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Elahe Tavakolian’s shooter was so close, she could see him pointing his gun at her.
“He was maybe 30 or 40 meters (100 to 130 feet) away,” she recalls. “He was a police officer. And everybody knew him.”
Around her, she says, protesters were chanting “death to the dictator,” as two men tore down a billboard bearing the face of Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
When gunshots interrupted the celebrations, Tavakolian moved to shield her 10-year-old twins and younger sister, who had accompanied her to the demonstration.
“I saw that he was pointing his gun at us. I was scared that he might shoot my children, I turned my head sideways,” she tells CNN. “It hit the corner of my eye.”
Elahe Tavakolian is pictured wearing an eyepatch following her injury.
It was the evening of September 21, 2022, days after the death of Mahsa Jhina Amini in the custody of Iran’s notorious morality police. Flares of dissent were slowly lighting up cities and small towns like Esfarayen in the northeast of the country, where Tavakolian was shot.
In the face of a brutal crackdown by the regime, protests spread like wildfire in the following weeks.
“It was like a fire hidden under the ashes,” Tavakolian says of the protests.
“I had lots of discontent even before what happened to Mahsa. The corruption, the compulsory hijab, the dictatorship. There are a lot of problems in Iran. I personally was always a dissident. The poverty is unbearable. People can’t afford to live,” says the one-time PhD student who also worked in a factory, explaining what prompted her to join the protests.
Like her motives, her gunshot injury too would soon become a familiar story in Iran.
In a video a fellow protester later sent to her of the moments after her injury, she appears with a bloodied face, screaming in pain. Protesters rush to her aid, pouring water on her right eye.
But Tavakolian says she struggled to get to a hospital for the urgent medical treatment she needed.
“When I got shot, I could only see the blood. I covered my eye with my hand. I felt like if I took my hand off, my eyeball might fall out of its socket,” she says. “My…