For months, Laila saw little to no sunlight.
“I miss being outside … I miss being able to walk freely,” she told CNN. “I miss my family, my room.”
Now, her life is largely confined within four walls, in a house that is not her own, with people she had never met a few weeks ago.
Leila has been targeted by the Iranian government for years because she was a civil rights activist and grassroots organizer. She was forced into hiding in September when she was arrested following nationwide protests over the death in custody of Mahsa Amini, a man accused of flouting the country’s mandatory hijab laws.
Since then, Leila has taken refuge in strangers’ homes as security forces stalk her house and family. An anonymous network of concerned citizens — “ordinary people” bonded by a common mission to protect protesters — who silently support movements from afar by offering homes to activists in need.
It’s impossible to know exactly how many protesters have been granted sanctuary inside Iran, but CNN spoke to people who, like Leila, have left their homes and families to escape an increasingly violent state crackdown.
Leila said her own story, and those of those who were brave enough to hide her, showed that in addition to the extraordinary display of public anger on the streets of Iran, “the struggle against the regime continues in different forms.”
“I came here in the middle of the night. It was so dark. I didn’t even know where I was and neither did my family,” she said of her current location.
Leila – who spent time in some of Iran’s most notorious prisons for her activism in the past – has long been a voice for those the Iranian regime prefers to keep silent, for political prisoners and protesters facing execution.
CNN has verified documents, videos, witness statements and statements from inside the country that suggest at least 43 people may face imminent execution in Iran as a result of the ongoing protests.
Using only a disposable phone and a VPN Today, Leila continues her work communicating with protesters in prison and the families of those on death row – sharing their stories on social media in an effort to help keep them safe and alive.
“The comments and messages I’ve received have been very inspiring. People see that I’m active now and it feels good to be with them [during this uprising]”
But as time went on, the Iranian Revolutionary Guards appeared to be redoubled efforts to find Laila.
“Every day a car with two passengers kept stopping in front of my house… They repeatedly arrested several of my family and friends. During their interrogations, they asked: ‘Where is Leila? Where is she hiding? ”
To talk to her loved ones, Leila relied on third parties to deliver messages through encrypted messaging services, using code words to prevent Iranian security forces from monitoring their conversations.
“We have bugs in our house,” she said. “That’s why I never call my family anymore.”
For years, Leila’s life had been on hold – interrupted by incarceration and lengthy interrogations – all at the hands of the Islamic Republic’s notorious security apparatus.
“I was psychologically tortured and held in solitary confinement. They threatened and humiliated me every day.”
Over the past five years, Iran has been gripped by waves of demonstrations over issues ranging from economic mismanagement and corruption to civil rights. One of the most visible manifestations of public anger came in 2019, when rising gasoline prices led to a massive uprising that was quickly met with deadly force.
Ahead of the recent protests sparked by Amini’s death – considered by many to be the most significant threat to the regime yet – Leila was trying to rebuild.
“When I got out, life was very difficult for me, but I tried to create a little way out for myself.”
She started a local business, took college classes and is working with a therapist adjusting to normal life and dealing with the trauma of years of incarceration.
All of that changed in the days following Amini’s death, when Leila knew she needed to play an active role again in the protests that filled streets across the country with chants of “Women, life, freedom”. “.
She started marching with her family — sharing the names and stories of detained protesters on her social media.
Almost at the same time, Iranian authorities again threatened to send Leila back to prison—and then an arrest warrant.
“After the murder of Mahsa Amini, as soon as the uprising happened, they wanted to shut me up… I knew that if I wanted to stay and continue my activities, I had to hide from their sight.”
Countless Iranians have been forced across the border to escape Iranian security forces. But after a “trusted friend” she met through an activist network set up her first safe house, Leila took the plunge and decided to go underground.
The drive lasted several hours, and it was pitch black all around.
“I wore a mask. I lay in the car so no one would notice me. I didn’t even go out to the bathroom or to eat.”
In the weeks and months since then, she’s been on the move. Smuggled overnight, never knowing her final destination.
“The first place I lived, the owners were scared, so I ended up going to another place.”
“[Another] The people I live with are very nice and supportive of my efforts,” she said.
In order to go completely off the grid, Leila no longer picks up her medication or connects with any doctors or medical professionals.
She also stopped using her bank accounts and even traded her life savings for gold, which was sometimes sold for her when she was in desperate need of cash.
As was the case for many ordinary Iranians who were the driving force behind the protests, Leila’s life “almost stopped”.
“I just breathe and work.”
“I’m not afraid of going to jail. Maybe a lot of people think we’re afraid, so we hide, but that’s not the case.”
“One of the things that worries me is that if I get caught and sent back to prison, I’m going to be a faceless … unable to help the cause and the movement, like countless others who have been sent to prison and never heard of same as people.”
For now, Leila says, as the weeks in hiding turn into months, the only thing keeping her going is the distant hope that one day she can live in a free Iran.
“The answer from the Islamic Republic has been repression and violence…I hope for a miracle and hope that this situation will end soon for the benefit of the people.”
“Just like when I was in prison and in solitary confinement, I’m improving myself and wanting to be free,” she said.