How a network of citizens offers protection to Iranian protesters


Leila hasn’t seen much sunlight in months.

“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 limited to four walls, in a strange house, with people she had never met until a few weeks ago.

Leila has been in the Iranian government’s crosshairs for years because of her work as a civil rights activist and grassroots organizer. She was forced into hiding in September when an arrest warrant was issued for her after nationwide protests erupted over the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a young woman accused of violating the country’s mandatory hijab laws to have.

With security forces stalking her home and family, Leila has since sought refuge in strangers’ homes. An anonymous network of concerned citizens – “ordinary people” linked by a common mission to protect protesters – who are quietly supporting the movement from afar by offering their homes to activists in need.

It’s impossible to know exactly how many protesters are being held in Iran, but CNN has spoken to several people who, like Leila, have left their homes and families to escape an increasingly violent crackdown by the state.

Leila says her own story and the stories of those who bravely hid her show that alongside the extraordinary displays of public anger unfolding on Iran’s streets, “the struggle against the regime continues in various forms.”

“I came here in the middle of the night. It was dark. I don’t even know where I am and neither does my family,” she said of her current whereabouts.

Leila – who has spent time in some of Iran’s most notorious prisons for her activism in the past – has long been a voice for people the regime would rather remain silent, and advocates for political prisoners and protesters facing execution .

CNN has verified documents, videos, testimonies and statements from inside the country that suggest at least 43 people linked to the current protests in Iran could face imminent execution.

With only a Burner phone and a VPN, Leila continues her work today, communicating with protesters in prison and families with loved ones on death row — and sharing her stories on social media to keep them safe and alive.

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

But as time goes on, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards appear to be redoubling their hunt for Leila.

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

To speak to her loved ones, Leila relies on third parties to forward notes through encrypted messaging services and use code words in case Iranian security forces monitor her conversations.

“There are listening devices in our house,” she said. “That’s why I never call my family anymore.”

For years, Leila’s life has been disrupted – punctuated by periods of imprisonment and lengthy interrogations – all by the Islamic Republic’s notorious security apparatus.

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

For the past five years, Iran has been plagued by waves of demonstrations on 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 full-scale riot that was quickly met with deadly violence.

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

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

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

She had started a local business, enrolled in a university course, and was working with a therapist to adjust to normal life again and to cope with the trauma of years of incarceration.

All of that changed within days of Amini’s death, when Leila knew she had to once again take an active role in the protests that filled streets across the country with chants of “women, life, freedom.”

Along with her family, she began joining the demonstrations and sharing the names and stories of protesters who were arrested on her social media.

Almost immediately, the Iranian authorities began threatening to send Leila back to prison – and then the arrest warrant came.

“They wanted to silence me as soon as the uprising took place, after Mahsa Amini was assassinated… I knew that if I wanted to stay and continue my activities, I had to hide from their eyes.”

Countless Iranians have had to cross borders to flee Iranian security forces. However, Leila took the leap of faith and decided to go underground after a “trustworthy friend” she met through a network of activists set her up with her first safe house.

The journey took hours and it was only darkness.

“I wore a mask. I got in the car so no one would notice me. I didn’t even come out to use the bathroom or eat.”

She has continued to move in the weeks and months since then. Smuggled through the night without knowing their final destination.

“The first place I went the homeowner was very scared so I ended up going to another place.”

“[Another] The person I was staying with was very kind and supported my efforts,” she said.

In order to live completely independently of the power grid, Leila no longer picks up her medication and no longer goes to doctors or medical professionals.

She’s also stopped accessing her bank account, going so far as to trade her life savings for gold, which someone sells to her from time to time when she’s in dire need of cash.

As with so many ordinary Iranians who are the driving force behind the protests, Leila’s life has “virtually stopped”.

“I breathe and work.”

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

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

Leila says the only thing keeping her going for now as weeks in hiding turn to months is the distant hope that one day she could live in a free Iran.

“The Islamic Republic’s response has always been repression and violence… I hope for a miracle and for this situation to end as soon as possible for the benefit of the people.”

“Just like when I was in prison and in solitary confinement, I am bettering myself with the hope of freedom,” she said.

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