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How a citizens' network harbors Iranian protesters

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For months, Leila barely saw any sunlight.

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

Her life is now largely confined between four walls, in a house that is not hers, with people she had never met until a few weeks ago.

Leila was in the crosshairs of from iran government for years because of her work as a civil rights activist and grassroots organizer. She was forced into hiding in September, when a warrant was issued for her arrest following the outbreak of protests across the country over the death in custody of Mahsa Aminia young woman accused of flouting the country’s laws on the compulsory wearing of the hijab.

Since then, while the security forces monitor her house and her family, Leila has taken refuge with strangers. An anonymous network of concerned citizens – “ordinary people” connected by a common mission to protect protesters – who quietly support the movement from a distance by offering their accommodation to activists in need.

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

Leila tells her own story, and the stories of those who courageously hide her, show that in addition to the extraordinary displays of public anger taking place in the streets of Iran, “the struggle against the regime continues in different forms”.

“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 either,” she said of her current location.

Leila – who has spent time in some of Iran’s most notorious prisons for her activism in the past – has long given a voice to those the regime would prefer to remain silent, advocating on behalf of political prisoners and protesters under threat of death. ‘execution.

CNN has verified documentsvideo, testimonies and statements from inside the country that suggest at least 43 people may face imminent execution in Iran in connection with the current protests.

Using only a phone burner 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 the purpose of helping them stay safe and alive.

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

But as time goes by, Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps seems to be stepping up its efforts in its hunt for Leila.

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

To speak with loved ones, Leila relies on third parties to transmit notes through encrypted messaging services, using code words in case Iranian security forces monitor their conversations.

“There are listening devices in our house,” she said. “That’s why I don’t call my family anymore.”

For years, Leila’s life was interrupted – interrupted by periods of imprisonment and prolonged interrogations – all at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s notorious security apparatus.

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

Over the past five years, Iran has been gripped by waves of protests over issues ranging from economic mismanagement and corruption to civil rights. One of the most visible displays of public anger came in 2019, when rising gas prices sparked a sweeping uprising that quickly met deadly force.

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

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

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

She had started a local business, enrolled in a college course, and was working with a therapist to acclimate to normal life and deal with the trauma of years of incarceration.

That all changed days after Amini’s death, when Leila knew she had to play an active role again in the protests that filled streets across the country with chants of “Women, Life, Freedom.”

Alongside her family, she began taking part in marches – sharing the names and stories of detained protesters on her social media.

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

“They wanted to silence me as soon as the uprising happened after the murder of Mahsa Amini…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 flee Iranian security forces. Leila, however, took a leap of faith and decided to go into hiding, after a “trusted friend” she had met through an activist network set up her first safe house for her.

The journey took hours, and there was only darkness.

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

She continued to move in the weeks and months that followed. Smuggled in the night, never knowing its final destination.

“The first place I was, the owner was very scared, so I finally left for another place.”

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

In order to live completely off the grid, Leila no longer goes to get her medication or consult doctors or health professionals.

She also stopped accessing her bank account and went so far as to exchange her savings for gold, which someone sells to her from time to time, when she urgently needs money.

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

“I breathe and I work.”

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

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

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

“The response of the Islamic Republic has always been repression and violence…I hope for a miracle and that this situation ends as soon as possible for the good of the people.

“Just like when I was in prison and solitary, I get better with the hope of freedom,” she said.

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