Five years in exile: Iranian reporter Nazila Fathi

Night time on the streets of Tehran. A car drives swiftly, yet carefully, to the nearest airport. In the backseat three pairs of anxious eyes gaze out of the passenger car windows.

Nazila Fathi sits between her father and her mother-in-law, her young son and daughter perched on her lap.

Beneath them the streets roll out like a stained grey ribbon under the car tyres, the tarred roads now scarred by politics, civil unrest and the blood of the people whose stories Fathi had risked her life to tell.

Fathi burrows her head behind her children, hiding, as the streets and the memories pass by.

In the humid, heady night of June 30, 2009, New York Times reporter Nazila Fathi is escaping from Iran and from the threats against her life.

After three weeks of reporting on the political demonstrations that have rocked her homeland, she has been told she will be shot be snipers if she stays.

“I don’t remember much about the day I left because I was too nervous,” said Fathi. “I was very concerned for my safety. My kids were very young, my sources had all been arrested and my assistant had disappeared. I remember the tension and the fear.”

Five years on from that desperate drive through the night and Fathi is still in exile from the land she used to call her home.

As a reporter for the New York Times, Fathi had covered the demonstrations that had shaken Iran since June 12, 2009 after the government opposition accused elected President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of falsifying the results of the Iranian elections.

Within 24 hours of the results being announced, protestors had hit the streets. What followed would be weeks of civil unrest and violence which Fathi would dedicatedly report on until she herself became a target.

“After the protest they banned reporters from going out and covering the demonstrations,” said Fathi. “There weren’t that many reporters on the ground at that time and I think I was easy to single out.”

With her soft brown curls and dark eyes, Fathi had become a regular sight on the streets of Tehran, particularly as the violence escalated and she became one of the few remaining journalists reporting from the ground.

“I don’t know exactly what put me on the government radar but I think they were looking for scapegoats,” she said. “I think they thought the Western media were some kind of spies.”

Fathi’s concern for her own safety increased three days before her eventual escape from Iran when she realised that she was being followed and that her home was under surveillance.

“I remember seeing people outside my home,” Fathi recalls.  “I remember thinking that if I was taken, I might not see my children for months and months.”

Fathi escaped with her son and daughter to Canada and has spent the last few years living in Boston and Virginia, with a move to Maryland planned in the next few days. America, she said, has been warm and embracing, and has good opportunities for her children.

The family’s exile has not been without sacrifice though. When they fled Iran, Fathi’s parents remained behind, splitting the once close family apart.

“When we left my son was five years old and my daughter was three and a half,” said Fathi. “They were very close to their grandparents, they saw them every day. My son used to call my father his best friend.

“When we left they were afraid something would happen to their grandparents but we explained to them that mummy would be in danger if we went back.”

Fathi’s father is now 85 years old, and the family worry that they might not have enough time left to see him. Despite five years passing since her flight from Iran, Fathi said she is still not able to return to her homeland.

A new president, Hassan Rohani is now in power who Fathi said she believes is “definitely genuine” though has “limited power” to enforce the changes Iran needs.

“I wouldn’t go back yet because I think most of the changes we see are in terms of nuclear policy and not in freedom in civil society,” she said.

“Those I know who were arrested are still in prison. They have never been released. In terms of giving freedom to more people in Iran nothing has changed.”

“I miss everything about Iran; my home, my parents, its people…Iran was my home,” adds Fathi. “I left my roots behind. Even if I had emigrated by choice I would have missed it anyway but I left without closure.

“I keep wanting to go back to see things again and have that closure. I want to say goodbye to my homeland.”

Nazila Fathi’s account of her time in Iran is due to be published in her book ‘The Lonely War: one woman’s account of the struggle for a modern Iran’ on December 1, 2014. 

Image courtesy of Jos van Zetten Creative Commons license. 

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