Losing a son
Stewart Bell, National Post
Published: Monday, September 25, 2006
A National Post investigation has found that the banned terrorist group Mujahedin-e Khalq recruited teens in Canada and sent them abroad to overthrow the Iranian government by force. Today, part two of a five-part series about a Canadian family that got deeply involved with the guerrillas -- and now regrets it.
RICHMOND HILL - Nervous and pensive, Mohammad Mohammady has the look of someone who has been through too much, too young. Five years at a guerrilla camp in Iraq will do that to a person.
At age 16, Mohammad left Toronto and made his way to Camp Ashraf, the headquarters of an armed resistance group fighting to overthrow Iran's repressive government.
His parents, Mustafa and Robabe, were refugees from Iran and supporters of the militants, known as the Organization of the Freedom Fighters of the Iranian People. But in his first interviews since returning to Canada, Mohammad said he only went to the paramilitary camp in Iraq for one reason: to bring home his sister, Somayeh.
Somayeh had dropped out of Grade 10 at Etobicoke Collegiate Institute in 1998 and travelled to Camp Ashraf. The guerrillas had told her parents she would only be gone four weeks.
But a month passed, and then another, and another. Still, there was no sign of Somayeh; no letters, no phone calls. The Mohammadys began calling the guerrillas' secret office in Virginia, but they could not get a straight answer.
"She likes being in the camp and she would like to stay," one of the commanders finally told the parents.
The Freedom Fighters, better known as the MEK, short for its Farsi name Mujahedin-e Khalq, enjoyed wide support among Iranian refugees in Canada, and Mustafa was an activist in the group's Toronto branch. Somayeh had gone to Camp Ashraf with his permission, but he said he never intended for her to join its cadre of guerrillas.
"She didn't go to join," Mustafa said. "She went to see the camp. I sent her to go there to see the camp for a holiday.... That's the greatest mistake I have ever made in my life."
Feeling they had nowhere to turn and afraid to alert the Canadian government (even friends and neighbours were told she was on an exchange program in France), the Mohammadys agreed to send their son Mohammad to Iraq to look for Somayeh and bring her back.
"And that," Mustafa said, "was our second mistake."
Mohammad was close to Somayeh. She was like a mother to him and he missed her terribly. He wanted her to come home to Canada. He travelled to the Pirayesh, the MEK's U.S. secret headquarters near Washington, D.C.
The MEK leaders told Mohammad he could go to Camp Ashraf. He could see his sister, see the camp and come back. The Mujahedin paid for his plane ticket.
Following the same route his sister had taken the year before, he flew to Jordan. From Amman, the MEK took him by road to the Iraqi border. He walked across the frontier and into a waiting car that delivered him to Camp Ashraf, a guarded paramilitary encampment that stretches six-kilometres by six-kilometres over the plains north of Baghdad.
Four thousand MEK members lived at the camp, all decked out in green fatigues. They had come from around the world; many were Iranian expatriates from the West. Mohammad believes that about 100 were from Canada. Other estimates say the number is closer to 50.
Camp life was rigidly regulated.
The men and women were strictly segregated into different sectors of the camp, with little interaction permitted. Even the bakery had separate hours for men and women.
Wake-up was at 4 a.m. The men would shave and shower before breakfast at 4:30. At 5:30, they would do chores, such as cleaning the tanks or working the farm.
A hot lunch was served from 10 to 11:30, after which the recruits had down time until 3 p.m. They would sleep or read. Anything but work; it was too hot for that.
The afternoons were devoted to political indoctrination sessions, then there was another three-hour work party at 4:30. At 7:30 p.m., it was exercise time. They would play soccer or go running. Dinner was at 9:30. Before a shower and bed, the recruits attended a final indoctrination session.
According to the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, the MEK uses "internal propaganda" to indoctrinate its members. Recruits must chant their allegiance to MEK boss Maryam Rajavi, who ruled with her husband, Massoud, during training: "Iran is Rajavi, Rajavi is Iran. Iran is Maryam, Maryam is Iran."
A classified CSIS report obtained by the National Post says that, "This internal propaganda has served to foster a cult-like atmosphere as many MEK members revere the Rajavis like Gods."
Two weeks after he arrived, Mohammad had still not seen his sister. The excuses varied, he said: "She's busy," "She's not here," "It takes time," "She's sick today."
It was a month before they were finally reunited. Two female MEK officials supervised. Somayeh asked about their parents but also voiced her support for the MEK's husband-and-wife leaders, Massoud and Maryam Rajavi, but Mohammad said he could tell it was an act.
"She wasn't happy," he said.
Having seen his sister, but having failed to convince her to leave, Mohammad told the MEK commanders he was ready to go home. He was told, "later." Then an administrative official told him he could not go back because he had signed a contract.
After three months, he began to resign himself to camp life. He had no passport and no plane ticket (the MEK had taken both). Even if he escaped, there was nowhere to run except into the barren, land mine-strewn Iraqi desert.
He underwent small arms training on an AK-47 and did odd jobs. He fixed the camp cars and cube vans, worked on their engines. He says he never took part in military operations. "I wasn't a member," he said. "I was with the Mujahedin, but I wasn't a member."
A year after his arrival, Mohammad was sent closer to the Iranian border, to another camp called Alavi, northeast of Ashraf. His visits with Somayeh were restricted to once a year at Persian New Year celebrations.
Back in Toronto, the Mohammadys waited to see whether Mohammad would bring Somayeh home, but as the weeks passed it dawned on them that he had met the same fate as his sister.
"He was recruited by the Mujahedin," Mustafa said.
The Mohammadys became Canadian citizens on June 23, 2000. At the ceremony, they received certificates signed by immigration minister Elinor Caplan that said, "Welcome to the Canadian family."
But their own family was in turmoil. Mustafa remained active in the MEK network in Canada, attending their demonstrations, but only because he thought it would help get his son and daughter home, he said.
As the MEK ramped up its attacks in 2001, Iran's Revolutionary Guards fought back with rocket barrages aimed at the Mujahedin's six camps in Iraq. A dozen surface-to-surface missiles struck Ashraf and five hit Alavi.
Mohammad once again asked to leave the camp in 2001, but he said the MEK did not tolerate "defections." Mohammad was brought before a gathering of men who denounced him and spat on him. He relented, agreeing to stay.
He said in an interview that during a visit to his camp, Massoud Rajavi gave a speech in which he had said that anyone who left the MEK would be hunted down and killed. (Mohammad fears for his life to this day and would not agree to be photographed for this article).
Increasingly worried, Mustafa wrote letters to Mohammed pleading for news. On Nov. 22, 2002, he wrote to the Rajavis, whom he addressed as "brother Massoud and sister Maryam."
"I wish you good health and prosperity under the care of Imam Mahdi and hope that under your leadership we get rid of the inhuman ruling of the Mullahs in Iran," he wrote.
"Honorable brother and sister, we, the under signers, Mustafa and Mahboobeh Mohammady, humbly ask you to facilitate our meeting with our children, Somayeh and Mohammed Reza during the Christmas Holiday.
"With the warm wishes for you and victory for the movement in the New Year we appreciate your help on this matter."
He never got a reply.
A FATHER'S LETTER
In the name of God,
With warm greetings to all members of the "Army of Freedom" who are trying for the removal of the inhuman regime in Iran and to you my dear son.
I wish you are fine and wherever you are you are protected by almighty and the Imam Mahdi. Dear Mohammad, if you have any worries about us please rest assured that we are fine and our only concern is you and Somayeh and the unbearable pain of being apart from you two.
Dear Mohammad, your mother is missing you so much and we keep ourselves busy watching films that we have from you. Your baby sister, Hurieh, is growing fast and she keeps asking about you and her elder sister all the time. She prays for both of you at bedtime every night.
Your younger brother, Morteza, is a grownup adult now and he also
expresses his deep feelings and concern about you too.
Dear Mohammad, I know that you don't have free time to write us but the letters that were written on your behalf before our New Year were received by us 3-4 months after that date.
Although we were happy to hear about you, since it is hard to believe that you are so busy that you can't spare a few minutes to write yourself, we became a little concerned. You know that seeing your own handwriting makes us really happy.
It is due to the concerns and worries caused by this incident that we have tried every possible way to get some information about the safety of you and your sister. Please write to us, in your own handwriting, or call us as soon as possible. If we don't hear from you very soon we have no choice but to push every possible button to get some result.
So, please, either yourself or your sister should get in touch with us and confirm your health and safety.
In hope to see you as soon as possible and to see the demise of the inhuman regime in Iran,
God bless you
Mustafa and Mahboobeh
In the third instalment of the series, a father takes extreme measures to get his son and daughter out of the clutches of the guerrillas.
Scaryy, but no surprises there. I think most Iranians are well aware of the cult-like nature of MKO. What I got from this is that MKO is so unpopular that the only way they can recruit and keep members is by FORCE. No surprises there. I am so glad people are going public with this though, somebody needs to stand up to them and expose them for what they really are. I just have to add this, the words "freedom fighters" and MKO used in the same sentence really makes me want to vomit, since they are ANYTHING BUT. Tune in for part III tomorow.