Update from Tehran, 15 June 2009

Dear all,

Yes, I wrote that the latest Letter from Tehran sent yesterday was our last epistle from this country, but given the daily events unfolding in the city, and considering the many messages we received in response to it (and which I am sorry I cannot answer in detail here, but thanks for every message!), I feel that I owe you an update. I won’t make it too long, and it won’t become a daily habit, promise (again).

The day started normal enough today, what with me bringing the kids to school and going to work afterwards. The city is always amazingly clean in the morning, there must be some clear-up squad bringing the streets into order overnight. I had anticipated more turmoil last night and another day with “work from home”, but the UN radio checks only mentioned “stay away from Qeytarieh park, don’t go to Valiye-Asr square”, and so on – nothing about staying away from the office. We followed the situation until midnight on the one information service that still works unfailingly, if not always reliably: Twitter. Although it has been barred officially, Iranians have found a way around the blocking service and twitter away like mad. Every minute sees everything between 500 and 2,000 updates when you filter it for #iranelection – try it. However, not all information is reliable, a lot of rumours are going around, and it is also believed that the system is used by “the other side” to distribute false information.

However, what eventually emerged as more-or-less confirmed news was repeated today by the eye-witnesses, my colleagues, in our staff meeting: 1 – the demonstrations are now less massive but wider spread – apparently also to other cities, although very little information gets through from there, and 2 – they are considerably more violent than the day before. We talked about it at length in the meeting, and practically all our 50 or so staff confirmed that they had witnessed beatings of demonstrators by either plain-clothes security forces, black-clad riot police with masks or helmet over their faces, or Basij forces (pronounced ‘Basid-sh’, these are the paramilitary forces directly under control of the country’s Supreme Leader; they are often recruited from poorer districts as young teenagers).

We were told that the riot police was equipped with brand-new motorbikes with which they were chasing demonstrators and practically any civilian in the way down the street, and even breaking into houses were those were seeking refuge – never mind if the victims were men, women, children, elderly, to beat them to the ground… Some reports indicate that the riot police spoke Arabic to each other, but that is unconfirmed. What is a big affront for Iranians, though, is to break into the sanctity of private houses to follow the demonstrators – this is only a habit since the 1979 revolution; I understand that under the Shah, the private home was off-limit.

There were also reports about gunshots fired by police, about shops being crashed and burned down by demonstrators, about people being beaten to death by police… however, much of this is not confirmed, although even the rumours about that are horrid enough. What, however, has emerged as well is that often enough it was plain-clothes police and anti-riot forces that were seen kicking in shop windows and laying fire to bank buildings… obviously in an attempt to discredit the demonstrators. In any case, there is no shortage of coverage of the events in Iran – just do a random search on Google, or on youtube, or on flickr, or on diggit, or on whatever other social network you can find. A good compilation can be found here (see right-hand top column).

As I write, we can hear people shouting “Allahu-Akbar” from their rooftops – God is Great. Now, one has to know that our neighbourhood is a very rich suburb in the north of the city, and although there are a lot of Ayatollahs allegedly living in the houses around us, nobody would want to be found dead shouting anything religious in public, especially in Arabic. This, in fact, is a cry of defiance against the election results, called for by the opposition groups – and you can guess why: because it makes their call look more in line with the state’s overall ideology. Meaning: we don’t want to topple the Islamic Republic, but we want our votes to count for something! Confusingly, also the current President has asked his supporters to shout the same thing…

BBC now reports of a huge protest in the city, with possibly millions of people, but very likely hundreds of thousands participating. Apparently, the police was equipped with live rounds for tonight, and one person was already shot dead. Jon Leyne, our BBC colleague here in Tehran, whom we had already thought on a plane to London (because many foreign reporters have been ordered to leave the country, and some news bureaus have already been closed), writes this on the BBC site:

I just came away from the protest. It was an incredible sight. A huge crowd, hundreds of thousands of people maybe even millions of people there in defiance of open threats from the government that they should not assemble.

While I was at the demonstration the security forces were staying well away from it. We were even able to film and usually the secret police come in straight away and stop you. But the crowds were so enormous they were stepping back. As we drove out we saw rows of riot police stationed on the highway.

If they have opened fire, that is going to really ratchet up this, it could be frankly a huge political mistake for those running this country.

The city is crawling with foreign media; the “crème de la crème” of Middle East reporting is in town: Christiane Amanpour, John Simpson, Robert Fisk, etc. And yet, we ourselves, living day-to-day in Tehran, have trouble to get the latest news from the mainstream media. It is ironic. As usual, I got the main English-language Iranian newspapers on my desk this morning, and not a single one, not one – and not to mention radio or TV broadcasts – writes the slightest bit about the demonstrations.

At our staff meeting, several of our staff were crying. Not (only) because they were sorry for the people that were injured, or arrested, or possibly dead (there were officially four demonstrators killed over the weekend – officially!). No, because our employer told them that they could not go and join the crowd, because as UN staff members they are not permitted to do so. It is a very emotional time here – I have never seen the Iranian colleagues so solemn, so committed to a cause, so personally involved. I am worried about them as well, especially tonight.

All is quiet on the rooftops now. But it is likely that protests will continue for quite some time, and more developments are perhaps in the offing, who knows. Stay tuned.

All the best to you,

from the Nitzsche Creatures

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