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Young Iranian protesters explain what keeps them going

LEILA FADEL, HOST:

The people you're about to hear are speaking out at great risk to their lives, like this 19-year-old student.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: It's really dangerous for us talking. And, no, we cannot say anything.

FADEL: They live in Iran. And for more than two months, they've been among the tens, if not hundreds of thousands of people who've been protesting against the government since Mahsa Amini, a 22-year-old woman, died in police custody after being arrested because her hijab was too loose. Amini was Kurdish, a marginalized community in Iran. And she was known to her friends and family by her Kurdish name, Jina.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: (Non-English language spoken).

FADEL: And they're still demonstrating despite a state crackdown that has left hundreds dead, despite the fact that thousands more are detained and despite the death sentences the Iranian judiciary began handing out to protesters last week on charges that include being an enemy of God and corruption on Earth. So you can understand why the people who sent us voice memos from Iran don't want us to identify them, including that student you heard. Here she explains why she protests.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: I'm a teenaged girl. And I want a future. I want happiness. I want a good life. I want a good home, good car, good - I don't know - husband, maybe. I cannot have better future in this country, in this situation. So I think it's for freedom. It's for have a better future. It's for have a better days. We don't have them. So I just want a happiness and I don't have it. No one have it.

FADEL: She switches to Persian here.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) If I want to describe these protests to you, it's like a war none of you have ever seen. On the news, I see my brothers and sisters are taken away, killed and raped. I've seen boys and girls arrested in the most brutal way. Unfortunately, there was nothing we could do because they are the ones with the weapons.

FADEL: Every once in a while, she pauses to apologize for her cough. She's inhaled so much tear gas when she started demonstrating. In Isfahan, we reach a 21-year-old student who's already been arrested once for protesting.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: (Through interpreter) They handcuffed me from the back using plastic ties. It was so tight that I still sometimes feel a pain in my wrists. They pulled my T-shirt over my head so that I couldn't see anything. They beat me up with a baton and with a metal stick on my legs and the sides of my body. They slapped me on the face.

FADEL: And yet, he continues. In a suburb of Tehran, we reach a 63-year-old retired high school principal.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) We Iranians are protesting for this regime to go.

FADEL: They all know what they're doing could mean prison or worse. But it's prison, not death, that scares the 19-year-old most.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) It is so, so sad for me as a young woman to prefer to be killed by them than to be arrested, because I know what dark fate is awaiting me and what horrible things will happen to me if I am arrested.

FADEL: She says she's worried security forces will rape her if she's arrested. This type of violence against protesters is one reason they're asking for wholesale regime change, not a few reforms. It's why the retired principal is back in the streets day after day.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: (Through interpreter) I believe all the revolutions in the world that have happened and have been successful, it was because of unity and continuing and not giving up. I won't give up. And we'll continue until we get what we want, which is a normal life.

FADEL: Protesting comes with the constant worry of possible detention, the concern that security forces might demand to check your phones, about government informants trying to find things out by posing as kind strangers. And hospitals, they're now dangerous places, the protesters say, places where security forces search for wounded demonstrators seeking medical treatment to detain them. And these protesters are willing to take on all the dangers they just described, hoping for change. But they have a message to the world.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Through interpreter) I don't know how you're hearing us. I don't know how you are seeing us. And I don't know whether you really care or not. But if you do, help us any way you can. Do something so that we are not forgotten. If we don't have a voice outside of Iran, we will get killed.

FADEL: And the people amplifying these voices outside of Iran are part of the diaspora, like Asieh Amini. She's a poet and activist now living in exile in Norway. And every night, she stays up on the phone with families inside Iran so she can share their stories. The night before we speak, it was the story of a 9-year-old boy named Kian Pirfalak, who was shot and killed, that kept her up.

ASIEH AMINI: They killed Kian in a very small city in south Iran. And you know what happened after that? You asked me why I couldn't sleep at night. Leila, Kian's mother and father had to hide their baby's body with ice around the baby.

FADEL: Oh, my gosh. Asieh, I think I don't understand something, though. When you say they hid the body at home and put it on ice, they were doing that because - what would have happened if they didn't hide the body?

AMINI: The government, they don't want any ceremonies of killed people can happen because they have seen Jina's ceremony.

FADEL: Right, because Jina, there were hundreds, if not thousands of people that went to her grave.

AMINI: Exactly.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

FADEL: Ultimately, the family did bury him. And a video posted online shows hundreds of mourners gathered, chanting against Iran's supreme leader.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED CROWD: (Chanting in non-English language).

FADEL: The family blamed state security forces for his killing. The Iranian government denies responsibility and blames an unidentified gunman.

AMINI: They want regime change. This is a very clear message from people in Iran. This is why many Iranians prefer to call these protests a revolution, because for them, the Islamic Republic has no credibility. There is separation between people in Iran and the name of Iran and the Islamic Republic.

FADEL: When you look at the protests today, do they represent the religious, the non-religious, the young, the old, women, men? I mean, how cross-representative are those that are protesting today?

AMINI: We have many different movements, worker movements, women movements, student movement. The women were the first group that experienced this discrimination and tyranny because the first order of Khomeini after revolution was hijab became mandatory. But it's not only hijab. We have lost gradually all kind of our rights, family rights, divorce rights, economy rights, voting rights, even. You cannot leave your home without your husband's or your father's permission.

FADEL: And also, Mahsa Jina Amini, she was Kurdish, also, from a minority ethnic group.

AMINI: Yeah. You know, this is intersectionality when you look at women in Kurdistan, in Baluchistan, in Khuzestan, because they have experienced the layers of discriminations. All people now call Iran their home.

FADEL: There has been much that the Iranian government has done in the last two months to try to shut these protests down, arrests, killing of protesters, shutting off the internet so that people cannot post about what's going on inside. The first death sentence came down for protesters. Has any of that stopped the protests?

AMINI: They have killed people because they protest, because they said no to the regime. I want to refer to one slogan. They tell that if you kill one of us, 1,000 will come to the streets.

FADEL: In the past, though, it has worked, crushing protests, right? That's what happened in 2009.

AMINI: Yeah.

FADEL: What is different?

AMINI: We have not only the last generations but also the new generation that is very brave. They don't see themselves as only Iranian citizen. They see themselves as a citizen in the world. They have contact with the free world. They want freedom of expression. And they don't afraid of mullahs from 1,400 years ago. They cannot accept that.

FADEL: You know, we also talked about how much Iranians want the world to see what they're doing, what they're dealing with - and to see the difference between the government and Iran. But also, Western powers, including the U.S., have had a bad record of meddling in Iran's affairs. And so I guess I want to understand what type of attention or help do Iranians actually want from the world? And what type of attention or help do they not want?

AMINI: They want to choose their own political destiny. They want the world not to recognize the Islamic Republic and make this possible for people to have the right to choose their regime.

FADEL: When you are staying up all these nights, what is it for? What are you trying to do with others?

AMINI: There are many activists and journalists who work every day because the world should know what is happening inside Iran. If you are talking to me right now, it is because of them, they who reported the numbers, the names, the news. We need to work because people in Iran need us. This is very simple answer.

FADEL: What do you see as the future of these protests?

AMINI: I can tell you just about my hope, you know? I hope that Iran, one day that is not so far, can be a home for all Iranian, with equality, with freedom and with respect to all people. This is my dream, that we can stop this circle of violence.

FADEL: Asieh Amini, thank you so much for your time.

AMINI: Thank you for asking me. And thank you for paying attention to Iran's situation. And I hope that all these news, all these talk can effect on Iran's future.

(SOUNDBITE OF TIM SCHAUFERT'S "NEW LANDS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Leila Fadel is a national correspondent for NPR based in Los Angeles, covering issues of culture, diversity, and race.