By Sasan Hamidi
July 8, 2002
The marches must have stopped. The deafening thumping of heavy boots has vanished.
There is an absolute silence in the courtyard. Yep, there is time for another hanging.
"They are hanging someone, Sasan," Amir said in a whisper.
I climbed down the makeshift ladder. I grabbed the cold bars on the small window
and helped myself off the wooden box. "They can't do that," I said. "The
Geneva Convention will not allow it. Stop bothering me. Go back to your corner before
you get sent off," I added. What a ridiculous statement that is.
Amir's face is covered with hair. There is hair growing on his cheeks. There is hair
coming out of his ears. Even the deep wrinkles around his eyes are covered with hair.
He reminds me of a wolf-man. A man transformed into the legendary beast at the sight
of a full moon. I am laughing out-loud. A wolf-man. I can't stop laughing. I keep
looking at his direction and laugh. He is staring at me. He is staring and wondering
why I am laughing so loud. They are going to hang one of us out there and I am bursting
into a sick laughter. A wolf-man; Amir is a wolf-man.
We wait patiently for the darkness to fall. The sun has already slipped far beyond
the hills. Deepening shadows, permeated with the evening mist, lay over the freshly
ploughed flat marshlands, still covered with the occasional patches of rain; but
here and there, along the sagging underbelly of the sky, heavy with rain clouds,
you could still see few rose-colored streaks of sunlight.
A dark, gusty wind, heavy with the smells of the thawing, sour earth, tosses the
clouds about and cuts through your body like a blade of ice. A solitary piece of
tar-board, torn by a stronger gust, rattles monotonously on a rooftop; a dry but
penetrating chill is moving in from the fields. In the valley below, wheels clatter
against rails and locomotives whine mournfully.
Dusk is falling; our hunger is growing more and more and more terrible; the traffic
along the highway has died down almost completely, only now and then the wind wafts
a fragment of conversation, a coachman's call, or the occasional rumble of a cow-drawn
cart; the cows drag their hooves lazily along the gravel. The clatter of wooden sandals
on the pavement and the guttural laughter of the peasant girls covered in the traditional
Islamic chadors hurrying to a Friday night get-together at the village are slowly
fading in the distance.
The darkness thickens at last and a soft rain begins
to fall. Several bluish lamps, swaying to and fro on top of high lampposts, throw
a dim light over the black, tangled tree branches reaching out over the road, the
shiny sentry-shack roofs, and the empty pavement that glistens like a wet leather
The soldiers march under the circle of lights and then disappear again in the dark.
The sound of their footsteps on the road is coming nearer. The door to our barracks
opens and the camp sergeant walks in with steady rhythmic steps. He stands in the
middle of the dirty cracked floor and stares in every direction as if he is about
to declare the war over.
Suddenly, he points to Amir's corner, shouts something in Arabic and the soldiers
behind him rush over to the small area where Amir is kneeling in a fetus position.
They grab his arms, take a few moments to tie him up and lead him out of the small
sagging door and onto the moon soaked courtyard.
The block elders line him up along the pavement facing the crowd that had been standing
there for many silent hours, motionless, bareheaded, hungry. In the strong glare,
Amir's body stands out incredibly clear. Every fold, bugle or wrinkle in his clothing;
the cracked soles in his worn-out boots; the dry lumps of brown clay stuck to the
edges of his trousers; the thick seams along his crotches; the white thread showing
on the blue stripes of his prison suit; his sagging buttocks; his stiff hands and
blood-less fingers twisted in pain, with drops of dry blood at the joints; his swollen
wrists where the skin has started turning blue from the rusty wire cutting into the
flesh; his naked elbows, pulled back unnaturally and tied with another piece of wire;
his hairy face; his hairy cheeks; his tired eyes; his blank stare-all this emerges
out of the surrounding blackness as if carved in ice.
The elongated shadows of Amir falls across the road and the barbed-wire fences glittering
with tiny drops of water, and are lost on the hillside covered with dry, rustling
grasses. The Sergeant, a graying, sunburned man, who had come from the village especially
for the occasion, crosses the lighted area with a tired but firm step and, stopping
at the edge of the darkness, decides that Amir is indeed at the right distance from
the white post erected from the center of the courtyard.
From then on matters proceed quickly, though maybe not quite quickly enough for the
freezing body of the empty stomach that had been waiting seventeen hours for a pint
of soup, still kept hot perhaps in the kettles at the barracks. 'this is a serious
matter!? cried a very young camp elder stepping out from behind the Sergeant. He
has one hand under the lapel of his "custom made", fitted black jacket,
and in the other hand he is holding a willow crop which he keeps tapping rhythmically
against the top of his high boots.
"This man - he is a criminal! He has committed atrocities against the good people
of Iraq. This man has killed innocent women and children. This man has crossed the
line between humans and animals. This man is an animal and shall be dealt with accordingly.
And tonight the entire camp again will go without dinner!" Shouted the young
camp elder. "The block elders will carry the soup back to the kitchen and if
even one cup is missing, you'll have to answer to me. Understand boys?"
A long, deep sigh goes through the crowd. Slowly, the rear rows begin pushing forward;
the crowd near the road grows denser and a pleasant warmth spreads along my back
from the breath of the men pressing behind me, preparing to jump forward. The sergeant
gives the signal and out of the darkness emerges a soldier with a rifle in his hands.
He places himself neatly behind Amir. You could no longer tell that he had returned
from the labor camp with us. He had time to eat, to change to fresh, gala uniform,
and even to have a manicure. His fingers are clenched tightly around his rifle butt
and his fingernails look neat and pink; apparently he is planning to join the local
girls at the village center later on. He cocks his rifle sharply, leans the rifle
butt on his hip and presses the muzzle up against the hairy temple of Amir. His tired
face trembles as if he is being shaken by a violent jolt.
"Be strong, Amir. Be strong, for I will tell your
wife and children that you died a brave man; they will not see you as you are today,
a broken heap of bones; Amir, I will not tell them of the misery of this camp; I
will not tell them of the atrocities; they will know you as the man who left them
behind some years ago," I whisper to myself.
"In the name of Saddam, our great leader, Fire!" said the sergeant without
raising his voice. The rifle barks, the soldier jumps back a step to keep from being
splattered by the shattered head. Amir seems to quiver on his feet for an instant
and then falls to the ground like a heavy sack, splashing the pavement with blood
and scattered chunks of brain.
Throwing his rifle over his shoulder, the soldier marches off quickly. Amir's corpse
was dragged temporarily under the fence. The sergeant and his retinue get into the
military jeep; it backs up to the gate, snorting loudly.
So, this was his destiny. A kind man who always worried about his two sons and his
young wife. He always convinced himself that the government and her family would
lend a hand. He got letters every week. There were the only times that you did not
hear his stomach growl. It is rather strange what a letter from a loved one can do.
I suppose he doesn't have to worry about them anymore; I suppose that his stomach
will no longer growl; I suppose that he is a free man. He will no longer agonize
over the fact that he may not be facing the right direction when praying to his God.
No sooner was the graying, sunburned sergeant out of sight than the
silent crowd, pressing forward more and more persistently, burst into a shrieking
roar, and fell in an avalanche on the blood-spattered pavement, swarming over it
noisily. Then, dispersed by the block elders and the barracks chiefs called in for
help from the camp, they scattered and disappeared one by one inside the blocks.
I had been standing some distance away from the place of execution so I could not
reach the road. But the following day, when we were again driven out to work, a young
Turkish man from Zanjan, who was helping me haul steel bars, tried to convince me
all day that human brains are, in fact, so tender that you can eat them absolutely