In late October, Paiman, an Iranian protester from the restive city of Mahabad, lay in a hospital ward, guarded by regime officials who had gunned him down during anti-government demonstrations.
Buckshot from a shotgun blast riddled his legs and torso, and blows to his head with wooden clubs had left him dazed and in agony.
Paiman needed treatment, which he was not about to get from a regime where mercy, let alone medicine, has been in short supply since the outset of an uprising that – three months since it began – continues to pose a profound and sustained threat to Iran’s hardline leadership.
The 28-year-old veterinarian’s fate seemed tied to that of other protesters who had died in the same hospital often two to three days after being admitted. But his brother and cousin had other ideas.
“We launched a rescue operation and took him from the bed, then we smuggled him here,” said Paiman’s brother, Aso, from a safe house in Erbil in neighbouring Iraq. “It was a four-day journey across the mountains, much of it on horses. It was the toughest thing we have done.”
Paiman and his relatives are among the few demonstrators to have made the precarious journey from Iran to the relative safety of Iraq, where some survivors of the violence are trying to regroup.
Iraqi Kurdish officials estimate that dozens of protesters have crossed the border. Protesters themselves say the number is likely to be in the low hundreds.
Sitting on a floor, covered in a blanket, his skin pallid and his breathing shallow, he described the mounting violence that met the demonstrations in Mahabad, a predominantly Kurdish city in north-eastern Iran that has remained a focus of the clashes – the most serious threat to Iran’s clerical leaders since the revolution that swept them to power 43 years ago.
“Mahsa Amini was a Kurd, it is true,” said Paiman, “but the revolution is a popular one, made up of Iranians from all parts of the country. There are Baluchis, Azeris, Persians and others. This is because we are all sick of them and their repression.
“Make no mistake, this was a revolution from its earliest days. It was not just protests. The revolutionary current that started this will see it to a finish. They are weak and they are scared of us,” he said of Iranian officials who continue to combat widespread daily shows of dissent with violence.
But fear cuts both ways; even in exile, the brothers, who have been joined by a cousin in their rented home in an Erbil suburb, still worry that Iranian officials could reach them.
“We think about this a lot,” said Paiman. “They have interrogated my father at home, but they won’t bother with my mother. She is old, and she doesn’t speak Persian anyway. They have so much to deal with, so we have to hope that they’re too busy to make us much of a problem.”
Paiman says he saw the regime official who shot him from less than five metres away. X-rays show his body was peppered with pellets, which are yet to be removed. Doctors in Erbil have little expertise in treating such wounds.
“They dragged me away by my legs to their car and I slipped into semi-consciousness,” he said. “I heard one of them say I was dead and to take me to the hospital. Next thing I woke up there.”
All three men keep in regular touch with relatives in Mahabad, who say the protests continue in many towns and cities at a similar tempo to the past three months – close to 600 people have been killed and nearly 10,000 injured by regime violence.
Two demonstrators have been sentenced to death, leading to demands that global leaders do more to support the uprising. “We call upon the west to recognise what this represents,” said Aso. “To the people of Britain, France and Europe; we share your values. Please help us.”
Others have called for more robust backing, including the supply of weapons. “It is very possible that this could become armed,” said Paiman. “Each family member who has lost someone will do their best to avenge the death, and this may mean taking up arms. For 40 years, weapons were not allowed in Iran, though, and it’s very difficult to find them.”
Outside Erbil, the leader of a Kurdish-Iranian militant group, the PAK, suggested there was little regional or global appetite to support an anti-regime movement.
“We have previously called on the free and democratic states against terrorism and dictatorship to provide them with advanced weapons to fight against Iranian terrorist forces and terrorist groups under the command of the Quds Force,” said General Hussein Yazdanpana. “However, we have not received any positive response so far, not any.
“In some cases, people have taken weapons from the Revolutionary Guards and intelligence officers who opened fire and killed demonstrators. However, because of our insistence on continuing peaceful demonstrations and refraining from fighting and taking up arms, these cases have not become the general characteristic of the uprising.”