About 25 kilometers southeast of Tehran, Iran lies the poverty-stricken city of Pakdasht. Past the slums of the industrial city, and the burning, soot-covered chimneys, out by the barren desert once lay the shallow graves of 17 young boys and three adults who were killed between 2002 and 2004.
The victims, aged 10 to 25 years old, were savagely beaten, raped and murdered by Mohamed Bijeh, who would later be known as the Desert Vampire, along with his accomplice Ali Baghi.
The story of the Desert Vampire is undoubtedly a story of poverty. But it is also one of neglect, abuse, and police incompetence.
The making of a vampire
Born on 7 February 1982 to a family of 12, including 6 half-brothers, Bijeh unsurprisingly felt neglected. This was worsened by the death of his mother when he was only four years old from cancer. His father remarried immediately afterward.
Bijeh claims his father beat him frequently and ruthlessly during his childhood, he was often bound by his feet with chains and whipped with a cane, one such attack by his father bringing him close to death. Although he claimed to have loved school and learning, his father forced him to leave school so that he could work when he was just 11 years old, taking a job at a brick kiln. It was there that he claims he was first raped.
It was this incident that sparked the rage within Bijeh that would eventually lead him to brutally murder young children 14 years later. After being raped repeatedly, he admitted to taking to the wilderness where he would kill and torture animals for hours, one of the main hallmarks of a psychopathic serial killer. A psychological report presented during his trail outlined his severe lack of empathy and antisocial behavioral patterns.
His accomplice meanwhile, was a heroin addict who claims to have been sexually abused by his father and other men as a child. Baghi claims to have been coerced by Bijeh to help him kidnap the impoverished children.
Bijeh’s victims were mainly poor Afghan nationals whose legal residence in Iran was unclear, if not outright illegal and as such, most of the families didn’t report the disappearance of their children to the police out of fear of deportation. The remainder of their victims were ethnic Kurds, another forgotten, neglected and vulnerable segment of the population.
“The police do not look after us,” an Afghan woman who lived close to where some bodies were found told The Independent in 2004, “Only God will help us.”
The dire poverty of the city of Pakdasht provided the perfect platform for the abduction, rape and murder of 17 children, as well as three adults by Bijeh and his accomplice. Little has been disclosed about the adult victims, and no explanations have been given as to why this departure from Bijeh’s usual targets.
The men would lure the children to the desert on the outskirts of town under the pretense of hunting wild game, which would have appealed to the children given that they likely rarely ate any kind of meat at all.
Once alone in the desert the men would beat the children unconscious with bricks, rape them, and burn their bodies. Bijeh would later claim that the sight of blood made him feel “euphoric”.
Reports vary over how exactly most victims were dispatched, with the BBC reporting that they poisoned their victims, while others claiming bludgeoning or strangulation were their usual MO. The unclear details are likely a by-product of the closely-controlled Iranian judiciary and media establishments. Bijeh also reportedly ate a victim’s leg, just to see what it tasted like.
At times he claimed to have killed to spare the poor children a life of difficulty and hardship, although other reports indicate that he raped and brutally murdered the children as an act of revenge on a society that abused him and left him to die.
The deadly duo would bury what was left of their victims’ remains in shallow graves, transferring some soil from their brick kiln. Bijeh and his accomplice would then kill cats and dogs and leave their corpses near the graves to cover the stench of the bodies decaying in the searing desert sun.
Arrest and aftermath
Amazingly, despite scouring Farsi news reports, as well as international newswires including Reuters, AP and AFP, there seems to be absolutely no mention anywhere of exactly how he was discovered by police and arrested. Only vague reports of missing children that police eventually investigated, leading them to arrest Bijeh and Baghi, after looking into apparently 80 suspects.
It was only when they were finally arrested that it was revealed that Bijeh was at one point held for several months by police. Once released, he would go on to kill seven additional children. This led the judiciary to launch investigations into at least a dozen policemen in the city, some of whom were eventually suspended for incompetence.
When police arrested him, Bijeh was silently watching children playing and swimming in a canal, undoubtedly scouting his next helpless victim. After his arrest, the brickworks were shuttered and the owner also arrested and imprisoned on unclear charges related to the murders.
A heated trial
Both Bijeh and Baghi pleaded guilty, and the trial was a quick, and passionate spectacle. Members of the victims’ families often could not contain their untold anger and threw chairs at the defendants, as well as attempted to attack them in court. The latter incident causing the trial to temporarily adjourn.
Bijeh was in complete contrast to the impassioned mayhem that surrounded him in court. He was cold and remorseless. Once asked if he was sorry for the crimes that he committed, he shook his head with vague, uncaring indifference.
It wasn’t long before they were found guilty, with Bijeh receiving 16 life sentences as well as a death sentence, while Baghi was sentenced to 15 years in prison, as he was convicted of some of the kidnappings but not the murders.
There was some notable speculation that the men were simply scapegoats for a child abduction and illegal organ harvesting ring, although the judges summarily dismissed such claims due to a lack of evidence.
A testament to the abject poverty surrounding the city and the killers’ victims, some of the victims’ families stated that they would have rather received blood money instead.
“We had to sell all our things while we spent eight or nine months searching for our son. We have lost everything, and my husband has a bad back, making it hard for him to work. We would have preferred some money,” said Fauzel Shamzi on the death of her son, 12-year-old Nematolah.
In March 2005, Bijeh was publicly executed, but first he was flogged 100 times in front of an unruly 5,000-person crowd in the city’s public square – a common procedure for Iranian executions, although public executions overall are generally rare. Yet, in this case, authorities actively encouraged the city’s residents to attend the execution, with two police cars patrolling the streets early on the morning of his execution announcing the event via a loudspeaker.
Bijeh was led to an elevated stage where his shirt was taken off and his hands were tied to a metal stake. At least twice he fell to the ground in apparent pain during the lashes, but never once cried out or made a sound, as the crowd jeered, yelled and chanted “harder, harder”.
After the lashing, as he was moving to the crane to be hanged, he was stabbed by the 17-year-old brother of one of his victims, who somehow managed to break through the barbed wire barricade. The mother of another one of his victims, Milad Kahani, was invited by officials to place the blue nylon rope around Bijeh’s neck.
Bijeh was then lifted about 10 meters in the air by a crane and slowly choked to death, in contrast to regular hangings where death is swift as the neck breaks, severing the spinal cord.
His death was meant to bring catharsis to a city that suffered so much, and still continues to live with an unspoken, endless grief for the lives of so many children lost so senselessly. What was lost was immeasurable, but it is unclear what exactly was gained by his theatrical execution, or if anything even changed in that poor city of Pakdasht.