After a snowstorm in Abkenar, northern Iran.
Facebook is banned in Iran, but many people still use it – even villagers in the country’s north, which turned out to be life-saving when the region was hit by the worst snowstorm in half a century earlier this month.
Villagers in Abkenar, with a population of 3,000, realised that the authorities were overwhelmed and organised rescue efforts themselves via the social network.
Like cities in villages in much of the north, Abkenar was blanketed in heavy snow for nearly a week. Many people were trapped in their homes, and no longer had access to gas and water. Power worked only intermittently, but enough for them to go online and, using anti-filter software to get onto the banned social network, connect with one another.
After the storm, the height of the compressed snow reached more than a metre and a half.
“We saved three people trapped inside a farm. They were nearly unconscious from the cold”
Ali Atashi, 35, is the administrator of the Abkenar News Facebook page. He created it three months ago to help connect Abkenaris who still lived in the village with those who had moved away, in order to reminisce about their shared childhoods.
When such a huge amount of snow fell on the village, it caught people by surprise. We realised that nobody had comprehended the depth of the disaster, and so we instinctively turned to Facebook to communicate and to get heard.
Through the Abkenar News Facebook page, we started getting news about people stuck inside their homes. We heard that three people were caught in a veal farm outside that village and that they had no way out. There was two and a half metres of snow on the ground! We put a message on Facebook saying, “We are going to rescue them; let us know if you want to come.” Thirty people responded.The mother of one of the people saved by the group of volunteers who coordinated their rescue effort on Facebook.First we tried to get them out with a snowplough lent by one of the volunteers, but we only managed to get two kilometres before it got stuck. We almost lost hope. But then we tried another tactic: the volunteers stood in line and, taking turns, jumped on the snow and trampled it down. In this manner, we were able to foge a path through the eight remaining kilometers to reach the farm. This took us from 8 pm to 4 am in the morning. When we arrived, the three people trapped in farm were nearly unconscious from the cold. Had volunteers not gone to find them, they might well have died.Volunteers pose for a photo on their way to save people trapped inside a house.Through Facebook, we were also able to deploy volunteers to get people out of houses where roofs were cracking and ran the risk of collapsing. For example, one man living outside Abkenar wrote to say his old father’s house was on the verge of being destroyed by the snow, and could we please go help him? We also managed to reassure people who had lost contact with their relatives in the village that they were in good health.A photo of the food packets that the authorities dropped on Abkenar by helicopter. Some villagers complained this was insufficient.“People around the country were following our page, watching what we were doing like a movie”At first we thought only locals were reading the page, before realizing that many people around the country were following what we were doing every step of the way, as if they were watching a movie. When we uploaded photos of Abnekar, some officials said these were fake because they just couldn’t believe there was this much snow. However when some international news agencies started using the photographs, they finally believed us. Unfortunately, government aid arrived too late [Editor’s note: rescue teams reportedly arrived six days after the snowstorm, and cleared the roads with bulldozers]. But I have to say that local officials here really did try to help as much as possible, in particular to get the power back up, and we thanked them on our page.Devastation caused by the heavy snow fall in Abkenar.In Abnekar, Facebook saved lives. I don’t understand what the authorities responsible for banning Facebook think that people will do with it. To me, it’s like banning all knives because someone might use a knife to kill. After this experience, my friends and I have decided to use the Facebook page to inform others about the reconstruction process in the village, and give updates on whether there are shortcomings on the part of the authorities or whether it’s a success.
Facebook has been blocked in Iran nearly continuously since 2009, when massive protests erupted following a disputed presidential election. However, many Iranians still access Facebook and other banned sites thanks to virtual private networks (VPNs).
Not long after the snowstorm, villagers had a difficult time burying a person who died of natural causes. Nobody in Abkenar was killed as a result of the snowfall.