Apr 30, 2014

A Thousand Women Standing

Source: Chime Original

BY Elham Zanjani

I was born in 1978 in Montreal, Canada, one year before the Iran of the Shah became the Iran of the Mullahs. I have never seen our homeland but I have chosen to be part of our people. Growing-up in Canada, I had access to resources and I was free. In that regard, my life felt like a gift.  My middle-class family had left Iran in the final years of the Shah’s regime. But following the Revolution and Khomeini’s rise to power, life in Iran became even more inhuman particularly for women. My parents kept speaking about the proverbial return. After so many years the hope and determination to bring about that day has increased.

I was a typical teenager, I loved watching horror movies, drinking hot chocolate with marshmallows and play a good game of volleyball with my friends.  But questions kept nagging me about Iran. I was hearing about human rights violations that I could barely understand. There, I was told, girls as young as 13 were raped before being executed. This particular decree was legalized under the justification that once raped these girls would no longer be virgins and according to the fatwa issued by Khomeini this would banned them from Heaven. Or without even going there, why were women there told what to wear, and why were they harassed when strands of hair escaped from a veil that, as far as I understood, they were forced to choose? One day, my cousin called from Teheran to announce that she had graduated high school with honors and wanted to pursue surgical dentistry but knew she would never get a job in that field as a woman. This struck a chord, I could easily put myself in her shoes, I could imagine not being allowed to become the professional I wanted to be solely because of my gender.

My parents kept participating in rallies, demonstrations and events organized by the opposition and I always went along. I loved the spirit of standing by others. When I was ten years-old I remember going to the memorial ceremony for the 30,000 political prisoners executed by Khomeini. They were all massacred in less than three months in the summer of 1988. The weather was boiling hot but I stood along feeling that my presence meant something. I grew up and went to York University I wanted to become a sergeant or perhaps a sports therapist. Life was good, I was independent, enjoying school and my youth in general. I also got to know better the Iranian resistance movement that now, incredibly enough, was led by an elected woman Maryam Rajavi and women made 52% of members. The NCRI is a democratic coalition of the Iranian opposition. The largest and most popular resistance movement, is the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI). It seemed to me, that women’s leadership was a powerful alternative for our country, certainly one that was unprecedented. The National Council of Resistance of Iran was founded in 1981and women came into leadership positions in the late 90’s. I met women who had broken historical boundaries by stepping up to the frontlines and that were fighting the most misogynist dictatorship of all times. I felt a strong impulse to rally with them: they knew better they had always been the primary victims.

Gradually I found out about Camp Ashraf. At the border between Iran and Iraq, the Camp has been the home of Iranian Resistance since 1986.  Since 2012 they have been forcibly relocated in a camp that ironically is called Liberty. In the summer of 1998, when I turned twenty, I decided to pay a visit to Camp Ashraf. I thought this would be an adventure, a once-in-a-lifetime experience.

I went for a short trip and stayed fifteen years.

I wasn’t the only westerner to come to Ashraf, I met Iranian women from the USA, France, Germany, Sweden and Canada. Even more interesting were the Iranian girls my age who had crossed the border into Iraq to join Ashraf. They told me many stories about how the regime kept the youth away from joining the opposition using addiction and corruption techniques. Most women had horror tales to share. One had had both parents executed by the regime and only found out about her past in her teenage years. Another had organized anti-governmental protests in her university. She was put in solitary confinement for months.

Two things were very hard for me. Leaving my parents and sister and leaving school. The first was soothed by my family’s genuine support. Quitting school was hard. But I thought that many could become doctors and lawyers but few would experience what I had come here to seek: a sense of community and collective support, a place of noble values that unified us all and that treasured the contribution of women. I worked in the hospital as a translator as I spoke English and French as well as Farsi and Arabic. I loved caring for the sick. Years later, we built a university in Ashraf and I continued my studies in the Medical Department. It was a real university with a Law School, Medical Sciences, Language and Engineering Departments. Everyone was able to continue their education and most people spoke two or three languages.

When the war broke out in Iraq in 2003, I thought that it would be the end of the road for us. Yet, like others in Ashraf, we were determined to remain steadfast and meet the challenge.  I knew that the Iranian regime would use the chaos to try and annihilate us. We were heavily bombed and some of my friends were killed. During the years that followed the US invasion of Iraq many things changed. We were promised protection under the Fourth Geneva Convention by US forces until our final relocation. But US forces decided to leave Ashraf in 2009 and to hand over our protection to the Iraqi military. As a result, life became much more difficult at the Camp. Some people who had come to join us were no longer permitted in. Medicine was banned from entering the premises and we were treated like prisoners. In February 2011, Iraqi agents infiltrated the south of Ashraf, where the women housing area is located. They were trying to tear down the south fences. More than a1000 women lived at our headquarters and I was terrified at the idea of what would happen to us should they succeed. They threw rocks at us and I was hit in the mouth by a big stone that broke five of my front teeth. I passed out and when I opened my eyes again, all I saw was blood all around me and my white sparkling teeth scattered on the dirt. One of my girlfriends came and she kissed me on the forehead. “You look more beautiful than ever” she said.

I was admitted to the fully equipped hospital we had offered the Iraqis as a goodwill gesture upon their tenure in 2009.The Iraqi doctor called Omar, looked at me and said: “sorry, go see a dentist and tell him to fix your teeth”. I could not believe him. I asked for a pain killer and would he sow my upper lip? He smirked and asked me to leave the premises.

The medical blockade was very hard on everyone. I watched people become thin and weak and endure infinite pain. There was nothing I could do to alleviate their sufferings. The Iraqis banned our families, lawyers and friends from the camp. The trucks of food we had purchased for the population in Ashraf would arrive to the entrance gates but the guards would keep them in the hot weather until they’d rot.

We were first attacked in 2009, then in April 2011 as we had just finished celebrating the Iranian New Year. I had had my five teeth fixed with whatever had been available in the camp. But Iraqi forces had suddenly decided they wanted their land back and us out. US forces were still in Ashraf but had been ordered to leave the camp the night before. The former Iraqi government offered the land to the Iranian Resistance in 1986. So, the PMOI was the legal owner of this barren piece of land. Everything including roads, parks, clinic, and other premises in Ashraf were built and paid for by the PMOI

It was about 6 AM, I heard gunshots near the main street. I stepped out there was smoke everywhere. People were screaming and guns were being shot all over the place. I ran outside, my biggest fear was to fall in the hands of any one of those men. My long-time friend from California, Asieh grabbed her camera. “Keep an eye on me” she said “I’m going to film”. In a matter of minutes she had loaded clips on Youtube and the whole world found out instantly what was going on in Ashraf. In the main street, I saw hundreds of men fully equipped, storming in. I froze and, I could hear the bullets dashing by me. When I come back to my senses, I saw men armed to the teeth, shooting at people. They were less than 5 meters away. I went to one of them demanding that they stop; I told them there were 1000 women around. He ordered me to step aside or else he would shoot. I looked to my left and saw someone pointing at me. By the time I started processing what was happening, I was thrown backwards and my ears whistled. I wanted to hold my head but I couldn’t move. I asked Fatemeh, one of my friends what had happened and she broke into tears. She said there was nothing to worry about and everything would be fine. Fatemeh lifted my left hand and smiled at me. She put me in an ambulance that took me to the small clinic right behind the scene of the attacks. That smile was the last I would ever receive from her, she was shot right after she left me. Her smile was one of the only things I remembered for a long time after she’d gone. It was her final farewell. My left hand was destroyed, the bone was hanging out and no one had the guts to touch it, only she calmly took it in her hands and patiently held it.

Thanks to Asieh, I am alive today. Her videos brought immediate support from all over the world. I learned later that even when she fell to the ground, she told someone to grab her camera. We could have saved her if we had adequate medical facilities. All she needed was oxygen and blood but we had neither.

A soldier with a grenade launcher targeted me. He was five meters away. The grenade exploded between my legs, destroying one third of my muscles. Both of my hands were torn apart. My left wrist was broken into pieces, the nerves destroyed. My right arm was fractured in three pieces in the elbow. But I was among the very few who received medical treatment. I was taken to a local hospital about 30 kilometers away from Ashraf. I was scared to go to a hospital and continuously thought of amputation. How would I cope? Did this mean no more jogging, no more volleyball for me? No more writing and being able to use my hands anymore? Then I thought about why I was there, shredded into pieces. Why had some of my best friends been killed? The injustice was too much I just couldn’t give up.

I had to fight to walk again and fight harder to save my hands. But by then I had understood that most important was my voice.

Solidarity and the activities of our friends, members of parliaments and activists throughout the world had started to show results. We were not alone anymore. When I returned to Ashraf from the hospital, I was invited by the US Congress to be a witness of the attack in an official hearing, which was organized via satellite. It was the first time such an initiative was taken. It was an honor for me to speak on behalf of all the residents of Ashraf and many congressmen expressed their outrage at the lack of support from the USA and the U.N and urged for action. A wave of political activities started in Western countries led by Mrs. Rajavi. Injured residents were now allowed out of Ashraf and send them to various countries for treatment.

I am a Canadian citizen, as such my friends urged me to leave Ashraf for Canada because of the medical situation there. I did not want to go. I had spent most of my life with them and felt as if I was abandoning them. Guilt rose in me as I held the Canadian passport that would save my life and body.

The attacks have not stopped and every day I worry about my friend’s safety. On September 1st 2013, 52 people were killed and 7 people were taken hostage, 6 of which were women. We still don’t know anything about them.

My devotion remains to the women of Iran. The current regime has recently legalized marriage of stepfathers to their step daughters. It has just executed a child bride, wed at the age of 15 with a ten year-old daughter and hanged at 25. This is why I am working with the women’s committee of the NCRI and need the support of groups and activists from all around the world to join hands and be the voice of the 1000 women of camp Liberty who are subject to further attacks now.

Although these last few years in Ashraf were really tough, they were the best days of my life. We all learned to lean on each other and in these hard times true friends are found. Now, I go everywhere, mainly to Parliaments and share our story. I speak as a witness from Ashraf to stop any threat on Camp Liberty and I ask the world not to close its eyes on us.

Opinions shared are those of the author and are not necessarily representative of views of CHIME FOR CHANGE, Gucci or any partners of the campaign.

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