Iran-Iraq War: A Path To Nowhere (11)


Manoucher Avaznia
by Manoucher Avaznia

To the memory of the soldiers who fell before my eyes in the first Persian Gulf War. From my Iran-Iraq war memoirs that has been published in a book titled "A Path To Nowhere" >>> Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4 -- Part 5 -- Part 6 -- Part 7 -- Part 8 -- Part 9 -- Part 10 -- Part 11 -- Part 12

A Writer At War

As indifference towards war was growing, government pressure on young men at the fronts and in cities was intensifying. In the war zone the pressure was taking many forms. The length of staying in the war zone for conscript lieutenants was extended. Before May 1987 the army granted leave to conscript officers after thirty days like staff officers: this was true on the paper but was rarely acted upon when I was at the front. Now the government ordered its military units to keep conscript lieutenants forty-five days before letting them go on leave. It argued conscript officers were soldiers, however in commanding positions, fulfilling their compulsory military duty and should have the same benefits, privileges, and obligations of regular soldiers’. Despite this argument, indeed, the extension was necessary due to manpower shortage.

In cities there was no more exemption from uniform no matter what the circumstances were. Even serious medical problems were ignored. We already had a few soldiers with mental disorder in our company but that summer and fall more unhealthy soldiers were on their way to the fronts.

One day four soldiers were sent to me. A rather slim soldier with crossed eyes attracted my attention. I realized that the soldier should not have been in uniform, let alone the front line. As a matter of routine I took him for shooting, but he did not know how to put the magazine onto his rifle; nor he knew how to hold his gun. I helped him with everything and pointed at a target some twenty meters away. He started to shoot; but he was not strong enough to bear the gun kickbacks. None of his bullets hit the target or the mount behind it. I told him to shoot at a big plastic container about seven meters away. The result was the same. His first bullet hit a meter away from himself while others went wild. I felt deeply sorry for the young man and asked about his past.

He came from a poor farming family in the province of Zanjan in north central Iran. His mother had died in his childhood and his father had married a woman who had been unkind to him. He had left home for Tehran to work in construction projects when he was only sixteenth. At nineteen he had been conscripted to the army. After training he had been sent to Jofeir near Majnoon Islands in the south to serve in an artillery position. His chief sergeant had banished him to an infantry unit and he had been sent to my base. He had served in the army one year without being checked for his eye problem.

In an artillery unit far from the front line one might not take such a case seriously; but in the front line a health problem like that was equal to certain death. I decided to do everything I could to get him out of the Hellish Base. I talked to him about the realities of the front line and the artillery position and made it clear that according to army rules he was exempt from uniform. I stressed he would have to serve another year in the front lines unless he insisted on his case when I sent him to the hospital.

At my request, the next morning Neekvarz came to the base, saw the young man, and sent him to the hospital right away. Once he was gone, Neekvarz grew pensive and asked me to walk with him to his bunker in the middle of the company line. The cross-eyed soldier had startled him too. He sighed and lit a cigarette.

“Have a smoke,” he reached his pack to me and I took one and lit it.

"You know, these matters are not new in the military,” he said, “But there have never been so many cases as there are these days."

He went on presenting many similar cases.

Then he changed the course of his speech to the Majnoon Islands where he had many times escaped certain death. In just one month he had lost sixty of his ninety soldiers in those Islands. According to him, Iraqis used tank shells against every single person they located. When he had gone home, his mother had not recognized him because he had lost so much weight. None of these was the subject he wanted to talk about. What had occupied his mind was a countryman: a soldier he had lost and had become the hero of one of his short stories that was to be hidden from the eyes of the Intelligence Service and could not be published because it was critical of the war. Such a criticism was regarded an insult to the holy war and was counter-revolutionary conspiracy or a foreign agents’ instigation. Severe punishments from both the Earth and the Heaven would have assailed the villain who had dared to open his lips to criticize the war.

Neekvarz said there was an Arab Iranian soldier in his unit in the Majnoon Islands. He came from Khuzestan. Any time he went on leave Iraqi artillery or tanks would target their unit causing some casualties. Eventually, the soldier was suspected of being an Iraqi spy. They had severely questioned the young man and had accused him of being a paid man as he was vehemently denying the accusation. Eventually, one day as he had just returned from his last leave, an Iraqi tank had shot at him and fatally wounded the young man. In a few minutes time he had left before dying he had asked Neekvarz: “do you believe I am not a spy now?” These had been his last words and he had passed away on Neekvarz’ lap leaving him with the torment of the guilt of baselessly accusing the young man and losing a comrade, a victim, and an honest man. Ever since he was obsessed with immortalizing the man’s memory; and thus he had written his short story about him.

To hear of writing about one of the hundreds of thousands of victims of the war was strange; especially writing about those who had no voice to speak about their own suffering: the impoverished of the towns, villages, and tribes who died to provide the warmongers with honors, was not very common. Especially, I was surprised to hear this from a staff officer. In my judgment a staff officer was mean, mischievous; and blindly obeyed military discipline. This judgment was wrong: either my judgment was not broad enough to encompass all officers; or perhaps Neekvarz was an exception; or both of them. I was also surprised that he would confide what he had written to me. Did he want to unload his choking grief on me? Or, he wanted to brag about himself to a conscript lieutenant who had university education that he was as lettered as he was, or even higher, however in boots? Did he find my association with reading a bridge between us? Perhaps, he had found out that I suffered as much as he did in the war and in dealing with the soldiers who were losing their time and life for not a good cause. I believed that he had found a common ground between us and thus wanted to talk to me. Both of us knew in our country freedom of speech was denied, especially to the members of the armed forces. He mentioned he had written other short stories and some poetry that he had to keep a secret.

This Neekvarz was not the man whom I had seen the first day of my arrival to his company in Chazzabeh Strait; however, I still could not fully understand his stand and attitude towards Hooshang. Why he did not want to send him to a non-combat unit? A different heart was beating in his chest. In just one hour he had grown so magnificent that I threw away the acrid memory of our impolite introduction. This officer who seemed so disciplined and jaded after spending three years at war fronts had such a great soul that wrote about ordinary soldiers who in the perception of politicians and their war-planners were never counted higher than pure numbers.

As we sat under the reed awning built in front of his bunker, Neekvarz spoke about himself.

"You know, I was not built for the army,” he resumed, “I am more fitted to be a policeman to detect crimes and criminals. I am best suited to be a detective."

He fell silent for a few minutes as he brought half a watermelon and added some salt to it.

“Watermelon with salt makes an excellent sugar-salt serum that is crucially good for the people whose body loses moisture due to perspiration,” he resumed, “Exactly the situations we live under.”

We started eating his salty watermelon and he went back to the story of his life, as I was dead silent to hear it all.

"In the early days of revolution I was a teenager,” he resumed, “Years before I had lost my father and I was living with my mother. I was too young to understand the meaning of the revolution, but when the Bassij was founded I joined it. I always took part in military exercises and guarded the streets with other teenagers until late at night. When I came home I was drowsy with exhaustion. My mother was worried about my health, warning me I would become sick and advised me to stop going to the Bassij. Her warning and advice did not stop me.

Upon graduation from high school and through the Bassij mediation I was given a job in the laboratory of a sugar refining plant in the Province of Kerman where I come from. In the process I studied a lot about the whole process of refining sugar beets and the history of sugar industry in Iran. There were two other young men sympathetic to political organizations working with me. We discovered a fraud in the measuring scale of the laboratory. The factory paid beet producing farmers according to the percentage of the sugar their sugar beets yielded. So, if the percentage was low the factory paid less and if it were high the factory had to pay more money. If somehow they were able to manipulate the system and show lower sugar percentage in the samples they took from truckloads and brought to the laboratory, they could have made a large amount of money by cheating. This was the very source of the fraud. We discovered that some glue had been stuck to the scale and the machine showed the percentage of sugar to be less than the real amount. For instance, if a load of sugar beets had twenty-two percent of sugar, the scale showed only seventeen percent. In this way the owner who had several sugar refineries all across Iran was making millions of Tumans (Iranian currency) at the expense of farmers.

This arose our anger and we decided to make the fraud public. The best time, in our opinion, was when some dignitaries visited the plant. We waited until the provincial governor and some city officials visited the plant and we showed the fraud to all of them and made a big disgrace for the owner.

In the revolutionary atmosphere of the day the owner was to be tried, but he easily found his way out of the trouble. He went to the molla who had been appointed by Khomeini to lead the Friday Prayer and donated half a million Tumans to the Islamic Warriors at the fronts. They thanked him for the contribution and forgot the fraud. This was a big blow to me. I could not believe the revolutionary government would support fraud. I lost my faith in both Khomeini and the revolution.

After settling his problems, the owner turned his attention to us. Within a few months one of my co-workers was arrested and executed because he was a supporter of the Mojahedin Khalgh Organization. The other who was a leftist young man fled the country in time; and I was left alone exposed to the owner's direct and indirect threats. There was no refuge for me. I had no money to pay smugglers to get me out of the country. My mother was another factor that kept me in Iran. A few experienced friends recommended I joined the army without letting anyone know about that, so that the factory-owner might lose my track. So, I entered the army with the rank of third lieutenant without letting even my mother know about it.

As you see this policy leads to sending thousands of people to their death and captivity including unhealthy people. Do you think there is an end to this?"

With this our friendship grew. We used to discuss our problems and find solutions. Together we settled the problem of a young soldier who had been sent to the front line that summer.

One evening Neekvarz called me to his bunker. He was sitting under his awning smoking and thoughtful. At my sight he stood on his feet, showed a smile, and shook my hand.

"Come and see,” he said with a sad smile, “Khomeini is in such a misery that he sends children to fight for him."

I took his words for the human waves of the Bassiji teenagers whom Iranian Guards used to recruit without their parents consent and send them on mines and explosives as pioneers to open a path for the invading forces.

"With so many reports and so much publicity surrounding the matter it is an old story. Is it still new for you?"

I asked.

"No, it's not new at all," he replied, "You don't know what I mean. Today they have sent us a soldier who hasn't reached puberty. Maybe he is thirteen or fourteen years old."

"But it's against the law to take a boy in that age to the army, leave alone to fight in the front!" I observed, puzzled.

"I think the law is for breaking,” he answered, “But in this case something must be wrong. I don't know what to do with him. I am afraid if I send him to any platoon he will be raped. The commander of the battalion trusts us and has deliberately sent him here to be closely taken care of. Jalalee has insisted I keep him in my own bunker; but the boy doesn't want this. He asks me to send him to a platoon. He has the problem of being called a “servant” or a “flatterer”. This is what soldiers call those who stay in commanders' bunkers. He is such a kid that if I order him to stay with me, he will cry. Then, I will have to find soothers to calm him."

Both of us laughed.

"I have sent him to the communications bunker to be convinced by other soldiers that it is good for him to stay with this soldier in my bunker. Please, stay for supper and advise him to stay here. If anything happens to him or he gets captured by Iraqi forces, it will become a big disgrace for the company with lots of anti-regime publicity whose eventual responsibility will lay upon us."

As night fell several Iraqi shells pounded the nearby area; I contacted the base and was told the situation was normal; and we went in. Neekvarz told the communications center to send the new soldier to his bunker for supper. In a minute a soldier with about one hundred forty centimeters of height and no trace of beard or mustachio arrived with another soldier who used to stay in Neekvarz’ bunker, eyes cast down, and “salaamed” in a childish voice.

"Let's eat supper Bahari," Neekvarz told him.

Bahari sat down at the table, his eyes still tied to the floor, shy and frightened.

Neekvarz introduced him.

"Bahari is from an exquisite region called Bahar in the Province of Hamadan; but now he lives with his family in Tehran. This is Lieutenant Avaznia commander of our base, Bahari!"

"Welcome to the company Bahari," I said with a smile.

"Merci!" The French word for thanks which is frequently used in Iran.

"This is a very nice company; Neekvarz and Zeerakee are very nice men,” I added, “Stay here in his bunker with his soldier."

Bahari was still looking at the floor without uttering a word or eating. I expected him to burst into tears with my next words.

"Eat your supper, Bahari," I went on.

Despite my expectation, Bahari started to eat and I recommenced my advice.

"Don't go anywhere in the company,” I went on, “Anywhere you go you have to guard alone at night and day. It's a disaster to be in a platoon. Take it if you come to my base, you have entered the very heart of the Hell. We don’t call it the Hellish Base for nothing."

We laughed.

“By the way, how old are you?” I asked.

"Fourteen years old, Sir!" Bahari answered.

"How are you conscripted then?" I inquired.

"My father is an illiterate country man,” Bahari responded, “Before my birth he had a son who died in his early childhood. When I was born he put his name on me and kept his birth certificate for me. So by my certificate I am nineteen. I tried to get exemption from the army because I am the only son of the family, but it was impossible. They told me nobody could be exempted while on training; but they promised to revise my case when I finished training."

There was a belief among Iranian families that urged them to name their children after their deceased children and ancestors in order to keep their memories and names alive. Bahari was a victim of this tradition by a big mistake: his older brother's birth certificate had been kept for him and showed him older than his real age.

"Right now you feel uneasy at the front,” Neekvarz offered, “But the fact that you are sent to the front line indicates that you are regarded a man; and you are a man. You will get used to it. Many soldiers in the beginning of their service are young and unhappy. I am sure when you conclude your military term you will have grown a long beard and mustachio. When you go home even your parents won't recognize you are the same son they had sent to the battlefront."

Our dual preaching worked. Bahari stayed in Neekvarz’ bunker. As autumn approached Neekvarz was promoted to the rank of second lieutenant and was sent to supervise a newly founded company stationed at the headquarters of the battalion. A heavily built tall third lieutenant named Ali Sharafzadeh was substituted to Neekvarz and Bahari continued to live with Zeerakee and Sharafzadeh. The army forgot to revise his case. He stayed in the same unit until my last days in the company, vigorously going through hardships, as he was growing taller, stronger, and braver without having grown beard. Sometimes he teased soldiers and received words like "infant" or "you still need toys and soothers", but he strongly withstood all of them without complaining. Most probably, he became one of Neekvarz’ stories >>> 
Part 12

>>>  Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4 -- Part 5 -- Part 6 -- Part 7 -- Part 8 -- Part 9 -- Part 10 -- Part 11 -- Part 12


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