An Innocent Laughing by the Gallows; the Story of my Life at HRAI
Peace Line Monthly / Simin Rouzgard – The external view of the “Human Right Activists in Iran, HRAI” is visible to all, mostly through its news Agency HRANA and at a different level through its monthly journal of “Peace Line”; however the interpretations and perceptions of it may vary. How is the internal view of this organization, especially from the eyes of “one of its own”?! Perhaps there is the need to dig deeper and farther than what is visible on the surface. Walter Benjamin speaks of this as two different views of the same country road, the view from the eyes of the person walking along the road, and the view from the eyes of a passenger flying over the road by an airplane: “The power of a country road when one is walking along it is different from the power it has when one is flying over it by airplane… The airplane passenger sees only how the road pushes through the landscapes, how it unfolds according to the same laws as the terrain surrounding it. Only he who walks the road on foot learns of the power it commands, and of how, from the very scenery that for the flier is only the unfurled plain, it calls forth distances, belvederes, clearings, prospects at each of is turns like a commander deploying soldiers at a front.” (One-way Street, 1978, P. 27-28)
This angle of view might be interesting, because I was not one of the founders or primary members of HRAI. In fact, I came across HRAI by chance and I had to start my activities at lower levels of the organization, and when growth within the organization was possible, I climbed to higher levels and have continued my activism as one of the core members of the organization. As someone who is not the founder, but is considered one of the second-generation members of the organization, the reason behind my devotion to the organization could raise many questions.
To address these questions, elaborate, and simultaneously answer the question “why did I choose to be a human rights activist and why did I choose to join and stay with HRAI as a human rights organization?” I will narrate 5 stories of five different intervals of my life, from my personal life to when it slowly over time transitioned into a collective life.
First story: Winter of 2009, I was sitting on a bench at “Daneshjoo Park” beside a friend whom I knew from the virtual world of blogging and we gradually had become friends in the actual world as well. In order to organize and manage my activism, he had asked me a couple of times to collaborate with a civic group that at the time was following the demands of a particular social strata/group. Even though some of these demands were of my own, yet I always rejected the offer because I could not choose between those demands and my other concerns. Perhaps I was a little in to pluralism and I cared about demands and interests that were not directly of my own. Moreover, I could not simply ignore and justify the fact that those at the top of these organizations were of social and political aristocrats. Our discussion was leading to this direction again, though this time he mentioned that he has started collaborating with a young and emerging human rights activists’ organization founded by “Keyvan Rafiee”. He also mentioned that the news agency of the organization would start working in few months and they were looking for volunteers. I asked for a few things to be explained and then assured him that I would think about it.
Other than a few petitions, reports and pictures of the tortured prisoners, which was published by this organization, I did not know much about the way it operated. I did not know much about the founder of the organization, even though I had once previously shared the news of his hunger strike in the prison. I pretty much did not know any of the members of the organization in person. the more I asked, the more I heard, and the more curious I became; eventually after few weeks of query, thinking and considerations, I felt I needed to be faithful and concern about their kind of activism; few days later I called my friend to let him know I was in. A few days or weeks after, I contacted “Jamal Hosseini” (whom back then I knew by his pseudonym “Esfandiar Baharmas”) as a volunteer to start working with HRANA.
Honestly at the beginning, I looked at working at HRANA as a place for more coherent and organized activism, especially in an atmosphere that was pushing me towards individual or at best academical activism. At the time I perceived human rights (according to the politicized view of it) as a western term and therefore, I did not completely believe in it.
Second story: May 2009, about three months had passed since I started working for HRANA, and it was a few days that I had started what I thought would be smart shenanigans; for instance, I started highlighting the news of the prisoners that had similar political believes as myself. Regardless that he was sentenced to 3 months of imprisonment and on the same day another prisoner (whose believes and activism were not of my ideal) had been sentenced to 6 years of imprisonment. One day, one of the authorities of HRAI contacted me to let me know that my collaboration is not needed anymore! Although I could guess my trickery had been exposed, yet it felt unexpected and sudden. When I asked why, he replied “we have noticed that you hold back certain news and publish some news that are subjected to less human rights violations in the important news section and etc.; unfortunately this organization cannot work towards your personal believes and interests.” I insisted to stay!
He suggested, if I was really interested I should have taken a week off and study further about human rights, then after a short probation period, if approved, I might continue to work with the organization. During that week, more than studying about human rights (which I was not fully uninformed about) I thought about staying or leaving the organization; if I was to stay, I had to change my perception of people and groups and had to view everyone as equal where it came to the violations of their human rights. At the time such a decision was incredibly difficult for me… but it was not easy either to forget all that the organization had given me in such a short period of time, things such as the satisfaction that I felt from thinking that I was making a difference. Therefore, I tried with respect for a collective work (which I generally believed in) to put aside my individualism and become a team player. To be totally honest, I also wanted to get to understand everything deeper. About 10 days later I restarted working for HRANA again.
Third story: I was trying to be more involved and engaged at work, if I am not mistaken it was about this time that HRAI was developing the weekly reports and the daily of Human Rights Violation for publication; I volunteered to participate. This greater involvement, opened my eyes to things that were new to me; in the sense that the group was greatly organized, and it was easy to believe that such an order came from a capable leadership. For example, if a report took too long, there was always someone who would not leave me alone and would repeatedly follow up and keep messaging me until it was done! This leadership, had regulated honorable objectives in which most importantly politics and gaining political power had no meaning. I am emphasizing on this because, at the time campaigning for presidential elections of 2009 had started and was reaching its peak, most of the youth in my circle and people I knew (especially university students) were interested to be a part of candidates’ campaigns. Although the nature of such an activism was not pleasing to me, yet it was understandable. It was not acceptable to see most would participate in building political power block, or would involve in occasional short term activism with goals that were defined without sufficient knowledge, or even activism that was out of excitement. It is disturbing that as a student activist sometimes one would be “forced” to go with the student association. For instance, I was the editor of the political science association journal of our university and almost all the members were in favor of supporting a particular presidential candidate. With what collective interest should I have given up my own views and stuck with them?
During those days, it was not only the names of prisoners and other victims (which we published daily) that passed through my head; but the numerous events of the past would come alive and pass through my eyes just like a scene from a movie: the death of our neighbour (who was the night guard of a construction site and had fallen from the scaffolds one night) did not make it to any newspaper or website; why did everyone blame him for the neglect and his death?! Why was there no insurance? In less than a year his family had to sell their home and move out of the neighbourhood… Demolition and burning of Dervish’s Hussainia in Qom in the winter of 2006 which I was an eyewitness to, not only did not change a thing but even some took pride in it! I heard one of my acquaintances proudly talking about throwing a stone to one of Dervish’s head and shamelessly laughing… My maternal relative that would once in a while (for leisure and entertainment) wake up in the morning and go to watch a public execution in our city. And she had even started videoing the executions on her phone, so she could more voraciously tell her live experience of the moment when the convict was being smothered to those who gathered around her. Once when she was showing me one of the videos, it was as if one of the men was staring at the camera and smiling from the top of the gallows. Why… In those very days, a worker (who they had gotten into the campaign HQ with the excuse that he should have a drink and rest a bit) was asked whom he would vote for. He said to whomever that would bring down the price of meat because it was two months that he had not been able to buy a kilo of meat for his wife and children. They did not even let him finish what he was saying. Of course, their candidate was going to make meat cheap!
Honestly even though I was majoring in political science, I was not meant for politics; because I hate the hypocrisy that surrounds it. Those days when I heard “Aftab-Karan-e Jangal 1” from the speakers in the town, I just tried to swallow my painkiller as fast as possible: Home, Computer, dial up internet, and finally the holy moment of publishing a news on HRANA!
The forth story: The intelligent services of the Revolutionary Guards had arrested 46 people who somehow had connections to HRAI (a few of them were my close friends) and they were still after me. They even had weaved together a ludicrous story and along with my picture and information had published it in the media such as Gerdab, Fars, and Keyhan2. There was no escape; I only had a few days or maybe a few hours. To stay, to be imprisoned and to await my unknown future; or to go, to leave everything behind and build the unknown future. This was the most difficult decision I had and probably will ever face; right on the verge of turning 20! These very words still sound like a distanced audience (the same passenger who sees the country road from the plane).
Considering the interest of the group that was so dear to me that despite their own suggestions and even at the price of being exposed, I was not willing to give up any opportunity to lift the slightest weight off of their shoulders (for instance I used to go to internet cafes so that I might be able to edit a short report), my analysis of the given situation was that in a specific time period such as two to five years, would I be more useful for the organization as an imprisoned member who is willing to cover the prison news, or would I be more useful as a member working for the organization from “Turkey”? At the time when the organization was under sever attacks of the security and intelligence services of the country, not only did it lose many members to the recent arrests, but it also had lost 6 websites, 33 addresses and many of its other facilities were interrupted as well. in simpler words should I become a political prisoner or considering the given situation should I try to be the voice of the political prisoners and those who are silenced?!
Choosing the second option allowed my approximate one year of engagement with HRAI, to continue under refugee circumstances in a different country. The move and the lifting of security barriers, brought me closer than ever to the organization. About then, it was truly proven to me that the authorities and members of HRAI are faithful to their activism and are concerned about the human rights. Facing the place where one of the authorities of the organization lived and worked from at the City of Van in Turkey (which more than a home looked like a ruin with the only valuable things being, an old computer, a few hard drives and electronics) was an end to all the rumors that the security services had started to spread and publish about the organization. Some people unintentionally or maybe deliberately had shared and confirmed these propagandas, and were making it more difficult for this suppressed organization to continue its activism. Another assurance, was the sleepless nights and the consistent selfless work that I was witnessing, it did not matter how tired one would be; it was almost impossible to leave a shift without the replacement ready. The work was always superior to personal issues, and it was definitely impossible in that deplorable financial conditions, to replace the high-speed internet or telephone lines and more, with good meals. Of course such a lifestyle, that had become a part of my own life, was totally different from my previous lifestyle, but I had found so much faith and devotion in our group (brought on by the atmosphere in the group) that I was ashamed to even think about these problems. Imagine; when Farzad Kamangir3 was sentenced to execution or other prisoners are calling from the “Prison” to announce a “Hunger Strike”; then not only time would find a different meaning, but even the common occasions would lose their place. The dates of arrests, sentences and executions would replace the birthdays and such occasions. Not only I belonged to this organization and its members more than ever, but I was confident that I was blooming in the healthiest of atmospheres. It might sound like a propagandist slogan, but it is true if one day I was forced to consider two people with different believes as equal, today I deeply believe in it.
Many at that point believed that I would either intentionally or unintentionally seek a personal life, after the refugee period ends and by moving to a 3rd country.
The fifth story: It was a year and a month since I had moved to Canada and I tried with tooth and nail to not let their predictions come true, and not to seek and get lost in my personal life, during this period I even had set my sleeping time with the time of Iran. For many reasons, specifically financial hardships, I could not do so for too long. I had to find a full time job, and therefore I was becoming less and less active at HRAI to the point that, the around the clock working had given its place to writing a few news or reports per week, or even later to only 2 or 3 pages of reports per month. In fact I was truly perplexed; in one hand, I was constantly asking myself how essential, effective and important my work at HRAI was, especially that many more had started working for HRAI and I thought they could easily replace me. Almost every time I reached an answer abruptly; for instance, once randomly I answered the phone call of an inmate that used to contact HRAI regularly and was imprisoned at one of the border cities of Iran; he asked how I was doing and why I had been away for so long. When I told him why, he replied: “people like you are our only hope, and if you were to leave, this little window of hope would be closed.” In another hand it was disturbing that I had stripped myself from the satisfaction that a collective work had given me. In the past 6 years I had reminded myself many times of why I left my country behind.
These internal tensions and conflicts, the friendships that were and are increasingly becoming deeper and holier, and the group needing me, had resulted in leaving my fulltime job in order to be able to spend more time working for HRAI. We decided that it would be better if instead of HRANA, I continue my work for HRAI at its monthly journal the “Peace line”; ever since July 2013 till today.
The experience of 7 years of team work with HRAI, has led me on a different path in life. A path full of ups and downs, in which the flame of hope for an ideal future, might have dimmed at times, but has never burned out; and with any spark it has flamed higher. To me HRAI is not a “group” or “organization” but it is what I prefer to call a “family”; the family that I feel the sorrow and the happiness of its members and I would live their success and failure. Experiences have proven that they feel the same towards me. Honorable colleagues whom I love just like my own family, at times maybe even more. Not being beside these forgotten people while they are making the history; would only be possible, when I had forgotten and abandoned myself.
I am proud of that sacred moment of calm that I achieve by repeating this sentence to myself: “the truth will find its way!” when hearing unfair judgments or false accounts that intentionally and unintentionally are trying to stop us. I heard this sentence for the first time from Keyvan Rafiee, based on the testament of a prisoner before execution, with the explanation that “the truth is like the limpid water of an ocean that might be covered with foam and sludge, with time it is the foam that leaves and the limpidity that stays.”
I am proud to breathe in the air that once Farzad Kamangar and Seyed Jamal Hosseini had breathed in; all the difficult moments; arrests, sentences and the sorrowful moments of death or execution of a friend. To grieve or to stay faithful to the path once you have walked alongside them. Emotions and moments that I would not have experienced to this extend outside of HRAI.
With all that being said, I deeply believe there is a virtue in suffering that cannot be in happiness.
1- The name of a revolutionary hymn that was published in the album of “Sharare-haye Aftab” after the Iranian revolution of 1979. Lyrics are written by Saeed Soltanpour whom in 1981 was arrested by the Revolutionary Guards on the day of his wedding and after enduring 66 days of torture, has been executed. This hymn was used in 2009 elections for the Campaign of candidate Mir-Hossein Mousavi. Many of Iranians believe Mousavi and his followers had no right to use this hymn for their campaign; because the alternative nature of this hymn does not match their reformist believes.
2- Keyhan newspaper, Gerdab Website, and Fars news are some of the famous media of the Iranian regime, which are being controlled by the security forces. These media have tried numerous times to portray a false and evil picture of political and civil rights activists of Iran for the public.
3- Farzad Kamangar was a Kurdish-Iranian teacher who was executed at Evin prison in 2010. He was also one of the members of HRAI.
4- The footnotes have been added by the translator so that the non-Iranian reader would understand the text fully.