Tragedy At Rex Cinema
September 18, 1978 — The Daily Iowan (letter)

The Mossadegh Project | May 11, 2017                      


“Iowa City’s Morning Newspaper”, produced by the University of Iowa, published this ISA letter to the editor on the recent arson at Rex Cinema, in which hundreds perished. The massacre was a major catalyst for the Iranian revolution set off the same year.

The letter, much of which appears to be based on rumor and bias, has not been fact-checked and is presented here for historical purposes.

Monday, September 18, 1978

‘People are burning! Please help them!’

To the Editor:

What follows is the most complete account we can provide at this time of what took place inside and outside of the Rex Cinema on the night of Aug. 19, 1978, in Abadan.

Our report is drawn from the observations of people in Abadan — people who gathered as the full horror of the death trap unfolded, people whose sons and daughters, sisters and brothers, were burned alive, people who led the front ranks of demonstrations less than 24 hours later.

The Rex Cinema, located in one of the working class neighborhoods, was a center of anti-Shah activity. The building itself housed as bookstore and coffee shop where rare copies of progressive literature could be secretly obtained and eagerly distributed and discussed.

On the evening of Saturday, Aug. 19, there were to be two showings of a movie called “Reindeer.” It is a generally progressive film which conveys a simple theme, symbolically depicting the injustice of tyranny and oppression and the heroism of the struggle against it.

The second showing began around 9 p.m. All tickets had been sold out. The people packed the theater; the lights went out; the movie began.

Outside the Rex Cinema, a few dozen people who were passing by noticed smoke seeping out of the roof. It was between 9:30 and 9:45 as people stared curiously at the building. In silence, they saw heavier and heavier smoke. Within minutes, people were heard commenting that “it must be empty.”

Within minutes, people realized that maybe the Rex was not empty. A group of 30 swelled to 500 or 800 within minutes as the smoke also swelled around the building. It was only seconds before this crowd moved towards the doors. Suddenly, police vans and army trucks filled the entire area. Soldiers and police poured out of the vans and surged in front of the crowd, swiftly blocking the entire front of the building. People were now pushing forward.

There were people inside; by this time, everyone knew it. Police plunged into the crowd and shoved people back. Suddenly, this wall of troops and police barricading the door were attacking. Clubs went up in the air, cracking down on hands, heads, backs and arms as people shoved to reach the doorways. In a roaring blaze, the entire theater was walled with fire.

“People are burning! Please help them!” screamed someone from the roof, jumping two stories to the ground. As the crowd stared in horror, police swarmed over him, clubs and bayonets aimed at the ground where he had fallen. Within seconds, police killed him.

Anyone who struggled out of the fire was being shot and clubbed. To one side, people noticed a section of wall about to crumble; it was being broken through from the inside. But only two or three were able to get out as police clubbed the rest back in.

For four hours the fire raged. Crowds battled and fought against the police, heaving desperately against the armed troops. By 2 a.m., they knew everyone inside must be dead. Then the army, navy and National Iranian Oil Company fire trucks arrived. After everyone was dead, the fire trucks began to put out the fire. From 2 a.m. until 5 a.m., troops could be seen pulling bodies out of the wreckage and piling them onto army trucks. No one was ever allowed near the building or the bodies.

Since the fire, Abadan has seen continued demonstrations against the criminal regime. On the second day of mourning, at least 30,000 people rallied at one of the mosques and erupted in demands of “Down with this fascist regime! Down with 50 years of Pahlavi rule! Death to the murdering Shah!”

The extraordinary weakness and desperation of the regime is exposed in this inferno. The American people, we earnestly hope, will join our efforts to inform people everywhere that the struggle of independence and democracy being waged by our people is surging ahead. At the same time, we urge everyone to demand the facts from the press and consider the implications of the thundering silence from the Carter Administration concerning their continued support to this modern-day Hitler, the Shah of Iran.

Bob Matthews
for the Iranian Student Association

The U.S.-Britain Alliance To Erase Mossadegh Was Not Inevitable
The U.S.-Britain Alliance To Erase Mossadegh Was Not Inevitable


Related links:

Rep. Mike Harrington On Iran’s “Gruesome” Human Rights Problem (May 17, 1976)

Past Friendships Dictate: U.S. Must Welcome Shah Here | New York Post, May 25, 1979

United States backed coup; now in trouble | Letter to Spartan Daily, Nov. 30, 1979

MOSSADEGH t-shirts — “If I sit silently, I have sinned”

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