Iran-Iraq War: A Path To Nowhere (6)


Manoucher Avaznia
by Manoucher Avaznia

>>> Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4 -- Part 5 -- Part 6 -- Part 7

A Void Life

The first month of directly experiencing the war taught me many lessons. It taught me about the emptiness men felt at the front and how to cope with it. Also, it brought me to close contact with army corruption and personnel self-injury. Most important of all, it taught me more about the ways the war was being maintained.

At war one forgets many things that are important in ordinary life. After guarding duties and military classes, there is plenty of free time left to the soldier to fill. If the free time is not properly filled, it becomes a source of depression, feeling void in life, and consequent undesirable problems. Once life is turned to a depressing repetition of the same things, the depressed men think of unwise things such as urging commanders to plan enterprises, finding faults with colleagues, committing crimes, using drugs, planning rape against fellow soldiers, and countless other dangerous acts that are inconceivable for the people who are not in their situations.

To avoid these, commanders insisted we kept our soldiers occupied; that by itself was a real challenge. Enemy constant observation and shelling left us with little chance for physical activity that was necessary for the young men’s age and could keep them occupied. Directly or indirectly I regularly held military classes and personally participated in them to keep a close eye on the situations. This was giving confidence to the soldiers that there was no difference between us; I was doing the same things as they did except guarding in the trenches; they had direct access to me for their concerns and complaints; and I could directly hear from them without any middle person. Classes could not last for too long. Soldiers needed rest for their guarding duties: the most important task in soldiers’ life. Other ways of amusement were needed as well.

Due to numerous religious prohibitions almost all kind of popular amusements were prohibited. For example, we could not play chess, cards, music instruments, backgammon, and other popular games. Islamic rules regarded all of them either gambling and means of gambling or useless occupations and corrupting to the soul.

Reading novels occupied some literate soldiers’ time. Of course, the number and variety of literary works were very limited. Nevertheless, novels should not have contradicted Islamic rules; they should not have been banned; and they should not have been about sexual subjects. Reading was restricted to the very few literate people. Books that in times of freedom had been published by political parties were forbidden as well. Their seizure could lead soldiers to Politico-Ideology Organization and through that organization to prison and revolutionary courts. Instead, one could read as many books about Islam; that had passed through government filters, as he desired. These books that basically taught very basic rules of praying and keeping cleansed and similar Islamic tasks were normally given to soldiers free of charge, however I do not remember Seyyed had brought any of them to my platoon. Neither I heard anyone from Politico-Ideology Organization have had called him to take a course about the official religion, nor I saw anyone asking him to hold religious classes for soldiers.

Listening to music, though prohibited by religion and military, on radios was very popular. Reason for the prohibition was that it was regarded corruptive to the soul and was not broadcasted from Iranian radio stations. And so, soldiers followed almost any station except those of Iran. Radio Baghdad and Radio Kuwait Persian Services were especially popular. Our soldiers would rather listen to enemy music programs in Persian than listen to the Iranian religious preaching. For the soldiers who are facing the enemy, hearing the voice of their own radio station is a very effective means to keep them in high spirits; but our own radio stations had so boring and disgusting programs that listening to them practically eroded our morale. The army had forbidden listening to foreign radio stations. I had heard of Politico-Ideology agents roaming the units to find violators. They frequently went to soldiers' bunkers and turned their radios on to make sure they were not tuned to the enemy stations. The soldiers still listened, but more cautiously. Besides needing their music, radios kept them informed of their relatives and friends in captivity in Iraqi camps. If soldiers were caught listening to Radio Baghdad, they would bring the same reason to avoid prosecution. I did not forbid them from listening to their radio stations; but I warned them to keep radio Baghdad turned low and before turning their radios off to tune them to an Iranian station or simply hide their radios. With this policy, it was important to know whether Seyyed was reporting about my soldiers. One day I tried to remove my suspicion.

"Agheedatee: Ideologic;” I called him with a stinging tone, “What the hell is your organization doing for soldiers?"

"Absolutely nothing, Sir;" he replied clearly and with such a wide grin that showed all his yellow teeth.

To ascertain he was telling the truth, I asked if he prayed to Allah. Unbelievably, despite the fact that by lineage he was related to Prophet’s family and so carried the title of Seyyed in front of his name that was Assadollah, he replied he had never prayed in his entire life except for the time that he had been ordered in the garrison.

"What kind of Ideologic are you then?" I inquired.

"It's a long story,” he replied with a smile, “When we came to the battlefield the battalion Politico-Ideology Organization asked us to write a short article about Islam. They offered a prize of one-week leave for the best article. I participated in the competition and my article won; and I was rewarded. Upon returning from leave I was appointed to Politico-Ideology representative of the company in the first front. As you see, it did not exempt me from the front as it has exempted the staff chief sergeant in charge of the organization." Seyyed laughed. I asked if he were spying on soldiers. He denied this, adding that he did not like the position at all. According to him, the sergeant in charge had appointed him as a formality in order to get away from visiting the front line himself. In this regard Seyyed was telling the truth. I never saw the sergeant in the front line. As we were talking some soldiers said Seyyed sang good songs and he was a ski instructor in the Deezeen Ski Site near the City of Karaj. I asked him about the “accusations” with laughter. He said he sang for colleagues. I asked him to sing for everyone and he entertained us with a few popular songs. After that my attitude about Seyyed changed. We became friends and I started calling him Seyyed instead of Ideologic. When he became my communications operator and stayed in my bunker our friendship increased and many long nights we sang for one another and for other soldiers.

Needlepoint work was another popular engagement that kept soldiers occupied. They bought designs of nature and human face (22) on their leave, brought them to the battlefields, and worked on them with colored yarns in their spare time. When they finished the job, they had a beautiful picture that they; either kept as souvenir of the hard days of war, presented to loved ones, or sold for a good price in the market. Unfortunately, this delicate handicraft became a means of abuse by some sergeants and officers. They would buy the materials and tell the soldiers to complete the work for them. Although, they often promised one or two days of extra leave as reward, something soldiers held dearly, they rarely materialized their promise. High-ranking officers knew this, but they did not stop it. This was so normal that some soldiers asked me to follow suit; but I adamantly declined the offer.

Talking about what had happened on previous leaves and planning the next leaves was a major occupation. When soldiers reached their fortieth day at the front, they began to grow impatient and worrisome. Those days were hard for them. Sometimes they said days had many more hours than twenty-four. They became depressed, easily aroused to anger, and argued with bunker-mates or guard-mates over duties and unimportant matters. Frequently they said: “Janab Sarvan Kaff Kardeem: we are foaming Sir”. With Iranian close family ties leave was the most important thing on soldiers’ mind. They were ready to participate in dangerous missions or lie in order to leave in time or on time. Sometimes, they told me the men in other branches of the company were going on leave before they completed their forty-five days while in my platoon they usually had to spend more than fifty-five days before getting away.

I would object to Neekvarz about the discrimination against my soldiers and he would leave my objections unheard. One day he became upset and said soldiers were lying to me. I showed my disbelief. He said it was normal in the army to say these sorts of things to create confusion adding that when next time they told me similar things I should ask them to provide a name to support their claim. As a matter of fact, the next day two soldiers told me a similar story, but they could not give any name. To show how important leave was another example will help. One day a soldier told me his only sister was to marry in a week’s time and asked me to arrange an emergency early leave so that he could participate in her wedding. He left Chazzabeh and came back on time. Two months later some soldiers told me that person had no sister at all. I asked him about what I had heard and he admitted he had no sister, adding that he had played a similar trick on a staff sergeant whom I call Ali when he had been in charge. Then, he had complained he was married and had one child and so he needed an emergency leave.

As days turned to weeks more and more instances of corruption were revealed to me. One day in class soldiers said the chief sergeant of the company had collected money from them to buy kerosene heaters for them; but he had not kept his promise and their money had not been returned either. This had happened before I assumed the command of the platoon. The sergeant had told them he had spent their money on repairing the company truck that carried their food, arguing soldiers were benefiting from their money in that way.

This was an obvious defrauding the victims, but no action was taken. It was not known if the chief sergeant had really spent the money on the vehicle or he had simply claimed so. Some said soldiers who came from wealthy families bought coolers, generators, batteries, and so forth, for the company or the battalion in exchange for extra leave or even being sent back to serve in safer places like the headquarters of the battalion. This corruption had so deeply advanced that the sergeant in charge of the Politico-Ideology Organization of the battalion had said he would get a military conclusion card for whoever bought a truck for his unit. Thus, the rich paid by their wealth and the poor with their lives.

Since Iraqis expulsion of Iranian territories, continuation of the war was growing more unpopular amongst the personnel: especially among conscript personnel. Self-injury was on the rise as I arrived. Some soldiers disabled themselves by shooting at their hands, fingers, feet, and legs to be battle exempted and to be sent to garrisons. If the army discovered a person had shot himself on purpose, it would have severely punished him. Mostly, field commanders reported these cases as injured in action; or injured by the enemy fire; or injured during cleaning weapons. The phenomenon of self-injury fluctuated according to the hardship of military life. When circumstances grew harsh, the rate rose sharply. After a military fiasco or when military service was extended many would injure themselves. The phenomenon haunted the army throughout my military life, though two cases took place in my own company during my first month in the front line. In one case an ambulance driver threw a hand grenade out of his ambulance and stretched his leg out of the vehicle. He received shrapnel and was hospitalized. In another instance a staff sergeant shot the palm of his hand with his own gun. I never saw those men; and their case was reported as injured by enemy mortar shrapnel.

The first month of staying in the war front was the month of being exposed to some hidden aspect of arms deals. I discovered one way of many ways of arms-shipment to Iran. It happened quite haphazardly as I was reading my book in the bunker with the help of an English-Persian dictionary that I had bought in September 1978 when I had entered University of Shiraz that used to carry the name of “Pahlavi University” after the ruling family of the last Shah of Iran. It happened to me to try to decipher some words that had been written on the boxes that were used to store food or were used to raise the bunker walls. First, I thought those words were abbreviations of chemical names or they were the words that required a dictionary to decipher; but I found out that for reading them I did not need a dictionary: they were real words and easy to read. There were two wooden boxes in our bunker where Abbasspour kept our food and spare parts of his communication equipments such as batteries, screws, receivers, and so on. On these some things were written in English. On one of them I read "parts of typewriter". On the other one, again in English, I read "parts of tractor". I thought the importing companies had donated the empty boxes to the war fronts after they had used their contents. Any donation that helped soldiers was welcomed; nevertheless, I asked Abbasspour where he had got the boxes. He responded they were ammunition boxes. I was stunned. “Have you taken me for a fool?” I said looking at the young man with disbelief. “I am serious,” he responded louder than usual, “They are ammunition boxes that we use to store our things after we use their contents. Every bunker has a few of them. What is wrong with that?” “Nothing is wrong with that,” I said, “But I mean something else.” “That we waste the ammunitions in order to use the boxes?” he asked sarcastically. “Not even that,” I responded, “By the way, do you know English?” I asked. “I know some English alphabets; do you want to show that you know English?” he asked bitingly.

"Not even that one,” I said, “It's written these boxes contain tractor and typewriter parts, yet you say they are ammunition boxes?"

"I swear I am telling the truth,” he responded, “We still have a few of them in our ammunition depot. Come with me; I'll show you right now. You see them for yourself."

I obediently followed the experienced young man to the depot where he showed me four more of the same dark green boxes with the same labels, each containing six new R.P.G.7.anti-armored grenades. These were what I found in a small platoon with twenty-four soldiers. How many million tons of munitions were being sent to Iran under these labels to lubricate the war in the Persian Gulf? Only arms-dealers know and their bank accounts.

"I think soldiers are tilling the ground with imaginary tractors and the commanders are typing imaginary work progress with imaginary typewriters, Sir,” Abbasspour said, “Or, probably it is the Great Satan's (23) gift to Islam and Moslems," he went on.

"You are partially right,” I added, “But these ammunitions are produced in the Eastern Bloc".

"In that case, they are the kind neighbor’s gifts for the war of Islam against infidelity," he said.

I was still in Chazzabeh that the long-expected Iranian invasion of the Army of Mohammad was unleashed. This incursion that was code-named Karballa-Five was vented against the port city of Basra, Iraq’s second largest city located at the head of the Persian Gulf. Since I was in the garrison it had been rumored that Iranian government had planned to capture Basra in order to impose its peace conditions on Iraq while formally there was no mention of peace. Upon departure from Tehran I had seen some of volunteers of operations. Probably, the Army of Mohammad, the largest body of volunteer troops since the beginning of the war, had been mobilized for that purpose. The way to Basra was from Shalamcheh that was an Iranian territory through strong Iraqi fortifications that had been publicized had been imitated from Israeli fortifications in Sinai Desert and so both regimes of Iraq and Israel were seen united against Islamic Republic and Moslems.

On February 27, 1987 some two hundred thousand Guard and Bassiji forces attacked the Iraqi positions in Shalamcheh and the area facing it in a vast extent. The huge operations went on for twenty days. Tens of thousands of Iranians lost their lives in face of Iraqi fortifications, forces, and poison gas. Perhaps, about the same number of Iraqis were killed. The operations was so vast and so costly that Iraqis called it “Yom-ol-Kabeer: the Great Day”. The volume of fire and illumination exchange was so intense that for over one week we could see a red nightly sky in the far corner of the southern portion of the front line. Perhaps, the region was about one hundred kilometers away from us. Iranians reached the Fish Lake and the Salt Lake in the suburbs of Basra; but the city was saved thanks to the stubborn Iraqi resistance. The invading forces were set aback, though they liberated Shalamcheh.

While Karballa-Five continued in the south, the Iranian military launched its attack in Sumar under the title of Karballa-Six. As later a participant in the operation, also a conscript lieutenant who was with me in the headquarters of the army, told me, in Sumar also a large amount of poison gas was used against Iranian forces making the area a “hell for us”. Karballa-Six failed like Karballa-Five, with many killed and injured; however, Sumar was not the main aim of the war-planners. With Karballa-Six Iranian forces had tried to keep large portions of the Iraqi army busy in the middle front. The gain of the two operations was an area in Shalamcheh, piles of killed and injured of both Iranians and Iraqis, and renewed war of cities.

In retaliation to the operations Iraqi attacks on cities resumed in a very vast extent. Thanks to its Western and Russian arms-suppliers, the Iraqi air force exceeded Iranian forces in the race for destroying residential areas and economic resources. Every day we saw Iraqi planes over our head flying deep into Iranian territories bombing our civilians and returning to their bases. The bombing reached such a climax that at the front we had more safety than civilians in the cities; however destruction of cities had profound negative impacts on us. Personnel who were returning from leave were bringing the news of cities under bombardment. The result was soldiers’ shifting concerns and attentions from their own bad circumstances to the plight of their families. They used to complain they had no news from their families. When they received letters with bad news, they grew even more distressed. To reduce anxiety, the army stopped forwarding letters, but soldiers sometimes received letters through fellow soldiers who returned from vacations. One day a crying soldier: Mohammad Zaree, brought me a letter from his brother in Esfahan indicating that their house had been bombed and his grandfather had died as a result. He believed more members of his family had been killed and, as it was Iranian tradition of withholding bad news, his brother had not told him the whole truth.

I arranged a one-week leave for him to visit his family. He came back saying his house and the surrounding area had been so badly demolished that he could not recognize where his house had been.

"I started to cry," Mohammad continued, "There was no house there except a few twisted iron beams and a heap of rubbles piled in its stead. I thought my whole family was killed. Fortunately our neighbor, who had lost his house as well, saw me. He let me know that my family was living in tents like many other families by the Esfahan-Yazd road to the east of the city. I found my family safe except my grandpa who had died of heart attack."

>>> Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4 -- Part 5 -- Part 6 -- Part 7


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