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Neda was a friend, traveler, symbol

The 26-year-old who was shot was never an activist, those mourning her said.

Iranians in Dubai light candles in front of an image of Neda Agha Soltani, who was reportedly killed when hit by a bullet during a protest in Tehran. (AP Photo / Kamran Jebreili)
Iranians in Dubai light candles in front of an image of Neda Agha Soltani, who was reportedly killed when hit by a bullet during a protest in Tehran. (AP Photo / Kamran Jebreili)Read more

TEHRAN, Iran - The first word came from abroad. An aunt in the United States called Saturday in a panic.

"Don't go out into the streets, Golshad," the aunt said. "They're killing people."

The aunt proceeded to describe a video, airing on exile television channels that are jammed in Iran, in which a young woman is shown bleeding to death as her companion calls out: "Neda! Neda!"

A dark premonition swept over Golshad, 25, who asked that her real name not be published. She began calling the cell-phone and home numbers of her friend Neda Agha-Soltan, who had gone to the chaotic demonstration with friends.

Neda didn't answer.

At midnight, as the city continued to smolder, Golshad drove to the Agha-Soltan residence in the eastern Tehran Pars section of the capital. As she heard the cries and wails and praising of God reverberating from the house, she knew that her worst fears were true.

Agha-Soltan, 26, was shot dead Saturday near the scene of clashes between pro-government militias and demonstrators who allege rampant vote-count fraud in the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

The jittery cell-phone footage of her bleeding on the street has turned Neda into an international symbol of the protest movement that ignited in the aftermath of the June 12 voting.

"She was a person full of joy," said Hamid Panahi, her music teacher and close friend who was among the mourners at her family's home Sunday, awaiting word of her burial. "She was a beam of light."

Security forces urged friends and family not to hold memorial services at a mosque and not to speak about her, said associates of the family. Authorities even asked the Agha-Soltan family to take down the black mourning banners in front of their house, aware of the potent symbol she has become.

But some insisted on speaking out anyway, hoping to make sure the world would not forget her.

Neda Agha-Soltan was born in Tehran, they said, to a government-worker father and a homemaker mother. They were a family of modest means, part of the country's emerging middle class.

Like many in her neighborhood, Neda was loyal to the country's Islamic roots and traditional values, friends say, but also curious about the outside world.

The second of three children, she studied Islamic philosophy at a branch of Tehran's Azad University until deciding to pursue a career in the tourism industry. She took classes to become a tour guide, including Turkish-language courses, friends said, hoping to lead groups of Iranians on trips abroad.

Travel was her passion, and with her friends she saved up enough money for package tours to Dubai, Turkey, and Thailand. Two months ago, on a trip to Turkey, she relaxed along the beaches of Antalya on the Mediterranean Sea.

She loved music and was taking piano classes, according to Panahi and other friends. She was also an accomplished singer.

But she was never an activist, and she attended the mass protests only because of a personal sense of outrage over the election results.

Her parents and others told her it would be dangerous to go to Saturday's march, said Golshad. On Friday, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had warned that demonstrators would be responsible for any violence that broke out.

But Neda was as stubborn as she was honest, Golshad said, and she ended up going anyway.

"She couldn't stand the injustice of it all," Panahi said. "All she wanted was the proper vote of the people to be counted."