Iran-Iraq War: A Path To Nowhere (19)


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 -- Part 13 -- Part 14 -- Part 15 -- Part 16 -- Part 17 -- Part 18 -- Part 19 -- Part 20

The Aftermath

In the aftermath of Sunshine many changes were taking place.  No more a combat unit, the survivors of the battalion which had held the curved embankment before the Sunshine were gathered behind the front line to be re-organized.  Both our own battalion and the one we used to support in Tappeh Razmi were partially destroyed; but we had to join forces and cover the destroyed battalion’s area.  Our battalion stretched north and the other battalion stretched south and the whole area was covered in this way.

The middle of the curved embankment was the closest spot to the Iraqis.  Mahdi and Daee Niakee defended this portion.  Going south, Zeerakee, Heidaree, and I constituted the next closest unit to the Iraqi lines.  Assadi and Ghezzee became the southernmost portion of the defense line and the farthest positions to the Iraqi line.  

Iraqi shells, bullets, and their accuracy were distributed according to our distance from their positions.  Mahdi and Daee usually received 60mm mortar shells, 22mm and 14.5mm machine gun bullets.  They were being pounded more precisely, more effectively, and more frequently than the rest of the battalion.  In the first few days their company lost a few lives.  Situated farther aback, our front line was normally targeted by heavier weapons with longer ranges.  81mm mortar shells and tank shells frequently pounded us.  Assadi's company was always under fire from 120mm mortar, cannon, and tank shells.   All of us shared one common great disadvantage: the Iraqis assumed the higher observation and fire positions all over the area.  Enjoying these positions, they pried our movements and shelled us with considerable accuracy.  Even their nightly shootings were relatively precise.  When we received a powerful German-made night optic we spied an elevator behind their front line.  It was being brought up at night for observation purposes: by camera or person, and were taken down in the morning.  

Under these unfavorable circumstances evaluation of the Sunshine and preparations for a better defense started.  First, all leaves were cancelled all across the army.  Many complaints especially from those who had already spent a long time at the front were heard, but there was no way out of it and the order had to be implemented.  No soldier could leave the war field as their relatives' concerns were mounting in cities and at Karkheh Bridge.  Many civilians who had heard of the Sunshine had gathered at Karkheh Bridge passing messages to returning soldiers with the hope that their loved ones could at least be allowed to visit them there.  A crippled mother of a soldier of mine had come from Kordestan to see his son at Karkheh.  Fortunately, her son was in a good health and I sent him to Karkheh Bridge to meet his mother.  He never returned to the front line.

Beside these irregular short visits, there was another way to contact families.  A phoning program was scheduled in the headquarters of the regiment, but most people did not have a telephone number to contact.  Besides, in the corrupt military system only staff commanders, staff sergeants, and a handful of soldiers had access to it.  For the rest, writing letters was the only way to let their families know about their health; and it took letters a long time to reach their destinations.

As the tide of contact dwindled the army ordered commanders to reward valor.  Sharafzadeh asked the commander of the company where our soldiers had fought to give him some names.  Three names, including that of the Lion of Rasht’s, were given.  They received ten days of extended leave once they went on their next vacations.

Enticement was not the main policy.  As it is a norm in the armed forces, the army intended to punish more people than it had rewarded.  They asked for the personnel who either had not properly fought or had deserted; and commanders started a race to disentangle themselves from responsibility by giving as many names as possible.  More than ten soldiers in Mahdi's company were listed, but Sharafzadeh’s absence from the scene helped him for not reporting anyone.  Despite Jalalee’s insistence on the matter, he did not name names.

"He said he would report me for not cooperating," Sharafzadeh told me,  "I responded as I knew nothing about anybody in the scene, I could not go against my conscience and give false names."

A few days later many soldiers, sergeants, and officers were taken to custody.  Surprisingly, none of them came from our company.  Ultimately we were not spared.  Upon Zeerakee’s return from leave Sharafzadeh was taken to prison.  In spite of my expectation I was not arrested.

At the end of detentions some fact-finding questionnaires were distributed amongst personnel that asked their name, rank, and what they had done during the attack.  I was ordered to assist my illiterate soldiers to fill up the questionnaires.  These forms aroused anxiety among soldiers.  Some asked me what to do.  

"There is one important question which you should be careful how to answer,” I responded, “That is the question that asks you what you did when you were attacked.  You should give either short and vague or false answers to it.  Answers such as we occupied our defensive positions or we fought to our last cartridge and upon running out of ammunitions we withdrew.  Good soldiers must be good liars; otherwise they lose their heads.  I know you are good soldiers."

They filled out their forms accordingly.  But in some units terrible, however true, answers had been given.  A conscript sergeant had written: "when our commander … and sergeant … got in their jeep and ran away, I left my position and followed them."

Such a response could jeopardize that commander's life.  Desertion was almost the worst offence in the army.  But, in this case the policy of concealing the nude facts worked right away.  The higher commander of the unit tore the form and ordered the sergeant to write a milder answer.  The ordered letter was written and sent to the superior commanders.

The army did not discover much from the questionnaires.  Perhaps, they did not have enough time to carefully and quickly read all of them to find problems in them and order the commanders to urge their personnel to write more detailed reports.  At least, in my company they could not find anything to serve their ends.  The brass in their immune bunkers tens of kilometers behind the front line could not understand what was happening at the front.  Another factor might have contributed to the lax prosecutions.  Perhaps, the army was aware of the problem of manpower shortage and did not want to scan large number of cases that could empty the front lines of dearly need personnel.  Possibly, the same factor was taken into consideration for not treating detainees harshly.

All prisoners were being held in the Guards' jail in Ahvaz.  I guessed some of them would be executed for the fiasco.  Armies do this to revive discipline in the minds of the remainders; but no one died; and no one was given long imprisonment terms either.  Almost nobody was kept longer than one month.  Sharafzadeh was held for ten days only.  Upon his release, I guessed they would come after me; so I wanted to find out what had happened in prison; and what they had asked him.

"Maybe they asked about many things,” he responded, “But they have taken oath from us not to reveal anything to a third person."

"At least tell me what your responses were," I said,  "that I could prepare some lies."

"I was lucky,” he observed, “Our company were not at the front and I had no active role in the battle.  They only asked me what I had done.  I responded I had sent auxiliary forces to the front.  I was set free on bail.  Probably, when they have a more free hand for trial they will call me back.  I don't think you will be taken to court."

His guess came true.  I was spared.  The army was built upon infantry forces that could not be easily recruited those days.

After punishments it was time for renovation.  The Sunshine had revealed the weak spots.  Now the army had a better understanding of the NLA and had to reorganize its forces according to its new understanding.  The battalion that held the curved embankment before Sunshine needed to be re-established.  Haghee was placed in its command as its commander had been taken prisoner.  Jahanpour who had been recently promoted to the rank of captain filled Haghee’s position in our battalion.  Despite our defeat, Jalalee was promoted to the rank of major.  He was still commanding our own battalion.

Many new weapons, especially machine guns and 60mm mortars with substantial amount of munitions, were given to the combat platoons.  A special group of agile soldiers was created in each company to operate against small groups of enemy forces.  Zeerakee told me:

"They will be under direct instruction and command of company’s commander.  The group has to be kept segregated from other soldiers in a bunker near my own.  I am supposed to have close watch and access to them.  You are to give me two soldiers whose names I am giving you."

My soldiers resented being called for the unknown group and mission.  Indeed, any kind of selection was suspected.  Establishment of the Special Group showed the amount of the army's distrust of its own soldiers who did not always fight; and the army was fully aware of that fact.  Despite what we had been officially told about the establishment of the group, the true motive behind it was not clear.  Their segregation was looked upon with suspicion.  Some soldiers established a connection between their refraining to fight and the group’s establishment.

"They are appointed to shoot us if we try to escape combat,” they would observe.

With this negative notion, their reactions toward the Special Group were either cutting off their friendly relations or reducing them to the lowest possible level.  And eventually the group did not last long.  It was dismantled and its personnel were sent back to their units of origin.

To reduce Iraqi observation, a bulldozer raised our embankment each night.  As a protective measure, we had to reduce our activities.  Decreased activities increased laxity and depression.  Taking advantage of moony nights, the bulldozer was working nightly, but it almost always drew Iraqis’ attention and shells.  Iranian forces responded to the enemy fire and a tense fire-exchange would ensue for a while.  

One night the bulldozer was to work in my platoon.  As it started Iraqis opened tank fire.  Few shells exploded near Assadi's company.  The bulldozer stopped working and Iranian cannons opened fire in response and this went on for half an hour when an Iraqi 81mm mortar began shelling my platoon.  Three shells detonated before and behind the newly raised embankment; but the fourth shell exploded in front of the trench where Khodadad Zand-e Lashanee was guarding.  I was called that Khodada was wounded and I ran to him.

He was not visibly injured, but his clothing and gun were coated with a fine grey dust.  He was weeping and saying that his ears were buzzing and the world was spinning around his head.  The real shellshock scenario was materialized before my eyes.  I called the ambulance and sent Khodadad to hospital right away; however he was brought back the next day in the afternoon.  

"I'm all right, Sir;" he answered my question with a sad smile upon his return

After our conversation he talked to a few colleagues and I suspected the soldiers had told him he was a fool to come back so soon.  That was what they rhetorically said to the wounded or the shell-shocked soldiers who were being brought back to the front lines before complete recovery to invoke them to insist on their cases for longer hospitalization term.  

At around eight o’clock in the evening Abdollahee, Khodadad’s bunker-mate, called me out.

"Khodadad has gone insane,” he said, “I don't dare go inside the bunker."

It was a shock.  I imagined that condition might have been the outcome of the shellshock.  What concerned me the most was the likelihood of Khodadad’s shooting at other soldiers and the existence of explosives in his own bunker.  If the explosives went off, they could kill both Khodadad and Abdollahee and perhaps other soldiers.  I walked to Abdollahee who was standing by the entrance.

"He's absolutely mad," Abdollahee told me, ruefully shaking his head.

Cautiously I stepped into the bunker and sat at the door.  Khodadad was prostrate on the rug, bitterly crying aloud.  His gun was beside him; a kerosene lantern gave off a gloomy yellow light.  This could easily set the whole bunker ablaze and cause an explosion.

"Khodadad, what's up?"  I asked in a low tone.  

I heard no response.

"What's wrong Khodadad?"  I repeated.

At this Khodadad abruptly turned his face to me.  His eyes were frighteningly red with tear.  Getting on his feet, he took a step toward me and yelled:

"Who is calling me?  Who are you?  Who are you?"

Without waiting for an answer he threw a fist at me.  

Badly frightened by his appearance and unexpected action, I caught his fist and wrestled with him.  Finally, I got my right foot behind his left foot and hustled him down.  We fell on the floor by the lantern that came down and went out, with me on top of him.  

I twisted his arm and brought him out of the bunker with his twisted arm firmly in my hand.

"If you raise your voice or hand, I'll smash your bones right here; understood!"  I said frightened and panting for air after the wrestling

He relaxed and his voice fell back to crying.  Cautiously I untwisted his hand, still held it firmly; I ushered him toward my own bunker and asked what the matter was.

Crying, he replied he did not know what the army wanted from him.

"The world is spinning around my head,” he said, “But they don't keep me in the hospital.  They just want me to fight for them."

I led Khodadad to the bunker and called Zeerakee over the phone as Khodadad was sitting beside me still crying and gave a report about his situation.  Zeerakee sent him to the hospital and I did not see him again.  In this way, the eagle-eyed sharpshooter of Dorood of Lorestan who saved my life in Chazzabeh was shell-shocked and perhaps never recovered from its effects.

Although forces were constantly being shell-shocked, wounded, and imprisoned, new forces were being substituted.  Most of these forces were given to Haghee’s battalion, as it needed them the most.  Among the few forces that I received was a conscript sergeant who was with me for just a few days.  One night I was ordered to send him forward with a few soldiers to monitor the would-be approach of the enemy.  I told him to go to a place before the embankment, sit in a depression, and listen, as it was a norm.  

While the group was on their way I heard an explosion before my embankment and a few minutes later the group came back.  My new sergeant was wounded in his shoulder blade.  There was no blood as the hot shrapnel had seared the wound.  We sent him to the hospital.  He was the third sergeant I had lost either to captivity or shrapnel in a very short space of time.  Though painful, these losses created a joke about me.  Heidaree’s sense of humor came to work right away.  He titled me “Sergeant-Killer” while none of my sergeants had lost his life.  His joke rapidly spread.  Sometimes, officers addressed me by the title and I always took it as a means of amusement, however it had deeper meaning for some soldiers and sergeants.  I became aware of this when I received the sergeant who had written an honest bad report about his commander to assist me in the platoon until I received a sergeant.  When he appeared with his backpack, I could see he resented being with me.  Omitting the customary Iranian greetings at the entrance, the sergeant addressed me:

"Now it is my turn, isn't it Sir?"  

He meant that it was his turn to be injured, captivated, or even killed in my place.  His words and sad figure deeply saddened me.  The fellow thought either I had sent my sergeants on missions on my own, or I had a curse through which I incurred mishaps on my sergeants only.   Now he had been sent to receive a divine punishment through me.

We looked at one another without saying anything.  At last I invited him in for tea.  I explained that I never ordered anybody to go on any mission on my own.

"But when the storm is lashing,” I continued, “Both you and I are helpless straws on the waves."

He stayed for one week.  I did not assign him to any mission; I even did not give him an ordinary order.  As a new conscript sergeant was assigned to my unit, I returned him to his previous unit safe.  I hope he went home safe and concluded his military service in peace

My watchfulness for a contact with the NLA had come to nothing.  I was losing patience and must have relied on my own abilities and opportunities.  The best place to find a way to Iraq was the embankment and the zone before the company.  I should have surveyed the area and waited for an opportunity that raised the least risk for my soldiers’ lives.  Arrival of a new sergeant gave me the chance to better explore the area.  On his second night at the front, I obtained Zeerakee’s permission and took the sergeant, the wireless operator, and a soldier, and trod toward Iraqi positions with myself leading the queue.

We passed a row of circular barbwires before the embankment and walked across a relatively vast land covered with bushes, brambles, mounds, and depressions up to the edge of a smooth plain.  From that spot on if we walked another kilometer, we would have reached the Iraqi mine field.  There, we found an awning of weed behind an artificial mound that looked like a multiple grave or a mortar position.  It seemed the awning had been used for observation purposes for a long time.  A sun-charred pair of boots was fallen near the awning.  There was a mound covered with thick green bushes that could make a good place for an ambush.  I told the sergeant and the soldier to go around the green mound to make sure there was nobody behind it.

As they walked away an Iraqi illumination was launched and two mortar shells pounded the embankment near Heidaree’s position.  Fear overcame my companions.  They went around the mount, and came back frightened and out of breath.  Two more shells exploded on the embankment.  The radio operator told me he had received a message from company communications center saying Heidaree had seen a few men in front of his embankment.  According to them, soldiers had opened fire on the men and they had fled toward us.  

I told the wireless operator to contact the center again to make sure he had received the correct message.

"They have shifted their channel," he answered shortly.

He had not received any message.  My comrades’ morale was lost.  I had found what I needed for running away and ordered them to withdraw.  It was pitch dark; a heat wave was in the air; stars were twinkling.  We could make no contact with the communications center.  There was no shooting from our embankment to show our way back; instead there was a peril of being shot at by our own agitated soldiers by mistake.  This sometimes had happened.  We walked cautiously, not knowing where we were headed.  Half an hour later the orange flame of a rifle indicated we were on a right track and ten minutes later we reached the circular barbwire and our bunkers.  I reported the existence of the awning to Zeerakee and was told Mojahedin must have used it for a long time before they attacked us.  

The process of renewing the army had been going on for a month.  Some of the wounded had come back; some were on their way to the front; some were still in the hospital.  Morales were still low.  To boost it, the army let a very few to go on leave; positive effect of the measure was offset by the rising number of casualties.  In our new positions in Fakkeh, we were reaching a point that rarely a day passed that we had no one killed or wounded due to Iraqi shelling.  We responded to their shelling as well; or we initiated shelling their position, but we did not have enough intelligence to find out whether Iraqi casualties were as high as ours.
Likewise, self-injury was taking its toll of soldiers.  Several cases took place in the first month of our transfer behind the curved embankment.  A soldier who I call Farzin injured himself in my platoon.  One night I was told Farzin had been wounded in his leg by a hand grenade he had detonated.  Two soldiers brought him to me while he was moaning: "I'm dying.  Oh, God I'm dying".  Farzin told me he had suspected enemy's presence in a dark spot before his trench and had hurled the hand grenade.

We were not allowed to use hand grenades except for engagement in close combat and in the absence of rifles.  Therefore, when I reported the way that Farzin had been injured to Zeerakee, he did not send the ambulance and told me to send Farzin to him in order to be closely examined.  And I sent him on the back of a soldier.  Minutes later, Farzin’s guard-mate was called to Zeerakee’s bunker.  Apparently, he had said Farzin had cast the hand grenade outside the trench and had held his leg in the air in order to receive shrapnel.  

This aroused Zeerakee’s ire.  An hour later as I was visiting my guard trenches I heard Farzin still in pain and moaning.  I thought something had gone wrong with the ambulance.  In those cases, we always borrowed the neighboring unit’s ambulances as they used to borrow ours to carry the wounded.  I called Zeerakee asking why Farzin was not sent to the hospital.  He responded that it was because he had committed self-injury.  Apparently, he had kept him in that agony to teach others not to injure themselves.  

"You have the authority to report his guilt to the court, not to torture him,” I retorted angrily, “If he is delayed, he may have to lose a leg.  That is not the right punishment for that guilt."

It was the first time I had spoken in anger to Zeerakee.  Indeed, he was a very reasonable and gentle person.  In contrast to Mahdi and Assadi, he almost always was mild and so there was almost never an argument between us.  My unexpected objection annoyed him.  He put the receiver down without saying good-bye, but sent Farzin to the hospital right away.  Farzin achieved his goal and never returned to the war zone.  I never know what happened to his injured leg; neither know I if he was sent to court-martial.

Morales fell even lower when Iranian forces were defeated in Fao.  On April 16, 1988, Iraq attacked the strategic Peninsula they had lost to Iran a few years before.  They profusely used poison gas, killing a large number of Iranian Guards who were stationed there and seriously wounding many others; and within two days they recaptured their lost territories.
Iranian government attributed its defeat in Fao to the U.S. navy helicopter attack.  This, obviously, was a false accusation to cover the fact that they were unable to defend the territories they had captured.   The best illustration of this inability was its inaction.  No counter-attack was launched.  This was the second big defeat befalling Iranian forces in the Iranian New Year: Mojahedin had evacuated Fakkeh after the Sunshine whereas Iraqis held their peninsula of Fao.

In the middle of these events Daee Niakee reached his goal of leaving the war region once and for all.  After hard endeavors he had received the permission to go to Tehran and serve the rest of his military service in garrison.  Before he left for Tehran, I met him in the headquarters of the battalion.  He recommended that I followed his example and tried to leave the war zone for a garrison.  He mentioned that since we had arrived to the battlefronts no other conscript lieutenant had been sent to the war region.  This, according to him, was a strong reason that great changes were under way and I had to work harder to save my own skin.
His proposal was the very thing that I opposed.  I believed if I saved my own life, someone else would have been assigned to the same mission to face the same problems.  With my experience of the war the chances of my survival were higher than the poor soul who perhaps was being sent there from military training center.  He, nevertheless, said he would work to help me out of the battlefield.  Thus, we exchanged our last farewell words and kisses in a dusty afternoon at the headquarters of the battalion in mid-spring 1988 in Khuzestan.  Later, I received a letter from him recounting the lies he had been telling his new colleagues in the garrison.  Apparently, they looked at Daee as an “extraordinary giant” who had returned from battlefields after performing great deeds.      

Perhaps, Daee was not the only person who was able to get out of the battlefield before the end of their military terms.  Although not in the battlefront, I knew Morteza Heidaree had been transferred to Mashhad garrison long before Daee were able to go to Tehran.  I had met Morteza on a couple of occasions in Mashhad in a military police headquarters; however with Daee Niakee gone and Khavarzameenee spending times in captivity, Taghee and I were the only remnants of our team of conscript lieutenants in the battalion.  Our positions and circumstances were still quite different.  He was still commander of the battalion's communications center a dozen of kilometers behind the front line and I was still commanding an infantry platoon in the forefront.  In the midst of these I was hearing strong rumors about my being sent behind the front line.  Soldiers were ahead of me as usual.  They would congratulate me on my new position, however they were not certain where I was to be sent.  I would dream that with my long time at the front line, I would be rewarded with a safer place: if there were any place that could be called “safer”.  My real concern was to keep myself as close to the front line as possible to put my desertion scheme to practice>>>Part 20

>>> Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4 -- Part 5 -- Part 6 -- Part 7 -- Part 8 -- Part 9 -- Part 10 -- Part 11 -- Part 12 -- Part 13 -- Part 14 -- Part 15 -- Part 16 -- Part 17 -- Part 18 -- Part 19 -- Part 20


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