The YouTube Martyr: How a Beautiful Music Student Became the Symbol of a Movement

BY RICHARD PENDLEBURY
From the Daily Mail

CORRECTION  Mideast Emirates Iran protest

She is the YouTube martyr; a beautiful young woman whose dying moments have turned her into a symbol of Iran’s pro-democracy protests. On Saturday afternoon, Neda Agha Soltan was talking on her phone in a Tehran street when she was hit by a bullet fired by a member of the security services.

At least two onlookers used their own camera phones to film her final seconds. They then posted the harrowing close-up footage on the internet. Subsequently copied on to hundreds, if not thousands, of video-sharing and social-networking sites or blogs and viewed by millions, it has caused outrage around the world.

Today Neda’s murder –for that’s what it was — presents a growing threat to Tehran’s hardline Islamic regime, as it struggles to contain popular dissent caused by President Ahmadinejad’s fiercely disputed election victory.

Although the Iranian state media has chosen to ignore her story and the government has banned public displays of mourning for her, Neda’s face is appearing on placards and posters around Tehran. Her story is fast taking on an unstoppable momentum.

Songs are being composed for her. Protesters, in their distinctive green wrist bands, have begun to use the rallying cry: “We are Neda!” In central Iran on Monday, crowds chanted: ‘Sleep well Neda because we will get your vote back,’ a reference to the ‘Where is my vote?’ slogan of the opposition movement.

On the streets, she is a public symbol of defiance, the face of suffering or sacrifice that every rebellion needs. It is seen as significant that her first name means “call” or “voice”.

But who was this so-called “accidental martyr” and what were the circumstances of her death?

Because of the restrictions imposed on the international media and reporting within Iran it is impossible, as yet, to verify independently much of what has been claimed.
But it would appear that at the time of her death, Neda was 26 years old and the kind of intelligent, liberal-minded, middle-class young woman who has been at the forefront of many of the demonstrations against the Islamic hardliners in recent days.

One report stated that she was the second of three children. After studying philosophy at university in Tehran, Neda had become a music student and was learning the piano. She worked in a travel agency part-time and friends said that she had travelled abroad, as far afield as Thailand.

It was on one of those foreign trips, to Turkey, that she reportedly met the man to whom she became engaged.

Caspian Makan is a 27-year-old photographer who recently held an exhibition in the capital of his pictures of Iranian folk tradition. In a series of interviews, he has provided much of what biographical and circumstantial detail about Neda there is in the public domain.

There appears to be a conflict between some of his statements on how committed she was to the pro-democracy cause. In one telephone interview, Makan is alleged to have said that he had argued with her about her decision to attend the protests.

He said he had asked her not to go out for fear she would be arrested or shot.

“I tried to dissuade her from going out in the streets because I’d seen in my work as a journalist that, unfortunately, there are a lot of merciless behaviors,” he said. “But she said that our attendance would be worthwhile ‘even if a bullet hits my heart’. Unfortunately, that is how she died–a bullet hit her heart and her lung, and maybe five or six minutes later, she died.”

“She only ever said that she wanted one thing; she wanted democracy and freedom for the people of Iran,” Makan added.

If true, this would indeed give a huge propaganda coup to the pro-democracy protesters.

But in an interview with the BBC Persian service, Makan gave a very different account of his fiancée’s death. He apparently suggested that Neda had been caught up accidentally in a demonstration.

He said that she supported neither the president nor the defeated candidate, Mir-Hossein Mousavi, but was sympathetic to the protests.

“She was near the area, a few streets away from where the main protests were taking place,” he was quoted as saying. “She was with her music teacher, sitting in a car and stuck in traffic. She was feeling very tired and very hot. She got out of the car for just a few minutes.”

Again, there are conflicting reports as to who fired the shot and from where.

Monday, the Mail’s special correspondent in Tehran was told by a witness that the gunman was a member of the hard-line Basij volunteer militia, mounted on a motorcycle. He said the man was then chased and beaten to death by an angry crowd of demonstrators. Another report suggested that Neda had been hit by a sniper positioned on a roof.

Whoever fired and from where, what happened next is horribly clear to anyone with access to the internet.

There are two grainy camera phone films. The longer lasts approximately 48 seconds and begins with Neda collapsing in the road in front of a white car. She is wearing a dark shirt, blue jeans and white trainers; a black scarf has slipped off her head.

Already a large pool of blood is on the ground at her feet and she is being cradled by two frantic men. One is wearing a white shirt, the other is grey haired, with a moustache and blue polo shirt. He has since been identified as her music teacher, Hamid Panahi.

Now lying on the road, Neda’s arms come up above her head, her large brown eyes slide down towards the road and then the lifeblood comes flowing thickly out of her nose and mouth.

In the background there is screaming and one of the men can be heard yelling “Neda, don’t be afraid. Neda, don’t be afraid. Neda, stay with me. Neda stay with me!” as they try to revive her. It is obviously too late.

The second clip is a close-up of Neda’s face, blank eyes and covered in blood. This image is now on posters and placards in Tehran and around the world.

In a third video, posted online with the title “Neda before she was shot”, a young woman in a dark headscarf can be seen standing on the side of a road, as a densely packed crowd of protesters mill around her. Some of them are wearing surgical face masks to protect them against the tear gas being fired nearby.

It is impossible to identify the woman as Neda, as the footage is shot from behind her. But the woman is clearly with a grey-haired, mustachioed man, since identified as Neda’s music teacher.

The longest clip was reportedly sent to an Iranian exile in Holland. It arrived with the following message attached:

“At 19:05, June 20. Place: Kargar Ave., at the corner crossing Khosravi Street and Salehi Street. A young woman who was … watching the protests was shot by a Basij member hiding on the rooftop of a civilian house. He had clear shot at the girl and could not miss her. However, he aimed straight at her heart. I am a doctor, so I rushed to try to save her. But the impact of the gunshot was so fierce that the bullet had blasted inside the victim’s chest, and she died in less than two minutes. The protests were going on about one kilometer away in the main street and some of the protesting crowd were running from tear gas used among them, towards Salehi Street. The film is shot by my friend who was standing beside me. Please let the world know.”

Sure enough, the world got to know. And so did Iran, despite of the best efforts of the authorities to block websites and jam satellite television signals.

Not for nothing is this being called the “Twitter Revolution”, named after the popular social networking site which many young Iranians have employed to get news and pictures to the outside world. Others have been using ant filtering software to circumvent the censorship and swapping images of Neda on phones using Bluetooth.

But the authorities are still able to exert brute force in an attempt to stifle Neda’s posthumous threat.

In a particularly vindictive twist, they would not allow her funeral to be held in a mosque.

One clandestine memorial service was broken up by the Basij militia spraying tear gas. A planned vigil was forbidden and yesterday a shrine of flowers and pictures, erected at the spot where she fell, had been removed by the militia.

“Tehran is a military camp,” a local correspondent from the Daily Mail reported Monday night. “Basij militia are everywhere and in control. People only dare hold up Neda’s picture if they are in a crowd. But they are saying to each other that she is the Queen of Iran in our hearts.”

Opposition leaders are threatening to hold a massive show of public mourning tomorrow for Neda and at least 16 other protesters who have been killed so far.

Martyrdom is a powerful concept for the Shia, who are the predominant Muslim sect in Iran. Their traditional cycle of mourning, which marks the third, seventh and 40th days after death, will keep Neda centre stage.

The mullahs and their supporters know this and what the dangers are. After all, it was a similar populist uprising against a corrupt regime that led to the overthrow of the Shah 30 years ago.

Will this young woman’s tragedy be the catalyst for another change

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One Comment;

  1. Garmirsar said:

    I read this article and it doesn’t seem to me as there is a contradiction to what Caspian Makan said in the two distinct interviews. That she was not for either candidate doesn’t contradict the reasons for her being caught up in a protest since these protests mean much more than exclusively support for Moussavi or Karoubi. Furthermore, the fact that she went out to protest wouldn’t nullify the idea that she got accidentally caught up in protests because we don’t know when she was intending to protest or where.
    In any case, Neda is a very, very unfortunate victim that will live on for a movement and her memory will not be forgotten regardless. That’s very nice to read that people were chanting “We are Neda” much like people did in Istanbul following Hrant Dinks murder “We are Hrant Dink”.

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