Free Nazanin Ratcliffe

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Day 336 #FreeNazanin – Waiting Room

Richard Ratcliffe
London, United Kingdom

Mar 5, 2017 — This week Nazanin collapsed on her way to the prison clinic, unable to speak for a while when she came round. We are awaiting her admission to hospital.

Two weeks ago Nazanin saw a neurological specialist. The past months she’s had worsening problems with her neck and back, been complaining of sharp pains down her spine, abrupt spasms in her neck and shoulders, numbness in her hands, being unable to move her arms beyond a point, or pick up Gabriella, or do anything with her hands for longer than a few minutes. Following her struggles with ladders, one of her cellmates gave up her bottom bunk. They also covered Nazanin’s share of cleaning chores.

Last month the prison doctor had given her an emergency referral, when scans revealed some of her neck vertebrae were out of place. Following her father’s appeal to the Prosecutor’s Office in Evin, the first refusal was overturned, and she saw that neurologist.

The specialist recommended she be admitted to hospital instantly. Without urgent treatment, he wrote, Nazanin runs the risk of permanent impairment. Previously Nazanin had neck problems, made worse by stress and poor exercise, not helped by having no bed for months until her recent move.

This week she collapsed again. She had been complaining of nausea and headaches, of an increasing inability to do anything apart from lie down. It seems due also to psychological strains. Nazanin reports increasing unexplained panics, suffering severe insomnia at night – waves of worries in the quietest hours, magnifying the alone. During the day suddenly unable to get calm, feeling inescapable pressures. Feeling the interrogators’ presence, even where they are not. That drip feed of cruelties does not magically drain away.

Her father has now been twice to the Prosecutors Office to push for this admission. We are still waiting.

At least since her move the waiting is not alone. Nazanin shares a ward with some imprisoned for their activism, or the activism of their husbands, with other dual nationals held e.g. for running an art gallery, and women from the Bahai minority. One new friend who was given four years for being involved in an online study group.

It has been both a euphoria of human contact, but also a discovery - of the strength of other mothers denied their children, and stories to make ours pale. The bubble of our campaign has stepped into a wider world of hardship, a ward full of people, generous and caring (and challenging some preconceptions) who also did not expect this would be their life.

After months’ isolation, believing in kindness is not a straight path. It has needed baby steps back into trust. But it has been a solace of company, cellmates sharing support, alongside their worries and dreams for beyond. When Nazanin arrived, her new cellmates gave her a hug. They had been waiting for her, and had written to the Judiciary asking for her to be transferred.

Since the move there are other benefits. In the general cells Nazanin is in a room with natural light. Now the women cook and eat together. (Nazanin has started on the salads). They pool money sent by their families to buy ingredients. Food suddenly tastes different. They celebrate birthdays – even one for me.

Previously family visits were only at the discretion of the Revolutionary Guard, supervised in High Security, with Gabriella and family sometimes being made to wait (the only ones in the waiting room) up to two hours. Since the sentence, Gabriella has joined the weekly children’s visit, able to play with the children of other women political prisoners.

The women prepare food for the children’s visit. For all Iranians, hospitality is important. It is what makes a home. It is why my first encounters always involved getting fed. Last visit Nazanin cooked Gabriella meatballs. With the simplicity of a 2 year-old, Gabriella refused to be fed - mummy doesn’t feed her now, Manamy does.

Before Nazanin’s health deteriorated, she could also join craft activities. Suddenly she could make gifts for her family, like the cardigan in the picture she knitted for Gabriella. One of her cellmates helped finish off the hat. In more normal times, Nazanin was very proud of making clothes for Gabriella. Pleased to be still mum.

The women also have a reading club to discuss all kinds of books (no books in English allowed). Those for whom study is illegal outside can learn in Evin. It is giving Nazanin a voice.

It is not all easy. Frustrations in the ward explode in squabbles many evenings, tensions over who is a spy for the guards, suspicions over who’s feigning illness to avoid their chores.

And communications outside remain constrained. The prison still returns unopened the letters sent to Nazanin from Amnesty groups. Once a month Nazanin is now allowed to call me. Last time she cried the entire call.

It remains a waiting room life – for the hospital and beyond. Nazanin’s journey – like others - is no longer a sprint. Its cost both clear and unknown, and ominous for us outside.

As we wait, she endures - thanks to the care of those around her, helping her to the clinic, greeting Gabriella, and thanks to their resilience. There really is something inside so strong. While we lie waiting, that helps me keep looking up at the stars.


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