Atefeh Sebdani was only five years old when she boarded a bus in Iraq that was to take her to Jordan.
She had her two little brothers with her.
Their mother was left behind.
- The little child Atefeh died there and then and at the same moment I became an adult.
As the bus began to roll, the terror within Atefeh grew. She saw her mother, who had just urged her to be good, to take care of her little brothers and promised to see them again soon, standing outside.
- Mother was my breath, identity and great security who did everything for us children, but then and there my anchor and all my security disappeared. With my mother, I left parts of myself that became difficult to find again.
Atefeh wanted to scream, but sat quietly so as not to worry her little brothers.
The bus was to take them from the Iraqi military camp they lived in to Jordan. When they got a piece of bread on board, Atefeh divided it in two and gave each piece to her brothers even though she herself was hungry.
- My youngest brother was still breastfeeding and tried to breastfeed all the grown women we met on the road, says Atefeh when we meet in connection with the release of her biography Min hand i min.
Before the farewell at the bus, the family had been on the run from Iran for two years. They slept in the open and sometimes sat on the streets begging. Potatoes became their only food.
– Boiled potatoes with salt, potato wedges, mashed potatoes and fried potatoes. Potatoes, potatoes, potatoes. It was more or less the only thing we ate, we couldn’t afford anything else.
The family managed to get to a military camp in Iraq where people had fled a regime that was hunting them for their involvement in the People’s Mujahedin resistance movement. Atefeh’s parents joined the growing group of young Mujahideen followers and were promised a home, security, education and a vision of a united, free and democratic Iran. But they were also introduced to weapons and plans for coups.
In order to focus on their task, a divorce was required of all spouses. They would be loyal to their supreme leaders, Maryam and Massoud Rajavi, but they would also be forced to leave their children behind.
Life in the camp became everyday life where the children went to school, bathed, sang in the choir and took part in various activities.
- It was like a paradise in the middle of the desert. But in 1990, the political situation became increasingly uneasy, says Atefeh.
Bombs fell and Atefeh remembers the adults covering the ears of the smallest children after they threw them into the shelters. Once back up, they were met with enormous devastation. At the same time, as long as she had her mother, she felt safe.
- It was no longer safe to stay in the camp and that’s when the fateful decision was made to send us children to Europe, says Atefeh and tells us that she is one of 800-1,000 children who were separated from their parents during this the period.
So the children were used as tools in the movement
The bus journey continued further away from mother. Strange adults, whom the children would call aunts or uncles, whisked them across national borders.
- I did everything for my brothers and became their mother. I cried silently to myself when the boys had fallen asleep. I had promised to be good and was constantly carrying a fear that they would separate us, says Atefeh.
In 1991, the siblings came to Sweden. Here they were met by “Aunt Marzieh and Uncle Ahmed”.
Atefeh and her brothers were forced to call them mom and dad. They were supporters of the same movement as Atefeh’s parents and told the authorities in Sweden that they were relatives, which was the only way they would be allowed to stay.
- From that day we officially became refugees in Sweden, says Atefeh.
From the very beginning in the new family, where there were two other foster children as well as a biological one, Atefeh was taught not to ask for her mother.
- We were not allowed to ask, feel or think anything. The days turned into weeks which in turn turned into months and I heard nothing from my mother. We children were used very strategically in their politics and one of their strategies was to keep saying that we would be reunited with our parents. That way they could keep us within the movement and use us as tools.
At regular intervals, Atefeh had to take part in various demonstrations. She was told that they were part of the fight for a free Iran and that the sooner the country became free, the sooner she would see her late mother again.
- All free time and even during lessons we skipped, we focused on politics in the form of demonstrations, manifestations, meetings with decision-makers and the like, says Atefeh, who describes in his book how it could look:
“‘Death to the terrorist regime in Iran! Death to the terrorist regime in Iran!’
With their fists in the air, the members screamed so loudly and often that by the end of the day we had no voices left. We children imitated the adults and pumped our fists just as intensely and shouted even louder with our bright voices. The adults loved watching us do what they did. They smiled and patted us on the head. We would probably make good freedom fighters as well.”
The time went by. Once a year, mother called, but there were no happy moments because they were eavesdropped and the calls also disturbed Atefeh’s survival mechanisms.
- When you live in the reality I did, I needed to find ways to cope with my everyday life. There was only room for missing my mother in my bed at night. The days were just about fighting through. I had been thrown into a sea of sharks and was constantly trying to find ways to cope. So when those calls came, it was like tearing down all the protective mechanisms I had built up, says Atefeh.
She gets upset when she thinks about everything that went under the radar.
- I’m pissed off that nobody today takes responsibility for all the children who were torn from their parents. We children were never allowed to question, we were shuffled between different aunts and uncles.
She further believes that no one has taken responsibility, instead they have chosen to back the organization and keep the Mujahedin behind their backs. Atefeh has been told that she lied about everything or that they didn’t know what happened, even though all the signs were clearly there.
- It’s completely bizarre. Hundreds of adults who agreed to so many children being separated from their parents. No one has questioned except those who are no longer followers.
The headquarters of the Mujahedin was in Auvers in Paris. Atefeh says that it was their Mecca, a dream destination that everyone strove to get to, not least to meet the president of the movement, Maryam Rajavi.
– Being allowed to visit our headquarters was something that only selected people were allowed to do. Including me, says Atefeh and tells about the occasion that made her feel disgust rather than fascination.
- When I saw Maryam in all the luxury and care, I was struck by the feeling of the Emperor’s new clothes. Why would she be doing so well and be so celebrated while my mother remained in Iraq, became a soldier, was short of food and had to make the worst sacrifice a mother can make?
The followers set themselves on fire in protest
Atefeh began to question the whole system and found everything uncomfortable.
- It was in connection with the supporters starting to set themselves on fire in a protest that I started to feel really bad. It was such a grossly inhuman incident, but the members praised their actions.
But it was when Atefeh learned that her foster brother Hamid, who had gone to Iraq to become a soldier, had been killed that she began her fight to get her mother out of the sect.
- It’s still painful to talk about, Atefeh says and falls silent for a while.
- I got to see a film on YouTube that showed an execution of my brother, a film that was used as propaganda. They had sent Hamid completely defenseless, straight to the bullets to die. I realized that this is the same kind of propaganda I have seen about other so-called martyrs. Now it was about my brother and it was only then that the chips were down, their deaths were part of an elaborate propaganda machine.
Now Atefeh realized that it was a merciless organization she was dealing with and began to think about the criteria of what a cult is, and began a long process to get her mother out.
This is how Atefeh lives today
Today Atefeh lives with the love of her life Max, together they have three children.
- He became my reason to want to continue living and I felt for the first time really loved, again. And with his simple questions, I understood my warped reality.
Atefeh sees how the Mujahedin work hard lobbying at a high political level. But her desire to encourage others to help where she sees children in harm’s way has been greater than the fear of what the Mujahedin might threaten her, as a defector, with.
- If you see signals or have a gut feeling, you should trust it. I hope that you as an authority will realize what responsibility you have.
She wants to tell about what she has been through also for her own sake, for the little child whose hand was torn from her mother’s over thirty years ago.
- I have always loved the power of words, both in written and spoken form. But I’ve never had to give space to that side because I’ve been so controlled. As a child I had no dreams, I never planned to grow up. Today I want to take my place and am proud of myself. I choose to tell the little girl who managed despite everything and who now gets to live out a dream she didn’t even know she had.
By FRIDA FUNEMYR – Femina; Sweden’s largest magazine for women – published in Swedish, Translated by Nejat Society