Neda Agha-Soltan

An undated picture shows Iranian Neda Agha-Soltan, who was killed when hit by a bullet during a protest in Tehran. (AFP/Getty Images)

The first word came from abroad. An aunt in the United States called her Saturday in a panic. "Don't go out into the streets, Golshad," she told her. "They're killing people."

The relative 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A dark foreboding swept over Golshad, who asked that her real name not be published. She began calling the cellphone and home numbers of her friend Neda Agha-Soltan -- who had gone to the chaotic demonstration with a group of friends -- but Neda didn't answer.

At midnight, as the city continued to smolder, Golshad drove to the Agha-Soltan residence in the Tehran Pars section in the eastern part of the capital.

As she heard the cries and wails and praising of God reverberating from the house, she crumpled, knowing that her worst fears were true.

"Neda! Neda!" the 25-year-old cried out. "What will I do?"

Neda Agha-Soltan, 26, was shot dead Saturday evening near the scene of clashes between pro-government militias and demonstrators who allege rampant vote fraud in the reelection of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. The jittery cellphone footage of her bleeding on the street has turned "Neda" into an international symbol of the protest movement that erupted after the June 12 balloting. Images of her final moments have spread virally on social networks, been beamed across the world on cable and held aloft on placards on the streets of Tehran.

'A beam of light'

To those who knew and loved Agha-Soltan, she was far more than an icon. She was a daughter, sister and friend, a music and travel lover, a beautiful young woman in the prime of her life.

"She was a person full of joy," said her music teacher and close friend Hamid Panahi, who was among the mourners at her family home Sunday, awaiting word about her burial. "She was a beam of light. I'm so sorry. I was so hopeful for this woman."

Security forces urged her friends and family not to hold memorial services for her at a mosque and asked them not to speak publicly about her, associates of the family said. Authorities even asked the family to take down the black mourning banners in front of their house, aware of the potent symbol she had 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 father who worked for the government and a homemaker mother.

They were a family of modest means, part of the country's emerging middle class who built their lives in rapidly developing neighborhoods on the eastern and western outskirts of the city.

Like many in her neighborhood, Agha-Soltan was loyal to the country's Islamic roots and traditional values, friends say, but also curious about the outside world, which was easily accessed through satellite TV, the Internet and occasional trips abroad.

The second of three children, she studied Islamic philosophy at a branch of Tehran's Azad University until deciding to pursue a career in tourism. She took private classes to become a tour guide, including Turkish-language courses, friends said, hoping to someday 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 coast.

She also loved music, especially Persian pop, and was taking piano lessons, according to Panahi and other friends. She was also an accomplished singer, they said.

But she was never an activist, they added, and she began attending the mass protests only because she was outraged by the election results.