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Albania: a new Eldorado for the Iranian resistance

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Translation by:

Eugène Varlin

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Having survived the bloody assaults of government militias in Iraq, their previous host country, a group of opponents of the Iranian regime have settled in Albania with the help of the United Nations through its refugee agency, the UNHCR. There they have recreated a community, a society and values that are the opposite of the mullahs’ policies. Are they preparing to return? At Achraf 3, the name of their new refugee community, a militant tells us about his fight.

However long the road and however many the pitfalls, Mohammad Shafaei has made his ancient country’s freedom his life’s cause. The Iranian IT engineer has been living for just over a year at Achraf 3, a small community built in Albania to house some three thousand members of the Iranian opposition. “Achraf 3 is the last stop on our long journey to overthrow the dictatorship”, says the young militant resolutely, smiling but determined. “It’s a gathering place for Iranian democrats who, after suffering the worst excesses of the totalitarian regime, have decided that the time has come to take effective action to achieve political change in Iran.”

Achraf 3, a miracle in the land of Mother Theresa

Mohammad’s story is that of the suffering and the struggle of thousands of men and women of the People’s Mojahedin Organisation of Iran (PMOI). The historical movement of resistance to the regime of the Islamic Republic of Iran had been in exile in Iraq since the 1980s. In the PMOI narrative, the Western powers, pursuing a policy of appeasement with Teheran, turned a blind eye to the repeated massacres of the militants, disarmed by Iraqi militias and special forces allied with Iran. In 2016, however, one European country paid heed to the warning cries of the PMOI refugees.

“Albania, which has also experienced periods of oppression in its history, finally heeded the calls from Achraf”, says Mohammad, who has lost most of his family in Iran. “The successful evacuation of the 3,000 survivors to Tirana angered the mullahs, the clergy who govern Iran. They had done their best to destroy us with assaults and rocket strikes backed up by a cruel medical blockade. Our community suffered heavy casualties, with a total of 167 dead and 1,400 wounded.”

“Helping us is a capital offence in Iran”

Mohammad, a member of the Iranian resistance

Albania, the land of Mother Theresa, may be a small country but its people have a big heart. For the first time, both the government and the opposition united to give refuge to the PMOI. The surviving Achrafians from Iraq bought land on the Adriatic coast, 45 minutes from the capital, Tirana, to establish their new community. That was in November 2017 and there was no water, no power. “We had to pipe in water from 12 kilometres away and install a complex pumping, purification and storage system to ensure a regular supply of clean drinking water to the camp”, explains Mohammad, who also helped to build the new PMOI headquarters on what started out as a vast field of mud.

With remarkable skill and energy, the members of the Iranian resistance built their new settlement in twelve months, with the help of money provided by the community itself and some supporters in Iran, despite the risks involved. “Providing financial assistance to the PMOI is a capital offence in Iran. One sympathiser, Gholamreza Khosravi, was executed for raising money for the Resistance TV channel”, exclaims Mohammad indignantly.

Little by little, meeting rooms, clinics, shops, kitchens, bakeries and sports facilities emerged. Walkways and avenues, flower beds and fountains have miraculously transformed the site into a welcoming, modern community. The Achrafians now have houses and have integrated into the local population. The Albanians have discovered Persian art and culture with their Iranian neighbours, who regularly organise cultural and political activities in the camp on the theme of the Resistance. “The Albanians respect our struggle. When we get together, I try to learn something of their rich history and culture as well”, says Mohammad with enthusiasm.

The two people’s history is not that different. Nowruz, the Persian New Year, is also celebrated in Albania. A country of some 4 million inhabitants, it has also experienced periods of oppression and injustice in the past. In the 15th century Skanderbeg, Albania’s founding father and a Resistance symbol, led his people’s heroic struggle against the Ottoman occupation. Raising the flag bearing his emblem, a black two-headed eagle on a red background, over the royal palace, he is said to have told his people: “I did not bring you liberty, I found it here among you”.

A movement headed by women

A third of the 3,000 inhabitants of Achraf 3 are women. The youngest of the militants is 22, the oldest 73. Airlifted out of Iraq, many of them suffered wounds inflicted during repeated attacks by Islamist militias taking their orders from Teheran. “The medical blockade imposed on them made the situation even worse”, laments Mohammad.

Their energy and conviction has made these members of the resistance movement a source of hope for the 80 million Iranians who yearn for the end of Islamist oppression. They see the Achrafians’ defence of their values as a symbol of democracy and a driving force to turn Iran into a country of freedom and justice. The mullahs’ regime has accused the PMOI and its networks of sympathisers in Iran of instigating the popular revolts that flared up across the country between December 2017 and January 2018. They have continued since then in the form of strikes and protests against despotism and the rising cost of living. Following the PMOI’s action, “hotbeds of resistance” sprang up inside the country, taking part in social movements and demonstrations. The movement rejects all foreign intervention, drawing on resistance from within to advance the cause of regime change for and by the Iranian people. In reaction, the mullahs’ Supreme Leader, Ali Khamenei, accused opponents of his regime of being “hypocrites”, a pejorative religious term used by the mullahs to designate the PMOI and emphasise that they are not true Muslims.

For 40 years now, the PMOI has argued that it is the victim of a policy of physical extermination and a virulent campaign of demonisation by the regime. 30,000 political prisoners and PMOI sympathisers were executed in 1988 alone, accused by Teheran of “belonging to a sect”, “waging war against God (moharebeh)” and “supporting the United States”. Amnesty International denounced it as a crime against humanity and insisted that the Iranian authorities stop destroying the dozens of mass graves in an attempt to erase the traces of their barbarity. Yet the Supreme Leader recently appointed one of the main perpetrators of the 1988 massacre, Ebrahim Raissi, as head of the country’s judiciary.

Human rights organisations also denounce Ali Khamenei’s regime for having condemned Nasrin Sotoudeh, an Iranian lawyer and winner of the Sakharov Prize in 2012 for her peaceful action against injustice, to 38 years in prison and 148 strokes of the lash. Mohammad Shafaei too has paid a heavy price for the cause of human rights in Iran. With his sister Zohreb, they are the only survivors of a family of six, slaughtered in the bloody repression carried out in Iran in the 1980s.

“How can this Achraf camp and its 3,400 people cause such murderous hysteria on the part of the mullahs?”

Jean Ziegler, Swiss sociologist

“My parents and my 16-year-old brother Majid were executed along with fifty or so other PMOI sympathisers in August 1981. A year later my other brother Javad, a 27-year-old student, succumbed to torture in Evin Prison. My 24-year-old sister Zahra and her husband, both academics, were killed in the street”, remembers Mohammad. “My father Morteza, a much-appreciated doctor in Isfahan, couldn’t stand the mullahs’ obscurantism. My mother Effat was a women’s rights activist and had taken part in demonstrations against the requirement to wear the veil in May 1979.”

Headed by women, the PMOI movement stands as the antithesis to a fundamentalist regime which regards gender equality as an existential threat to the country. “Regime change is a necessary step in the fight for equality, as women well understand”, says Mohammad, full of indignation at the mullahs’ misogyny. “Iranian women are a force for change and the remarkable involvement of women in the recent demonstrations in Iran was identified by the authorities as the driving force behind the upsurge of popular resentment demanding the end of the Supreme Leader’s regime.” The PMOI has built its idea of society on the equal participation of women in the country’s political leadership.

Iran, a pariah in Europe

In Albania, Mohammad is a member of the Resistance movement’s IT research team. His work involves helping users in Iran to get round censorship of the internet. “The authorities are trying to restrict access to the web in order to stop opponents from organising or guiding demonstrations and strikes”, he says. The Resistance TV channel broadcasts on Telegram, the country’s most popular encrypted messaging app. According to Mohammad, “about 40 million people use Telegram in Iran, which is one in two in a country where Facebook and Twitter are also blocked but accessible if you use a VPN (virtual private network)”.

Not a week goes by without the official media issuing warnings against the danger of the PMOI’s activities. The official press agency FARS said on 10 March that “cyberspace and social media in particular are now the main field of operations for the hypocrites (the People’s Mojahedin). Taking advantage of the capacities of their 2-3,000 members in Albania, they are using the main resources at their disposal to influence Iranian society”. Iranian society is young, urban, feminised, connected and permanently open to the wider world via the internet. But one major obstacle is holding back its dynamism and immense potential: the stranglehold of religion on politics.

Jean Ziegler, the well-known Swiss anti-globalisation campaigner and sociologist, said of Achraf, after two massacres perpetrated against its inhabitants: “How can this Achraf camp and its 3,400 people cause such murderous hysteria on the part of the mullahs? The answer is […] that if there is a place, a focal point, however small in numbers, population or territory, which stands for the values of democracy, of liberty, of international solidarity, it is intolerable for any tyranny, because that place constantly destroys the legitimacy of the tyrannical regime. The mullahs have fully understood the danger that Achraf represents.”

In 2019, the regime’s unrelenting opposition to the movement remains intact. As well as imprisoning and torturing sympathisers inside the country, it is even ready to commit acts of terrorism abroad, targeting its opponents with attacks in Albania, France, Belgium, the Netherlands, Denmark and Norway. On 8 January, the Council of the European Union unanimously decided to add to the EU terrorist list an Iranian intelligence unit involved in planning large-scale attacks against rallies of the movement in Tirana and Paris in March and June 2018 respectively.

The targets of the foiled attacks included the PMOI’s president, Maryam Radjavi, and many international personalities who have championed the movement. The Iranian ambassador to Albania was expelled by the country’s government, which intends to protect its refugees. Assadollah Assadi, a senior Iranian diplomat at the embassy in Vienna, was arrested by European intelligence agencies and is awaiting trial in Belgium. He had provided powerful explosives to the agents responsible for the planned attack at Villepinte, near Paris, foiled before it could be carried out.

In her speech to the gathering of tens of thousands of Iranians of the diaspora, Maryam Radjavi set out the programme for a free Iran: “Our call is to build a society founded on liberty, democracy and equality. Its red lines will be the demarcation from tyranny and dependence, and from sexual, ethnic and class discrimination. We have defended and continue to defend equal treatment for women and men, the right for people to dress as they choose, the separation of religion and the state, autonomy for minorities, equal political and social rights for the entire Iranian nation, abolition of the death penalty, freedom of expression, of party, of the press and of assembly and the freedom to form unions, trade bodies, associations and councils.”

Celebrating the Iranian New Year on 20 March, at the same time as the spring equinox, the Iranian resisters were optimistic about their country’s future, confident that the year 1398 in the Persian calendar will bring changes in that ancient civilisation. It was in Persia that Cyrus the Great, founder of the country’s greatest empire in antiquity, issued the first declaration of human rights. The Cyrus Cylinder, a Persian treasure dating from the 6th century BCE, contains texts on strong subjects such as freedom of worship, the abolition of slavery and the free choice of profession. Today, after 40 years of Islamic dictatorship, little trace of that humanist heritage remains.

“With the economy in meltdown and fundamental freedoms curtailed, the regime of the Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei has created an abyss between itself and the people”, says Mohammad. “It is not so much American sanctions that are the primary cause of the disaster as the squandering of the country’s resources on costly military projects with Iranian extremist groups and the Assad regime in Syria.” Iranian democrats are not willing to tolerate such disorder. “Achraf 3 today represents a cradle of hope and resistance which inspires a population incensed by years of repression and privation”, insists Mohammad. “We will do everything in our power to enable the people to take control of their own destiny.”

Translated from L'Albanie : nouvel eldorado des résistants iraniens