Sunday, 25 October 2009
Iraq: The unthinkable happened on July 28th
On October 7, as the sun came up and I sat in my little prison cell in a suburb of Baghdad, I realized this could be the last sunrise I would see.
I always loved the sun. It is particularly gorgeous this time of year in Baghdad. But I was too frail to stand up to see it. I could have asked for help as I was surrounded by 35 friends. But none of them was in a position to help.
It was the 72nd day of our hunger strike, the last seven a dry hunger strike, meaning that for the past seven days we had refused to even take water. There was a deafening silence in the room. Each minute I and my friends knew our lives were ebbing.
Though I was in an Iraqi jail, I am not Iraqi. I am Iranian who has lived in Iraq for the past 23 years. All 36 of us are Iranian dissidents. all 3,400 of us live in a place called Camp Ashraf, a self-sustained community about 60 miles north of Baghdad. It was built by my relatives and friends, all members of the opposition People's Mojahedin of Iran (PMOI).
Residents of Ashraf lived in peace side-by-side with their Iraqi neighbors until the 2003 invasion by the U.S. and its Coalition allies. Then, we handed over our arms to the U.S. voluntarily and signed agreements with the U.S. to remain where we were as protected persons under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
We were content to remain in Ashraf, live our lives in peace and strive to achieve our goals. But, when the U.S. signed an agreement with the Malaki government in Baghdad to withdraw its forces over the next two years, the rulers in Tehran saw an opportunity to try to remove a thorn (the PMOI) from its side.
Given the tumultuous state of affairs in Iran after the rigged elections, it was more imperative for the clerical regime to destroy its arch enemies. The mullahs prevailed on their friends within the Iraqi government to move on defenseless and civilian Ashraf residents.
The unthinkable happened on July 28: Iraqi forces, trained by the U.S. and using American grenades and humvees, raided Ashraf and started using fire arms three hours after the raid. Eleven people were killed, 500 wounded, and 36 - my friends and I - were taken away.
We were severely beaten. We were severely wounded as the result of the beatings and being run over by Iraqi humvees, with some suffering broken limbs. We all staged a hunger strike to protest our illegal arrest and the physical and psychological torture during detention. Our journey to an unknown future began.
After days in a makeshift cell outside Ashraf, we were taken to a prison in the city of Khalis. The judge, after reviewing all the evidence, issued three consecutive verdicts for our immediate release. But the Iraqi government ignored them.
Instead of being released, on October 1, we were beaten in our cells and taken ultimately to al-Muthana Prison in a Baghdad suburb. That's when we decided not to take in water, even though we knew we were fighting the clock.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International, the International Federation of Human Rights, World Organization Against Torture, Human Rights Watch, and the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, and hundreds of parliamentarians, Members of U.S. Congress and international figures, emarked a campaign for our release.
On that sunny morning, as my life ebbed, my mind was on all the years that had gone by. One thought kept coming back: My ultimate dream of a free and democratic Iran; this was the goal that first had taken me to Ashraf as a young man and had given me the impetus throughout this saga.
I had lost the sense of time when the door to our cell was opened. I saw more troops. What did they want on our last day? What is left to be said? They knew we would not cave in to their demands.
But they said we were released and were going back to Ashraf. Our hunger strike and the international pressures compelled Iraqis to release us. We arrived there, on the verge of death, and were taken immediately to receive urgent medical care.
Now, I am hardly back on my feet and can enjoy the beautiful sun again - and I have a story to tell. But why should anyone listen?
The reason is simple: what happened to us can happen to others unless something is done to protect the defenseless residents of Ashraf. The mullahs want them eliminated, and regrettably they have the ear of Baghdad now that the U.S. is leaving.
It is essential that a permanent UN monitoring team be deployed in Ashraf to prevent further attacks and our forced displacement as well as to ensure the safeguarding of our fundamental rights and protections under the Fourth Geneva Convention.
Also, the U.S. government must keep its agreement with the people of Ashraf that U.S. forces will protect them at least until the end of 2011, when the American withdrawal is completed.
And the world must watch what happens because it will be an indicator of which way Iraq is going - further into Tehran's camp or into a new future as a true democracy in the Middle East.