At the beginning of winter, oil burning heaters are lit to heat the cold classrooms and sometimes girls are burned by the fire. The latest incident happened some weeks ago in a poor Iranian area. According to the website HRANA, on December 5th an oil burning heater in a fourth grade classroom at the Islamic Republic primary school in Shinabad village, five kilometers away from Piranshahr, caught fire. Thirty-eight girls studying in this classroom were trapped inside and suffered burns. (1) One student Samira Esmaili told Fars news agency that “at eight in the morning the heater in our classroom caught fire, and when our teacher left to bring in [someone to] help, the door of the classroom was closed and we were trapped inside, surrounded by fire. We screamed and called for help so that they would come and save us.” The strange thing about the incident is that the families of the victims say their homes have residential gas pipes but the village school does not and uses oil burning heaters instead. (2)
This is not the first time such an incident has happened in Iran. These accidents have been occurring for years in Iranian schools during the winter. In impoverished regions, there are students who instead of being educated are sent to hospitals. They may lose their lives or their beauty and health, fall into depression and may never return to normal life. These incidents have occurred so many times that they can hardly be called random any more. Despite all this, the government officials who run these state schools do not take the necessary steps to prevent these accidents. In January 2008, 13 students and teachers were burned or lost their lives in Sefilan village in Charmahal-o-Bakhtiari province. Eight students suffered burns after a heater caught fire in a school in Doroodzan village in Fars province in December 2006. A month later, it was only the selflessness of a teacher that saved the lives of students in an incident in Lorestan but the teacher sustained serious burns. (3) These incidents have a major impact on the public. For example, the singer Yaas sang about the disaster at the school in Doroodzan. This song, in addition to its music video, deeply touched the public. (4)
Officials who do not take responsibility
In many countries, similar or smaller incidents would result in the resignation of authorities. Usually, the highest ranking official in the government-related department takes responsibility and steps down in order to calm the public outcry. The reaction of the minister of education to this incident did not cool the public down but was interpreted as making fun of the public. When a journalist asked the Minister of Education Hamid Reza Hajibaba’i about the number of the parliament representatives who were calling for his resignation, he responded with a smile and stated, “How about you? Should we fire you? If you had warned us to be careful about the school in Shinabad, this would not have happened.” In an open letter, parliamentary representative Mohammad Damadi criticized the officials at the ministry of education for not taking responsibility for the incident in Shinabad. The letter partly read, “the students burned in the fire due to the incompetence of the authorities. If such a thing happened in [South] Korea or Japan, the minister would either kill himself or resign.” (6)
A few days after the incident, two seriously burned 10-year old students, Siran Yeganeh and Sarina Rasoulzadeh, died in the hospital and 12 more students were still hospitalized. The website Rooz reported from Etemad newspaper and stated, “none of the students burned in the Islamic Republic school in Piranshahr can go to school and are either at home or in hospital awaiting numerous surgeries.” Osman Mozayyan, an attorney and a defender for socially disadvantaged individuals, reports that the education of these students has been stopped and that the most important issue is to aid the victims right now. He stated, “They have sustained serious injuries that require expensive treatments or even sending them outside the country. If the government does not directly follow up on the issue, take responsibility and pick up the tab; the whole issue will be soon forgotten.” (7) Several students are being treated at home while some remain hospitalized in Orumieh or Tabriz. This incident has also had a serious psychological effect on the victims. Negar another victim of the Shinabad incident told Etemad newspaper, “I always see the fire in my nightmares and feel like we are burning again and when I wake up, I feel like the body parts which were burned are on fire at that moment.”
In protest to this incident, in a joint statement, more than 80 political and civil activists called for the resignation of the minister of education and for the prosecution of regional authorities. According to the website Kalameh, in addition to expressing regrets about this incident, the statement describes the poor state of the school system in some areas of Iran. “…in poor areas, especially in the cities and villages of Kurdistan which are traditionally impoverished, students have the barest of equipment or space and the conditions for these students are not compatible with the lowest of the standards of education…the education of students occurs in worn, damp, old schools, students are crammed into classrooms at more than double the capacity of the classroom, there is a lack of modern educational methods and standards, a lack of educational assistance programs, a staggering decrease in the level of knowledge and education of children. These and other issues are the obstacles in front of Kurdish students.” (8)
Furthermore, the minister refuses to take responsibility and claims that the teacher is responsible for the incident. According to asriran.com, the minister claimed that “the class teacher was very sensitive so as the fire started, she asked the teacher of another class for help, and with assistance of the janitor tried to move the heater…the teacher is responsible for the incident. Because instead of removing the students from the classroom, she tried to move the heater and because the heater was hot, the school caught fire.” (9)
Review of the roots of the incident
Article 26 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights defends the right of all individuals to an education and insists that primary education must be free and mandatory. This article very clearly expresses the responsibility of governments to provide the minimum education for their citizens. These fires have mostly occurred in primary schools which reminds us of the heavier responsibility of the government. We need to pay attention to the fact that providing for the safety of students is also a responsibility of the ministry of education and is not a separate issue. Article 3 of the Islamic Republic Constitution also considers education as one of the main responsibilities of the government. Article 30 of the constitution also stresses the same issue and states, “The government is responsible for providing the means of education for all people for free until the end of high school. The government must also expand the means of higher education for free to the extent required for attaining national independence.”
Another root cause of these incidents is poverty. All the reported incidents of fires at schools have happened in areas which are very poor and deprived of financial development. Concerning the most recent incident in Shinabad, authorities have acknowledged that it is a Kurdish region which suffers from greater poverty. Article 25 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights partly reads, “Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.” However, the residents of the border regions in Iran are so impoverished that their schools lack the facilities to prevent such catastrophes.
Also another concern is that the incident and the victims will be forgotten even though some students will require medical treatment or basics life necessities for an extended period of time if not the rest of their lives. On the issue of social benefits, Article 29 of the Iranian Constitution states that “social benefits such as retirement, unemployment, old age, disability, getting stuck on the road (an Islamic term for people traveling from one city to another that cannot afford to reach their destination), accidents, medical care and treatment provided through insurance are public rights. The government is responsible to provide the above noted services and financial support for every individual from public revenue including oil exports and income through popular cooperation such as taxes and insurance fees.” Now we will wait and see what the fate of these children, who became victims of an accident through no fault of their own, will be. Whether the government delivers on its responsibilities or whether the children will be forgotten after a while.
Preventing future catastrophes
We do not need to have access to Nostradamus type prophecies. Many of the incidents in Iran occur during certain windows of time. We can predict right now that this will not be the last school fire in the poorer areas of Iran. We will wake up every day with the fear of hearing the bad news and awaiting the next disaster. However, this is not the way to deal with the problem. We can and should expect the authorities to study the issue in detail, punish those at fault and establish the proper methods to prevent such incidents from occurring in the future. Also we should not forget those children victimized by the fire in Shinabad. They are the innocent victims of deprivation, poverty and the lack of responsibility on the part of the authorities; and society is responsible for their future.
4. “What do I talk about?” video clip: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rvMureZ0woo