By Barbara Grady
The Mercury News, April 18, 2011 – A young Iranian journalist who lived in the East Bay for most of her childhood was among 34 Iranian exiles killed in Iraq on April 8 in a clash with Iraqi forces, her relatives in El Sobrante and Albany said.
Asieh Rakhshani, whom aunts, cousins and uncles remembered as always smiling, talkative and an avid basketball player when she was in school in El Cerrito and Albany, was living in a camp of Iranian dissidents inside Iraq known as Camp Ashraf, when Iraqi security forces visited and a clash ensued.
The United Nations reported Thursday that 34 residents of the camp died, mostly from gunshot, in a raid on the camp by Iraqi security forces. Reporters without Borders identified Rakhshani as one of those killed. She was filming the raid for IRANntv.com, the organization said.
‘I’m like her mother,’ Rakhshani’s aunt, Ensieh Yazdan, said through tears in a recent interview in
Albany. Rakhshani lived with Yazdan in Richmond and Albany for about 12 years until 1999.
‘They sent her here to be safe when she was 6 or 7 years old, and she stayed with us until she finished school,’ said Yazdan, now living in El Sobrante. Rakhshani rejoined her parents in Camp Ashraf in 1999 after graduating from Albany High School, according to the Yazdan family.
As news of the raid emerged, a tight-knit community of Iranian-Americans living in El Sobrante, Albany, El Cerrito and Berkeley gathered at residences and at Solano Avenue shops to discuss the raid and console each other.
‘This is a crisis,’ said Nazrin Saifi of Albany. ‘Most of us have family or friends in Camp Ashraf.’Saifi has a cousin in the camp.
Most of the local Iranian-Americans left their homeland in 1979 and 1980, shortly after the revolution that brought Ayatollah Khomeini and the government of the Islamic Republic of Iran to power.
Many of them are political exiles unable to return. Some have become involved in dissident political groups, particularly the National Council of Resistance of Iran and its political party, the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran or PMOI. Residents of Camp Ashraf are members of the PMOI.
The United States government lists the PMOI as a foreign terrorist organization stemming from its violent tactics of armed resistance against the IRANian regime in 1980s. It was responsible for numerous bombings and assassinations in that time. In 2001, the PMOI renounced violence and the
European Union has since removed the PMOI from its own list of foreign terrorist organizations.
In 2003, residents of Camp Ashraf disarmed themselves as part of an agreement to receive U.S. security protection for the camp after Saddam Hussein was removed from power. Hussein had invited the exiled dissidents to live in Iraq. But last year, the U.S. handed jurisdiction over the camp to the new government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, along with efforts that returned governance of the country to Iraq. Since the al-Maliki government is Shiite and the camp residents are Sunnis, they have lived a strained existence inside Iraq.
After the raid, the Iraq government said it wants to close down Camp Ashraf by the end of the year and relocate its residents.
California members of the PMOI have been petitioning the U.S. government to protect camp residents and remove the organization from its terrorist list.
‘It is not just a political matter anymore it is a human rights issue,’ said Hamid Azimi, an Albany resident who is spokesman for a group called the IRANian American Community of Northern California.
Azimi said now that the raid has occurred, getting the PMOI off the terrorist list is even more important.
That is because the U.S. cannot send medical supplies or humanitarian aid to a terrorist organization, nor can it accept refugees who are labeled terrorists.
However, the U.S. government did send in some medical supplies this week, according to Associated
Press reports. Further, the State Department said it hopes ‘to negotiate’ some kind of assistance with resettlement of the residents with the Iraqi government.
In the days following the raid, friends and relatives of Rakhshani and others in the camp have been visiting offices of California’s Congressional delegation, pleading for assistance in getting medical supplies to the wounded in the camp and U.S. military protection of camp residents.
‘We’ve been visiting all the Congressional offices,’ said Mojgan Fahima of Berkeley, including those of Reps. Barbara Lee, D-Oakland, John Garamendi, D-Walnut Creek, and George Miller, D-Martinez, as well as those of Sens. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., and Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif.
Press aides to Boxer and Lee said their offices told the families they would look into what they can do.