A blaze on Dec. 18 at a girls' school in the southeastern Iranian border town of Zahedan — the capital of Sistan and Baluchistan province — that killed at least four 6-year-old girls has thrown the nation into deep mourning. According to official reports, the fire erupted after one of the students accidentally tripped an old oil heater while playing with others during a break. Neighbors and school staff managed to rescue most of the 59 students before firefighters arrived at the scene to extinguish the blaze.
A few hours later, Iranian Education Minister Mohammad Bathaei reacted with a promise to launch an investigation into the tragedy, which he blamed on the school staff's negligence. A local official also quickly resigned afterward. "I have no explanation to offer. I feel like I have lost my children or grandchildren," he said in a statement meant to alleviate the suffering of the families of the deceased. Meanwhile, a local prosecutor general announced that the school headmaster and a teacher have been placed under arrest to face charges over the deaths.
But neither of those reactions seemed to console or be of any help with the grief that gripped the nation. "Detentions or resignations can do no good to the pain of the families. … How much longer will people have to suffer the loss of their young loved ones [at schools]?" wrote Reformist daily Aftab, as it criticized authorities for reducing such tragedies to blame games with no practical measures.
Hard-line Javan, a paper highly critical of President Hassan Rouhani and affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, broadened the story into a partisan debate with pointed criticism against the administration. "While the government boasts about free education and while the lawmakers are busy lobbying for their favorite ministers, parents have to pay high prices on a daily basis for their children's education, and those children continue to fall victim to substandard heating systems in worn-out school buildings."
The paper also hit out at the Rouhani government for suspending a comprehensive nationwide school heating renovation plan, which it said was supposed to take effect six years ago. "Parents who see off their kids off to school every morning with wishes and smiles cannot afford to get their bodies back in the afternoon," Javan's editorial read.
Even Iran daily, which officially represents the Rouhani government, acknowledged the inadequacies, citing an official who put the proportion of Iranian schools with substandard heating systems at 42%.
To many Iranians, the deadly blaze was reminiscent of a similar tragedy in the Kurdish village of Shinabad in the country's west back in 2012. That incident killed two schoolgirls and left 30 others injured. Six years on, however, the physical burns coupled with the trauma are far from over. The injured children, now young adults, went through repeated surgeries, but some are left with permanent scars to grapple with for the rest of their lives. "Iranians were still reeling from the Shinabad tragedy, and now they have to wake up to another school fire that left our kids to the mercy of death," wrote pro-reform Ebtekar on the revisited disaster.
On social media, the blaze also once more brought to the fore the commonly perceived notion that the Iranian government has been purposefully keeping Sistan and Baluchistan province, which borders Afghanistan and Pakistan, an underdeveloped region. "Mr. Prosecutor, you better arrest the oil minister," tweeted one user, as he criticized the government's failure to provide the area with basic living standards including mains gas, a source of affordable energy accessible in most other Iranian provinces. "Let's write this down and repeat it: A country that exports [natural] gas has its schoolgirls burn to death in blazes caused by oil heaters," tweeted another infuriated user.
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