The Great Escape: Iman Zahmatkesh has been running and fighting most of his life

By Matt Christie

IT ALL began on the side of a road on the outskirts of Rasht, the most populous city of northern Iran. Iman Zahmatkesh, his sister, and his friend were walking towards the city centre when a police van pulled up alongside them.

Zahmatkesh, then 20, was known to the authorities. He was an activist for women’s rights at the university where he studied and consequently lost his place in his final year. His opinions and presence at the university were no longer tolerated.

“They call them morality police, they dress normally like us, [but] they are police,” Zahmatkesh explains to Boxing News. The now 29-year-old chuckles intermittently as he retells a hellish tale. It’s presumed he’s trying to keep the ghosts at bay.

“My sister went pale, and I said to her, ‘don’t worry, I will speak to them, we’re doing nothing wrong, you are okay.’ But she was [showing] a tiny bit of her hair and you’re not allowed to do that in a Muslim country.”

He attempted to reason with one of them while the others went towards his sister. It was then that the screaming started.

“They were pepper-spraying her, dragging her along the floor by her hair. She was bleeding. Then, basically, I switched. ‘Don’t touch her.’ I told my sister to leave, I didn’t want her to get in trouble. My friend, poor boy, he didn’t do anything wrong, he wasn’t involved.”

Punches were thrown as crowds gathered. More police were called. ‘Go!’ Iman shouted at his sister. Amid the pandemonium, his sister made her escape and, satisfied she was safe, Zahmatkesh and his friend did the same. They darted down an alleyway, away from the roads and out into the darkness of a nearby forest. Iman threw his phone away, conscious that it could be tracked. “I told my friend to do the same. But [unbeknownst to me] he just hid it in his socks.”

They walked for miles, deep into the countryside. “We were just outside and stayed outside for one day. The second day, we were getting hungry.  We were so hungry, we wanted to go to the supermarket to get food. We walked down this little road and, suddenly, I saw car, car, car.”

Those cars contained the police. They had tracked his friend’s phone. The boys ran until guns fired; the bullets were too close to risk triggers being pulled again. “I stopped, I knew they would kill us and [for them] there would be no problem. I tried to say sorry, they tasered my head, tasered my knees. It felt like my whole body was bursting. Then they tried to put me in the boot of the car.”

By now blindfolded, he was taken to what he describes as a ‘torture area’ where he was tied to the ceiling and beaten with batons. “You don’t know if you’re going to stay alive or not, people were getting killed. But all I’m thinking about is my family, how worried they are, because I had just disappeared.”

Every day, while dangling from the ceiling, his body would be under siege. Every night, the relief from being untied was only momentary; he was then stripped naked and bundled into a room decorated by illuminous industrial lighting designed to make sleep impossible. The incessant torture was crude, but it had the desired effect; Iman felt like he was losing his mind. “Then, in the morning they would come, handcuff you, hang you again, beat you again, hang things from my testicles. They would tie you to a board, and this sounds silly, but they would drop tiny bits of water onto your forehead. Your body is so light that after a little while it feels like someone is hitting your head with a hammer. I’ve never experienced such a thing.”

Two weeks went by before they were paraded around their city in open top vehicles as an example to the locals. “They made out we were gangsters, that we were violent, nobody knew we were trying to help my sister.”

He was taken to a special prison where murderers were welcomed, and violence could not escape. Fellow inmates were told that if they killed Iman, favours would be granted. The machetes were duly sharpened.

Today, Iman lifts up his t-shirt to show me the scars that remain from those prison battles. One sprawls across his back, the consequence of a knife wound that went rotten, others are dotted all over his body. He smiles again, relieved.

Eventually, his family raised the bail required to get him out before his trial. Within hours of his release, however, his house was raided by police, and it became clear that the nightmare had barely begun. They wanted to make an example out of him. Best case scenario, the end would come quickly, and he would be executed in public. The worst was a lifetime of torture in prison.

Iman wouldn’t accept either. On the advice of his family, he fled. It would be nine years before he saw them again. Once in Tehran, he stayed in the basement of his aunt’s house for a few weeks, staying out of sight, talking only to her. She gave him money so if he made it to the Turkey-Iran border he could pay a smuggler to get him out of the country. It was the thick of winter and the mountains separating the two countries were dressed in dense snow. And so began the escape that would end two years later in Bognor Regis on the south coast of England.

The hike up the mountain took nine hours. With his legs paralysed by cramp, Iman – while avoiding the glare of a security patrol – could only use his arms to get down on the other side. He was out of Iran.

Greece was the next target. One week before Iman stepped onto a packed boat on the Turkish coast, 60 asylum seekers perished in The Aegean. The water was so cold they didn’t stand a chance.

Iman survived but there was panic when a boat approached them. He knew that if the boat contained Turkish authorities, he would be taken back to Turkey and then immediately deported to Iran. “It was a Greek boat,” Zahmatkesh chuckles, aware he was due some good luck at last. “They took us straight to Mytilene [on the Greek Island of Lesbos].”

Iman spent several months in Greece. While there, he met a British woman, Lisa, who was in the country helping refugees. “I could barely speak English then but I could speak it better than others,” Iman explains, “so I would translate. I could tell them that certain groups needed clothes, some needed shoes.” Lisa promised Iman that, if he made it to England, he could live with her family.

Homeless but never hopeless, Zahmatkesh tried to make his way to Macedonia. The police were on his trail again, however. Dogs gave chase so Iman jumped into nearby water. It was January and the only clothes he had were on his back. He put them on a tree in the hope they would dry by the morning. “It was four or five in the morning, I was freezing, so I reached for my clothes, and they were just ice. They were frozen.”

But on he went to Germany and then France. It had been one year since he climbed the mountain in Iran. “Then I had to cling on to the underneath of a lorry that was driving to a ship [heading for the UK],” he explains. How long was he clinging on for? “Maybe two hours. That was lucky, if they had pulled up the lever that controls where the wheels are, depending on the load, I would have been squished. People did get squished, but luckily, I did not. I was fine.”

Once in Britain he phoned Lisa. Today, Lisa is his mum. Her husband, Andy, is Iman’s dad and their three children are his brothers and sisters. They have been a family for seven mostly happy years. Any unhappiness has been a consequence of being an asylum seeker, trying to prove he deserves to stay here in the UK, prove that he’d be in danger if he was made to go back. “It has been hard at times because I was not allowed to work, I had to rely on my mum and dad for money. I am a fully grown man, I am proud. I know they would give me anything, but I wanted to pay for things myself. I owe them everything.”

On Friday night (March 22), with refugee status at last granted, Zahmatkesh – the runner up at 92kgs in the 2022 NACs – made his professional boxing debut inside Bethnal Green’s York Hall. A winner by first-round knockout, it proved to be a walk in the park.

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