Hesam Misaghi (l) and Sepehr Atefi (r) being interviewed by The Associated Press in Nigde, Turkey, on February 16. The two Iranians are members of the independent Committee of Human Rights Reporters.
By Scheherezade Faramarzi – The Associated Press
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, the snow 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 in the 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,” Atefi 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 the United Arab Emirates and other Persian Gulf nations.
Most of all, they have come to Turkey – around 1,150 of them, according to the UN refugee agency – taking advantage of the porous border and Turkey’s policy of not requiring visas. 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 Baha’i 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.
Hope in UNHCR
Many Iranian refugees hope the office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees will arrange resettlement for them in the United States or Europe. The wait for that could take years, as the refugee agency also is dealing with thousands of Iraqis who have fled to Turkey here from their own war-torn 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 locations, and must get permission from authorities to move to other cities.
In addition to 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 signed an order in March to lift the permit fees, but the order has not yet been enforced.
In the meantime, they watch 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 embarrassment.
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 did not 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, which 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.
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.”
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.”
Greece thrown lifeline by Eurozone
Alan Fisher in Brussels, AJE
Greece is given the support of Eurozone countries. Prime Minister Papandreiou notes that this is not only a challenge for Greece but also a challenge for European Union to demonstrate its cohesion and ability to work problems out together.