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Reflecting on Iran's Protests


The family of Mahsa Amini visited her grave in northwestern Iran today on the one-year anniversary of her death while in the custody of Iran's morality police. Amini's death sparked nationwide protests that triggered a brutal crackdown by security forces. And today at the graveyard, that show of government force continued with a massive swarm of soldiers and police.

NPR's Peter Kenyon has been speaking with Iranians forced to flee their homeland in the wake of the uprising. They see a population still desperate for greater freedoms and government determined to prevent that at all costs.

PETER KENYON, BYLINE: Nele (ph) is 32 years old. She's from Hamadan in western Iran, where she used to work in the tourism sector. Now she's left Iran. Nele asks that her family name and precise location not be disclosed. She's concerned about retaliation for speaking about the nationwide protests and the crackdown by security forces. She says what strikes her most is the momentum the protest movement has gained, especially among Iranians who weren't part of the street demonstrations and who may have been dismayed at the fury directed toward the government.

NELE: (Through interpreter) After one year, a large group of people who used to be in the gray zone, who hadn't made up their mind, have gained higher awareness now. We can see that many have become really brave, and this is the biggest achievement.

KENYON: But she says the government has fallen back on its usual response, trying to frighten people into compliance. She says one tactic is to issue dramatic warnings about the chaos that could break out if the protests cause the regime to fall from power. She says that's worrying, but not insurmountable.

NELE: (Through interpreter) These are ideas, debates and arguments among people. But I believe they will finally reach a consensus, and they can finally figure out what the majority wants, perhaps through a referendum.

KENYON: Twenty-one-year-old Milad Abdi (ph) was a university student in Iran when he joined the anti-regime demonstrations, only to be arrested, imprisoned and forced to flee the country once he was released. He's from Saqqez in northwest Iran, where authorities have been busy installing concrete blocks and other barriers and inspecting vehicles trying to enter Mahsa Amini's hometown. Abdi says he's still convinced a new wave of protests will take place in Iran sometime soon, although perhaps not in Saqqez itself, which he says is even more locked down than usual. He also doesn't think protests this year would rival last year's in size or intensity.

MILAD ABDI: (Through interpreter) I don't think there's any less desire for change from the people's point of view, but the government has only increased its crackdowns. People get more wounded every day. Their hatred of the regime gets higher every day. The regime does not care about any of this at all. Their only focus is their own survival and enforcement of things like the hijab.

KENYON: Abdi says he knows he suffered because of his willingness to stand up to the regime. But as the anniversary approaches, he finds himself thinking about others who have nobody speaking out for them.

ABDI: (Through interpreter) I myself never thought that a simple protest would cost me so much, would turn my life upside down. There are people in Iran who have no voice, and nobody knows them. There is no hashtag in their name, no foreign political guardian, and we must be their voice. We should not forget them.

KENYON: The government crackdown continues with mass arrests and court-ordered death sentences, and the morality police have been reactivated. But both Abdi and Nele have faith that the movement sparked by Mahsa Amini's death will continue in the coming year. But they also know that the struggle is unlikely to get any easier. Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Istanbul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Peter Kenyon is NPR's international correspondent based in Istanbul, Turkey.