PBS NewsHour and the Center for Investigative Reporting mark the two-year anniversary of Iran’s “Green Movement” with an exclusive report about the government crackdown that followed. The report features the courageous work of an Iranian journalist and the first, heart-wrenching accounts of women demonstrators who say once arrested, they were raped, beaten and tortured by the Iranian government. Watch the full report on PBS NewsHour.
CIR editors obtained an interview with the Iranian reporter, who must remain anonymous.
Why did you decide to make this film?
I’m not a filmmaker. I’d never filmed before in my life. If you want to know the real reason, the first week after election, Monday, I remember I was in the street. I was on Valiasr Street, the main street. The police were running from the students because they were throwing stones and stuff. And suddenly [the police] chased all the people, they threw tear gas and thousands of guards came.
I was just walking, I was not in the protest. I thought I could just walk around. I didn’t do anything wrong. I got attacked, but I was lucky. I could run. They wanted to arrest me. But that was not the terrible part, the terrible part was [after I ran] I saw five big guys beating up everybody. Everything was dusty and [there was] tear gas…. I have asthma and I couldn’t breathe. I saw a young guy who was like 17 years old, they put him in the [gutter]. All five of them were beating him on the head with their batons, they really wanted to kill him. And I started screaming, “What are you doing with him? You’re going to kill him!” I was so upset.
I started screaming and suddenly the other [guards] ran toward me and I was pulled out by two guys. One of them was like 60 years old, and he said, “What are you doing? They’re going to kill you. They’re going to arrest you and rape you.” And they took me out of that place.
I don’t know what happened to that young guy [in the gutter], I think they killed him. He was bloody everywhere, blood was running.
But I was like, I could be one of them, I could be killed. After that I was always thinking about doing this story about people that nobody really heard anything about. About these poor guys, like Sohrab [Aarabi]—Sohrab got famous, but nobody knows about how these [other] people were killed, and their poor families. You know?
You know what’s the difference between these young guys in the street and the people in the protest in ’79, during the revolution? I think back then those guys were veryidealistic, they were thinking, “We have to do something for people in the world, we have to give them democracy and freedom and equal rights and blah blah blah.” But these guys, they were all very simple people. I couldn’t believe when I saw it with my eyes, young girls, fashionable, with high heels, they were going and beating up the guards. These guys, they are not idealistic. They are not Left, they are not Communists, they don’t belong to any parties. They just want to have their own simple rights. They just want to have their own individual freedoms that everybody [should] have in the world in a regular life. We were kind of happy to have just the limited democracy that [the government] was giving us. But it is not acceptable that they are cheating people like this. People are not stupid.
How did you find the woman you call Leila?
Actually I was looking to talk to someone who was in prison or had a really close experience with [the government]. I’ve had a lot of friends who were arrested or in prison. But, unfortunately, when you get arrested and put in prison, they scare you to death so you don’t talk with the media. People are very scared. They don’t want to talk because they are afraid they’ll be identified and they’ll be taken back to that horrible situation.
So most people don’t want to talk about it.
No. I was lucky, one very cold winter day I went to see friends in a cafe. I was with a few friends and this friend who was a young student, she was very active. She was always in all the demonstrations and whenever I wanted to get news about students, I would talk to her. She was very active on the election campaign for Mousavi.
I remember we met in the cafe, and she came with her friend. Her friend came to me and we had a little chit-chat and I said “What are you doing in your life, are you a student as well?” And she said “Yes and no.” And I said “Why yes and no?”
She looked very young, younger than her age. And she said, “Honestly, I was a student, but I’m not a student anymore. They kicked me out.” And I said “Why?” and she said, “It’s a long story.” She was very vibrant, a cheerful woman, and I was joking with her and she was joking, teasing her friends. She was really funny, nice, but you could see in her eyes, the eyes were saying something else. She was pretending to be a funny, happy girl. Then we talked a little more and she said “Yeah, they kicked me out of the university because I was arrested.” But she didn’t tell me any more about what happened to her.
I wanted to hear her story. We met again the next day in another place, we had breakfast together and we talked. Still she didn’t tell me what really happened to her. She said: “I was in prison and I was arrested … I was in a difficult situation.” And I said “Would you like to talk about what happened to you in prison on camera?” And she said, “Yes, if you promise me that nobody can identify me, I will do it.”
But I still didn’t know what happened to her. We met two more times to talk. Finally I met her [to film]. She didn’t want to talk to me in her parents’ house. She was very afraid they would follow her. So we met somewhere in a house [I didn’t know whose]. I didn’t know really [what she would say], I didn’t expect that horrific situation.
So you didn’t know her full story until she told it on camera?
Yeah, on camera she told me, “Since I got out of prison, I promised myself that I wanted to tell this story to everybody.”
Honestly, her story was so upsetting. I mean, I was quite involved with all these problems, with people who were arrested. I was reading what happened to people in prison online. I was really informed about what was going on. I knew about other people who had been raped or tortured in prison. But somehow this story was something I’d never heard or read [before]. I was so shocked…. And when she was telling me what happened to her and how they raped her and after that tortured her, she started to cry and I was crying too. I remember we had to stop three times because I didn’t want to just let her cry, I had to hug her.
We started in the morning. We had a little talk and then we started filming. And we finished in the afternoon, seven or eight hours later. We had to stop and I was making tea and giving her water. It was so upsetting, the whole story. I couldn’t even breathe when she was talking. It was one of the worst stories that I’ve heard in my life.
How did you meet the woman you call Samira, the rapper?
I met Samira the first time at the peaceful protest. The first week was quiet. There were peaceful protests…. People really tried to be silent, not violent. The second time I met her was [weeks] later in Baharestan Square, next to Parliament. It was announced that we had to go [protest] in front of Parliament.
We went there and I remember it was a terrible day. After a week that was peaceful, then the next weeks were bloody. Every day people were being arrested, they were killing a lot of people. But still you could see a lot of young people, thousands of them, they were still coming out.
We went in front of Parliament and I remember I couldn’t even walk, it was full of guards everywhere and they didn’t let us walk through, even on the square close to it. I wanted to see what was going on there. But they stopped us and said you can’t, go home. And I thought the best way was by bus. I got on one of the public buses that was passing by. It’s a huge street and Parliament was on one side and on the other side, on the sidewalk, I remember seeing hundreds of young people. They were sitting on the floor like this [hands bent over head] because they’d all been arrested.
I remember two young guys were [riding] really close to the bus on a motorbike and one of them had a little camera. They were filming, and I remember, poor guy, suddenly [the guards] came, it was like they were arresting a criminal. They took him out, they took the camera and broke it and beat him up and beat up the other guy…. They arrested them. It was very serious. They pushed them in the van with tinted windows. These were the vans they used to use for fashion police. If you were a woman and you didn’t have the proper hijab, they would arrest you and put you in these vans. But during the protests it was not the fashion police.
Then I got to the other bus and I went back. I think I [rode through] four times because you couldn’t walk and I wanted to see what was going on there. At the first stop after Parliament I got out and right after I got out, it was terrible. You could be arrested at any minute, they didn’t care if you were old or young. They were beating up everybody and randomly arresting people. I got out of the bus and I was walking and suddenly I saw a girl, and I thought, “I know that girl.” It was Samira.
She had green scarf, a very green shawl, a green manteau. From her head, the whole scarf and manteau, to her knee, was bloody. She was very angry. She was standing right in the street and people were asking her, “Do you need help?” And I got to her and I said “What the hell are you doing here?” I told her “You should get out, they’re going to arrest you immediately.”
But she said “No, I want to stay here, everybody should see what this idiot did to me!” And I was like, “Please, they don’t care. They’re going to arrest you…. And you know what’s going to happen to you? They’re going to rape you.” And she was like “I’m ready to be killed.” And I said, “Yeah, but they’re not going to kill you, they’re going to rape you, do you know what that means? You’re so young.” I said “Please, let’s go, I’m going to help you get home.”
She told me she was in front of Parliament and one of the guards came to her and started to push her. He was a big guy, one of the riot police. He started to beat her up even though she’s a very skinny, small woman. He beat her on her head in a really bad way and then she said she fell down. She said for a couple of minutes she didn’t know what had happened. And the guy, the guard, he was afraid, he disappeared. Maybe he was afraid he killed her, I don’t know.
She said for a few minutes she was unconscious. Bloody. People had helped her up and took her [down the street], where I found her. I could see she had lost a lot of blood and she was really weak. After about ten minutes of me begging to take her, we got in the bus. That was the safest way. And I remember some women on the bus … women like 50, 60 years old, very religious, with chadors, they said, “What’s going on?” I remember one of them was like “Shame on me, shame on me! I voted for Ahmadinejad. Shame on me. I didn’t know they were going to beat up and kill our young people like this. Oh my god, what happened to you?” And I remember she was crying.
So I took Samira home by bus. Later on, the next summer, I called her and we met and we had a long talk. She told me her story, that the Saturday that Neda [Agha-Soltan] was killed in the street she was somewhere close to Azadi Square, which was supposed to be the center of the demonstrations.
She was somewhere close to that square with a bunch of young guys and they were fighting with Basiji and guards for two hours. They were throwing stones at them and they couldn’t get close. She told me about how other people from the area were bringing them stones. There was some construction and an old lady came [from the house] and said, “If you want, just destroy this wall and take the bricks if you need them.”
People were helping them. It’s like they were all unified, they all had one common enemy. She said for two hours they were fighting and the Basiji were really angry. “Once I got some stones from the floor, I had a bunch of stones, and I gave them to the guy [next to me],” she said. “I didn’t know the guy. I just knew he was young and he had a mask on his face. Suddenly I heard a shot and I saw that he was on the floor. He was shot in the forehead and blood was coming out with the pressure.” She said: “All of us were scared. Everybody was looking at each other saying ‘What happened, what was that?’ Nobody could believe that they shot him.” She said suddenly one guy shouted “It was a direct shot, somebody shot the bullet!” They were all in shock.
Some started to run and [she said] she got very angry and she was screaming “Death to the dictator! Death to Ahmadinejad! Death to the Supreme Leader!” A couple of them tried to [carry] the guy who was shot away, but she said he was dead. It was so obvious he was dead. And then some guys came out of a private car, not a police car, and tried to push her into the car. Obviously they were secret service or something. She said suddenly the crowd of people who’d been around—everybody was angry because they’d seen the young guy shot—they pulled her out of these people’s hands and let her go. They rescued her.
That night she went home and she said she couldn’t sleep. She said: “I woke up a couple of times, and I just decided to get up and sit and start writing what happened that day. I wrote lyrics about what I’d seen. I promised myself, I have to tell the story of these people. The people who were fighting that day were very brave. People like the guy who was killed next to me. I promise to write and sing for these guys because nobody can hear their voices.” And the name of that song is “Freedom Dream.”
For her, being a rap singer is not easy. She can’t really sing anywhere because in Iran, according to Sharia law, women are not allowed to sing in public, or for men.
Your film is focused on women. Do you think this revolution was somehow different for women? Were there more women involved this time?
I think women in Iran—[unlike] other countries in the Middle East, like Egypt or Saudi Arabia—are very different. Iranian women are really pioneers. They are very powerful. Now the number of women going to university is more than the number of men. That’s why Parliament wanted to have an article [to limit] the number of women at university. Their reason was, they said, that after women get married and have kids they don’t work anymore, and when they go and get an education they waste the government’s money. Which is stupid, because a lot of women work now.
The system is religious, we have a religious government, but the other reason is that it’s kind of a macho society. Many women still [believe that] whatever the family says is what they have to do. But I believe many, many of them, even those coming from very traditional, religious families, they want to get out, they want to be educated. This is one of the ways they can get out of the house.
And they’re fighting. They’re fighting for their own rights, their individual freedoms. When Ahmadinejad came to power there was more pressure on women. There is more reason for them to fight.
Did you see many women involved in the Green Revolution?
Honestly, in the Green Movement, in all the protests, I saw women always in the front line, fighting. You can see on Youtube, if they were arresting some guys, women were getting close saying “What are you doing? Release them!” They were not afraid. I remember the day that Neda was killed in street, right after they killed her and they were taking the body away, I went there. I met a woman who was like 55 years old with a chador, she looked very religious, and she was crying. She said “I come every day to the demonstrations with my husband. Because of my kids. My husband today said ‘I’m not coming’ because he was scared. Yesterday, we were very close to arrest.” But she said, “I’m going. I’m going for my children. I don’t let my daughter go now because I’ve seen they rape the girls. I’m going now to all the demonstrations and I’m going to fight now until the end for kicking these guys out.”
Tell me about Sohrab’s mother.
Sohrab’s mom was an activist. There is a group in Tehran called Mothers for Peace. They’ve been active for many years. Sohrab was on Mousavi’s campaign, and when he was killed his mother, who was already an activist, gave a lot of interviews. They threatened everybody, of course. But she talked. She talked and talked and talked. This protects people—if you get famous, they don’t touch you. At least I hope not.
I heard some of her interviews and I’ve seen them on websites. She has a very strong character. [I managed to get] her contact information. I had to go [to her home], and I was in a very proper hijab, a chador, hiding my face so nobody could see me. I was thinking maybe [the government] was watching from somewhere. I went there and her apartment is really amazing. When you get in it’s full of pictures of Sohrab, Neda, and all these young guys that were killed in demonstrations. She put everybody’s pictures on the wall.
There was a lot of art, like paintings, drawings, writing, calligraphy and poems for Sohrab. Stuff that people sent to her. They didn’t know her, they just heard about her and Sohrab and they sent her stuff in memory of Sohrab. I didn’t know Sohrab at all, but when I was looking at his picture, I couldn’t stop crying. I was thinking, such an innocent guy. He was very young. His face is very kind and sweet, a young person, like a baby, very innocent. When I went there she was reading for me what Sohrab said during a test at school, his ideas about democracy and the system. It was amazing. He was very smart. He had a lot of ideas about the future he’d like to have. His wish was to have freedom and democracy in his country. Then she showed me his room, and she hadn’t touched anything. His notes, he had just finished high school, I think. The notes were still there—the English vocabulary that he was memorizing for the exam. And his cover—for Mousavi’s campaign you had to have a green cover over your clothing. I saw the green bracelet that he was using, all the green stuff was still in his room.
Did you tell her your real name?
She didn’t ask, I didn’t tell her. She was very concerned for my safety.
Why don’t you want to be identified as the reporter of this story?
I think after the election we didn’t really have any reporters in Iran. People were all like me … I’m not a professional. But I believe all the people that took the risk and filmed in the street, they filmed Neda when she was killed, or they filmed the Basiji when they were shooting people, they all took risks, and they were all like great journalists. I don’t want to be identified because I’m living in Iran, I don’t want to leave Iran, I don’t want to live anywhere else. I am one of these people fighting for their freedoms. I don’t want to have my name anywhere because I’m like my people, we are all fighting for our rights. I would love to talk for the people in my country that nobody can hear. This is my duty. They go in the street and fight, and I have to report that. Like many other Iranians did in the street, they reported. I believe that they are reporters as well.
I am very proud of my people, especially the women. After the election, in the last two years, they showed they’re not idiots, they’re not stupid. They know what they want. They know exactly what they want. They know what these people in the system did to them, they know very well. And they know very well what they want and they’re fighting for that. And still, the Green Movement and all these protests, they’re not finished. It’s still going on. Very soon it’s the anniversary of the election. Of course they suppressed a lot of people, but when I was going to all the protests I was surprised, honestly, that still after all this arresting and raping, again thousands and thousands of people came out. This is amazing. This means people know what they want. And if it’s quiet now that doesn’t mean that it’s over.
Everybody says in Iran, it’s like fire under the ash, you can’t see it, but suddenly it [comes] out and burns everything. I’m sure the right moment will arrive. I don’t know when, but we are all fighting for our freedom. People, I think, don’t have anything else to lose. They say, “Ok, I am ready to be killed.” A lot of young people were killed for their freedom. You have to pay. They don’t give you your rights just like this. And I believe Iranian people have to do some things on their own, nobody else can help them. I’m one of the people who believe we don’t need any help from outside, from other countries. We have to do something on our own, that’s the way we can get our country back, and our freedom, our democracy.