How a network of citizens is welcoming Iran’s protesters


For months, Leila has barely seen the light of day.

“I miss being outdoors…I miss being able to walk freely,” he told CNN. “I miss my family, my room.”

His life is now largely confined to four walls, in a house that is not his own, with people he – until a few weeks ago – had never met.

Leila has been in the spotlight of Iran’s government for years because of her work as a civil rights activist and grassroots organizer. She was forced into hiding in September when an arrest warrant was issued after national protests erupted over the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a young woman accused of breaking the country’s mandatory hijab laws .

Since then, while the security forces are chasing her home and her family, Leila has taken refuge in the homes of strangers. An anonymous network of concerned citizens – “ordinary people” connected by a shared mission to protect protesters – who quietly support the movement from afar by offering their homes to activists in need.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many protesters are being held in Iran, but CNN has spoken to several people who, like Leila, have left their homes and families behind to escape what has become an increasingly violent state crackdown. .

Leila says her own story, and the stories of those who bravely hide it, show that in addition to the extraordinary displays of public anger unfolding on the streets of Iran, “the fight against the regime continues in different ways”.

“I came here in the middle of the night. It was dark. I don’t even know where I am and my family doesn’t know either,” he said of his current location.

Leila, who has spent time in some of Iran’s most notorious prisons for her activism in the past, has long provided a voice for people the regime would prefer to remain silent, advocating on behalf of political prisoners and protesters facing execution.

CNN has verified documents, videos, witnesses and statements from inside the country that suggest at least 43 people could face imminent execution in Iran in connection with the current protests.

Using only a burner phone and a VPN, Leila continues her work today, communicating with protesters in prison as well as families with loved ones on death row, sharing their stories on social media, in an effort to help keep them safe and alive.

“The comments and messages I receive are very encouraging. People feel good to see that I am active now and that I am with them [during this uprising].”

But as time goes on, it seems Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps is doubling down on its search for Leila.

“Every day a car with two passengers is constantly parked in front of my family home… They have repeatedly arrested several of my relatives and friends. In their interrogations, they ask: “Where is Leila? Where is she hiding?”

To talk to her loved ones, Leila relies on third parties to transmit notes through encrypted messaging services, using code words in case Iran’s security forces are monitoring her conversations.

“There are listening devices in our house,” he said. “That’s why I never make phone calls to my family again.”

For years, Leila’s life has been on hold – interrupted by periods of imprisonment and prolonged interrogation – all at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s notorious security apparatus.

“They tortured me psychologically, they kept me in solitary confinement. They threatened and humiliated me every day.”

Over the past five years, Iran has been hit by waves of demonstrations over issues ranging from economic mismanagement and corruption to civil rights. One of the most visible displays of public anger was in 2019, when rising gas prices sparked a radical uprising that was quickly met with lethal force.

A portrait of Mahsa Amini at a demonstration in Istanbul, Turkey, in solidarity with the protests in Iran.

Before the recent protests sparked by Amini’s death – which many see as the biggest threat the regime has faced so far – Leila was trying to rebuild it.

“When I got out of prison life was very difficult for me, but I tried to create little ways out for myself.”

He had set up a local business, enrolled in a college course, and was working with a therapist to adjust to normal life and deal with the trauma of his years in prison.

All this changed a few days after Amini’s death, when Leila learned that she had to take an active role once again in the protests that were filling the streets across the country with chants of “Women, life, freedom” .

Alongside her family, she began joining the marches, sharing the names and stories of the arrested protesters on her social media.

Almost immediately, threats from the Iranian authorities to send Leila to prison began again, and then the order came.

“They wanted to silence me as soon as the uprising happened after Mahsa Amini was killed… I knew that if I wanted to stay and continue my activities, I would have to hide from their sight.”

Countless Iranians have been forced to cross borders to escape Iran’s security forces. Leila, however, took a leap of faith and decided to go underground, after a “trusted friend” she had met through an activist network set her up with her first safe house.

The journey took hours and there was only darkness.

“I wore a mask. I lay down in the car so no one would notice me. I didn’t even go out to go to the bathroom or eat.”

It has continued to move in the weeks and months since. Smuggled overnight, never knowing its final destination.

“The first place I was, the owner was really scared, so I ended up going somewhere else.”

“[Another] The person I stayed with was very nice and supportive of my efforts,” she said.

In order to live completely off the grid, Leila is no longer picking up her medication or seeing any doctors or medical professionals.

He has also stopped accessing his bank account and has gone so far as to exchange his life savings for gold, which someone sells to him from time to time, when he needs cash urgently.

As is the case with so many ordinary Iranians who are the driving force behind the protests, Leila’s life has “practically come to a standstill”.

“I just breathe and work.”

“I’m not afraid of prison. Maybe a lot of people think we were afraid and that’s why we hid, but that’s not the case.”

“The only thing I fear is that if I am caught and sent back to prison, I will become a faceless name…unable to help the cause and the movement, like countless others who be sent to prison and never heard from again.”

For now, Leila says the only thing keeping her going as the weeks in hiding turn into months, is the distant hope that one day she might live in a free Iran.

“The response of the Islamic Republic has always been repression and violence … I hope that there will be a miracle and that this situation will end as soon as possible for the benefit of the people.”

“Like when I was in prison and solitary confinement, I’m getting better with the hope of freedom,” he said.

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