Revolutionary Guards beat back the crowds, firing shots in the air and spraying fire hoses, other soldiers shoved the body and coffin back into the chopper. It lifted off with the casket hanging precariously out the door. Some five hours passed before there was another, successful attempt to deliver the body to its final resting place, this time encased in a metal coffin. With chants of “Death to America!”, the guards ripped of the metal lid to inter the body in only a shroud in accordance with the Islamic tradition. The grave was quickly covered with concrete slabs and a large freight container to prevent the mourners from exhuming the corpse. By the end of the ceremony, eight people had died, more than 440 people had been hospitalized and an additional 10,800 had been treated for injuries.”

See Khomeni’s Iran on The Times and a reflection 20 years on New Statesman.