The forgotten cemetery

A loved one is buried in Karaj’s Beheshte Sakineh. This cemetery which has always been the burial grounds for Karaj and its surrounding villages, is now developing into a cemetery of choice for many Tehrani’s who would like to avoid Beheshte Zahra’s overbearing crowds and mayhem.

In November 1998 on the first anniversary of our loved one’s passing, a small group of friends and family gathered at her gravesite to remember her. My sister had brought her good friend, Akram, with her. In mid-afternoon we gathered and performed the necessary rituals of the anniversary. By the time we were done it was 4:00 p.m. on an autumn afternoon. As we prepared to leave, my sister’s friend, Akram asked whether we would be interested in attending her brother’s grave in the same cemetery. When faced with such a request, Iranians must oblige. Cemeteries in Iran now are divided into areas (gheteh), and rows (radif), and every grave has an address comprising of the two. We asked Akram in which area her brother’s grave was located and she said she couldn’t tell us the area number, but that we should follow her in our cars. Our small group of 3 cars started following Akram through the wide boulevards of the cemetery. Soon the paved boulevard ended and Akram started driving through a dirt path into the less-developed areas of the cemetery. We had to make turns around dirt mounds, not knowing where we were heading. The sun was quickly setting as is expected of a late November afternoon.

Driving for several minutes in what now looked like a deserted area of the cemetery, Akram’s car finally stopped. We all got out, expecting to go to the grave to do our Fateheh prayer. Akram who had also gotten out of her car was standing by a large area of graves, not moving. We were puzzled about what she was doing and when she was going to show us the grave. I asked her where the grave was. She said she didn’t know.

It took us several moments to understand what she was telling us. She didn’t know where her brother’s grave was, not because she had forgotten, but because she didn’t know which of those graves was her brother’s. In the moments that came, our small group tried to grapple with what we were seeing, processing the information which was being conveyed to us in silence. Looking at the area, the situation started registering slowly, unfolding before our unbelieving eyes.

The area was covered in graves, but the graves did not have tombstones as is customary of Moslem Iranian graves. Each grave was only simply marked by a small white plaque, displaying a number. There were rows after rows of graves with numbers on them. A few graves here and there had smaller than usual tombstones on which it said “Massoomeh Bi-nam” (Anonymous Massoomeh) or “Mohammad Bi-nam” (Anonymous Mohammad).

The enormity of the scene we were witnessing was hitting us slowly, but surely. These were graves of those executed during the summer of 1988. We were speechless and transfixed, not knowing what to do and which grave to pray on. I asked Akram how she knew her brother was here. She said that families of those being executed daily inside prison would find out that their loved one had been executed, and would go to Evin Prison to bribe some prison employees who would tell them where they had taken the last “batch” of dead bodies. On the occasion of her brother’s execution she had been told that that night they had taken that batch to Beheshte Sakineh in Karaj. The fact that the graves were numbered showed that someone somehow knows who is buried where, and there must be a list somewhere, but Akram could never find out which one of those numbers corresponded with her brother’s name.

We looked on as the many dimensions of our learning unfolded in our minds. Under each of those numbers was a person, most definitely an educated man or woman, in the case of Akram’s brother, a doctor, who had lost his or her life for a political belief. Akram told me that six men in her immediate family had been executed during that summer and one of them was buried here, the others in other cemeteries.

I stood there thinking I should do something to ebb the numbness and wretchedness I was feeling. I started reading the Fateheh with effort. I was so angry with myself, as a simple religious ritual seemed so inadequate, so inappropriate in the face of the macabre scene before me. For one thing, I was asking myself if the same Islamic rituals applied to those killed in the name of Islam? I also had to ask myself for which one of those dead men and women was I really reading the prayer? I couldn’t concentrate so I gave up as a huge sob exited my mouth instead, yelling “why?” Others in our group weren’t faring much better than me, either. One or two had fallen to their knees in shock and despair. One had started walking fast through the deserted and darkening cemetery reading the numbers out loud. Five were standing in a group shaking and crying uncontrollably. Everyone was crying.

You know, we have heard about those executions and about those mass graves for close to twenty years now. Somewhere in our conscience sits the knowledge that they happened. No one ever talks about them, though. No one ever acknowledges the tragedy. We all step around the knowledge as none of us seem to know what to do with it. Even in their deaths and in their mass graves those people’s political convictions seem to put fear in us. They were brave enough to die for their thoughts. We are cowards, scared even of their remembrance.

I think what happened in the summer of 1988 was genocide, pure and simple. Those people were here, one of us, our neighbors, our co-workers, our friends, and then they were taken away to long-term prison terms, and subsequently murdered en masse. Their only difference with us was that they had ideas they expressed and for which they were punished and murdered. They each were somebody’s son or daughter, someone’s brother or sister, someone’s husband or wife, someone’s father or mother, or someone’s true love. They were educated, intelligent, full of life, and oh so brave. Regardless of their political viewpoints, they were loving Iranians who were murdered in cold blood. The sacredness of human life was grossly and irrevocably violated in the case of these young Iranians, our crème de la crème, our elite.

I believe until Iranians as a nation stand up, speak loudly about what happened, and acknowledge that it did happen, there can never be peace amongst our nation. This has to happen before there is a call for the formation of a tribunal which would look at those responsible for this heinous crime against humanity. It has always been the murderers’ wish that our nation would forget about the victims of this genocide. No surprises there. If nobody thinks or talks about it, they can go on pretending that it never happened. If families of the victims are intimidated into silence, if the graves continue to be unmarked and at most numbered, if the whole world keeps quiet about it, it would be as though it never happened. But it did. It did happen. I have seen those graves with my own two eyes, eyes which will never shut again in peaceful sleep, eyes which would never stop crying tears for the travesty and its shame. It is high time we stood up and said that we know it happened.

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