The day I fled Iran in terror and left my family behind – a journalist's story

One year ago, after a disputed election, a popular uprising almost brought down the Iranian regime. Saeed Kamali Dehghan risked his life to report on the green revolt – but then he made the agonising decision to flee to the UK

A gloomy Saturday morning. I was sitting on a bench in the departure lounge of Tehran's Imam Khomeini airport waiting for my boarding call when the public address blasted into life: "Flight number 747 Tehran to London is delayed. All passengers should wait in the lounge for further announcements."

The sense of panic descended, my stomach began to churn. "They're coming for me," I thought. There was nowhere to hide. I couldn't go back through immigration control. I had to wait. I had no way of destroying the 15 videotapes I had put in my suitcase, already packed into the belly of the plane, the result of an intense month's work. Those films of my secret interviews in Iran could ruin my future if they were discovered.

Was that silent phone call I had received in the middle of the night not accidental after all? Was it more sinister? Were they looking for me? This is the way in which many opposition figures, and especially journalists, have been arrested since the election – here in this very airport lounge, or even on the plane just before take-off.

I found myself going in and out of the toilet every 10 minutes. Whenever anyone new entered the lounge, I had a sharp shiver of fear, like salt on a wound – "he's the officer, he's the one coming for me". I tried to hide my face from people coming into the room, fearing that they were looking for me.

Only a month before, I had left my partner in London and returned to my home country, to Tehran, to find and film the family of 26-year-old Neda Agha-Soltan for the first time. She had become the symbol of Iran's struggle for democracy after she was shot dead on the streets by militiamen. Her final moments were captured on jerky mobile phone footage in the aftermath of the country's "stolen" election last June. Within hours, the grisly images showing blood seeping out of her mouth became the defining moment in the uprising against the Iranian regime – and a rallying point for a protest movement in need of a hero.

And here I was, in the lounge of the airport and with those 15 tapes of interviews. Before coming to the airport that morning my mother gave me a small Qur'an to keep in my bag, without knowing of the existence of the tapes, "to have God protect me". I put it beside the tapes, hoping: "Oh God, protect them!"

It was a couple of months after the election when I left Iran for London. My work in reporting what was happening inside the country to foreign media outlets had led to me being given a sinister warning from the intelligence ministry to get out. I fled Tehran with my partner to start a new life, one in which our relationship would not be forbidden and which gave us the chance to live together for the first time. But even with him here with me, from the beginning of our new life in London I had a weird feeling. I felt guilty. I felt like a traitorous member of crew who had abandoned the sinking ship, exactly the same feeling as Lord Jim in Joseph Conrad's masterpiece. The only thing to do seemed to be to go back to Iran.

Tehran was completely changed when I returned, only months after the election. There was no sign of the euphoria and enthusiasm of those few weeks before 12 June last year when the presidential election had brought hope to an oppressed people who believed their vote for change could bring about a better life, under a new, reformist leader. Now all that hope was gone. People were more frustrated than ever; they looked tired as they got on the metro in the mornings. There was no sign of those distinctive green wristbands, of the T-shirts that the brave young protesters had worn in support of their candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi.

Time had passed, thousands had been arrested, hundreds killed, many raped and tortured. This was like a city after a war, a war that had left not ruined buildings but ruined hearts. The city seemed oppressive, with sad faces, lost hopes and a dark layer of pollution hanging in the sky. But what was clear was that the people had a new awareness, a new maturity to their political lives. This was the capital of the country I had lived in all my life. This was where, only a week before election day, excitement and anticipation had emerged when Mousavi won a remarkable TV debate with the hardline Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

This was the city where I had witnessed an exceptional outpouring of happiness among Iranians for the first time in so many years, hoping that change was coming to their political lives. It was Saturday, only one day after the election, when news spread that Ahmadinejad had been re-elected in a rigged vote masquerading as a landslide victory. Two days after the election, the riot police attacked Tehran's university campus, the place where protest was brewing. That night more than 100 students were arrested and tortured in the basement of the interior ministry, while on the floors above people were still busy with the election. Five students were killed that night.

On Monday 15 June, Tehran saw one of the largest rallies it had ever had. More than three million people poured onto the streets in a silent protest. The government couldn't even bear a peaceful demonstration. That night 12 protesters were killed near Azadi (Freedom) Square. The government began rounding up and arresting journalists and political activists. Foreign journalists were expelled and those in Iran were banned from reporting.

For me, a 24-year-old engineering graduate who had practised journalism for a couple of years, this was an exceptional moment, not only because I was one of the few journalists still in the country and could report for the foreign media, but because this was a critical moment for the people. I was first and foremost an Iranian.

I had already had articles published in the Guardian and the Observer, but the election changed everything for me. For the first time I was writing every day and my reports were reaching the front pages of the Observer.

One day, I was on the back of a motorbike. A friend was helping me to get from one place to another in Tehran and my agents, Global Radio News (GRN) in London, called and said: "Saeed, in five minutes you have to go live on CNN." With no broadcast experience, I was suddenly live on TV for the first time on the back of a motorbike in the middle of a city in chaos. They loved it and I gave more than 50 live TV interviews to different broadcasters in June alone, most of the time appearing anonymously.

But the mood was tense and getting worse, especially for me. I lived in panic, changing my phone number, spending my time in different places and keeping my head low. In so little time my life had turned upside down.

The election had changed the lives of Iranians. There were numerous reports of arrests, rapes, tortures and hangings. It changed my life, too. Thought of as a "spy" for the work I was doing in helping to let the outside world know what was going on in Iran, I was no longer safe. I was inching closer to exile. On one of those days in Tehran, my family and I were invited to the house of one of our conservative relatives. In the middle of the dinner a cousin said: "Saeed, you should always keep the problems of your country to yourself. It is not a good thing to write about them in a foreign media." I was red with anger.

Only weeks before the election, my partner and I had been wandering the streets of Tehran looking for a cheap flat to share in a country where the punishment for our relationship, should it be discovered, was a public execution. We would be hanged. After the threats, we left and became exiles in London. Ironically, the authorities there also suspected us of being spies, this time for the Iranian regime, and the UK Border Agency at the airport met us with suspicion and hostility.

Yet there I was last December, having gone back to Tehran again with the intention of letting the outside world know what was going on in my country. The family of Neda were brave enough to speak at length of what had happened to their daughter, of their belief that she had been killed by government forces and of the type of violence that the regime was prepared to unleash on citizens who wanted to make a peaceful protest against a blatantly unfair election process.

Those 15 tapes of film I had shot would further expose the betrayal of the people by their government and would go on to be seen around the world. But sitting that day at Tehran airport, I had no idea if I was ever going to be able to leave my native land with that film, I had no idea if I was leaving for ever. On the public address the woman again announced that there would be a delay for a couple of hours. This was the same airport that my partner and I had come through to flee Iran, a day I remembered vividly. We were driven to the airport, accompanied by my mother, who didn't have any idea – and she still doesn't – that when we reached London it would be for a life together.

This time it was just me; he was safe in London. Would I see him again? Finally, after three hours, I had my answer. The co-pilot had overslept, which was why we were delayed. On the plane I took two sleeping pills and within six hours I was in London. Not for nothing is my name Saeed, "lucky" in English.

Saeed Kamali Dehghan is a co-producer of the documentary film 'For Neda', a Mentorn Media for HBO production.


Saeed Kamali Dehghan

The GuardianTramp

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