By Stephen Magagnini
Asieh Rakhshani chose to leave her comfortable Northern California lifestyle to join a controversial Iranian democracy movement based at Iraq’s Camp Ashraf.
That choice apparently cost the 30-year-old journalist her life April 8, when Iraqi soldiers killed 34 unarmed Iranian expatriates after a confrontation over control of the camp’s northern section, the United Nations reported.
“My sister was one of the seven women killed,” said Hamid Yazdanpanah, a UC Davis and McGeorge School of Law graduate whose parents raised Rakhshani as their own until she left to rejoin her activist parents at Camp Ashraf in 2000.
Rakhshani was filming the pre-dawn attack when she was shot to death, said Yazdanpanah’s mother, Ensieh Yazdanpanah. “She wanted to live in a free Iran. She was sending lots of messages of hope to youth in Iran. … She was full of life and joy.”
Ensieh Yazdanpanah and dozens of Iranian Americans have protested in Washington, D.C., for medical care and assurances that people still in Camp Ashraf will not be massacred. “I lost my daughter, but I hope to prevent other attacks,” she said.
The U.S. State Department has condemned the violence against Camp Ashraf – longtime headquarters of Mujahedeen-e-Khalq, or MEK, “the people’s freedom fighters.”
MEK is considered controversial, and is on the U.S. list of terrorist organizations.
Until MEK surrendered its weapons in 2003, it had a long history of terrorist attacks on Iranian officials dating back to the fall of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi in 1979, including the 1981 assassinations of the prime minister and former president.
Group backed Saddam
MEK sided with Saddam Hussein in his victorious war against Iran. Saddam allegedly used MEK troops as security against dissidents throughout the country, including the Kurdish independence movement.
The new Iraqi regime has “had ample time to investigate these allegations and charge MEK officials, and they haven’t,” said Hamid Yazdanpanah.
“From the beginning, there’s been bad blood between them and the Iraqi government, who saw them as accomplices with Saddam’s regime,” said Abbas Milani, director of Iranian studies at Stanford University.
“When that regime fell, there was no place to go – nobody wanted them,” Milani said.
“They were disarmed and essentially allowed to stay there, but sooner or later it was clear something like this would happen.”
The U.S. government “is deeply troubled by reports of deaths and injuries” at Camp Ashraf, said State Department spokesman Mark Toner.
“This crisis and the loss of life was initiated by the government of Iraq and the Iraqi military. … We reiterate our call for the Iraqi government to live up to its commitments to treat the residents of Ashraf humanely, in accordance with Iraqi law and their international obligations.”
When the U.S. combat mission ended in Iraq, the fate of Camp Ashraf was left completely in Iraqi hands.
Since many of the 3,400 people in the camp have received paramilitary training, they aren’t eligible to enter the United States as refugees. Several hundred who renounced MEK returned to Iran.
Asieh Rakhshani was born in Karachi, Pakistan, where her parents and other Iranian dissidents had fled in the early 1980s.
They moved to Camp Ashraf, but when the first Gulf War broke out in 1991 “all children (were evacuated) from the camp and her parents sent her to live with us in Sacramento,” said Hamid Yazdanpanah.
Asieh Rakhshani graduated from south Sacramento’s Union House Elementary School.
The family moved to Suisun City in 1993 and later to Richmond and Albany, where Rakhshani graduated from high school.
She rejoined her parents at Camp Ashraf in 1999 to fight for a free Iran, “because she felt it was her responsibility to continue her family’s struggle,” Hamid Yazdanpanah said.
After the shah fell and MEK lost a power struggle with Shiite clerics, thousands of MEK supporters were tortured and executed.
Rakhshani’s aunt and uncle were among those put to death, Hamid Yazdanpanah said.
Medical help unavailable
At 4 a.m. on April 9, the Yazdanapanahs got a phone call at their El Sobrante home from Rakhshani’s mother, Afsaneh Asadhi, in Iraq.
“She said, ‘We don’t know why they attacked the camp. … Suddenly they started to shoot. Rakhshani got shot in her stomach and her leg,’ ” recalled Ensieh Yazdanpanah. “I said, ‘Why couldn’t you save her,’ and Asadhi said, ‘She lost lots of blood, and there wasn’t any medical help. More than 200 people were wounded very seriously.’ “
The 3-square mile camp, about 67 miles from the Iraq-Iran border, includes a lot of open land that Iraqi farmers want back.
On Jan. 6, 15 busloads of protesters showed up at the camp, tossing rocks and bottles at those inside.
The Iraqi army, which guards the camp, gradually pushed its way inside, where residents formed a human blockade until the army attacked April 8.
The Iraqi government has not explained the attack, but it would like those in the camp to be out by year’s end.
“It is absolutely a tragedy in the making unless the international community splits these people up among several countries and has the U.N. monitor those who want to take the risk of coming back to Iran,” said Milani of Stanford.
“Regardless of what you think of this organization, these are people who are not armed and (are) at the mercy of their error-prone leadership on the one hand and a very angry Iraqi regime on the other.”