She’s Fleeing Iran. But Not the Fight. – CNN One Thing

David Rind (Host)


It can be easy to take certain things in the U.S. for granted. Take protests, for example. You walk past a group of people chanting and holding signs on your way to brunch. You may not think much of it. Well, in some countries, especially those with repressive regimes. Protests are not a common sight. The decision to start one is not made lightly. Because in those places, protesting can get you killed. The people of Iran know this all too well.

Jomana Koradshesh


In scenes unprecedented in the Islamic Republic. A woman cuts her hair as the crowd cheers her on, chanting “death to the dictator.”

David Rind (Host)


For the past month, thousands of young Iranians, including many women, have taken to the streets, angry over the death of 22 year old Mahsa Amini and furious at a government that has long denied them basic rights.

The oppressive Iranian government has responded, as you might expect, killing dozens of innocent civilians in the unrest.

David Rind (Host)


My guest this week is CNN’s chief international investigative correspondent, Nima Elbagir. She recently traveled to northern Iraq to meet one young woman who fled the crackdown in Iran and is now taking up arms across the border from CNN this is one thing I’m David Rind.

David Rind (Host)


So Nima, there’s been a lot going on in Iran over the last month. Can you just catch us up? How did this all start.

Protests in Iran were ignited by the death in police custody of a 22 year old Kurdish Iranian woman known as Mahsa Amini, called by her Kurdish family and friends as Zhina. And she was detained by the morality police for refusing to cover her head. And her treatment really reignited this sense of dissatisfaction and upset that people had been feeling towards the regime. On a broader level with regards to the economic situation, with regards to the the violations of human rights. It really all coalesced around the fact that there was a sense that repression, extreme repression, had returned around the enforcements by the morality police of the moral codes in life, such as the wearing of the headscarf.

Jomana Koradshesh


This is what the Iranian regime doesn’t want the world to see.

The Iranian regime’s response has been twofold. So on the ground, there have been varying degrees of repression.

Jomana Koradshesh


Its ruthless crackdown on protests in the Kurdish city of Sanandaj has turned it into a war zone. Security forces moving around on motorbikes, terrorizing residents, shooting indiscriminately at protesters and into people’s homes.

We’ve seen extreme repression, almost a militarized repression. And eyewitnesses describing to us the mobilization of security forces, army, police forces, intelligence into areas such as the Kurdish majority west of Iran.

Protestor (translation)


The injured don’t go to hospitals because if they go there, plainclothes police will arrest them.

As protesters took to the streets of Iran following the death of Mahsa Amini, video clips of this uprising began to flood to the Internet.

But then also there’s been an attempt to repress the flow of information. So it’s not just repressing the exercise of the freedom of speech by the protesters and by these incredibly brave young women.

The Iranian regime has sought to cut them off from the outside world.

Starting with Instagram, then WhatsApp, then LinkedIn.

So closing off of access to the Internet, pulling down even landline services in a lot of the areas. And then what we have really seen from the Kurdish areas in Iraq, which should have really functioned as a safe haven for a lot of these people seeking to escape regime brutality is that we really haven’t seen the ability to cross the border to safety in the ways that people inside say that they have wanted to do, because there has been a real mobilization of forces around any areas that could provide a refuge or a safe haven for protesters.

David Rind (Host)


Right. So have people been trying to escape Iran, go across the border.

Some few, hundreds of families. So that’s several thousand people have been able to escape to Iraqi Kurdistan. But really, in order to get here, people are describing to us the most extraordinary risks, because a lot of these people who are seeking to cross over are people who are on regime hitlists. So they are unable to cross using the legal methods or using the legal crossing points. So some of them are describing to us using the kolbar, as the smugglers are known, walking for days attempting to circumnavigate revolutionary guard forces who are using live fire.

Nima Elbagir (Interview)


Thank you so much for speaking with us. Can I ask you, when did you come over from Iran?

We were desperate to try and find a way to speak to people in some degree of safety. And when we started hearing that, people had been able to cross over into the Kurdish areas in the north of Iraq, we traveled to Iraq to try and find them and speak to them. And frankly, people have been extraordinarily brave and sharing their stories with us.

David Rind (Host)


We’re going to hear one of those stories after the break.

David Rind (Host)


So now you’re in Iraq now. And before the break, you said you traveled there to meet people who had fled Iran after the crackdown started. What did they tell you.

And what made you want to come over?

We met a number of people. We met young women who have crossed over Kurdish Iranian women. One young woman, she asked that we call her by a name that’s not her real name, because her family is still inside Iran. Rezan, as she agreed to be called, had crossed over and joined with a Kurdish Iranian opposition group, a Kurdish Iranian armed group called Pak, that have bases here inside the Kurdish region in the north of Iraq, bases that have been in recent weeks targeted by Iranian drones and Iranian missiles and have provided safe haven for young women like Rezan. And it’s incredibly heartbreaking. And you really get a sense from Rezan at the the difficulty of the choice.

Rezan (Translated)


We were treating casualties, but we were also, like most people, participating in the revolution, in the uprising. Everyone who suffered from the oppression of the Iranian regime came down to the streets and market and defied the government. I was also participating and I had no fear of death.

Inside Iran, they risked their lives to cross to safety, outside of Iran. They risked their lives. Rezan especially told us the most heartbreaking story about the ways that the regime have targeted her family since regime forces became aware that she had crossed over and they threatened her family.

And in fact, her mother told her that essentially Iranian authorities were extorting. The family were saying to her mother that if you don’t give us back your daughter, if you don’t force your daughter to cross back over, then we will take another one of her siblings and we will take another one of her siblings and essentially take your children hostage until Rezan returns.

Nima Elbagir (Interview)


What is happening with your family?

Rezan (Translated)


So my family told them that no matter how many members of my family they arrest and for as long as they oppress my people, I will not surrender to the invading Iranian government.

Rezan said her mother’s response was to say that if I had 100 children, I would would rather give all of them up than have any single one of them live in fear and live in this sense of a lack of freedom. And so for someone like Rezan, who is only 19, they really didn’t seem to be a choice. She felt that this was a continuation of the fight, that she had attempted to fight peacefully inside Iran. And now the other alternative was to take up arms.

It’s impossible, really, to put yourself in her place, to put yourself in the place of a 19 year old who feels that her life, either way is threatened. And so she attempted to express to us that at least this way, if there was a sacrifice to be made, she wanted that sacrifice to count as she saw it.

David Rind (Host)


Wow. That really does kind of speak to the stakes we’re talking about here. I want to go back to one thing you said earlier about Mahsa Amini and the fact that that wasn’t her Kurdish name, that was her Persian name that she had to adopt to kind of steer clear of the authorities. How do those ethnic tensions factor into this conflict?

There is this foist farce ification. This idea that the minorities within Iran must be homogenous and to be homogenous is to have an official Farsi name. And all of the women that we spoke to, the Kurdish Iranian women that we spoke to, said that they saw themselves in in the pain that Mahsa lived with, that Mahsa was not her true name. That was the name that was officially registered for her. And it was a Persian name that each one of them has a Kurdish name that is not reflected in their official documentation. That is not the name that they are called at school or at university or at work. And so a lot of the Kurdish Iranian women we spoke to said it was really important for them when they heard activists around the world in a very well-meaning way, saying, say her name, Mahsa Amini, to correct that, to say know her name to us, her name was Zhina.

David Rind (Host)


And so I guess my last question is, do you feel like these protests, this wave of anger against the regime will make any kind of lasting difference? Because we’ve seen, you know, protests, peter, out in the past and even in Ukraine just this week, we saw Iranian made drones raining down terror in Russia’s war against Ukraine. It just seems like the regime’s influence has not waned any despite all this anger and this uprising.

Well, I think I mean, I think that’s the question. Right. I think the reality is that the regime certainly seems to be responding as if it believes these protests are an existential threat to them. But when we speak to Iranians, especially the Kurdish Iranians that we’re speaking to, there is a sense that the world is not standing by them.

Because what we’re not doing is we’re not gathering enough documentation to be able to somehow hold the Iranian authorities to account.

That there have been no real steps taken by the international community, that there have been no real concrete steps taken by the United States, by President Biden, by Congress, to recognize and to provide some sort of sense of safe harbor or that there could be consequences for the regime if it continues to violate the rights fundamentally of its own people. But even just with regards to the people attempting to cross over to safety here in the north of Iraq, to violate the fundamental rights under international humanitarian law to safe haven.

The reform movement is dead. Everybody on the ground in Iran wants the theocracy gone. And that message needs to our policy with Iran needs to reflect what’s happening on the ground over that.

And yet beyond, as one woman put it, empty words of support that aren’t backed with any real condemnation that the regime feels on a visceral level. They really feel alone. And I think that that was something that perhaps even I hadn’t realized, because I was watching this all play out in social media and the hashtags and people retweeting and retagging things, but in a very real way, the women and men risking their lives on the streets, in the cities in Iran feel that the world is not really standing by them.

David Rind (Host)


Nima, thanks very much. Stay safe out there.

David Rind (Host)


One Thing is a production of CNN audio. This episode was produced by Paola Ortiz and me, David Rind Matt Dempsey is our production manager. Faiz Jamil is our senior producer and Greg Peppers is our supervising producer. Special thanks. This week to Barbara Arvanitidis, Alex Platt and Mark Barron. And before we go, just a quick favor to ask if you’re enjoying the show, if you’re learning something new. Just leave a rating and a review wherever you listen. It really helps us out. And frankly, we just really like hearing from you. We’ll be back next Sunday. Talk to you then.


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