By Fariba Pajooh, Tehran (Source: Mianeh)
Twenty-two years ago, Keyvan lost both legs below the knee in an Iraqi mortar attack near the southern Iranian city of Abadan. Under-age when he signed up to fight in the Iran-Iraq war, he insists he would fight for his country again if the need arose. Keyvan is just one of the 300,000 Iranians left disabled by the 1980-88 war, which left at least 199,000 more dead. Officials say around 36,000 of the dead were under 18.
Now 40, Keyvan recalls how he volunteered and went from his home city of Esfahan to the front only a few months after his 16-year-old brother Mehran was killed in an engagement on the island of Majnoun.
"I wasn't old enough to be allowed to take part in the war, so I had to alter my identity papers to show I was older than 15," he said.
Despite his injury, he said, "I don't regret having been in the war. If another country attacked Iran and the circumstances were repeated, undoubtedly I would be one of those defending our country."
Yet Keyvan is unhappy about the lack of recognition accorded to people like him, who voluntarily put their lives on the line for their country.
"These days, people think that we had a duty to take part in the war and that as a result, we get free money and special privileges - but that's not how it is," he said.
"Of course, they may have a point to the extent that some officials and directors in the establishment used the war and its combatants as a tool, and this had a negative effect on people's view of the war."
He is particularly unhappy about the way organisations set up to look after war veterans care for them.
"Many of the war-disabled and particularly those who suffered in chemical attacks do not enjoy a decent standard of living," he said. "The Foundation for the War-Disabled and the Deprived does not look after them as it should, and is mostly occupied with its own agenda.
Keyvan's wheelchair is not a modern model, and he has to turn the wheels by hand. "I never thought my hands could be so powerful. My hands have to serve as my legs," he said with a grin.
Another interviewee, Ebrahim, also volunteered while still under age - he was 14 when he joined the military together with his father and elder brother. Now 38, he was left with almost complete hearing loss by the war with Iraq.
Now a postgraduate student in the field of communications, he says a society facing surging prices and other economic pressures has little room for sympathy for war heroes of past days. "The economic difficulties are so great that everyone is struggling with them and there's no time left for war veterans to find opportunities to recount their memories," he said.
Ebrahim is roused to anger at the popular perception that veterans and war disabled benefits from handouts and privileges.
"None of the massive organisations and foundations that were created in the name of combatants and war veterans are actually looking after these people," he fulminated. "There's no one with oversight of these organisations, and they are so preoccupied and tied up with their own internal economic affairs that they've entirely forgotten the reason why they were set up in the first place. They can't even remember whether a particular war-disabled person is still alive or not."
Looking out of his window at the capital city, he said, "People imagine that the taps in our homes are flowing with oil [wealth], but the reality is that the war veterans are victims of statesmen's slogans and mottos. Whenever statesmen want to portray themselves as a government that delivers, they cite the war veterans and disabled, but their words and deeds should match."
Ebrahim recalls a prediction made by Mahdi Bakeri, a renowned Iranian military commander killed in the war, to the effect that once the war was over, ex-combatants would divide into three groups - those who feel remorseful, those who forget the past but cannot cope with their new lives, and those who remain locked in the past, and continue to grapple with the trauma of war.
Like many other Iranians who contemplate leaving the country to continue their education, Ebrahim said, "Perhaps I might leave to study at PhD level - who knows?"
Yet like Keyvan, Ebrahim concluded, "Despite all the unkindness, if my country's territorial integrity is threatened again, I will be ready to defend it at any time".
Morteza is a 55-year-old retired army officer now suffering from a range of ailments including Parkinson's disease, the legacy of an Iraqi chemical weapons attack during the war.
He joined the army when the Shah was still in power in the Seventies, and attended a training course in the United States. After the Iranian revolution of 1978, he made the transition into the new armed forces and served throughout the eight years of war with Iraq.
"War is not good for any country or nation, and it will always entail loss and destruction," he said. "But this war was imposed on Iran in September 1980, and we had no choice but to defend our country."
Morteza was poisoned in a chemical attack during the 1986 Valfajr Operation on the Faw peninsula, for which he blames the symptoms that have appeared in the last eight years.
"After I was injured by chemicals in the operation, I was taken to hospital and the wounds disappeared after a short time," he recalled. "But a few years after the war ended, when I was 47, I was suffering from Parkinson's disease. According to all the specialists and experts, this disease was caused by the chemical weapons but the officials in charge of looking after the war-disabled in Iran have not accepted this as fact."
Morteza's hands and legs shake and his voice trembles from his progressive Parkinson's disease. He is a member of the Parkinson's society in Canada, which sends him some of the medicine he needs, although he says, "In recent years, I have had some problems with getting my medicines following tensions in relations between Iran and Canada, and also as a result of sanctions imposed on Iran."
Speaking about the way other people deal with him, he said, "People treat me well and sometimes they show me respect, but I always try to escape their looks of pity; I hate it".
Despite his problems, Morteza agreed with the other former combatants interviewed, saying that if Iran was attacked, he would want to defend it.
"I was a member of the armed forces and it was my duty to take part in the war, but in any event, I would never be able to tolerate aggression by another country against my homeland," he said.
Many of those who did not survive the war are laid to rest in the Behesht-e Zahra cemetery, in a special section assigned to the war dead.
One grave belongs to a young man called Morteza, and shows that he was killed early on in the war, in 1981, at Chazzabeh in the southwest of Iran.
A number of women are sitting by the graveside. "What should I say? So many things are said and yet there is no sign of action," said one woman who lost two sons in the conflict. "We have been silent for a long time. Silence is louder than any cry".
Next to Morteza's grave is that of another young man called Abbas.
"Come over and I'll tell you!" shouts an old man, short and bent over, who turns out to be Abbas's father, Mashhadi Mahdi.
"My Abbas was a telecommunications expert. Mashhadi Mahdi's Abbas, the best thing in my life, is gone," he said.
"Why is no one looking after the people? When I go past the parks, the smell of young people's drugs upsets me. My Abbas was the head of Qolhak's telephone centre. He had just got married."
When I asked where Abbas's widow was now, Mahdi replied, "Oh madam, she got married and went to Italy."
The old man put his hand in his pocket and tried to show me something in his plastic wallet, saying, "I am a pensioner from the telecommunications company." His 120,000 toman pension slipped out of the wallet, and I was shocked as I recalled the government official who told me that the poverty line was 600,000 toman a month.
After having his say, the old man calmed down - it seemed he just needed to speak to someone. He set about cleaning the mirror and candlesticks placed on his son's tomb with a piece of newspaper, as he has done for many years now.
Many other countries have magnificent monuments to commemorate their war dead, and people show respect for them and their families.
But in Iran, attitudes seem to be a bit different, even though the war was forced on Iran by an Iraqi attack that had the backing of many western and Arab countries, and left deep scars on society as a whole and on the towns that were directly affected.
As Keyvan put it, "All around the world, people remove their hats as a sign of respect for those who have defended their country - or even attacked other countries - and have lost limbs or their lives as a result.... Yet Iranian society today is unkind to us."
The Iranian people are now struggling with many domestic problems, augmented by the economic difficulties created by international sanctions.
Despite this, a sense of nationhood, of being Iranian, still seems to serve as a unifying force in the country. The interviews I conducted for this report suggest that nearly everyone who fought for their country during the Iran-Iraq war would be prepared to fight an aggressor in the event of a future attack.
What is less clear is whether the same is true of subsequent generations of young people - those born after the revolution. There appears to be dividing line between the new generation and the veterans, not least because of the deep rift that now exists between young people and their current political leaders.
That makes it harder to say with certainty that younger Iranians would show the same resolve as the veterans to resist an external aggressor.
About the author: Fariba Pajooh is a freelance journalist in Tehran.
This article is an abridged and translated version of the full original text published on the Farsi pages of Mianeh, with editorial adjustments agreed with the writer made to provide clarity for English-language readers.
About Mianeh: Mianeh is a new independent web-based initiative run as a project by the Institute for War & Peace Reporting (iwpr.net) the award-winning non-profit media development organisation that works across the globe to platform local voices and promote international learning and engagement. Mianeh aims to be an open space for ideas, news and debate where writers in Iran can reach out to each other as well as to those outside the country who are interested in learning more about the vibrant and dynamic society that is Iran today.
... Payvand News - 06/09/08 ... --