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From Optimism to Outrage


11 Jun 2010 01:21No Comments

Scenes from a stolen election.

It was June 12, the day so eagerly anticipated. I had spent the last three months reporting on the presidential election campaign. I had come to Iran to improve my Farsi, and to explore. The opportunity to cover the elections had come through luck and a few well-placed connections.

Now, after all the rallies, the speeches, the press conferences, the moment for which we had waited so long had arrived. In the final two weeks of the campaign, Iran had seemed to enjoy a freedom and openness unseen in 80 years. Pro- and anti-Ahmadinejad crowds poured out into the streets after each debate.

My sister, two European reporters, Jacques and Nicholas, and I set out at dawn to cover the expected huge turnout. In central Tehran, at Hosseinieh Ershad, lines wrapped around several blocks. People braved the sun as it rose higher, hotter, waiting for the polls to open. When they did, people filed in quickly to escape the heat. Inside it was packed -- voters, press, cameramen, observers, security -- and hardly cooler. Outside, the length of the lines indicated that it would soon be a two- or three-hour wait to vote. A long day.

The greater the turnout, the better the chances for Mousavi, or so we believed. High turnout was the opposition's mantra. When I met up with my friend Reza, we greeted each other with smiles at the sight of the lines.

Mobilization had been the main challenge -- convincing people their votes mattered and getting them to show up at the polls. A few months back it had seemed that participation would be low. But as I followed the candidates to Ardekan, Yazd, Arak, Bandar Abass, and Mazandaran, I had come to believe otherwise. People were eager to speak out and wanted to be heard. Of course, the candidates still had to turn these voices into votes.

Seeing so many people was a relief. The desire for change was real. In the most recent elections for the Majles, low turnout and apathy among the Reformists had led to a victory for the principlists. Many friends and colleagues wondered if their votes would matter in this election either. That was the prevailing sentiment around Nowruz, when we couldn't imagine how big a deal the presidential campaign would become.

My sister stayed with Jacques and Nicholas, while Reza and I split off to meet a couple of American journalists. We encountered a friend of Reza's, Gilbert, near 7th Tir Square. We poked our heads inside a big government building -- again, massive lines. I looked at Reza, and we both nodded.

Early afternoon. We headed north. I decided to check out one last polling station, a mosque a few blocks from my apartment. The turnout was enormous. Hundreds and hundreds were in line, and there was an atmosphere of celebration. Outside, a man approached me. Barely able to check his excitement, he cried out, "Its even greater than Khatami's victory," referring to the Reformists' success in 1997. More people came up to us. One shouted, "It's a new revolution, a good revolution!" People's spirits were high, and they gushed with optimism.

Patiently waiting

Late afternoon. My sister and I, back home, were glued to the TV, waiting for updates. As the evening progressed, we heard strange reports from friends, colleagues, and the news channels. Earlier announcements had polls staying open late to accommodate the large crowds. But stories began to spread of polls forced to close early, of people waiting in line being turned away. Text messaging had been shut down all day. Worry crept into my gut. My confidence, which had been so strong, started to waver.

Many people had worried about the polling. A few days before, Interior Ministry employees had said that hardline Ayatollah Mesbah-Yazdi had ordered officials to rig the vote for Ahmadinejad. People had talked of bringing their own pens, because official ones were said to have "invisible ink." Might these conspiracy theories actually prove true? They started to weigh on our collective psyche. What was I to believe? All that energy, all across the country, was being squandered on nothing but a giant hoax? Surely that couldn't be the case.

Just a few hours after the polls closed, there was a news bulletin from Press TV. Ahmadinejad had won 70 percent of the 19 million votes or so that had been counted. I felt as if all my organs had sunk to the pit of my stomach. My mind erupted with questions: How did they count so fast? Why were communications cut off before the day started?

The Press TV anchor looked shocked, as well. He laughed nervously as he said, "There are still a lot of votes left to be counted." I laughed too, but the uneasy feeling settled in deeper and deeper as the night wore on.

I was woken up by my sister on the phone. From the way she sounded, things were not good. Mousavi had held a press conference claiming victory, but the message from the state-controlled media was unambiguous: Ahmadinejad had been declared the overwhelming winner.

Confusion, anger, and fear

My sister headed downtown to Mousavi's headquarters with Jacques and Nicholas. An hour later, my phone rang. "Hey, I just wanted to call and let you know that security just stopped and detained us. I'll let you know what happens," my sister said in a panic-ridden voice. I did my best to sound calm as I asked her what was going on, but the connection had terminated.

Upset and confused, I checked emails and websites for answers that clearly didn't exist. On Facebook, there were competing updates -- "Mousavi arrested" versus "Khamenei, Ahmadinejad, and Mousavi negotiating new election." Social networking sites were not reliable sources, yet there was nothing else unblocked. After about 15 minutes, I had had enough. My sister called. Thankfully they had been released, and were headed home.

Though they had a permit to film anywhere in Tehran, they had been arrested for shooting an "illegal gathering." That was how the police had characterized the scene outside Mousavi's headquarters. While I was fascinated by the story, Jacques and Nicholas were shaken up. Back at their hotel, they called their home office and asked to leave that night, cutting their trip short by several days.

Reza came by with a journalist friend, Yannis, visiting for the elections. We piled into his Citroën and headed to Fatemeh Square, still in search of answers. As we drove through the city, things appeared calm, but the mood was eerie.

Close to the square, roadblocks and tons of barricades had been set up. Suddenly, people began to appear on street corners. Spontaneous chants erupted. People clapped in unison, shouting, "Faqhat Mousavi!" (only Mousavi). The Supreme Leader's prepared statement, attesting that the election results were fair and legitimate, was read on the radio. We circled the square in silence. Confusion slowly gave way to full-blown anger. This wasn't OK. The government had been toying with the people of Iran, hyping the elections, making them seem open and free, and then yanking out the carpet from underneath everyone. They couldn't get away with this. The regime had become too arrogant. So much time, and energy spent, and this was the result?

Fifty yards away, dozens and dozens of motorbikes, each with a pair of Basijis, idled. We circled around again, while Reza's friend described the scene over the phone to his editors. Someone shouted, "Marg bar dictator!" (death to the dictator) and everybody joined in. I put my camera out the window. The angles I could get were limited, but I was too scared to extend my arms out.

Then the motorbikes rushed, right into clusters of people. I had never witnessed such violence in person. Yannis continued his play by play over the phone. The rest of us watched in shock. Reza was boldly circling Fatemeh Square for the eighth or ninth time, trying to comprehend what was taking place. As mayhem suddenly exploded right around us, we took the first available turn out of the square, but it was a dead end. People sprinted by, fleeing the violence. Reza made a hurried three-point turn in a street too narrow for his sedan.

Back in the square, the motorbikes continued to charge, preventing crowds from gathering. We sat in traffic, hearts racing. A few people ran by, handing out flyers describing when and where to protest next. My sister had to visit Jacques and Nicholas to help them with their departure that midnight. Reza, Yannis, and I returned to Vali-Asr, heading south.

Traffic was building, and so was the noise. Cars honked nonstop. Demonstrators set trash bins on fire, threw rocks at banks, vandalized public property. Crowds grew, security forces assembled, protesters stoned them. Traffic stopped moving entirely. Rocks flew by, one bouncing off of Reza's windshield. Yannis wanted to get out and document everything, while we begged him not to. Fear was setting in.

Traffic began to crawl forward again. I saw a park, children and their parents playing on the swings, while just a 20-second sprint away, security forces and protestors clashed. My sister called, saying she was walking down Vali-Asr with Jacques and Nicholas. I told her to stay where she was, as the scene was turning into outright combat. The more I described, the more excited she sounded. There was no stopping her.

Between waves of clashes, we took our first right, up a hill. We parked, got out, and watched the fighting from what seemed a relatively safe distance. Yannis went onto a nearby bridge to photograph what was happening. Cars drove past, doors open, helping people get around. My sister, Jacques, and Nicholas arrived. We exchanged smiles, happy to be alive, then traded stories. Yannis had finished shooting, and soon we hailed a cab for Jacques and Nicholas, asking the driver to take them to their hotel and then the airport. We said our goodbyes and got back in Reza's car.

A city in turmoil

The sun had almost set as we headed downtown to meet Gilbert for dinner. Along our route, few streetlights were lit, debris was everywhere, and smoke wafted from bins whose fires had only recently been extinguished. Basijis stood on the darkened corners wielding metal pipes and batons.

We met Gilbert at his hotel and decided to eat there. It felt surreal to sit for a casual dinner after what we had just seen. After finishing a meal we could barely taste, we went to the lobby to use the hotel's Internet and have a cup of tea. Every couple of minutes, there was the smell of smoke from the street fires or the noise of a Basiji gang of Honda motorbikes.

We chatted, savored tea, and purchased Internet cards. Services were slowed down, so it was impossible to check email. Most Western news sites were filtered. I had no clue what was really going on in the city around me, and no practical way of finding out. Yannis accessed the web on his mini laptop. He called us over to read the updates on Tehran Bureau. I was not familiar with the site, though I had heard about it from colleagues. That night, it was the sole source of news to come through at Ferdowsi International Hotel in downtown Tehran.

"Reports of many killed and injured in protests. People chanting 'Allah-o Akbar' (God is great) from rooftops." Yannis was itching to get out and investigate. We bid farewell to Gilbert, got back in the car, and drove again through the city back to my apartment.

Vali-Asr was strewn with shattered glass and other indications of massive unrest. Security forces lurked on the sides streets, in the shadows. Pickups were ferrying more of them northward. Soon we were back in bumper-to-bumper traffic. Cars kept honking, not at one another, but in protest. We sat for ten minutes. Finally, Yannis went to see what was going on. Many of the cars had shattered rear and side windows. My sister asked a girl whose car windows had been obliterated by baton strikes what was happening up ahead. "It is a day of vengeance," she replied. "Good things are happening. Good things!"

We began to move. Soon we came within view of a full-on battlefield, Basijis on one side, young protestors on the other, an imaginary line in between. Each side attacked in waves -- the Basijis with batons, the protestors with rocks. Along the edges of the battleground, teenagers smoked cigarettes before returning to the clash. A pedestrian bridge above had been set ablaze and partially collapsed.

Witness to popular resistance against dictatorial abuse, we felt invigorated by the scene. Reza turned right to avoid the battle area. He stopped behind a car next to an empty police trailer. A masked teenager appeared with a gas canister, emptied it into the trailer, and torched it. The trailer, hardly seven feet from us, went up in flames.

Three days before, people had been holding hands, debating passionately but peacefully. Tonight, they were running from batons and hurling stones. Tehran had done a complete 180 in less than 24 hours. A cheerful country had turned violent in disgust.

Slowly, cars started to move. Speechless and emotional, we headed back to my apartment. There my sister prepared her bed and Yannis banged out an article. I remember sitting silently, not knowing what to think, wondering what might possibly happen next.

Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau

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