What the World Didn't See in Tehran

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In this image taken from an amateur video posted online from Tehran on June 20, 2009, supporters of opposition leader Mir-Hossien Mousavi set fire to a barricade as they protest

Iranian state television yesterday broadcast the soap operas and covered the news about Rafael Nadal's withdrawal from Wimbledon and Pakistani operations against the Taliban as if they were the most important stories in the world. Meanwhile, arriving over the Internet transom, rough and insistent and bloody, were the tiny electronic dispatches from protesters forced off the streets in Tehran, shaky videos from a city screaming for help. For outsiders tuned in to the blog posts, Facebook updates, Tweets and YouTube videos, the torrent of information was compelling and confusing, emotional and rife with rumors, full of sound and fury signifying ... what we do not yet know.

Shut out by the near totalitarian powers of the Islamic republic, the mainstream media tracked the stream of consciousness produced by new media. Some of the material is powerful, even indelible. Particularly haunting is the 40-second YouTube video that shows a young woman, wearing jeans but otherwise dressed conservatively, suddenly falling to the sidewalk, shot in the heart. Her eyes turn to what must be a cell-phone camera, wide and shocked and dying as we stare at her. Men rush to her side and try to stanch the wound, but blood trickles from her mouth as an older man — later described as her father — cries and cries. Hours after the video surfaced, people on Twitter said she had not been part of the demonstration at all. Just a bystander. By the end of the day, the Tweets had given her a name: Neda, which means "the voice" or "the call" in Farsi.

But who shot her? A soldier? A member of the notorious Basij, the volunteer militia that supports President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad? Were they aiming at her? Could this have been an accident or a random act of violence?

As a journalist, I cannot say that what I have read and seen today is the whole story: everything is too piecemeal, too unconfirmable, too one-sided. But experiencing the raw feed of history has been chilling. As we try to carve out the truth from the speculation and relentlessly repeated reports of outrage, the overall impression is one of immense sadness and tragedy, of a country seeking to preserve itself by destroying itself.

Some people sent Tweets saying they had been badly injured; others asked why the tear gas could not be washed out. Messages went back and forth explaining what to do with chemical burns and about which embassies had opened their doors to people seeking refuge. For a while the address of the Australian embassy became a trending, or most popular, topic on Twitter as users sought to help by re-Tweeting the information. Other sites aggregated photos taken by camera phone or small video cams.

As protesters took to the streets despite threats of bloodshed from Supreme Leader Ayatullah Ali Khamenei, Mir-Hossein Mousavi — the candidate the government says lost the election to Ahmadinejad — released statements via his website, saying he was prepared for martyrdom but at the same time calling the groups tormenting his supporters "brothers." It seemed impossibly moderate, almost unreasonable amid all the reports of how his green-garbed backers were suffering via water hoses and acid-like liquid dropped from helicopters. Protesters indicated they were being bludgeoned by Basiji with everything from cudgels and sticks to cable wire. Gunfire broke out. Stones littered the streets. And there were reports of people literally being thrown into fires. Or so said blog posts on sites like TehranBureau.com and tireless Tweeters like Oxfordgirl and Dominiquerdr.

It's unclear how many people showed up to protest. It is also not yet certain where some armed factions of the government stand. Attacks by the Basij seemed to be plentifully and painfully in evidence. But was the army solidly on the government's side or not? What about the Revolutionary Guard? What of the tank someone spotted? What do we do with the government claim that a suicide bomber attacked the sacrosanct mausoleum of the Imam Khomeini? And of the claim that demonstrators were breaking the ultimate Iranian political taboo, shouting "Death to the Supreme Leader"? Reports echoed on both new and old media said several key protest organizers had been arrested. But did the government succeeded in retaking the streets? Or will there be more resistance today, as Mousavi has apparently requested?

In the weekend cacophony of messages and videos, one note lingers. A video posted the night before the crackdown is of a woman reading a poem about Iranians standing up to change their country, afraid but determined to move into the morning, even if it is to face forces that would destroy them. The voice is sad and at one point almost breaks into a sob, and in the backdrop of the Tehran night can be faintly heard protest chants: "Allahu-Akbar, Allahu-Akbar." God is Great, God is Great. A Palestinian friend of mine remarked that those words would once have struck fear into the hearts of Americans. Now they inspire. That is a revolution all by itself.