For three months, six women and one man have been sitting outside the US embassy in London and starving themselves in the cold. The group—who are all middle-aged British residents—are subsisting on nothing but water and sugar lumps to protest against the killing of 52 residents and the alleged kidnapping of seven others at Camp Ashraf, Iraq on September 1.
In case you're not particularly well versed in the minutiae of the world's many refugee camps, Ashraf was home to over 3,000 exiled Iranian dissidents. It also acted as the headquarters of MEK, a leftist organization that wants to overthrow Iran's government. The camp was seized by US forces after their invasion of Iraq in 2003 and eventually handed back to the Iraqi security forces in 2009. Since then, tensions between MEK and the Iraqi government have resulted in several outbreaks of deadly violence. In 2012, most of the camp's residents were relocated to Camp Liberty, a former US military base on the outskirts of Baghdad. Around 100 stayed at the old camp to sell off property and goods that had been accumulated over the years, and 52 of them were killed at the beginning of September.
The hunger strikers allege that this massacre was carried out by the Iraqi security forces and demand that the USA and the UN guarantee protection for the remaining Iranian dissidents in Camp Liberty. They claim that those left in Iraq don't have proper access to food or medicine and say they will be persecuted if they are deported back to Iran. The Iraqi government naturally disputes the group's claims. Haider al-Akaili, a member of the Iraqi committee investigating the incident at the behest of the UN, has said the he believes the attack should be blamed on an "unknown militant group."
According to Amnesty International, "Video footage and photographs showed that many of the 52 had been shot in the head, some while handcuffed. Eyewitnesses from the camp said they had seen the seven people in handcuffs being beaten, thrown to the ground, and then taken away in a white minibus." That report goes on to say that seven hostages "were transferred under tight security to an unofficial detention facility in the former al-Muthana airport in central Baghdad at the end of September," and that "unconfirmed reports have suggested that they are in the custody of the Iraqi authorities."
Last Thursday, on the 89th day of their protest, I went to Grosvenor Square in central London to speak to the hunger strikers. I found their tarpaulin tent in front of the embassy's gates and was greeted and questioned by two men before I was granted permission to speak to the protesters.
"We are all victims of the regime of Iran—we have all lost family in Iran," said Faizaneh Majidi. As I spoke to her and Susan Alijani, they showed me photos of relatives who they say have been executed in Iran and took me through each of their stories.
"My brother was 16 years old [when he was executed], and my aunties and my uncles were executed from 1981 to 1997," said Faizaneh. "Three of my relatives are in Camp Liberty now, and these people are innocent; they are intellectuals and academics and they have sacrificed themselves for democracy and for freedom. That’s why they are represented by the Iranian resistance. When I first heard of the attack on September 1, I thought, I can't stay at home. I can't think or do anything. I just thought, We have to do something."
When I asked what it would take for them to call off their hunger strike, they listed their demands. First, Susan told me, they want the seven hostages to be released. Secondly, they want "blue helmets"—UN peacekeepers—to be deployed at Camp Liberty to protect the remaining Iranian dissidents. "If we die, the US is responsible, because they have broken their promises," said Faizaneh.
As I spoke with to the pair for about 30 minutes, they seemed to grow weaker by the second and I felt like my questions were draining what little energy they had. I was starting to feel pretty uncomfortable for making two clearly exhausted protesters talk at length about their deceased relatives, so I left them to speak to Touran Ranjbar, who explained that she had been admitted to a hospital the previous night because her health was deteriorating.
"I’ve got pain in all of my body," she told me, "in my heart, my eyes. My blood pressure and blood sugar levels jump up and down. I’m dizzy and I’ve got headaches. One of the 52 who died was my childhood friend and over 3,000 people’s lives are in danger at Camp Liberty." At Camp Liberty she said, "they can't get water, they can't get medicine, and they can't get food—nothing. They don’t get it to them; that’s why we're here.
"We don’t want to die, we don’t want to be hungry, and we don’t want to sleep on the street in cold weather, but our hands are tied," she said. "This is the only way and they have put us in this situation. I choose to die, so at least I can save the others' lives. This my choice."
I spoke to Fatima Abdi and her husband next, with their friend translating their stories for me. Fatima explained that she was protesting because her cousins had been executed in Iran and she fears that the dissidents in Iraq will meet the same fate if they are sent back. "One cousin was 16 and the other was only 13," she said. I asked what their crimes had been and Fatima explained that they'd been detained and executed after being caught in possession of anti-government literature.
Fatima’s husband said that he had been detained in an Iranian jail from 1981 to 1988, where he was beaten and tortured; today he suffers from various disabilities as a result. He was subjected to two mock executions—he'd be blindfolded, then told he was going to be shot, then a gun was fired next to his head.
When I asked what his charges were, he said he didn't know, but remembers that he too was in possession of anti-establishment literature. He says he also witnessed the bodies of political prisoners who'd been executed being loaded onto trailers and towed away.
Though today there is a lot of noise about Iran's "moderation," political executions are still common in the country, and it's no huge stretch to suggest that dissidents would be prosecuted if they were found to have anti-government literature today.
Though Iraq is continuing to investigate the massacre at Camp Ashraf, the protesters are demanding that an independent investigation be launched on the grounds that a government probe into deaths that may have been caused by the government isn't likely to be impartial.
The hunger strikers told me that various members of UK Parliament have visited them, but so far no one from the embassy or the UN has come out to hear their demands. And as the days drag on and their conditions worsen, it's hard not to wonder if they will have to be hospitalized—or worse—before anyone agrees to investigate the deaths of their comrades at Camp Ashraf.