Exiled Iranians on hunger strike after clashes in Iraq

25 08 2009

By Sebastien Malo
Daily Star staff

BEIRUT: When the world is not listening, the UN is not speaking out, and journalists, NGOs and lawyers are barred from witnessing and reporting your suffering, what is left to do? This is the question that the Iranian exiles trapped in camp Ashraf, to the north of Baghdad, have been asking themselves since demands that they abandon the camp culminated in violent clashes with Iraqi forces some three weeks ago.
The exiles’ response is an act of desperation by their own account. “It’s 55 degrees, we are hot and weak, but we are on a hunger strike all the time,” says camp resident Barak Safa, 37, in one go, noticeably eager to share his story.
Hundreds more, according to the exiles’ spokesperson Shahriar Kia, have been lining up on Ashraf’s main street and participating in the strike, which had been maintained for 25 days on Monday.
They hope their actions will make their requests more forceful. Iraqi forces should leave the camp, they say, a US or a United Nations force should protect it, and the 30 or so camp residents who were arrested during the clashes – some of them wounded – should be released.
“The hunger strike is unlimited,” says Barak Safa, a 37-year-old camp resident, hinting at the fact that if the situation is not resolved, things could turn for the worst. “I will try [to endure the strike] even if I die,” he adds, setting aside any possible misunderstandings.

Teynan Mojallal, 39, is another Iranian dissident on hunger strike in camp Ashraf.
“My spirits are high,” he says. “But I have continuous pain, my eyesight is weakening.”
Again, he reiterates the same mantra that others on strike have repeated before: “This is what we expected. We are here until the end.”
The phrase can almost sound overly dramatic. But Ashraf hosts some 3,500 more Iranians who, like Safa and Teynan, have been in limbo for over two decades, and see their camp as a shelter of last resort.
Several thousand members of the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran (PMOI) set up camp in Ashraf in 1986 after falling out of the Iranian government’s favor.
On January 1, Iraq re-claimed its sovereignty over the camp, which the US had been defending since former Iraqi President Saddam Hussein’s ousting in 2003.
Iraq has made it clear it wants the group out, its members resettled in a region further from the Iranian border, and ultimately sent back to Iran or to third countries.
But under the current circumstances, the future looks bleak. Iraq, along with the US, considers the PMOI a terrorist organization, making the exiles’ resettlement abroad or their normalization in Iraq a tough sale.
The PMOI, meanwhile, is fearful of returning to Iran.
“Of course I miss Iran,” says Safa. “But we don’t want to be tortured, executed, etc. [if we return]” he adds.
Stuck between a rock and a hard place, camp residents have been fighting to remain on the the international community’s radar, fearing that a momentary lapse of attention could result in the Iraqi government charging again, as it did last month.
On July 28, several hundred were wounded and 11 confirmed dead following a face-off between Ashraf residents and Iraqi police and military forces.
“I couldn’t believe the things I saw. They were beating the men and women I had known for years,” says Teynan. “We made a human wall to try to block them from entering. They started to throw stones at us.”
Mahrokh Ghassari, a 47-year-old mother, says she rushed to the camp’s main gate when she heard of the confrontation.
“One of the casualties was the son of my best friend, his name was Hannih. He was shot by the Iraqi forces,” she says.
An unchallenged account of the clashes remains to be established. The Iraqi government claims that no excessive violence was used, while the residents accuse Baghdad of having unleashed its military might indiscriminately on them. Journalists have not been allowed inside the camp ever since.
Several prominent human rights organizations – including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch – have called for an investigation into the deaths of camp residents.
Meanwhile, camp residents say they are anxiously preparing for a second confrontation. This time, Mahrokh says, “definitely, we will defend ourselves.”

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