Already gathered around his grave are his two sisters and estranged wife, Mina, a moon-faced woman in a voluminous black chador. None of them had seen Ebby for years before his death, but finally they are laying aside their anger to grieve. Not just for his death, but also for his life.
I take my
place by their side, crouching in the mud by the grave, which was washed of the
flown here from my home in
small airport one could step on a plane for
Iran-Iraq war destroyed much of
had been in
this vast family, we children were close. Even after my parents moved away from
When I last saw Ebby seven years ago, he was a man in his thirties. He told me that he had fought along the border at Shalamcheh for the last 18 months of the war.
“I can’t even describe the things I’ve seen,” he muttered, chain smoking. He was still suffering from nightmares. “There were the Iraqis, large men you know, much bigger than us, and they had the latest arms… You felt – here’s a war where there are bigger powers against us. And us, just disorganized and poor.”
He and his
wife and two children lived in a small town nearby, but he wanted to move.
“Saddam used chemical weapons you know,” he said. “In the last few years two
members of our family have died of cancer.” He was referring to his father and
another uncle of ours. Ebby worried about the water, the soil, the health of his
children. His brow was constantly furrowed. I was not surprised that he was one
autumn of 1980, Iraqi forces invaded
Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, vowing to avenge Iraqi Shia victims of Baathist
repression and calling on Iraqis to rise against Saddam. By March 1980,
relations had deteriorated so much that
Arab minority remained loyal to
Saddam underestimated was the passion of his opponents for their land and the
strength of Khomeini’s ideology. Iraqi forces were repulsed from
Another unforeseen factor was the Basij, the People’s Militia, what Ayatollah Khomeini called the “Army of Twenty Million”. By the end of November 1980, some 200,000 new Pasdaran were sent to the front, accompanied by the Basij, troops so ideologically committed that some carried their own shrouds in expectation of impending martyrdom along with plastic keys worn around their necks – issued by the regime for entry to paradise.
The regime used aggressive recruiting techniques, particularly in mosques and schools in lower income urban and rural areas. Iranian television broadcast pictures of young men – boys – with their red Basij headbands and guns, saying how wonderful it was to be a soldier for Islam. Women were shown declaring pride that their sons had died martyrs for the cause. Although Hassan was 16 when he joined up, he says there were plenty of much younger boys. “There was one who was 12,” he says. “He lied about his age but they let him join anyway…”
of martyrdom is still in evidence in
Hassan went to the front in 1981. He won’t talk about the actual fighting, but I know that in the rain and mud of that winter, Iran first employed what would become a trademark tactic, the suicidal “human wave”, when thousands of ecstatic soldiers would storm the Iraqi lines without any artillery or air support, chanting Allahu akbar. An Iraqi officer once described the effect: “They come on in their hundreds, often walking straight across the minefields, triggering them with their feet.” He said that his men would cry with fear and try to run away: “My officers had to kick them back to their guns.”
At first the Basij had little or no training and were used mostly as human minesweepers, but as the war raged on, the training and preparation became more sophisticated.
Despite his injuries, he went back a few years later. I ask him why and he hesitates. “It’s hard to explain,” he says. “But it was impossible to get back to normal life. I just kept thinking of my friends and wondering what was happening.” He looks embarrassed again. “You know, I felt close to God there.”
talks, I watch a well dressed young couple walk by. Like most of the girls I
have seen in northern
Hassan sees them and says: “Look, I have friends from the war days who are still very devout. And they look at these youngsters today and they wonder what it was we were fighting for.” He considers before going on. “My children are very respectful but I know when I see some of their friends that they don’t care about our sacrifice. They don’t have respect.”
Martyrdom is a familiar concept to Iranians, whose branch of Islam, Shi’ism, is driven by the eighth-century martyrdom of Imam Hossein, whose death is commemorated during the month of Moharram by thousands, flagellating themselves, beating their chests and crying. In reality though, most Iranians didn’t want to be martyrs, most mothers weren’t praying that their sons be killed for the glory of Allah.
Saddam started using chemical weapons against the Iranians in 1982, including mustard gas and Sarin nerve gas.
time Ebby was called to the front in late1986, war weariness had set in. As
Iranian troops had been called to push into Iraqi territory, many of the
soldiers had lost their zeal: they had wanted to defend their own land, not
I asked her when she was planning to let them know and she stared at me blankly. “How do I tell them? What do I tell them?”
After dinner with my cousins, we sat over steaming black tea and Esmael told me some of the things Ebby had told him about the war.
“He saw too much. He once told me about the night before one of those human wave attacks. No one was sleeping, they were praying and weeping and were really scared. And there were loads of drugs around – hashish, opium, everything – Ebby said that it really helped. Maybe that was how he got into the heavier stuff.”
Maybe Ebby became addicted to opium at the front, but we will never know. All that is certain is that by the time he came home, he had a habit.
Iranian society is formal and a drug-addicted child is a problem that affects every member of the family. Ebby had two marriageable sisters and so he was sheltered by his parents. There was no official support for addicts or their families then. Mina’s parents were against the marriage – they had heard the rumors. Yet for a year Mina refused anyone else. After their marriage in 1990 they lived with Ebby’s parents, he worked and held his life together. Their son was born after a couple of years and a few years later, they had a daughter. “We were happy,” said Mina. “We were ordinary.”
living back in
It was after the death of my uncle and his wife that it all changed. Ebby’s addiction was uncontained. Ebby’s brother and sisters started to draw away from him and Mina, who they accused of encouraging him. I asked her if she was involved with drugs and she looked horrified. “Of course I wasn’t,” she pursed her lips. “Look, we weren’t like that, like those people you see on the streets.” Then she grew a little sheepish. “But I did buy the drug for him sometimes.” She looked down. “I had to, he was my husband and he couldn’t do without it. I loved him and it made him happy.”
Eventually Ebby ended up on heroin and on the streets. Soon after I saw Ebby for the last time in 1998, Mina’s parents insisted that she leave him, and she took the children and moved back into their house. She got a job and got on with life as a single parent. She never divorced him, though under Iranian law she was entitled to do so because of his addiction. I asked her why and she said simply: “Because I loved him.”
of the Shatt still flow lazily between
Milad is taking me on a tour of
It is an
early winter evening, balmy and breezy with no sign of the humidity that
besieges Khuzestan nine months of the year. We pass the site of the infamous
Cinema Rex, historically the starting point of the Revolution: on
Turning down a side street, we see where Ebby used to sit, outside a shop selling brightly patterned blankets. Across the street, outside the bank where Ebby would spend the mornings begging, stand his “friends” – other addicts clustering around a blind cigarette seller. They are in various degrees of narcosis: one man is standing, leaning at a dangerous angle, another is crouching on the ground, head lolling forward. Everyone knew Ebby had AIDS, Milad says, and they let him do whatever he wanted, they didn’t want to go near him.
an estimated 2 million drug addicts in
intravenous drug use comes HIV and hepatitis, and sure enough, HIV infection is
now regarded as a problem in
the government acknowledges that a better estimate of HIV/AIDS cases is around
20,000. The figures don’t include the likes of Ebby, who was never treated or
registered as an AIDS patient. Last summer,
are the main source of HIV infection and Ebby had been regularly in and out of
jail over the years. “After he became homeless,” Milad said, “Ebby would try to
get jailed so he would have somewhere warm and dry to sleep.” After he developed
AIDS, he literally couldn’t get arrested and
law has made it possible for pharmacies to supply free syringes to registered
drug addicts – a sea change in the Iranian government’s policy – and there are
now three methadone centres in southern
There is still a huge stigma attached to having a drug addict in the family. Ebby’s elder sister Azar says to me: “He stole from me, he lied to me and I still gave him money. But it was impossible to try to find a husband for my sister with Ebby coming around every time he needed a fix. So in the end I had to stop him and when we moved, I never gave him my new address.” She is crying as she tells me this. “He was my brother and I loved him. But what could I do? Our parents aren’t here. I had to look out for my sister.”
His younger sister Azine is nursing her first child. She is less emotional. “He brought this on himself,” she declares. “For me, Ebby died a long time ago. And even though I told my husband about him after we were married, his family still don’t know and I have no desire for them to find out. Ebby was a disgrace to us all. At least now that he is dead I can get on and grieve him. But Ebby died a long time ago.”
still lots of mines here,” says the taxi driver, a Khuzestani Arab from a nearby
village. We turn onto a long straight road, surrounded by vast emptiness, the
odd shelled-out tank the only punctuation. Occasionally there are large banners
bearing the garishly painted images of martyrs who died in the war. We draw into
a muddy parking lot, all around us the dips and elevations of trenches and
dug-outs still clear in the landscape. “Shalamcheh: welcome to
To the right lies a prayer area with rows of billboards displaying pictures. The shrine itself lies to the left, a dome covering a cool hall supported by columns and the centerpiece, a glass case edged by sandbags and red paper flowers. Inside the case are the broken remains of guns, helmets, Korans and other relics of soldiers’ lives collected from these killing fields, all watched over by a photograph of a dead, bloody soldier.
there are a couple of watchtowers, a few meters from THE border with
wander a little from the path. “Stop!” the other soldier shouts after me,
alarmed. “Mines,” he explains “there are still mines here. All the way to
Stories abound of shocking incidents the war made commonplace: half a garrison lying down on an electric fence so that others could go through; a hundred boys throwing themselves in a river to act as a human bridge; the children that ran at Iraqi tanks with Molotov cocktails or hand grenades.
Looking over the scrub and mud, I think about Ebby waiting in muddied trenches, scared. Rousing religious tunes would be played over loudspeakers and mass prayers led before battles to whip the troops into religious frenzy, though by that time many of the troops were conscripts like Ebby and they didn’t have the same zeal as those who had flocked to enlist in the first few years.
The silence here is eerie. Underneath my every step may be bodies: four major battles were fought from April to August 1988, in which the Iraqis used massive amounts of nerve and blister agents to defeat the Iranians. In the last major battle of the war alone 65,000 Iranians were killed, many with poison gas. The pictures lining the prayer area don’t shy away from any of this: there are bodies, dismembered, beheaded, bleeding, wounded. Men praying in the trenches, looking shell-shocked.
Pictures of the dead with their names underneath: some just young boys, some in the height of late 1970s fashion, frozen forever in their youth and big hair. Just as shocking is a picture of troops marching in the area at the start of hostilities: Shalamcheh was like an oasis, green and lush with date trees and all shades of bushes and plants.
pictures are here as a testament to the glorious values of martyrdom, of the
Ebby has found a status he never enjoyed in life. For many of the men who fought
in this war, the only honourable outcome was death and martyrdom. For those who
survived, it meant reintegrating into a society that every year cared less for
their war. For the likes of Ebby, that was not an option. Despite support from
family, a loving wife and children, Ebby’s love for the drug that helped him
forget was stronger than anything and to it he sacrificed his family, his home
and, in the end, his life. While still alive, reeling through the streets of
About the author:
Note: This piece first appeared in
the Financial Times magazine on July 16,
Note: This piece first appeared in
the Financial Times magazine on July 16,
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