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On the run
Part 8: Returning to Iran: 1986-87
>>> Images

Sima Nahan
April 24, 2006

Boys over the age of fourteen are prohibited to leave the country. By the age of eighteen those who have not already volunteered for Basij or joined the Sepah-e Pasdaran are drafted into the army. The Basij -- dubbed yek bar masraf, the "disposables" -- is a volunteer militia corps ranging in age from the very young to the very old. It recruits among the poorest segments of urban and rural populations and provides minimal military training before dispatching volunteers to the fronts. Sepah-e Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards Corps) is in command of the Basij. The Sepah, also a volunteer corps, is privileged with material comforts and a good deal of much feared authority.

Young men who do not fall victim to the ideological and social pressures of Basij, who have something to lose, or who do not wish to claim any stake in the economic and power structure of the Islamic Republic, are drafted into Artesh -- the Armed Forces of Iran. These men are simply soldiers. In their khaki uniforms -- injured, amputated, deranged, malnourished, and lost -- they may roam the streets of Tehran begging for food, "bus-ticket home," etc. They may populate the unrecognizably overgrown city of Shiraz in search of opium, hashish, or heroin. Or, of course, they may return from service and continue with their lives.

In Tehran, I met a soldier from Dasht-e Moghan on the Soviet border in Azarbayjan. Strong and athletic, F had volunteered to join a special-forces unit after being drafted. The appeal of access to a gym and the “commando” image had quickly worn off after he was sent to fight in the mountains of Kurdistan. This is an unpublicized front and, from the perspective of the Iranian soldier, a death-trap. Subjected to near constant Iraqi shelling, he is attacked by guerrillas from the Mojahedin and other opposition groups gone awry, and is pitched against Kurdish rebels with whom more often than not he sympathizes. He has a slight survival edge over a Pasdar who is murdered on the spot if captured.

This soldier told me that Kurdish fighters check the cartridge of a captured soldier's weapon, and if he has not fired any shots his life is spared. Soldiers, therefore, take turns covering for each other when they are commanded to shoot in battle: on any given day there are those who are expected to shoot and others who only go through the motions. But even if a soldier is captured and his life spared, he is expected to fight on the Kurdish side -- this time pitched against soldiers like himself.

This particular soldier, unruly by nature, had deserted the army soon after being drafted. He had spent three months with sisters and brothers in various towns until he was persuaded that a voluntary return might be his least risky alternative. He had returned and requested a court martial with the hope that he might be judged untrustworthy for the sensitive paramilitary operations in Kurdistan and transferred to the southern front. Seven months after his return he was still not court-martialed. After accumulating a record of brawls with his commanders and distributing "counter- revolutionary" poetry, he was kept on even though due to the extraordinary danger of the area soldiers are only required to serve three months at this front. But to the extent that paramilitary resistance translates primarily into survival tactics, a soldier with long enough tenure to master these skills is valuable and F was kept on in service and in his state of limbo.  

When I met him, F had acquired a medical leave of absence by claiming "brain damage" (he had feigned fainting spells and bouts of "madness") and with the help of a lucky home-town connection, he was sent off to Tehran for brain scans. This had bought him fifteen days, after which he knew that the results of the tests would surely send him back to Kurdistan. He had a greater hope that the escalation of confrontations in the Persian Gulf would temporarily lull the activity on the Kurdish front and buy him more time.  

In Istanbul, I talked with K, a young man who had dodged the draft by escaping Iran through the Pakistan border. There is much smuggling activity on the Turkish and Pakistani borders. A great number of Iranians, fearful of persecution or simply unable to cope, have paid large sums of money to be smuggled out of Iran. To leave the country illegally, of course, means giving up the option to return. 

K recounted for me an anxious but altogether smooth escape in the company of a diverse group: an older couple, a young woman with her son, and another young man running away from the war. Luckily, there had been no nightmarish twists in the escape plan -- no confrontations with Revolutionary Guards, no middle-of-the-way abandonment by smugglers, no struggles against angry nature. K recalled a silent and beautiful sunrise across the border into Pakistan and great relief upon arrival in Karachi. The group met up with their smuggler in a hotel and were given their documents, after which each was to go his or her own way. The last hurdle was to clear past the authorities in Karachi airport -- or otherwise join the faceless crowd of Iranian refugees stranded in Pakistan.

At the hotel, physically and emotionally exhausted, K and his friend had treated themselves to a long bath before sleeping. The next day they had arrived at the airport the very models of upright conservatism. Alert and clean shaven, they were dressed in their single change of clothes -- the suits they had hung up in the steamed-up bathroom the night before to iron out the wrinkles from being packed in the small carry-on bags that they were allowed to bring with them on the escape.

For their flight to Istanbul, they waited in line at the Turkish Airline counter, behind a group of western youth in their scraggly beards and permanently soiled jeans. Anxiously clutch ing their own documents, they watched the bleary-eyed western youth as they presented their authoritative passports, on the magical wings of which they seemed to travel to any unlikely destination, in pursuit of, mostly, byproducts of hemp and poppy. Our friends checked in their bags and the large radio and cassette player one of them had bought from the black market in Karachi.

For one last time, the employee of Turkish Airlines asked for their papers, and looking them over, in the official interest of protecting his country from the onslaught of Iranian refugees, he had said to them: "Your passports and visas are forged. We cannot take you on." Unprepared for this last attack, the friends had momentarily despaired. As an emergency measure they made a personal plea. "You may be right or you may be wrong," one of them had said, "but your decision carries a lot of weight."

The employee had continued to stare at them from behind the counter. They implored again: "We are students and we need a chance."

Finally, after a pause that had locked the boys’ breath, the airline employee handed them their boarding passes. Without once having looked around them, their dazed western peers had already boarded the plane when a Pakistani police officer called K and his friend aside for a farewell strip search. The one who had not spent his money on a boom box lost it to the police officer before they finally boarded >>> Images

Two years later in Turkey, pulling himself out of a deep depression, twenty-year-old K "baptized" himself -- as he put it -- in the Black Sea and faced his world head on: he studied composition at a conservatory in Istanbul while his childhood friends fought in the war back home. This was his life, and the allowances of youthful crisis existed for neither of them any more >>> Par t 9
[Part (1) (2) (3) (4) (5) (6) (7) (8) (9) (10) (11) (12) (13) (14) (15) (16) (17)]

Sima Nahan is a writer based in California. She graduated from Reza Shah Kabir high school in Tehran.

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