By Hannah Kaviani, RFE/RL
A house damaged in the East Azerbaijan quakes.
Back in 2009, at the height of mass protests that followed Iran's disputed presidential election, Facebook emerged as an important tool for protesters to share news and information. It had such an impact that the authorities even branded Facebook a weapon in a "soft war" against the Islamic republic.
As a result, users in Iran have to jump through hoops to access the social-media website today. Unbowed, they go through the hassle of going through proxy servers to circumvent the regime's efforts to block Facebook.
And this week, for those suffering from the earthquakes that struck northwestern Iran, their unsanctioned efforts were life-saving.
In the immediate aftermath of the August 11 quakes in East Azerbaijan Province, which left more than 300 dead and thousands homeless, Facebook users came to the rescue.
Journalists, the majority of them based in Iran, initiated a Facebook group to gather and spread reliable news and information related to the disaster.
Many, like independent journalist Sasan Aghaei, headed out to gather on-the-ground reports.
"I'm back from two flattened villages in Varzaghan," Aghaei wrote in a message posted on August 12. "All we brought from Tehran was given to people, but it was like a drop in the ocean. We observed today the work of Red Crescent people, transferring the bodies, the wounded and situating homeless people in tents (which are not in very good condition). The main problem now is making water and food available."
The logo for a Facebook page that is soliciting blood donations for earthquake victims in Iran.
Another Facebook group, Female Equals Male, boasts more than 140,000 "likes." Following the earthquakes, the group encouraged followers to head to blood-donation stations in cities across Iran.
The call was answered, with eyewitnesses reporting that people were standing in line well after midnight on the night of the tragedy to help fill depleted blood banks.
"I work for one of the blood-transfusion centers in Tehran," wrote Ahmad in a message posted on August 13. "And I can say it was the first time that I have ever seen people being so eager to donate blood. It has always been us, pushing, advertising and asking people to do so."
Mahsa from Karaj provided this comment to Female Equals Male the same day:
"After searching a while we found a place to give our donations to be taken to affected areas. To our surprise what we gathered turned out to fill a van. On our way to find boxes for packing, we got into an accident. The driver [of the other car], who was very angry when he found out what we were up to, just got into his car and left. He in a way helped the survivors. Hopefully we will manage to donate blood tonight as well."
Women mourning their loved ones who lost their lives during the quakes
Other Facebook users, both at home and abroad, are actively trying to mobilize help for survivors.
Some draw on experience they gained from past travels to the cities of Bam, Zanjan, or Roodbar, where past earthquakes claimed thousands of lives. These users are pooling their knowledge of what is needed in such crisis situations and sharing it with those who are willing to go to the affected areas.
Others are gathering money, including dozens of Iranians outside of the country. However, they face one obstacle: sanctions.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Victoria Nuland announced on August 13 that certain noncommercial financial transactions were possible for Americans interested in contributing to the relief effort in Iran.
Additionally, the European Union's Humanitarian Aid and Civil Protection Commission has announced that is prepared to offer humanitarian assistance to Iran.
However, it is not clear how personal financial aid can actually clear the strict international sanctions imposed on Iran's banking system as punishment for Tehran's failure to cooperate with inspections related to its disputed nuclear work.
Amir Rashidi, a civil rights activist based in Italy, spoke to RFE/RL's Radio Farda about his experiences trying to send collected donations to Iran.
"Due to the sanctions, now we have to find somebody who is traveling to Iran to give this money to, because making transactions with Iran has become impossible," Rashidi says. "And this person should be willing to take the money as well as change it in Iran, which is not easy either."
Although this problem exists, many different groups are appearing on Facebook, asking Iranians in France, Germany, the United States, and other countries to continue to gather aid contributions.
Their actions add to social-media efforts inside the country aimed at helping those in the hardest-hit areas. This is clear proof, according to Rashidi, that Facebook is not just a haven for "slacktivism."
"When there is no problem, or no special event is happening, we can say that these networks are a place for people to gather virtually for fun," Rashidi says. "But at a special time, like now with an earthquake, is when the importance and role of them are highlighted."
Copyright (c) 2012 RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org
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