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“The children of Camp Ashraf” – cult life and fight to the death

Hanif Bali came to Sweden as one of the unaccompanied children in the 90s and participates in "The Children from Camp Ashraf". Photo: Iga Mikler

The documentary ” Children of Camp Ashraf” sheds new light on a dramatic and violent migration story filled with traumatized children, including the controversial moderate politician, Hanif Bali.

In the late 70s, Iranian students founded a revolutionary movement, the People’s Mujahedin, which helped put an end to the Shah’s regime. However, the dream of a secular, democratic and socialist country was short-lived. Ayatollah Khomeini, as you know, wanted something different for Iran. The mujahedin members once again found themselves in opposition.

Somewhere there, the movement was radicalized, which found a new home in dictator Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. From the Camp Ashraf military base, they continued to fight the power in their homeland. When the fighting became too severe, all the children were evacuated. Just over a hundred ended up in Sweden, the vast majority without their parents – often placed in foster homes that sympathized with the biological parents’ struggle – with the goal that the children would return as child soldiers as soon as they were old enough.

This is not an entirely new story. Rinkeby policeman Hanif Azizi has told about his life as a Mujahedin child in the book “Suburban Cop” (2021). Last year, Atefeh Sebdani, digital strategist and author, published “My Hand in Mine” with a similar arrangement. But the documentary “The Children of Camp Ashraf” expands the story of Sebdani and the other children in an even more striking way. Much thanks to a fascinatingly rich archive material. The story oscillates between the past – with euphoric images of life in the camp, where the children swarm around cared for by everyone and no one in a kind of non-normative extended family – and the present, where four adults in Sweden recount their traumas from childhood.

It is in many ways an absolutely incredible story of betrayal on many levels. The parents who chose fighting within the sometimes-terror-labeled organization over their children, but also about Sweden and its social service that obviously made a lot of mistakes. Among the most famous people who appear in the film is the controversial politician Hanif Bali (m), who ended up in Sweden at the age of 3 and went from one foster home to another foster home throughout his childhood.

Amir Yaghmaei at Camp Ashraf-Iraq

Amir Yaghmaei at Camp Ashraf-Iraq

At the center, however, is the environmental consultant Amir Vafa, who deals with his trauma most movingly. Among other things, by searching for an elusive father in Paris and a poignant attempt to reconnect with the mother who remains in the movement’s military camp, now relocated to Albania.

You may lack context and a little more explanatory fact. It’s such a complex story – politically, historically and socially – that it feels like a lot of prior knowledge is required to really grasp it. At the same time, there are enough talking pictures to still get close to the main characters. At times it is exciting like a thriller, at times “The Children from Camp Ashraf” plumbs existential depths about parenting and cult life in an intelligent and poignant way. On a more general level, there are lessons of wisdom and strong lessons to be learned from the film about the difficult art of healing wounds and taking command of one’s own story.

DAGEN NYHTER,  By Helena Lindbald

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