Iran-Iraq War: A Path To Nowhere (9)


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 --

The Hellish Base

One afternoon in early summer or late spring, Zeerakee called me to his bunker to share an important decision. There, I discovered that my soldiers rumor about our transfer was true. We were to occupy a position some twenty kilometers south of Fakkeh. Zeerakee ordered me to destroy a new bunker that we had built in my platoon and to clandestinely carry the logs and plates to the remainder of the company, as it was an illegal act. In a nightly operation, Zeerakee, Ghaderee, I, with the help of twenty-four soldiers, had robbed those plates and logs from two Iraqi abandoned bunkers in the early days of our staying in Fakkeh

On a mild evening we set out for the new place on a road that blowing sand had blocked every here and there. Our jeep would stall in the sand and we had to get off and push it out. This we repeated several times until we came to a lieutenant standing among few soldiers before his bunker behind a sand dune covered with several bushes. Zeerakee knew him from his college-days and as a norm they began to chat about common memories while I was looking around and at a soldier who before their eyes was suffering the punishment. A wood stick had been passed through his sleeves, making a cross out of him; his backpack was filled with blowing-sand and several canteens filled with water were fastened to his belt; some water had been poured into his boots to make the leather swell and hurting.

The soldier was still enduring agony of punishment that we left for Base Number Ten. There were nine bases to the south of that base stretching all the way to Chazzabeh; and this base constituted the northernmost corner of an area defended by bases instead of connected front lines. Seventy soldiers with a skinny third lieutenant whom I call Babak as I have forgotten his name were stationed in the base. Babak was shell-shocked, though he was well enough to be the company commander’s assistant. He was looking at his audience in a side way and every few minutes jerked his head to one side. I was to replace Babak's unit and stay at Base Number Ten. Because of our first day's plight of thirst, the base many perils, and problems with many banished soldiers, we called it the Hellish Base after an Iranian movie.

The base was an even field as large as four soccer fields surrounded by some mounds, not higher than ten meters, with small bushes on them. There were many sand dunes without vegetation scattered behind it. The location of the dunes changed according to the direction the wind blew which usually was northwest to southeast and reversed seasonally. There were ten bunkers altogether scattered around the base. In the northwestern corner a tent held two forward observers of a 107mm multiple rocket-launcher.

A few clumps of tamarisk trees with some bushes around them located in front of the base. Many branches of the trees had been cut or damaged due to heavy fire exchange of long-range shells; however, they kept growing new branches and defying both the war and the wind. Remnants of sandbags of ruined trenches were still visible beside their trunks. To the west and southwest, bushes covered six hundred meters across and stretched south as far as eye could see. After the six hundred meters of the bush, a bare plain stretched westward to the foot of Hill 85. Our distance to Hill 85 could be around seven kilometers as our 120mm mortar shells could barely reach Iraqi positions and their mortars barely reached our base. This was the reason a multiple rocket launcher with longer range was supporting the base and the front line immediately to its north.

When it was ascertained that I was supposed to occupy the base it was evening. In the dimming evening the defense line seemed about four hundred meters long: the shortest line I had ever had: the shorter the front line, the less responsibility and less trouble. I was pleased with that line and went back with a contented mind.

The next afternoon I organized my pioneer group to go to the base to replace Babak's withdrawing company. By nightfall the unit that was to replace us had arrived and my pioneers had left for the base. At eleven, ice was brought. We had not enough coolers to take all of it. I took a big chunk of ice to throw away as it was in excess of our containers.

"What are you doing Sir?" Karamee inquired.

"I am throwing this left over ice away," I responded.

"No Sir!" he objected, "You haven't lived in the South; you don't know how much people depend on ice in this season. Each little piece of ice can save a life. Take it all."

I took Karamee’s crude but right advice and we filled whatever container we had including a few plastic bags with ice and set off in a big military truck with a few liters of water. Water was promised to reach the base by dawn.

After two uneventful hours of detouring the area in an orange moonlight we arrived in the base and slept beneath the stars. At dawn Babak told me they would be leaving within a couple of hours and we could occupy their bunkers. Everything was going peacefully, though we had not received the promised water. My main concern was the actual length of my defense line, not the water. To measure, I walked toward the trenches and started walking from north to south.

Thousands of sparkling new cartridges were littered along the tracks I was walking in. Many clean rifle and hand grenades were littered also. The evacuating soldiers who were to evacuate their ammunitions as well, either had not taken care of them or they had littered them on purpose. The second possibility was more likely. What practically soldiers had evacuated were empty ammunition boxes. I knew that soldiers hated the war; but they could not express their hatred. The only chance left to them was carelessness about ammunitions and hideously littering them around. One important point was understood by every soldier: the more care he took of the munitions, the longer he had to fight; and the more bravely he fought, the longer the war dragged.

At the end of my visit I determined my defense line to be about one thousand five hundred meters long. I could not believe this was the same area I had visited the previous evening. To defend that place, I should have three times more men than what I had. Unfortunately, it was a norm in the army that commanders imposed as much burden on the personnel as they could. They seldom took real capability of units into consideration; and no military rule was taken into account. The only factor that determined one's sphere of defense was haggling or stubbornness in which the staff personnel always had an upper hand.

It was about six o'clock in the morning when I strode to Babak, who was about to leave, showing that I was not scared of the base that had frightened many. Of course, I concealed my bad feelings.

"We defended this base with seventy soldiers present in it," Babak told me in a low voice as he tossed his head to one side, "Still we feared being besieged. You have a small number of soldiers and you are ordered to do the task of one company. You will have to be extremely careful. Don't forget this Base Number Ten has a reputation for being dangerous. Don't worry about the enemy mortars shells, as they won’t reach you. Just be watchful about being besieged and being shelled by long-range cannons." At this Babak wished me good-luck and drove away after his soldiers.

The weather was scorching; a hot breeze was blowing from the northwest carrying sand. We made tea on flames and had a breakfast of jam and butter and bread. The daily observer went on his observation mission to a place some five hundred meters before the base near the trees; Shaaban started laying his telephone line to the observation post; ammunitions were assigned to trenches and ammunition depot; and I began to prepare our bunker while soldiers occupied only five of the ten bunkers.

By nine in the morning every soldier of the former unit had left except the two forward observers of the multiple rocket-launcher. All responsibilities lay on us, though the multiple rocket-launcher observers could take part in defense if we were attacked. They could have bombed the Iraqi long-range weapons positions. Could Iraqi infantry forces attack us in that heat as we were replacing another unit? It was not known. Most probably they could; but practically it equaled a sheer madness with many casualties and little gain. As soldiers we should have taken it for granted that the enemy was going to attack.

By nine-thirty we had finished the water we had carried with ourselves and were growing thirsty. Possibility of getting water by tankers in bright daylight was nil. If the tanker moved in the area, Iraqi observers would have seen it and would have bombed it by tank or artillery shells. As the battalion had only one tanker, it would not have put it and the driver at risk by delivering water and forcing thirst upon the whole battalion. I got in touch with the battalion on our wireless and asked for water; but I was told to cut off immediately: the person who spoke to me was afraid the Iraqis might receive our signal and conversation; but thirst was making me restless; I called again. He said he was suffering from thirst himself. We exchanged a few Turkish words to confuse the likely Iraqi eavesdroppers. None of these brought water for us. We had to endure the thirst or, at the most, die.

By eleven some soldiers who had finished their water and ice started coming to our bunker in search of water. We had already begun eating our ice and would share what we had with them. Eating ice did not quench our thirst; instead it increased our demand for more ice. The water that had gathered in the bottom of the container, as the ice gradually melted, also, was of little use against the heat. We sweated it out right after drinking. We had to reduce physical activities to the minimum to save our body moisture. Sleeping seemed to serve that purpose.

The wind was blowing. Now it had more power than before. Shaaban and I covered our faces with kerchiefs to avoid taking sand into our mouths and nostrils and lay down to sleep. Sleeping did not work as we had thought. While asleep I was dreaming of swimming in a cool stream. Sometimes I was dreaming I was climbing a mountain of ice; and I was trying to chip bits of it to eat. Meanwhile, drops of sweat that were rolling down our body and stubborn flies would wake us up; or the blown sand would cover the kerchief as a layer too thick to breathe through. Every now and then we would wake up mad and short of breath throw the kerchiefs aside and drink the little water that had gathered in the cooler, fall asleep, and sweat again. And this circle would continue.

At noon no food or water arrived. The only thing everybody was thinking about was water. Sleeping to forget the thirst did not help. Was it our turn to die of thirst? I was inclined to think so. One o'clock had approached; the wind was still blowing; and the ice had finished half an hour earlier; Shaaban was distressed.

"We can not go on like this,” he said sad, parched, “Maybe these people never bring water. We should not wait until we die of thirst. I have heard from the observers there is a water-well eighteen kilometers south of here. We can fetch some water."

"Eighteen kilometers on foot in this heat!" I exclaimed, “Are you not mad? I cannot sacrifice anyone in this way. This is like running after mirage in a desert. At least, if they die before my eyes I know they are dead and I have their bodies; but if they go eighteen kilometers, I even don’t know where they are fallen.”

"I can find a volunteer to come with me,” he said, “You just let us go."

"You know nothing of this area,” I said, “I am afraid you will die of thirst before reaching the well."

"I am ready to die for it," Shaaban said.

He was determined: a young skinny father of two daughters from Saveh in central Iran was ready to take every risk to save some lives. Perhaps, his married life and parenthood had taught him the lesson of sacrifice. I was highly proud of him and felt belittled before his valor. No more I could resist his determination; I let him find a volunteer to keep his company. Shortly, he found Gorjee: a strongly built young soldier father of one from Andimeshk, Khuzestan who was an expert in every kind of weapons and had taught everyone including myself plenty of lessons. It was in Fakkeh that Gorjee brought me a Vameri mine from an Iraqi minefield somewhere between the two front lines so that I could see with my own eyes what kind of mine it was. Also, it was in Fakkeh that Gorjee and another soldier unscrewed a Grinov machine gun from a burnt Iraqi tank between the two front lines. He fixed the whole system as it was shooting as good as a new machine gun. As anxiety was gnawing my within, the two men left on their quest for water with two tins in hand.

It was about half past two; moment of death was creeping closer. There was no sign of Shaaban and Gorjee. Sitting out of the bunker, I was looking south to find a clue, but I took it for granted that my soldiers had died of thirst by then. I regretted letting them go. Did I have any choice besides resorting to the last straw that was still moving on the waves of an ocean?

My grief did not last long; Shaaban and Gorjee appeared in the southern corner of the base. It was impossible to walk eighteen kilometers in that short time and come back. I thought they had returned empty-handed after they had found out it was impossible to reach the well; but the tins looked heavy. A miracle must have happened: they came with water.

The soldiers swarmed around the tins and drank of the muddy water. At the end I drank as much as I could. Shaaban said the well was less than two kilometers south of the base in the next base. It was embarrassing to see that our own observers had lied to us. When I reproached them for misleading us, they said they had told us what they had learned from others. I could not believe them. They had been there for two months and they must have had more extensive information than what they had shared with us. At five the climax of the heat had broken. Soldiers began to move around; a long iguana with its blue, orange, and white body was swiftly running on the newly blown dune. Khodadad Zand-e Lashanee was after him with his gun in hand. The wind was still blowing. Shaaban invented a cooling method for the muddy water we had been left with. He filled two canteens with water, soaked their cotton cover, and put them in the wind for half an hour. When we drank the water, it was considerably cooler than before.

At sunset Zeerakee arrived with four tins of water. He was exhausted and dark from hard working and heat, saying the battalion had sent a tanker full of water for us at dawn, but the driver had lost the way and had not found it until late after sunrise. Iraqis could have hit him had he moved forward; so he had taken the tanker back to the headquarters and is awaiting the darkness to fall in order to bring water for us. At the end of his visit, Zeerakee told me a platoon of soldiers would come to the base that night to re-enforce us and carry out a pre-emptive attack on Hill 85.

"Be careful with Iraqis counter-attack barrage,” Zeerakee warned, “They will heavily shell the base. It is Iraqis known habit."

He left the base and after nightfall the water tanker arrived and filled our tank that we had buried in the sand to protect it against flying shrapnel.

I was awake until one o’clock in the morning when the platoon arrived with a lieutenant in charge who stayed with a wireless operator in the base and the rest of the group set out for the hill under the command of a sergeant. I slept on a blanket in a depression beneath the sky to avoid possible shrapnel of a counter-attack barrage. Shortly, I noticed the lieutenant who was to be up until the end of the mission going to bed leaving Shaaban and his own operator alone.

At four the wireless buzzed. The operator exchanged a few words and reported to the lieutenant the platoon was on its way back. When it returned to the base without an attack, we had lost our first night of rest to the fear of a barrage that did not take place>>>Part 10

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


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