It was a typical Saturday for a young Iranian expatriate watching the events in his country from another part of the world, except that his homeland had erupted in violence and he was checking with friends inside Iran to see what was happening.
That all changed when one of his friends in Tehran told him that a young woman had just died next to him in the street.
The friend uploaded a simple cellphone video of the young woman's tragic death and sent it quickly out of Iran by e-mail to the expatriate, with this description and instructions:
Basij shots to death a young woman in Tehran's Saturday June 20th protests
At 19:05 June 20th
Place: Karekar Ave., at the corner crossing Khosravi St. and Salehi st.
A young woman who was standing aside with her father 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 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 2 minutes.
The protests were going on about 1 kilometers away in the main street and some of the protesting crowd were running from tear gass used among them, towards Salehi St.
The film is shot by my friend who was standing beside me.
Please let the world know.
That video changed everything forever. The lives of many people, including the young Iranian living in another country who brought the video to the rest of the world, would never be quite the same, but more importantly, a world was altered and a life was gone.
My life changed irretrievably on that June Saturday as my path crossed that of the young Iranian expatriate who was attempting to get the video seen and to the media. I offered to help, and from that day I have considered him a friend and the story of Neda has been a personal one.
That young Iranian expatriate living a world away is the first person who uploaded the video of Neda Agha-Soltan's death to the Internet on Facebook and YouTube and got it to the public and news organizations, who then finally took it around the world for everyone to see. He was also the first to tell us, later that same day, her name was Neda, something he learned from the friend who was present at her death that we didn't know initially when the video first went online. (The first mention online of her name, Neda, was 20 June 21.26 GMT, and the first public mention of that name on Twitter ("Je viens de contacter celui qui a mis la video en ligne de la jeune fille. Elle s'appelait Neda.") was 20 June 21.32 GMT. The video was originally posted to the Internet about five hours earlier at 16.23 GMT.)
As a witness to history he was in the right place at the right time and he did the right thing, but as he so correctly notes, it is the brave people of Iran who are the real heroes.
To bring the story of how the Neda video came to the world a year ago this week, June 20, 2009, he generously agreed to discuss it with me on condition of anonymity for this interview.
How closely were you watching the election in Iran when it happened last year and the protests that followed?
I was following the news and happenings in Iran from some days before the election. As news sites were blocked in Iran, I created some blogs to collect and republish the news for my friends inside Iran to have access to news. These activities increased after the election and also continue now, but not much as before.
Where were you and what were you doing when you first saw the video of Neda's death?
I was at home when I got it. I was following the news in Iran.
Did you know then how big it would be and how important the Neda video would be to the world?
No, I could not imagine what it would do at that moment. But as I was shocked after watching it for the first time, I was thinking it would shock everybody else who watched it. I just felt I must publish it to show to the world what was (and is) going on in my country.
Did it frighten you to have the responsibility for publishing it?
No, because I could not imagine what the reactions would be.
Where did you put the video first? On Facebook or YouTube?
I can't remember which one I published it to first, but I published it on both of them with just some minutes' difference.
Did you have problems with some of the Internet providers like Facebook when you first posted it there? Didn't you have some problems with censorship, or people trying to take down your account?
Yes, I had some problems. YouTube announced to me that it contains graphic (violent) images and others can watch it if they log in and YouTube checks they are more than 18 years old.
Facebook removed it 2 or 3 days later because of its violence.
I asked friends on Facebook, some of them were journalists and TV producers and reporters, to help me to be in touch with Facebook adminstration to say that this is our portal to show to the world what is going on there in Iran. They did this favor to me and also I did it myself by writing and telephone. One or 2 days later they returned it to my page.
(Author's note: I was one of those people who spent several hours on the phone with both Yahoo and Facebook trying to get them to reinstate this account, finally with success. It was easier to do once the video became known worldwide, because there was more ammunition to convince these networks of the need to be able to relay news and videos like this in the face of censorship, and for the person who first posted the video to have an account.)
When people did finally publish it, and put it on international news programs on television, did it shock you to see it, knowing you had helped get it there?
I was sure that this was not an ordinary thing, as I was shocked watching it after a lot of violent videos on those days. I was waiting for its broadcast and as I remember, about 20 minutes after finally sending it to CNN, they showed it with some blur on Neda's face at first broadcasts, but they removed blur for the next broadcasts.
I was not shocked because of it playing on media; I was sure that they would show it.
(Author's note: From my own perspective this was a harder task than the news organizations would currently have you believe, and the media seemed very slow to pick it up and some reluctant to show it at all, until CNN and the BBC finally did. It was initially uploaded to Facebook at 12:23 p.m. EDT and sent to CNN and the BBC before 1:17 p.m. It was first posted to The Lede blog at the NY Times at 1:38 p.m. Nico Pitney finally put it on the Huffington Post live blog about an hour later at 2:37 p.m. I initially contacted CNN and NY Times, Christiane Amanpour, Andrew Sullivan at The Atlantic, Nico Pitney at Huffington Post, Mashable and The Daily Kos in addition to widely posting it on Twitter and Facebook. I spent the better part of two or three hours trying to get it seen, and didn't see it finally broadcast on CNN until later. While the video went immediately viral on social media networks like Twitter and Facebook, it understandably took a while to be shown on broadcast media. By 10:17 EDT it was the most watched video that day and CNN was showing it with the name 'Neda' attached but looking for more information about the video.)
When did you first realize how important Neda had become as a symbol, more than just another person who had died in bloodshed?
After 10 minutes of its upload on my Facebook page, there started to come to me hundreds of mails, messages and comments. The huge size of the reactions shocked me. Also its sharing broke my privacy on my page. It took time to remove my personal data from my page.
At this moment I realized that it was a special thing and it was very different and more effective than others.
Do you think Neda was specifically targeted for killing because she was a woman?
I can't answer this clearly. But I know the Basij militia are more sensitive to women who dress more freely, especially if they are beautiful.
What did you think when you heard the Iranian government was placing blame on Neda's death somewhere else, or suggesting conspiracy theories?
It is a normal thing for Ahmadi Nezhad's government to deny facts when they do wrong. It has happened several times; Iranians are familiar with his difficult to understand doings. As you know, they have changed several scenarios about Neda's killing from then until now.
How does it make you feel when people suggest you are part of a conspiracy?
As for myself, I feel have done nothing wrong. When I compare my actions with those of Iranians inside of Iran, I have just shared the video of her death with the world and not more.
I repeat: the heroes are inside Iran.
What did you think when you saw the new Neda video taken by someone else at the scene that was just broadcast recently?
In previous scenarios of Iran government TV, they were showing that Neda is colouring her face by red color. But this video shows that there is nothing in her hand. It broke the government lies and proved Arash Hejazi's telling of her death. In the new scenario, they changed the story. And now they want to say that MKO (Mojahedin e Khalgh Organization) has killed her and now there is a new unknown accused, a woman that is walking and her hand is in her bag.
Were you surprised when the people involved in bringing Neda's video to the world were honored anonymously with the Polk Award for journalism earlier this year? How did that make you feel?
As I am not familiar with this type of media award; yes, I was surprised. I am proud of Iranian citizen journalists for winning this award.
How has Neda's death changed your life?
It has not changed my life directly, but it is important for me that I showed and published it and I could inform the world about the happenings in Iran.
THE MOST IMPORTANT thing that I must say is: I did a work that every body in a free country can do. I have access to sites and free unblocked Internet.
The real heroes are living inside the country; they do and did their protest in front of bullets and violence. The important acts are being done by them. At the moment I was at the right place and right time to be able publish it and not more. You must focus on them.
What do you hope for the Iranian people?
During the last decades in Iranian history when something happened like this, or when killing like this has happened, big revolutions have followed and worked. Sometimes it takes several years but it has happened without doubt. This time is also like them and more powerful than them. It is just a matter of time and I am sure (I don't say I hope) some strong changes will happen.
Another important thing is Iranian citizen journalists are rolling themselves in this new modern technologic world with the Internet. They are joining in protests, they are arranging them and they are making their own reports and publishing them online and the world sees these happenings.
Now, the opposition leaders like Mousavi and Karroubi are following the people's acts. They are joining with the people when they arrange rallies and protests. Now the people of Iran are the ones that decide and do everything, not the leaders; the people are leaders themselves. It doesn't mean that Mousavi and Karroubi are doing nothing. The new revelations made by Karroubi and the statement issued by Mousavi on recent events in Iran are of grave significance.
Imagine that the government has done a huge filtering for Internet and news boycotts. If these prohibitions didn't exist, more videos like this would be published.
I think the most powerful scene of this video is Neda's last looking to the camera. It seems she wants to talk to the world, and I am sure her last looking to the camera has shocked the world.
Previously unpublished photos of Neda Agha-Soltan after being shot in the streets of Tehran as bystanders were preparing to take her to the hospital (above), and (below) the street where Neda died, shortly after she'd been removed, with only her headscarf left behind. (photos courtesy the author) The photos were sent with the original video.
Top photo, passport photo of Neda Agha-Soltan.
Center photo, Neda Agha-Soltan as she was in life, as she has been described as her family, always happy, always smiling. (both photos courtesy family of Neda Agha-Soltan)
Postscript: I also spoke this week with an acquaintance in Paris who, like me, became involved in the story on the day it happened, and asked him to relate his own recall of that day. It was because of his question to the original publisher of the video that we first learned the name 'Neda.'
This is what he wrote to me when I asked him if he remembered where he was and what he was doing when he first learned about the Neda video. His impressions very closely mirror my own experience and how I felt about doing something for the Iranian people:
"Dear Kathy, I remember being at my apartment in Paris, on my computer, following Twitter feeds on Iran. I can't remember who was the first Twitter account who brought the video to my eyes. But I remember being shocked when I saw it. Like everybody, I had seen quite a few violent videos coming out of Iran during the past days. I felt frustrated not being able to do something. So I spent more and more time searching for news. And it's what I was doing when I first saw Neda. I didn't know her name. I wanted to know who she was. Her anonymity was hard to accept. So I searched to try to find the chronological occurrence of her video. That's when I found (the account and). . .decided to try contacting him. Then we exchanged. And learned to know one another before I asked him to ask his friend in Iran, the name of Neda.
Those were very strange moments for me. I felt I was doing something for the Iranians.
Like you and thousands of others, it was a relay. And I am proud to have been part of it. . .
Sorry for my English. Take care,"
This interview is the third I conducted in conjunction with the one-year anniversary of the June 12, 2009, presidential election in Iran, the unrest that followed, and the June 20, 2009, death of Neda Agha-Soltan, who became an iconic figure in the protest. The other two interviews are here:
JUNE 8, 2010 6:57AM
JUNE 13, 2010 7:59AM
For an index to all my posts in the past year on Iran and Neda, see:
JUNE 11, 2010 1:45PM