20 October 2012

The Lost Honour of Neda Soltani

Some images are iconic - think of Kim Phuc or Sharbat Gula... if you don't know their names you will know their photos. Neda Agha Soltan, who was murdered by Baseej thugs  was the icon of the protests against Ahmadinejad's fraudulent election win in 2009. I missed this Guardian articlewhen it was published last week. It is quite shocking

Neda Agha Soltan

Her face adorned a thousand placards and posters, an emblem of the failed Iranian uprising.
 Unfortunately, it wasn't herwell not always....  As 26-year-old Neda bled to death on the pavement, her shocked eyes stared into an onlooker's mobile phone video camera and the terrible images were uploaded to international websites. It made her a martyr to those inside and outside Iran protesting at the flawed election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Scrambling to cover the story and looking to find a photograph of the dead woman in life, journalists who had been banned at the time from entering Iran lifted a photograph of a woman called Neda Soltani from her Facebook page and published it – and the life of the 32-year-old, middle-class university English lecturer changed for ever.

"It destroyed my life," said Soltani, who has now written a book called My Stolen Face and still has to endure her image appearing as if she were the murdered Neda Soltan.

For Soltani, the mix-up brought her to the attention of the Iranian secret service. "They wanted to use me to say the whole thing was a fake made up by western media – 'see, here is this Neda and she is alive'. They didn't care that it was nothing to do with me, that it was a mistake; they wanted me to co-operate and when I wouldn't, they hounded me," she said.

"I was interrogated three times and confronted with increasingly wild theories. They were threatening me and my brother and my mother. They charged me with treason. They said I was endangering the security of my own country. I knew what that meant: death. "In a matter of 12 days, everything in my life had changed. From the day Neda was killed to the day I fled. "My family were so shocked to see people everywhere carrying my photo, decorating it with black ribbons and flowers. Neda's own family were in shock and it was some time before they released her real photo and by then it was too late; the world had mine."

Luckily, Soltani had an exit visa in her passport, obtained for an academic conference she had been due to attend in Athens. Her friends bundled her out of the country just hours before the soldiers came for her. "I owe them my life because I was still so shocked, I didn't really know what was happening."

For nine months she lived in a refugee camp in Germany, Finally she was granted leave to stay and is now, slowly, trying to adjust to the culture, learn the language and build herself another life in Munich.

"It's hard. My friends have got married and had babies and I can never be there. My grandmother passed away, my brother graduated. Sometimes just the smallest thing, a smell, a certain moment, will bring back memories of home I am angry because it was amateurish and reckless. It shows how dangerous sloppy journalism can be. I had an apology a long time later from a news agency. It said: 'We are sorry for any inconvenience caused.'"

The consequences of a such a mix up can be dire anywhere but in an oppressive state like Iran? Well if you've got this far you will have seen and realise that it could have been far worse for the other Neda A lazy hack can destroy a life.

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