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The hero and the heroin

By Kamin Mohammadi


A survivor of the ‘human wave’ attacks of the Iran-Iraq war, Ebby died homeless 16 years later, one of a growing number of Iranian drug addicts. His cousin tries to understand why


It is Friday and Abadan’s graveyard is busy. The second day of the Islamic weekend, this is when many Iranians pay their respects to their dead. Families come bearing flasks of rosewater and boxes of sweets to hand around the raised stone graves which are usually topped by a picture of the deceased in a glass case. Beyond, the rain has turned the marshland into fields of mud. I am here with my cousin Esmael and his wife and we are bearing trays of homemade halva, honey biscuits, rosewater and fruit. In the martyr’s section of the cemetery there are special prayers taking place, the flags placed above each grave flapping in the wind. We are here for the rituals marking 40 days after my cousin Ebby’s funeral, hence the collection of funereal sweets we are carrying. We walk past the martyr’s section to another part of the cemetery because, although Ebby was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, he was not martyred on the battlefield, but died 16 years later in an abandoned slum in Abadan, a homeless heroin addict with AIDS and hepatitis.


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 dust of Abadan earlier that day by Esmael with rosewater, and is set like a table at a party: white gladioli are surrounded by dishes of fruit and sweets. There is some shaking of heads and mutters of a wasted life, but no-one talks about Ebby’s death, the drug addiction that soared out of control after he came home from the frontline of the war. He was only 38.


I have flown here from my home in London haunted by the memories of my cousin and his ignominious death. I am hoping to understand what happened to change Ebby’s life so dramatically.




Abadan: don’t call it Abadan; call it Paris.” So ran a local song when Abadan was in its oil-drenched heyday. This small town in the southwest province of Khuzestan, on the Iran-Iraq border, was where the Anglo-Persian Oil Company set up its refinery in 1909. Abadan lies on an island of the same name along the eastern bank of the Shatt al-Arab waterway, some 30 miles from the Persian Gulf. By the 1950s, its refinery was the largest in the world and Abadan had become a city of more than 220,000 people, with a booming economy and a sophisticated population of foreigners and Iranians.


From its small airport one could step on a plane for London, New York and, indeed, Paris. By the late 1970s its population was hovering just under half a million.


The Iran-Iraq war destroyed much of Iran, but the areas on the border with Iraq suffered the worst and still Khuzestan is struggling to come to terms with its devastation.


Now, Abadan’s airport supports only a few internal flights a week.


My family had been in Abadan since the 1930s when Reza Shah consolidated his power by stripping the local khans of their land and absorbing them into local government. My great-grandfather, from a family of khans ruling the southern Gulf province of Busheir, had gladly accepted a local government job in Abadan. Soon after, he gave his only daughter, my grandmother, to a merchant in marriage and they proceeded to produce 12 children, the eldest of whom was Ebby’s father.


Within this vast family, we children were close. Even after my parents moved away from Abadan, we would visit often and I remember lunches at my uncle’s house, falling in the dust as we chased each other outside, Ebby helping to pick me up and divert me from my bleeding knees.


After we left Iran in 1979, I never saw my uncle again. Like everyone employed by the oil company, he was not allowed to leave his post during the war and he stayed in Abadan throughout. A few years after end of the war, he died of cancer, followed a few months later by his wife.


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 of Iran’s growing army of heroin addicts.




In the autumn of 1980, Iraqi forces invaded Iran, still in the throes of its 1979 Revolution. Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade was based on a desire to exploit Iran’s post-revolutionary vulnerability, as well as a fear that Iran’s new Shia leadership would inflame Iraq's delicate Sunni-Shia balance and exploit Iraq's geostrategic weaknesses – Iraq's only access to the Persian Gulf is via the Shatt al-Arab. The historic animosity between the two countries had resulted in several treaties being signed and disregarded before the Algiers Agreement of 1975 settled a dispute over the location of the border separating the two countries.


Enter 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 Iran withdrew its ambassador from Iraq. Skirmishes along the border followed until, in September, Iraq abrogated the Algiers Agreement and declared full sovereignty over the Shatt al-Arab waterway. On 22 September, Iraqi forces invaded Iran. On 22 October Abadan was besieged by the Iraqi army and on 24 October, Khorramshahr – then Iran’s largest port – fell to the Iraqis.


Baghdad planned a swift victory, expecting the native population of ethnic Arabs living in Khuzestan to rise against the new Islamic regime (this never happened). Saddam also knew that despite the Shah’s stockpiled arsenal of the latest weapons, Iran had just executed or lost to exile all its top military personnel – some 12,000 senior officers had been purged during the Revolution. The Iranian air force was only able to fly half of its aircraft by the start of the war. The Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) were led by clerics with little or no military experience and often armed only with light infantry weapons and Molotov cocktails.


But the Arab minority remained loyal to Iran and the war dragged on for eight long years, a war in which trench warfare was seen for the first time since World War I and nerve gas was used – by Iraq – in combat operations for the first time ever.


What Saddam underestimated was the passion of his opponents for their land and the strength of Khomeini’s ideology. Iraqi forces were repulsed from Abadan by a small unit aided by its fierce inhabitants and Khorramshahr was only captured after a house-to-house fight so brutal that the town was nicknamed khunistan (town of blood). Some 7,000 Iranians died or were seriously wounded in the battle.


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.




In Tehran I meet Hassan, a war veteran. Like Ebby, Hassan is from a secular middle class family. But, unlike Ebby, as a teenager during the Revolution, he became a fervent Khomeini supporter. We are sitting in the Laleh Park in the city’s centre and I am chaperoned by an uncle: for a devout man like Hassan it would be wrong to be alone with an unmarried woman. “The Imam called it a ‘holy war’,” he says quietly. “He promised us that anyone who died in the war would go instantly to paradise.” He laughs as if slightly embarrassed. “At the time, whenever a mullah came to talk to us about the war at school, we were burning to join up.”


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…”


The cult of martyrdom is still in evidence in Iran – towering poster-art billboards with names and pictures of the dead proliferate in every town. Street names have been changed to commemorate martyrs. In a country where getting ahead is often a matter of who you know, war veterans get preferential treatment in university places and government jobs, as do the martyrs’ families. Some Iranians resent this and exaggerate the benefits, but nonetheless there has been a change in attitude to the war and those who fought or died in it.


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.


In July 1982 Iran launched Operation Ramadan on Iraqi territory, near Basra. Although Basra was within range of Iranian artillery, the clergy – who had taken charge of operations earlier that year – used human wave attacks against the city in one of the biggest land battles since 1945. Ranging in age from only nine to over 50, these eager soldiers swept over minefields and fortifications to clear safe paths for the tanks. Unsurprisingly, the Iranians sustained an immense number of casualties, and it is from this battle that Hassan still bears a limp.


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.”


As Hassan talks, I watch a well dressed young couple walk by. Like most of the girls I have seen in northern Tehran, this girl’s hejab consists of a short, tight coat while the obligatory headscarf perches precariously at the back of a towering hairstyle, topping off an elaborately made up face. The man is clean-shaven, his longish locks gelled back and he clutches a mobile phone. They may be married but it is more likely that they are out on a date, and as they walk by, they throw Hassan, with his trim beard and collarless shirt a glance. These are the children of the Revolution, the under-thirties who make up 70 per cent of Iran’s 68 million population. They didn’t live under the Shah, they didn’t long for Revolution or fight in the “holy war”. They watch illegal yet ubiquitous satellite television and they surf the internet. They have grown up in the Islamic Republic and they are impatient for change.


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.


Iran liberated Khorramshahr in May 1982 and in June, Iraq called a ceasefire which was rejected by Iran.


For Iran’s new Revolutionary government, the war may have served the useful purpose of allowing it to consolidate its power and see off opposition groups. For the world’s powers, the Iran-Iraq war ensured a weakened Iran, one unable to spread its fundamentalist fervour throughout the region. At different times through the eight years of the war, various Western powers supplied arms to both sides though Iraq received the most conspicuous help, in both armaments and economic aid.


Saddam started using chemical weapons against the Iranians in 1982, including mustard gas and Sarin nerve gas.


By the 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 invade Iraq’s. The battles were horrific and losses heavy: mass graves harboured thousands of bodies and tales of drug addiction in the trenches were rife. Away from the front line, Iran’s economy was suffering – by 1987 nearly one in two Iranians was unemployed and shortages of basic commodities grew worse. Terror had spread to all of Iran’s main cities and nowhere felt safe.




From Abadan’s cemetery we drove back into town. Ebby’s wife Mina rushed home to make dinner for her children. After she left Ebby six years ago, she told them that their father was working in another town – she hadn’t yet told them what had happened.


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.”


They were living back in Abadan where Ebby’s family had returned after the end of the war in 1988. It was a ruin and the economy was a mess but Iran restarted petroleum refining and petrochemical production on a smaller scale and the city’s port reopened in 1993. As Mina says: “There was work and we had a small comfortable life.”


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.”




The waters of the Shatt still flow lazily between Abadan and Iraq’s fields of palms and the town’s refinery is still at work – in 1997 it reached the same rate of production as before the war. But the main town is a dusty relic, the pavements half unpaved, and streets with their neon shop fronts sporting gaping holes where bombed out ruins have not been rebuilt. The grand Abadan Hotel where my parents danced is now a shell.


My cousin Milad is taking me on a tour of Abadan. He is a young man in his early twenties, typically Abadani, with slicked back hair and a pair of Ray Bans permanently fixed on his face. He speaks with an Abadani accent, his Farsi peppered with English words – another legacy of Abadan’s cosmopolitan past. It was Milad who found Ebby a year ago, begging on the streets, and it was Milad who identified Ebby’s body when he was missing from his usual post in the town centre.


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 20 August 1978, the Cinema Rex was locked from the inside and set on fire, resulting in 430 deaths. It was widely believed that the Shah was responsible: there were several dissidents inside. This sparked mass demonstrations and the Shah was overthrown six months later.


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.


There are an estimated 2 million drug addicts in Iran though some put the real figures as high as 6 million. This is a high proportion of a population of nearly 70 million – the US, for instance, has 1 million opiate addicts in a population of around 270 million.


Iran borders Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer of opium and there has always been a tradition of social opium smoking in Iran but the big change is the move to cheap and available heroin.


With intravenous drug use comes HIV and hepatitis, and sure enough, HIV infection is now regarded as a problem in Iran. There have been 4,237 reported cases of HIV/AIDS since 1987, of whom 585 have died.


But even 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, Abadan hospital’s drug clinic refused to take Ebby in, he was too infectious. Better not to risk other lives for one that could not be saved, they said. Ebby returned to the streets with weeping sores on his legs and feet.


Prisons 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 Shapur Park is where he mostly spent the night, sleeping by a cedar tree.


A recent 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 Tehran run by the NGO Persepolis. But these are pinpricks of hope in a dark landscape.


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.”




Twenty miles from Abadan, we alight in Khorramshahr, declared holy ground since the brutal two-year Iraqi occupation. Many buildings are mere shells; the economy has never recovered from the destruction the city suffered during the war. I head to the city hall to get a pass for Shalamcheh, the no-man’s land between here and Iraq which saw so much bloodshed and is now a shrine to the war, a place of pilgrimage. This is where Ebby spent most of his war.


“There are 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 Iran’s Kerbala” announces a sign. Kerbala, in Iraq, is where, in the 8th century, Imam Hossein was martyred.


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.


Outside, there are a couple of watchtowers, a few meters from THE border with Iraq. I head up to them, passing a couple of very young guards, looking bored. From the top of the watchtower, I spot an Iraqi post on the other side of the border. A lonely guard waves. “Pity you weren’t here half an hour ago,” says one of the soldiers who has wandered over to hand me a pair of binoculars. “The Iraqis were singing and dancing.” (The Iraqi election is days away and the excitement is palpable.)


Later, I 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 Ahvaz.” Ahvaz is 120km away. When it rains like this, the mines shift. “We lost a couple of men just a few days ago,” the young soldier says.


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.


The pictures are here as a testament to the glorious values of martyrdom, of the bravery of Iran’s sons. To me they just speak of futility, a waste of young lives and of land as old as time.


The war between Iran and Iraq was a great human tragedy. Perhaps as many as a million people died, many more were wounded, and millions were made refugees. The resources wasted on the war exceeded what the entire Third World spent on public health in a decade. And even now, as those who lived through it struggle to come to terms with their memories, the war still claims its casualties.




In death 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 Abadan, he was a disgrace to his family, an embarrassment to his country and a shameful testimony to the war that shaped him. In death, Ebby has become once again a beloved son, a missed brother and a father and husband. Another martyr to the war that continues to haunt its survivors.



About the author:

Kamin Mohammadi is a London based writer working on her first book, a family history of Iran. Visit


Note: This piece first appeared in the Financial Times magazine on July 16, 2005.

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