PEACE VIGIL: Images from the June 19 rally for the Iranian people at Portland State University. IMAGES by Aaron Mendelson and James Pitkin
They're calling it the Facebook Revolution.
As Iranian security forces routed mass demonstrations in Tehran last week, the Western press couldn't stop writing about how protesters were using Facebook, Twitter and YouTube to organize demonstrations, spread news and share videos of street battles.
In this case, the hype was true: Iranian-Americans in Portland confirm that social-networking sites played a key role during the crisis after the Iranian presidential election June 12. But the sites weren't helping only protesters. They also aided those who were tracking events and checking on loved ones in Iran from abroad.
"Other means of communication were shut down," says Goudarz Eghtedari, who works as an engineer for the City of Vancouver. "Web sites were either hacked or were not reliable. Facebook, and especially Twitter, were more reachable. It just spreads out to thousands of people who were following each other."
Eghtedari and others took WW on a virtual tour of the sites they rely on to follow events in Iran, including opposition candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi's Twitter feed, reporter-turned-activist Rudi Bakhtiar's Facebook page, and the blog iran.whyweprotest.net.
There were some unlikely surprises on the Web, like Italian-American actress Alyssa Milano's ardent support for the Iranian people on her Twitter page. But you don't have to delve far online before running across more tangible examples of the bloodshed—gruesome YouTube videos that appear to show protesters who have been shot. They bleed from their mouths, surrounded by wailing friends, while protesters loom to capture the scene on cell-phone cameras.
To get a firsthand account, WW contacted two Iranian women online in Tehran, both of whom previously lived in Portland. Both are in their late 20s. Their messages to WW, sent via Facebook and email, reveal the tension and fear that gripped the Iranian capital a week after the disputed election.
With Iranian security cracking down on bloggers and protesters, WW agreed to grant the women anonymity. Both Eghtedari and Mahnaz Milani-Baladi, an Intel engineer who helped organize a Portland rally June 19 in support of the protesters (see wweek.com), confirmed the women left Portland and now live in Tehran.
Both women wrote of the despair they felt seeing their hopes for change in Iran slip further away each day. Their spelling and grammar have been corrected for quotation here.
The first woman said she snuck out of her house to attend one protest after her family forbade her to go.
"It was really moving to watch the YouTube clips of those shot to death," she wrote on the afternoon of June 20. "I felt I owe to those who died in this, and I am no better than them to try to keep myself safe."
She wrote of the strain after six days of consecutive protests.
"Everyone is under pressure, or at least the people I have seen. My friends are mostly depressed, and only talk about this," she wrote. "We do not want to accept this, but these marchings cannot go forever. We need to get back to normal life."
After security forces staged a brutal crackdown on protesters in the final mass demonstration on the evening of June 20, she ceased writing.
"I am safe, but I am really scared," she said in her final message shortly before midnight that day. "This is getting really dirty, and I just am not sure how far they will go."
The second woman described the people's mood after the country's leaders ratified the disputed election results.
"They feel tricked and lost. Hopeless is what I would say," she wrote on June 20. "I go to work and then demonstrations. The days I cannot make it to the demonstrations, I sit and cry. That's my day and many others like me. No one can eat. My friends are all sick physically and mentally. And I am disappointed, at a loss, angry, and so many other emotions that I cannot find words to describe.
"My friends are arrested, and I cannot find them. No one knows. People just are disappearing. I don't feel safe going home, so I either stay with friends or have them come. I sleep hearing gunshots, and it's miserable."
On June 22, after the mass demonstrations were over, she said the oppression continued. But the protesters' chant of "Allah o akbar!" (God is great!) continued from the rooftops at night, she said.
"The voices they tried to silence and the spirits they tried to break were out in force," she wrote. "Chanting down the dictator, on and on and on and on, for hours. I am so proud and so saddened. We will not take it lying down."
Portland's Iranian-American community plans to hold weekly rallies every Friday until the crisis in Iran is over. For details, go to portlandstandswithiran.org.