I shared cell with 50 women in Iran's most notorious prison Evin, I was treated like an animal & food was full of flies

MARZIYEH Amirizadeh, 43, spent 259 days in Evin, Iran’s most notorious prison, where British mother Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe was also held.

Here, Marziyeh reveals the horror she endured – and how she rebuilt her life after her release as told to Kate Graham.

When I watched Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s press conference after her release last month, 

I was in tears, my heart heavy with the horror of what she’d survived. Just like Nazanin, I’d lived through the brutal regime at Evin, Iran’s most infamous prison. 

I grew up in a happy, loving family in the Iranian capital of Tehran.

Though nominally Muslim, my family didn’t practise Islamic rules and I never embraced the religion.

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In 1998, when I was 19, one of my friends who had converted to Christianity talked to me about their faith and it connected with me.

I started to read the Bible and pray, and in 2005, I quit my job working as a manager and trainer in a cosmetology school to begin working for the church, supported by a Christian ministry in London. 

While technically it wasn’t illegal to be a Christian in Iran, converting from Islam was considered apostasy, punishable by death under Sharia law, so I lived in constant fear – particularly because my friend from church Maryam and I lived very close to Evin prison.

I’d often pass by the gate and see people waiting desperately for news of loved ones, hearing their stories of torture and executions. 

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On the morning of March 5, 2009, a policeman rang and asked me if I could come by the station to sort out some paperwork. 

Once there, fear flooded through me when he asked me to confirm I was a Christian.

He then handcuffed me, before taking me to my apartment with three plain-clothes officers. 

When Maryam opened the door, she looked terrified as the officers entered and began ransacking the apartment looking for “evidence”, then they took us both to Vozara detention centre, where the smell of vomit, sweat and toilets was overpowering.

Given a urine-soaked blanket, we were left to sleep on the icy floor of a tiny cell together.

Every day brought new horrors, as women were marched in and out on their way to trials.

Though we’d not been told the official charges against us, we were interrogated many times, with the same questions over and over about why we had “rejected Islam”.

We were parched, but afraid to drink the rancid water, and starving but scared to eat the disgusting slop that was kicked across the floor to us.

But worst was the continuous fear that we would be tortured or raped. 

On March 18, we got life-shattering news – we were being sent to Evin, with no explanation of how long for.

There, we were subjected to a humiliating full-body search before being taken to Ward 2, which housed women who’d committed crimes against the state. 

Evin was like something from a horror movie.

Given a urine-soaked blanket, we were left to sleep on the icy floor of a tiny cell together.

The showers were filthy and the plugholes were matted with hair, while our room contained around 50 women, with no space even to sit.

The noise and the smell, plus the fear of not knowing how long we’d be there, was overwhelming.

The food was a disgusting stew of water and fat, unwashed vegetables and bread that contained flies, hair and teeth – we couldn’t tell if they were animal or human. My weight plummeted.

With the filth and lack of fresh air, I developed kidney problems, backache and a chronic sore throat, but medical care for me – as a Christian – was non-existent. 

Many of the prisoners showed me kindness by talking to me and telling me about their lives, but there was constant violence, too, and women attacking one another over the tiniest things, such as who got to use the phone.

As for the guards, their job was to humiliate us, to break our spirit and make us confess to whatever false charges they created. We were just animals to them.

Another inmate I’d become friends with, called Shirin, had told me about her year in Ward 209, where political prisoners were taken for special interrogation.

She’d been kicked until she vomited blood, whipped and suspended from the ceiling. 

Six weeks after arriving, our fear we too would be taken there became reality as Maryam and I were moved to the ward.

For 40 days, I was held in a tiny cell with two other women, without sunlight, and unable to block out the screams from other prisoners.

It took every ounce of my strength to stay calm.

To pass the time, we would talk about our lives, pray and sleep as much as we could.

Evin was like something from a horror movie.

When I was returned to Ward 2, exhausted but not broken, I discovered why I hadn’t been physically hurt.

Some new arrivals recognised us, explaining that both our sisters had begun an international campaign to free us.

Finally, we had a glimmer of hope. 

Meanwhile, some prisoners we had become friends with disappeared, such as Zeynab, a quiet, lovely 20 year old.

One day her name was called on the loudspeaker.

The next, we learnt she’d been executed – for what, we didn’t know – and I was left speechless with sorrow. 

After three months at Evin, I was allowed to call my family for a few minutes, and I sobbed when I heard their voices. 

We were finally allowed a lawyer in September 2009, and my sister was able to make a short visit.

Seeing her face and hearing about the international efforts by Amnesty International and our church to free us was incredible.

Then, on November 18, eight months after we’d arrived, we were told we were being released.

I felt joy, but also sadness to be leaving so many other women who had no such escape. I didn’t let myself believe it was real until we’d passed every checkpoint. 

When I saw my sister outside the gates, I flung myself into her arms. Seeing her and my friends again later was pure joy.

As for the guards, their job was to humiliate us, to break our spirit and make us confess to whatever false charges they created. We were just animals to them.

But as Nazanin has no doubt discovered, re-entry into the world isn’t easy. 

After living in terror, witnessing unspeakable injustice and cruelty, I was forever changed, and it was such a terrible, lonely feeling.

I swung from silence to tears, gratitude to anger.

Fear still pumped through me and I was tormented by nightmares of the police bursting into the apartment and taking me again.

Then, In May 2010, I heard some devastating news.

My friend Shirin had been executed. I was overwhelmed by grief.

I knew then that if I stayed in Iran, I could be re-arrested at any time, so that same month, Maryam and I made the heartbreaking decision to leave, first to Turkey and then to the US.

I’ve built a happy life. I gained a degree in 2018 and a masters in international affairs a year later.

I’ve just written my second memoir and am running for political office in Georgia. Maryam is like a sister to me. I’ve dated, and hope to find love one day. 

However many years pass, I will never forget the horror of Evin. It’s why I cried at the news of Nazanin’s release, both with joy and sorrow.

I would advise her to take her time to adjust to the outside world. I know that the injustice doesn’t fade.

But life really can be wonderful again.

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In Nazanin I see a powerful woman with everything ahead of her.

Iran – and Evin – can never take that away.  

  • A Love Journey With God: From Pain To Love, Captivity To Freedom, Iran To The US (£18.34, Bowker) is out now.

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