The aftermath of security forces attacking Dervishes in Tehran in February 2018. Street is littered with motorbikes and debris. (Supplied)

By Aida Ghajar

April 27, 2019

I had heard that he was a brave and engaged, an active and committed man. After Iran’s police and security forces cracked down on Iran’s Gonabadi dervish community in 2018, raiding their homes, using violence against them and suppressing their activities, Hadi and 12 fellow dervishes fled the country. They sought refuge in Greece to join many from their community who had previously traveled there.

His voice had a sarcastic tone and he smiled as he told me his story, one of escape and of danger. On the day he left, he had witnessed some of his friends being beaten up by Basijis, voluntary militiamen under the supervision of the Revolutionary Guards. Hadi pretended to be a Basiji in an attempt to save his friends, and to try to get them into an ambulance.

Hadi and I met in a square in Athens and found a café. I pressed record and he said: Ask me whatever you want. I’ll tell you everything without any censorship.

Before asking him about that terrifying day in Tehran’s Golestan Square, I asked about his journey to Athens and what he experienced.

Hadi, like many Iranian asylum seekers, traveled to Serbia illegally and then on to Macedonia, where he was arrested and detained for a period. He finally made it to Athens and hoped to go to Germany.

Initially he flew to Belgrade, where he said police officers were most concerned about whether Iranian travelers had a two-way ticket or had booked a hotel. If they didn’t, they would face trouble. In Serbia, police officers check travelers’ documents as they arrive from another country and before even letting them enter the airport.

When I landed in Belgrade myself, immediately after I came off the plane, five police officers were standing outside checking people’s IDs. One of them spent some time on my passport, asked me some questions, checked my photo, and finally let me in.

Hadi’s experience is Serbia was the same: “No matter what, you are under stress and they monitor everyone intensely. Fortunately, my passport had a lot of stamps and also the company I used to work for had an office in Serbia. So they were easy on me, but there were many Iranians on the same flight who did not have a complete set of documents and were deported right on the scene.”

After exiting the airport, Hadi went straight to the “Afghans’ Park,” famous with refugees, and known as a hub for human traffickers who sell stolen passports and fake IDs. Hadi found his trafficker in this park. “I found a telephone number and called the guy. He went to my hotel room and took me to the bus terminal. He was an Afghan man. He bought me bus tickets and rode with us to the border village near Macedonia. One of his clients was the brother of another trafficker and that was why he came that far with us.”

The Journey to Macedonia and Greece

They went to the border by bus and drove to another nearby village via a taxi that the trafficker organized for them. They stayed there for four hours and then, after a 20-minute walk, entered Macedonia. Another car came for them and took them to a Macedonian village and bought them tickets to send them to another city. They had to wait a further four hours in that bus terminal.

After all this, he was unlucky and was arrested by Macedonian police. “Four hours was a long time. We were wearing dirty clothes and had large backpacks, which completely exposed us as travelers. I was in a café talking on my phone when a policeman approached me and asked: did I have a passport? I said no and he asked me to follow him. I followed him and saw they had already caught many travelers.”

When his clients were arrested, their trafficker was taking a nap in his hotel room. The police took them to a building and after questioning them, sent them all back to Serbia in a van. “They took us to a Serbian refugee camp. There were a few Iranians outside the camp; I asked them how long they had been here. They replied three days. The camp was run by Red Cross officials, who provided us with food and medical attention and fingerprinted us. It was then when they brought in an Iranian family of four with an infant and a five-year-old who could not speak English. They said they had spent the last three days and nights in jungles since the trafficker robbed them of their 15,000 euros and they had not eaten for the last few days.”

According to Hadi, Red Cross officials told him and the others he was with that they could stay and rest there for a few days and then resume their journey. But Hadi did not want to waste any time and hit the road along with a few others the same day. They spent the first night in a motel, but the next day when they were leaving the city they were arrested again.

Human traffickers usually tell their clients that if they get caught in Macedonia they should say they came from Greece so that they will be deported back to Greece and not Serbia. According to traffickers, migrants have a better chance of leaving Greece via air than from any other place. However, the police are aware of these traffickers’ tactics and so often do not believe refugees when they tell them they have come from Greece.

In Serbia, some taxi drivers are also involved in human trafficking. They offer one-way trips from Afghans’ Park straight to Greece. The rate in summer 2018 was 600 euros.

Although some of the immigrants were deported back to Greece, Hadi was sent to a camp. “There were a lot of Iranians in the camp. They questioned and fingerprinted us and took us to a room equipped with blankets, towels, clothes, etc. They told us to take what we wanted and took us to our beds. They said after three to five days they’ll review our cases.”

According to Hadi, Macedonian and Red Cross officials treated him decently, and they even once provided the refugees with alcoholic beverages upon their request. “One day everyone was depressed. Police officers cleaned up the TV room and turned it into a disco for people to have a party and forget about their miseries. Red Cross officials were also always supportive and told us not to be worried and that we would eventually reach our destinations.”

Hadi spent a few days in the camp and then headed for Greece on a bus, which the camp provided for them. After he arrived in Greece, he headed straight for Athens. When I met him, he had been living in the city for three months and knew everything there was to know about the human trafficking process.

I asked him if he had worked with a trafficker since he had left home. Often migrants themselves end up assisting traffickers in order to make some money and also secure a deal on their own trips. “I know many traffickers who need people for work, but if you do and then get caught, you’ll be facing between six and 20 years in prison. If I see a traveler who needs help, I’ll introduce them to a trafficker, although people around here charge 300 or 400 euros just to give someone a phone number.”

Because of his financial situation in Iran, Hadi did not have as bad an experience as some do when seeking asylum. He stayed in a nice house with other dervish friends and the trafficker himself. He and his friends had weekly picnics around Athens, and he seemed happy.

Attack on the Dervishes

I asked him to tell me the story of that night in Golestan Square, Tehran, and how he escaped.

That night, Hadi, who at the time had a short beard and was wearing a raincoat and so didn’t look like a typical dervish, was going back to Tehran from Hamedan when he heard the news about the Golestan unrest.“I got there at the peak of the clash. My friends were all on the ground injured and bloody. I did not even recognize my friend Majid Rashidi. Kasra Nouri was beaten in front of my eyes. I could not do anything on my own, I was thinking about helping my fallen friends and thought the best way to do that would be to pretend that I am a Basiji. I saw some Basijis holding and beating up Majid, he could not even stand on his own. They were beating him with iron batons, his face was all bloody and torn apart. There was a river of blood on the street.”

Hadi was shocked and still observing the scene when he saw one Basiji tell the others: “Don’t beat them up, we should treat the prisoners nice.”

He went to help his friends out, pretending to be a Basiji and telling the actual Basijis to be nice to the prisoners as he had witnessed one Basiji do. He did the same to rescue Majid from being further beaten up, and then took him to an ambulance. “They did not let me put him in the ambulance, saying that it would be used for the Basijis, not the prisoners. They told me to take him to the van. I was putting Majid inside the van when I heard someone shouting, “Kill that bastard.” I turned back and looked. They were pointing at Kasra.”

Hadi’s eyes were full of tears, he could not talk straight. He was not looking at me anymore and seemed to be staring somewhere place far away. It felt like he was reviewing the scene once more in his mind. “They tied his hands behind his back, threw him on the ground and more than 10 men jumped on him and were beating him so bad that …”

He couldn’t finish his sentence. Crying, he said: “I could not even approach them, I just stood there and watched.”

Hadi told the whole story of that night and how horribly the IRGC officers and Basijis treated his friends. “One of them was shouting: ‘we are here tonight to become martyrs.’”

I asked him what he remembered, and what still haunted him. He took a deep breath and said: “seeing my friends being beaten was terrifying. Since that night I have not had a good night’s sleep. I have nightmares always, they wake me up in the middle of the night.” He was completely anxious and stressed even just telling the story.

Hadi took a sip of water and then we went on a short walk. He said some of his dervish friends were on Lesbos island and called them so he could introduce us. I bought my ticket and headed there after meeting with Hadi, preparing myself to listen to the terrifying stories that I would hear, stories similar to the ones I had heard from other refugees before.

The Journey to Germany

But Hadi’s story did not end there. Like many others I had met during that journey, I was still in contact with him when I was back in Paris. He flew to Austria with a fake Italian passport, but was eager to get to his next destination, Germany. The same day he bought a train ticket to Salzburg on Austria’s border. He sent me numerous videos of him along the way and when passing over the border on foot — it felt like we were on that journey together.

We were both very anxious until he finally reached Germany. He found a refugee camp and hired a lawyer to help him go through the asylum-seeking process.

But he did not seem to like that country very much either. “I want to come to France to go to England afterward,” he told me when he called. I asked him to stay on the phone and discuss his decision with me. He declined, as if he knew I will try to discourage his decision to leave Germany. “I’ll send you video clips when I am on the water,” he said, obviously meaning the channel between France and England.

After this, I could not get a hold of him on the phone anymore. The more I looked for him, the harder it seemed to find him. The one morning I woke up to a voice mail from him saying: “It failed, I’m back in Germany. Just wanted to say I won’t be the same person ever again. Don’t ask what happened. I prefer to hide in silence for a while.”

Iran Wire

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.