Dispatch

The view from the ground.

Iranians flee country to escape repression

One Iranian journalist looks back on the year's events that shaped his country, and his life.

AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

As an Iranian journalist after last year's election, I faced a grim future. I was sentenced to 16 months in prison and my jail term was set to begin at any time. I had already been threatened with a much stiffer sentence -- eight years in all -- by the very same judge who now ordered me to begin my sentence. My interrogator at the Ministry of Intelligence and the presiding judge both believed that I was not "going to become a human being," meaning that I would never get on the right political path. The interrogator said to me, "We keep giving you guys multiple chances and now it is enough. You guys are trying to overthrow the government."  As luck would have it, his detention order was not immediately carried out. After consulting with a number of friends, I decided to leave Iran.

I was not alone.  Following widespread protests against the disputed June 12 election and the harsh government crackdown on public demonstrations, a number of  Iranians felt they had no choice but to leave the country. For them, staying in Iran held only the promise of incarceration, torture, and possibly even death at the hands of jailors, judges, or the security forces.  No one could predict what might to happen in prison if he were arrested. This significant wave of migration was primarily composed of young journalists and political activists who had been on the streets during the day and then informed the world each evening about their activities.

The authorities had already confiscated my passport, greatly complicating my plan to make my way to Europe and to continue my political activities there. But there were still two routes left out of Iran, both illegal: crossing Iran's rugged border with Turkey, or passing through the hazardous valleys separating Iran and Iraq to reach Iraqi Kurdistan.  Such border regions have long been characterized by unsteady central government control, harsh and remote terrain, and dogged independence from events in Tehran, so there were plenty of smugglers for either destination. The price tag for illegal passage across the Iranian border amounted to $10,000 -- and there was no guarantee of safe arrival. It is very possible for someone to be killed by the very same smugglers once they get their money. Anything could happen at the border.

As an Iranian journalist after last year’s election, I faced a grim future. I was sentenced to 16 months in prison and my jail term was set to begin at any time. I had already been threatened with a much stiffer sentence — eight years in all — by the very same judge who now ordered me to begin my sentence. My interrogator at the Ministry of Intelligence and the presiding judge both believed that I was not "going to become a human being," meaning that I would never get on the right political path. The interrogator said to me, "We keep giving you guys multiple chances and now it is enough. You guys are trying to overthrow the government."  As luck would have it, his detention order was not immediately carried out. After consulting with a number of friends, I decided to leave Iran.

I was not alone.  Following widespread protests against the disputed June 12 election and the harsh government crackdown on public demonstrations, a number of  Iranians felt they had no choice but to leave the country. For them, staying in Iran held only the promise of incarceration, torture, and possibly even death at the hands of jailors, judges, or the security forces.  No one could predict what might to happen in prison if he were arrested. This significant wave of migration was primarily composed of young journalists and political activists who had been on the streets during the day and then informed the world each evening about their activities.

The authorities had already confiscated my passport, greatly complicating my plan to make my way to Europe and to continue my political activities there. But there were still two routes left out of Iran, both illegal: crossing Iran’s rugged border with Turkey, or passing through the hazardous valleys separating Iran and Iraq to reach Iraqi Kurdistan.  Such border regions have long been characterized by unsteady central government control, harsh and remote terrain, and dogged independence from events in Tehran, so there were plenty of smugglers for either destination. The price tag for illegal passage across the Iranian border amounted to $10,000 — and there was no guarantee of safe arrival. It is very possible for someone to be killed by the very same smugglers once they get their money. Anything could happen at the border.

Some even offered to take me all the way to Europe after they smuggled me to Turkey. I rejected this last offer, something I later learned may have saved my life.  The offer to get me to Europe was nothing more than a tasteless joke. Human smugglers board 30 to 40 people on wooden rafts in the maritime border between Turkey and Greece and then leave them to their fate. One Iranian physician, who lived in the Iraqi Kurdistan, boarded on one of these rafts so he could reach Europe to continue his education. He drowned. Another friend of mine, also a journalist, had better luck than the physician. Yet, he told me horrifying tales of his miserable and inhumane situation in Greece. He and 47 other refugees were put in a Greek prison cell made of metal no bigger than 60 square meters.

I found another path.  With the help of a friend, a Kurdish political party took responsibility for taking me across the border. The Toilers Komoleh Party of Iran’s Kurdistan had successfully smuggled a number of Iranian dissidents in the past and they are still active in helping Iranian activists and journalists.  After living underground for a week, I was told to go to a city in Iran’s Kurdistan and make contact with my handler. I traveled 13 hours on the road to get to the agreed location. I switched cars several times in various cities, in case I was being followed. But I finally made contact with my handler around noon and we decided to cross the border in the early morning.

I must mention that in the past three decades, the Iranian government has waged a propaganda campaign against the Kurdish people by accusing them of being thieves, decapitating innocent people, drug smuggling, membership in separatist parties and terrorist organizations. As a result, Iranian popular opinion of Kurds is not very favorable.  I went to Kurdistan despite all these preconceived notions about Kurds. I was told to stay at my handler’s house for the night, but I could not sleep at all that night. I was too worried that someone might steal my money or my laptop.

We hit the road at 7 a.m. The Iran-Iraq border is generally mountainous and very windy. It was a cold day in December 2009,  and the winds were brutally cold. We also had to face the dangers of Iranian border patrol agents and their patrol vehicles. The Islamic Republic has made it very clear that it would open fire on people in the Kurdish border without any warning.

We walked for about five hours. That is not including the many times we had to hide from border agents, or lie on the ground to evade patrolling police cars. Once over the border and inside Iraqi Kurdistan, a car with two passengers awaited me. They took me from my handler and I continued the rest of my journey with them.

This was not the end of my troubles. There is a law in the Iraqi Kurdistan that allows police officers to arrest and incarcerate anyone for up to six months if they fail to provide adequate identification documents. Given the underdeveloped nature of the justice system there, I could not really count on having access to legal services if I were arrested. There are periodic checkpoints on major roads in Kurdistan, so traveling these roads in a car would mean certain detention. As a result, it took a day and half to get to my destination, from the time I left the Iranian border. Once there, however, I was issued an identity card, so that I no longer had any problems with the Kurdish police regarding my illegal entry.

Iranian refugees in the Iraqi Kurdistan face a number of severe difficulties. One of the major problems is lack of funds. Most people who flee do not have time to pack adequately or to bring lots of money. People who leave Iran the same way I did can carry only a few items with them. We were asked not to bring anything except identification and our laptops. In this situation, a refugee must purchase everything once he gets to his destination. I do not know what would have happened to us had the Komoleh Party not taken care of us.

Unfortunately, the office of United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Kurdish Iraq or other human rights organizations provided little or no help at all. In effect, such refugees do not have a refuge anywhere. I must add that the process at UNHCR takes about one year. Most refugees wind up in Soleimanieh, while the French consulate and the office of UNHCR are located in Erbil, 250 miles away. Every trip from Soleimanieh to Erbil costs $100, which is a significant sum of money for the refugees.

The assistance provided by the French government was the only lifeline for most refugees. Eventually, I managed to get a visa to move to France, where I now live, but many of my friends and colleagues are in still refugees in Iraq and face an unpredictable future.

Arash Bahmani is an Iranian journalist.

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