Out of danger but in danger
A report by Iranian human rights activists who have fled Iran in fear of persecution in recent months through hazardous mountains of Kurdestan into Turkey and now live in dire circumstance waiting to be re-settled.
NIGDE, Turkey – Light snow was falling when the two young men set out on horseback for the border to flee Iran. By the time they were deep in the mountains, it had become a blinding blizzard, the temperature had dropped below freezing, and they were barely alive.
Hesam Misaghi and Sepehr Atefi were joining what has become an exodus of dissidents fleeing Iran's political turmoil. For them that meant a harrowing journey through the country's rugged northwest in the dead of winter, with the help of Kurdish smugglers.
At a river crossing, the ice broke beneath them and their horses stumbled in, soaking the two with freezing water.
"There was no feeling in my legs and hands," recalled Misaghi, a tall, wiry 21-year-old. "I felt drunk. I didn't know where I was. I was laughing from pain."
Atefi, 20, spotted a van from a distance, grabbed Misaghi's arm and dragged him toward it through the snow. "There was no life left in me to move forward, but we had to reach the highway," he said.
The men, both Iranian human rights reporters, reached the van, begged a ride and made it to safety in Turkey.
At least 4,200 Iranians have fled their homeland since disputed presidential elections in June, according to a list compiled by activist Aida Saadat, who herself slipped across the border into Turkey in December. These refugees have scattered to the United States, Europe and Gulf nations like the United Arab Emirates.
Most of all, they have come to Turkey — around 1,150 of them, according to the U.N. refugee agency — taking advantage of the porous border and Turkey's policy of not requiring a visa. Most of the new arrivals fled for political reasons, including those who took part in opposition protests after the vote. They bring the number of Iranians in Turkey to 4,440, as of February — including "undesirables" in the eyes of the clerical regime, such as homosexuals or members of the Bahai religion.
The danger these Iranians face back home is clear. A month after Atefi and Misaghi's January escape, police raided their homes in the central Iranian city of Isfahan. Among the charges against them: "moharebeh," or "waging war against God," a crime punishable by death.
Police arrested their friend and colleague, Navid Khanjani, who was supposed to have fled with them but changed his mind at the last minute. With Khanjani's arrest, eight people in the independent Committee of Human Rights Reporters have been jailed, and three remain in prison and could face execution.
In Turkey, the refugees are safer, but they live in limbo. Almost all brought little money and cannot work because of Turkish restrictions, so they cram into small, coal-heated apartments with minimal furniture.
Many Iranian refugees hope the UNHCR will arrange resettlement for them in the United States or Europe — a wait that could take years, as the refugee agency is also dealing with thousands of Iraqis who have fled here from their own wartorn homeland in recent years.
Many of the Iranians have been put in the central town of Kayseri and nearby towns such as Nigde. Like other refugees in Turkey, they are required to live in particular towns designated by the Interior Ministry, must regularly report to police to confirm their location, and must get permission from authorities to move to other cities.
In addition to the rent and other expenses, each adult is required to pay the Turkish government about $200, along with $100 for each child, every six months to stay in the country. The interior minister last weekend (in March) signed an order to to lift the permit fees, but the order has not yet been enforced.
In the meantime, they watch the events back home — where hundreds have been arrested, and two have been executed out of 11 sentenced to death for taking part in opposition protests. From exile, some try to continue their activism — and some try to recover from their trauma.
Political activist Mahdis, 35, who once worked for a dissident cleric in the holy city of Qom, said she fled Iran more than a year ago after having been repeatedly raped in jail. Mahdis spoke on condition her last name not be used to avoid public embarassment.
When she arrived in Turkey she was again raped, this time by a fellow Iranian refugee. She said police would not allow her to transfer to Kayseri unless she paid $200, which she didn't have.
"I was sobbing, saying 'I swear to God' I don't have the money," recalled Mahdis. It took her 40 days to come up with the money that she borrowed from fellow refugees.
Another refugee, Mehrdad Eshghi, was the official singer for the state-run Iranian TV and Radio, known as Seda va Sima. Then authorities questioned his loyalty because he worked in the election campaign of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's top rival, Mir Hossein Mousavi.
After he refused to perform for Ahmadinejad's campaign, security forces began harassing him. He was detained and threatened with worse consequences.
"I was surprised by the way they treated me," said Eshghi, 40. "I was one of them. When I had the mike in my hand doing live programs, it meant they trusted me with their lives," he said in his apartment in Kayseri.
After security men began staking out his home around the clock, Eshghi went into hiding. He took a bus to Turkey six months ago, and his wife and daughter joined him a couple of months later.
"They could have done something terrible to me. You never know," Eshghi said of his pursuers. "The survival of the Islamic Republic is so important to them that they will not give up at any price."
Eshghi, a singer, calligrapher, painter and composer, mourns his former life in his homeland.
"I was at my best in Iran," he said. "Here, I'm just an ordinary person."
Like others, he said his attempts to keep up political activism from exile are prevented by Turkish authorities. Eshghi said authorities refused to allow him to put on an exhibition of his paintings or a concert for Iranian refugees. "They tell me no one must know of my whereabouts because it poses danger to my life."
Turkey, though a U.S. ally, also has close ties to Iran. Ankara has criticized Western efforts to impose further sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program. Iran is a major supplier of natural gas to Turkey, and the two sides are working to increase trade, valued at $10 billion last year.
Kayseri's police chief said any restrictions on Iranians are for their own protection. "They are free here," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of police regulations. "But for their own personal safety, they cannot be interviewed by reporters."
Some refugees claim they have been harassed by Iranian intelligence agents while in Turkey, with threatening phone calls or even physical attacks. Human rights officials say Iranian intelligence agents have infiltrated the refugee community here, leading to widespread suspicion.
Hami Taghavi, a 40-year-old university professor who fled shortly after the post-election crackdown began, said he and his family try to avoid other Iranians.
"We don't trust other Iranians. We made sure to find an apartment where there are no Iranians around," he said.
Now he is just hoping to find rest, after repeated detentions in Iran for anti-government activities, including regular appearances on the Persian language stations of the BBC and Voice of America. He said he was tortured in custody, and now has trouble controlling movements in his limbs.
"I wake up regularly during the night as if someone is kicking me in the stomach," said Taghavi, who also headed an independent opposition teachers' association in Iran.
His wife, Mehrvash Dadashian, 35, ran a popular blog in Iran, since shut down. She intends to start a new one — but her main concern now is their life in Turkey, including the question of whether her 6-year-old daughter Yasna will be able to enter school in September.
"I live in the present. I don't brood over the past, nor am I worried about the future," she said. "It's peaceful here … we used to have near heart attack 20 times a day in Iran, every time they came to our door to take us away."
Despite the obstacles, reform activist Saadat says she is determined to keep up her political work, campaigning for Iranian women's rights and writing for the Committee of Human Rights Reporters.
"I am not an immigrant. I've come here to continue my work," said Saadat.
After months of repression, Iran's reform activists are all in hiding, in jail or in exile, she said.
"When we leave our country, we leave behind all our past, our love, memories, the sum of our lives."
Our blogs are written by Amnesty International staff, volunteers and other interested individuals, to encourage debate around human rights issues. They do not necessarily represent the views of Amnesty International.