I was a kid when my family decided to take a road trip to Khouzestan for the first time. Khoramshahr is the city I particularly remember. I was so young that I couldn't understand how some people could live in Iran yet speak a different language other than Farsi. A language with the dialect that seemed to be closer to Arabic than Farsi.
My most beautiful memory from Khoramshahr was when the entire family sat at a table on a wonderful evening in the garden area of a restaurant serving fresh catch of the day, just as the sun was hiding away to give way to the moon. I ate my food as I watched people around me enjoying their conversations while a cool breeze gently embraced the palm trees. I knew I would have a lot to tell my friends back in Tehran about my adventure, about the people I met, food I ate and most important of all, the palm trees.
That was my only memory of Khouzestan when I arrived at the railroad station in central Ahvaz one spring day in 1986. I was barely eighteen, dressed in my military fatigue, carrying my bag of clothes and some personal belongings, not knowing what was awaiting me, where I was going to end up, who I was going meet. Would I ever see my family again? I was a soldier drafted to fight a war OR as it was said, defend Islam (whatever that meant).
My father was an officer in the air force during the time of the monarchy. He was a great fan of the Shah, or as it was frequently said at home, “Alaahazrat”. Even though he did not have a big title in the air force, he was still a sworn supporter.
I grew up with the mentality that basically revolved around “Khoda, Shah, Mihan” (God, King, Homeland). So, all I knew deep in my heart was that it is my duty to defend my country against the marching Iraqi army — an army that if not stopped, would have marched all the way to Tehran, as it did in Khoramshahr. I was there to fight a war and enter a new chapter in my young life — a chapter that turned out to be an indescribable nightmare that still haunts my dreams.
I was given a riffle that looked more like an American M-16 (but it was actually a German G-3), along with a truck so high above the ground that I had to climb up a ladder to get in. I was assigned to the transportation unit and my job was to transfer ammunition, food, men, and dead bodies, to and from the front, depending on the circumstances.
I was stationed in the dessert near a three-way dirt road, one leading to Ahvaz, one to Madjnoon Islands and the third to Khoramshahr. I saw Ahvaz and Madjoon Islands quite frequently but I never saw Khoramshahr again for as long as I was stationed in the southern front — known at the time as the Ahvaz-Khoramshahr front. After a year in the south, my unit was moved to Kurdistan..
The war being fought in Kurdistan was different. We were fighting not only Iraqis but also hunger, cold, depression, fatigue, the Kurds and death. I was in a bunker with three other soldiers on top of a high hill. It was our stronghold and we were there to protect it with all we had — which wasn't much. Food was scarce, morale was low, and energy almost nonexistent due to the constant hunger. We were in a pretty bad shape. It was ugly.
Ali, one of the guys sharing the bunker with me, was engaged to be married to a very beautiful girl in his Tehran neighborhood. They were in love — the Iranian, innocent, blind, sweet, rare-outside-Iran kind of love. The only condition under which the girl's father would accept their marriage was for Ali to finish military service so he could have a job and be able to provide for his family.
Reza was in the same situation as Ali. Massoud was there to become eligible for a passport. He always talked about blonds waiting for him in some faraway European land. The big joke among us was that; “You can't even get as far as Afghanistan, let alone the land of blonds.”
I was an ambulance driver in the new unit and in charge of medics. I had the authority to give permission to others to go to the nearest town to refresh and enjoy warm food and clean clothes.
On a cold autumn night, as I was writing a letter to my family, Ali came up to ask if he could take the day off. I agreed, reluctantly. Although I did mention that it was not yet his turn. I told him I won't do it again and that I should be fair to every one. Ali turned towards me and said, “Let's see how much longer I'll live this miserable life. If I have any life left to live before tomorrow ends, then we'll worry about it…”
The following day just before sunset, I was standing around with Mahmood, a kid from Amol, down the hill where we were stationed, talking about our memories before we joined the army. As our conversation was heating up, we noticed there was a lot of noise and movement on top of the hill.Mahmood and I who started to run to the top.
We realized the Iraqis had decided to make that evening an endless hell by hitting our position with numerous artillery rounds. One of the guys was carrying a wounded man on his back trying to get him to a safer place. We did not hesitate and found our way to the front side, on top of the hill through the dust and gun powder smoke. Iraqi shells were hitting every square inch of the hilltop; it was so bad it took me 10 minutes to go forward just a few meters. At this point I got separated from Mahmood and everyone else.
In the midst of the dust and smoke that had turned the clear blue sky around me into a gray autumn afternoon, I saw something like a human body flat on the ground. Was that an Iraqi soldier penetrating deep inside on our precious hill? I asked myself. I thought if that is indeed an Iraqi, I am going to kill the bastard even if I have to use my bare hands.
I was getting closer to the body that by now was quite still, except for a few strong and rapid movements of his head from left to the right. He was trying to adjust his open cut throat, gasping for a few pumps of air so he could breath. I looked at him and called his name, “Ali…” There was no response. Ali was dead. My friend was dead.
As I stood there shocked and helpless, I got hit. Shrapnel hit me in the ankle. I fell on the ground and all I could do was crawl near Ali's body. I managed to use his body as a shelter to protect me against incoming shells. As I was down on the ground, I saw my life running in front of me like a motion picture. I saw the summer afternoons of Tehran on the air force base where I lived most of my life. I saw our neighborhood, as people would get together for a few hours of laughter talk, discussing politics and gossip (whatever these two had in common). I saw my family, my mother, my father, my classmates riding their bikes to officially declare the start of summer break.
Then I heard nothing, saw nothing, felt nothing. I fell into a deep sleep. I woke up next to a man bent on top of me screaming to the others;”…this one is alive…”. I was alive but not Ali. I survived that evening to remember what went on, what our young men went through, and the sacrifices they made. They were on hills and mountains or burning hot deserts to fight to protect our motherland.
Although most of the soldiers with whom I served in the army, did not join that war by choice, when it all came down to making a choice between fleeing or fighting, sure as hell most chose to fight. They sacrificed their best so that you and I would be alive reading their story.
Today, I live in northern California where the hills are just as glamorous as the hills and mountains in Kurdistan. They often remind me of the brave ones I had the opportunity to meet in my journey of life. To write this, I had to kick myself in the butt many times. I didn't want to live through that nightmare all over again. I hope you will remember those brave men as I do.