Camp Liberty: Left at the mercy of a murderous regime
It’s a relief to know that most people have not experienced the wrath of an oppressive regime the way I have. I am lucky for being able to flee the Iranian dictatorship’s evil. Sadly, however, there are thousands of such people stranded and desperate for escape in and around my homeland. They have experienced far worse than I did as a teenager living in Iran.
In Camp Liberty, Iraq, there are approximately 3,000 Iranian exiles living in a sparse temporary encampment. Members of the main Iranian opposition, the Mujahedin-e Khalq (MEK), most left Iran as a last resort to Camp Ashraf and later to Camp Liberty. They are fighting against a brutal dictatorship that stole the Iranian revolution in 1979.
I was a teenager when the Revolution occurred. In 1981, I was nearly kicked out of high school for writing essays that implied I might be critical of the Revolution – an unpardonable sin under the Khomeini regime, regardless of whether or not you were just a kid half-heartedly completing a homework assignment.
You can probably imagine what the consequences were if you were determined to be an actual anti-government activist. As the Iranian theocracy consolidated its rule, my stained academic record came to haunt me. The government’s tight screening system prevented me from being admitted to universities and I was arrested before I could start my life, accused of being an MEK supporter. As it happened, that wasn’t true, as I wasn’t even interested in politics at the time.
But it was during my time in prison that I realized how terrified the regime was of the MEK, its supporters, and its political prospects. I saw young, battered teenage girls and boys limping around after having been tortured, and I heard horrible stories of men and women walking to their deaths day after day. Ironically, although I did not begin my sentence as a supporter of the MEK, I left prison as a fervent sympathizer. I knew that the MEK was Iran’s answer, but I also knew I could not make change happen from within the ruins. I set about securing a student visa to study in the United States and escaped my crumbling home for the land of the free.
I was one of the lucky ones, but as a strong woman, I also felt a certain sense of shame for not staying at home to fight a regime that had nearly ruined my life. So, I can’t understand why the United States government and the world community don’t feel the same degree of shame for dealing with such a tyrannical regime while marginalizing its legitimate opposition. In 2004, the United States declared all MEK members at Camp Ashraf as protected persons under the Geneva Conventions after they handed over their only means of self-defense to the U.S. And now, after thirty five years of coordinating their opposition to the Ayatollahs from just across the Iranian border, the MEK has been abandoned and forgotten by the people who should have been their closest allies. The organization has been exposed to the whims of the Iranian and Iraqi regimes that want every last MEK member dead. Every time I check for the latest news from Camp Liberty I feel as powerless as I did when I was a teenager being taken to jail as a political prisoner.
Still, I can barely begin to imagine how the residents of Camp Liberty feel. Most of them have lost close friends and family members in recent months after Iraq military forces, friendly to the Iranian regime, attacked the MEK’s former residence of Camp Ashraf. On September 1, 2013, they killed more than fifty unarmed people, many of whom were shot in the head while their hands were tied. Still more died in a series of rocket attacks on Camp Liberty. And all the while there is virtually nothing that the surviving victims can do but wait for a free country to muster either the will or the resources to offer them the kind of protection I was blessed with so long ago.
If the U.S. generously granted me a student visa in the 1980s, why is it refusing to offer asylum to political exiles whose lives are now at risk? I wish I knew the answer. The government owed me nothing, but it does owe something to MEK members in Iraq, because it promised them protection. I cannot understand why that protection was withdrawn, considering that the US understands that Iran is the most dangerous regime in the middle east today. And now virtually nothing stands between it and its sworn enemy, the MEK. No one should be left at the mercy of a murderous regime. I can’t imagine where my life would be today if I had been.
Homeira Hessami is the President of the Iranian-American Community of North Texas, a member of the Organization of Iranian-American Communities.