Kyrgyz student Alina Alymkulova recounts how she was recruited to travel from Prague to Paris to attend a rally for the Mujahedin-e Khalq Organization (MKO), an Iranian opposition movement in exile.
The MKO and its Paris-based political wing, the National Council of Resistance in Iran, are often at the center of controversy. The MKO, which advocates regime change in Iran, was only recently delisted as a terrorist organization by the United States and the European Union.
The National Council of Resistance in Iran and its president-elect, Maryam Rajavi, are known for organizing mass rallies that attract Iranian exiles and VIP supporters from around the world. But as Alymkulova's diary makes clear, some of the tens of thousands of supporters who attended the June 22 rally in Paris might have been motivated by more than their wish for a free Iran.
I was in Prague listening to music online and checking news on social media when an advertisement caught my eye. It offered a weekend trip to Paris, a city I always dreamed of visiting at least once during my lifetime.
The price was amazingly cheap -- round-trip by bus and bed and breakfast at a four-star hotel would cost me only 35 euros ($46).
I wrote to the trip organizer and discovered there was a catch, but it didn't bother me. The organizer explained that I would have to take part in a rally in Paris for a few hours. He promised the protest would be peaceful and violence-free, and that I would return home safe and sound.
I arrived at a bus station in Prague along with a friend, a fellow student from Kyrgyzstan. Just as the trip organizer said last night, there were eight buses waiting to take us to Paris.
Most of the "protesters" were young and obviously students like me. I met many Russians, Ukrainians, Czechs, and students from Asian countries who were all recruited via the Internet.
More than an hour later we were still at the bus station. People kept coming. It was cold and rainy, and some people began to drink alcohol to keep warm. Some others started to chant slogans: "Freedom to Iranian parrots!" and "Organizers should bring beer!"
I approached two Russian girls to see if they might have a better idea about the purpose of our trip. "To defend the rights of Iranian women," said one of the girls. "To meet handsome Frenchmen," said the other. "Who cares about Iranian women?"
Finally, the trip organizers arrived and let us on the buses. The journey had begun.
After a lengthy bus journey and a sleepless night, we arrived in Paris. The organizers told us we had the whole day to see the city.
I met a student who traveled from Germany to take part in the same rally. But he was sure we were going to attend a rally in support of changes in Iraq, not Iran.
An Iranian flag is seen in the trash after the rally.
The hotel was about 60 kilometers outside Paris. We were promised a night in a four-star hotel, but I wouldn't even give one star to the shabby place the organizers brought us to. "Well, what else would you expect for a 35 euro, all-inclusive trip to Paris?" someone said as we stood in line to use the toilet.
I overslept and missed my breakfast. Those who woke up early said the breakfast consisted of milk and a sandwich.
The buses took us to some strange place not far from Charles de Gaulle Airport. We were given papers explaining where to go and what to do. Cameras were not allowed. As we exited the bus, I resigned myself to the idea that running away was not an option -- people were guarding the area.
There were yellow-and-purple flags hanging everywhere. The name "Maryam Rajavi" was written on the flags. Well, at least I knew the name of the person behind this massive event.
The endless sight of buses from many different countries was somewhat alarming. Security guards checked us as we entered a building. They stopped me because I had kept my camera inside my backpack despite the organizers' warning. Amazingly, the guards let me take my camera in after I paid them a couple of euros. Within seconds I was inside the building.
There were at least 10,000 people inside. Strange music was playing. All the participants were given coupons for a free drink and sandwich. We ate and drank and then joined the rally being held in what appeared to be a huge stadium.
There were headphones on each seat, apparently so we could listen to direct translations of the speeches. I suddenly realized that there was a woman standing next to me. She was covered head-to-toe and kept saying, "Allahu Akbar."
Enough. I had to find the exit door.
Near the exit doors, where organizers were distributing salmon sandwiches and kebabs, I heard a few people speaking Kyrgyz, my mother tongue. They were three students who traveled from Germany.
I spent the rest of the day sightseeing in Paris before returning to our bus.
We arrived back in Prague. I was feeling down, and even the souvenirs I bought in Paris could not cheer me up. In thinking about the whole experience, a saying comes to mind: "Only a mousetrap has free cheese."
*CORRECTION: The dates in this article were initially wrong due to an error in editing and have been corrected to reflect the author's original text.
Translated from Russian by Farangis Najibullah