By Thomas Erdbrink
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, June 23, 2009
TEHRAN, June 22 -- A video clip showing the violent death of a 26-year-old woman during Saturday's riots in Tehran has captured the world's attention and turned her into an icon for Iranians who are leveling an unprecedented challenge against their theocratic government.
Neda Agha Soltan, whose first name means "the calling" in Farsi, was killed by a gunshot to the heart, and her agonizing death in the street was filmed by at least two bystanders using cellphone cameras.
The clips have been distributed worldwide on sites such as YouTube and inside Iran via Bluetooth. Opposition protesters have carried pictures of her bloodied face to demonstrations and mourning ceremonies, where she is hailed as "a martyr" -- a status with deep resonance in Shiite Islam, Iran's dominant faith.
In the videos, Agha Soltan is dressed traditionally -- wearing a head scarf and a coat that extends past her knees. Seemingly out of nowhere she is struck by a bullet, then falls to the ground and starts bleeding heavily from her nose and mouth.
A man can be heard shouting "Neda, don't be afraid" and "Stay with us" as her eyes roll back and her face becomes covered with blood.
It is not clear who killed her. Bystanders say she was shot by members of Iran's voluntary paramilitary force, the Basij. The government has accused "terrorists" of killing at least 10 people during Saturday's protests by hundreds of thousands of Iranians who favor annulling Iran's disputed presidential election, which was officially decided in favor of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The government also describes the demonstrators as rioters and has accused them of working for "foreign agents" after being instructed by the international media. Many of the demonstrators are supporters of presidential candidate Mir Hossein Mousavi.
At the family's modest travel agency, where Agha Soltan once worked, tense relatives declined to comment. According to sources close to the family, authorities have told them not to talk to the news media. The government has cracked down hard in recent days on its most vocal opponents. BBC Persian, a Web site run by the BBC in Farsi, Iran's national language, quoted a man it described as Agha Soltan's fiance on Monday.
"Neda's goal was not to support Mousavi or Ahmadinejad, she was just in love with her country," said the man, Kasamin Makan. "She was a young woman, but gave a big lesson to everybody. . . . Neda just wanted to have freedom for everybody."
Makan said that his fiancee was not participating in the protest when she was killed but was simply stepping out of her car after being caught in traffic.
"We buried the body in a small area in the Zahra Cemetery in the late afternoon" on Sunday, he said. He said others who had been killed at the protests were being buried at the same time.
"This is politics," said a shopkeeper who works near the family's travel agency and who declined to give his name. "It's so dirty. Innocent people, like Neda, get squashed."
Worldwide, people with no connection to her felt touched by Agha Soltan's violent death.
On YouTube, users posted tributes; one had written a song called "The Call of My Country."
"I swear on your last innocent look," a male voice sings, "that we will take back your vote from deceivers, that we will always confront oppressors, that we will continue your path for all eternity."
Agha Soltan was also featured on Iranian blogs. "It hit me, it hit me hard, but it wasn't sickness, it wasn't tiredness, it wasn't even shock," an Iranian blogger named Behrang Tajeldin, a mechanical engineer, said of the video. "It was the weight of that look, of that very last look, those eyes that stared at you from beyond eternity, those eyes which spoke of the tragedy that has betaken us all."
Martyrdom during periods of political turmoil has a history in Iran of driving further unrest, as Shiite Muslims commemorate the third, seventh and 40th days after the death.
In the period leading up to Iran's 1979 revolution, which toppled Western-backed Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, the burials of protesters who had been proclaimed to be martyrs, and the commemorations of their deaths, repeatedly brought people into the streets for a year before the shah's ouster.
An eyewitness reported that about 70 people gathered on Monday, the third day after Agha Soltan's death, at the Niloufar mosque in the middle-class Tehran neighborhood of Abbas Abad. On the mosque's doors, a leaflet said: "There is no commemoration here for Neda Agha Soltan." In the Islamic republic, all mosques are under state control. The mourners, most of them dressed in black, held up posters with a picture of Agha Soltan's bloodied face during a sit-in outside the mosque because they were not allowed in.
Some read poetry. "Her blood was spilled unjustly!" one woman yelled.
Soon a police colonel showed up, saying the mourners should leave.
"Why don't you defend us?" one mourner asked. "Why have you unleashed these attackers on us?"
Passersby -- some of them crying -- joined in and handed out dates, a traditional custom in Iran when someone dies.
After 10 minutes, 20 members of the Basij showed up on motorcycles and started threatening the mourners with clubs.
The mourners quickly dispersed, taking their posters with them.
"We will be back," one mourner said. "She will not be forgotten."
Special correspondent Kay Armin Serjoie contributed to this report.