The sun was still shining when I entered Neekvarz’ little tidy bunker. Originally, this bunker had been built with concrete by Iraqi forces when they had the region under control. After their withdrawal it had fallen to Iranian forces and had been turned to the commander’s bunker. There were several wooden boxes and a few pairs of boots and sandals crammed at the door. Two Klashinkov rifles were hung from the ceiling pecks by telephone wires near Neekvarz’ bed that lay on a short wooden couch improvised by ammunition boxes. A few books occupied the windowsill. I could read the title of the Persian translation of George Orwell’s Animal Farm. One or two, usually partially worn out, novels was the most common pattern in all bunkers, especially those of the commanders’.
“Army is a big human exhibition.”
This was the first sentence Neekvarz uttered distracting my attention from his books. He spoke in such a tone that I felt he was trying to show me despite his inferior rank he was the boss. Of course, I had no problem with that matter. Military ranks and positions never interested me any way.
“You can find all kinds of people with contradictory backgrounds in this exhibition,” he went on, “Thieves, drug-smugglers, and criminals live side by side honorable and honest people in this exhibition. There are naive countrymen and crafty city people too. We display educated and illiterate people as well.”
He said the last sentence with a smile.
“In addition, there is a phenomenon of political sympathy that has been introduced to the armed forces after the revolution. However it is illegal to get involved in politics in the army; somehow it exists. As you see, we have one thing in common and it is our uniforms. And the uniforms have been put on all of us by the law of the land; I would rather say by force.”
At this a short soldier arrived with two glasses of tea. He put the tea on the blanket on which we were sitting and left. Neekvarz grew outspoken.
“Don’t think everybody at the front is as innocent and holy as they tell the civilians,” he resumed, “As I said before there is every kind of people here. Let me bring an example to make the reality more tangible for you. Once in this battalion two soldiers collaborated to rape a third one; but the soldier did not yield to their demand. So the collaborators heated a spoon and burned his hip.
You know we are terrible people in these matters. To speak of such things is regarded immoral and shameful. The victim did not report what had happened to him until poor sanitary situations made it a very serious wound before his commander discovered the problem and sent him to the hospital.”
Neekvarz’ stunning story aroused my disgust. I did not understand why he was telling me that story in my first minutes in his company.
“I just wanted you to know that if you are not serious and extremely disciplined, you will make a jungle out of your unit and you will be responsible for it. I remind you that army doesn’t accept any excuse for mismanagement. I had better to say that the army is like a deaf and blind person who when he catches someone he doesn’t hear beseeching and yelling and doesn’t see the torment of suffering on his face.”
With this Neekvarz complemented what he intended to say. His last sentence was so beautifully said that aroused my marvel.
“I suppose I have nothing left to add,” Neekvarz went on, “You are an educated man and grasp what I am trying to expose to you.”
I thanked him for the advice; expressed pleasure at being assigned to his unit; and added since I had no personal belongings such as dishes and blankets for my personal use; and if I could have stayed in his bunker overnight.
Contrary to the Iranian hospitality customs I heard:
“I am sorry, Sir! You go to your own platoon tonight. Soldiers have what you lack. They will be happy to share theirs with you. I’ll order the company provide you with everything you need tomorrow morning.”
I swallowed my dismay and stood on my feet.
“Send me to my platoon then,” I said.
“You haven’t drunk your tea yet,” he said.
“Thank you,” I said. “I drank tea before I came here,” I lied, intending to show him my resentment.
“Okay,” he said, “I’ll call a soldier to accompany you.”
“Meanwhile I’ll wait outside,” I said and walked out.
As I tied my bootlaces a few paces from the company communications center as tight as I could, the soldiers who had served us tea came to me.
“Let’s go Sir,” he said, “I’ll keep you company until Abbasspour comes.”
We started walking southward. Half way the soldier passed me over to Abbasspour who was walking without hardhat or gun and verbally greeted me. We waded our way through the sand without talking. My mind was occupied with Neekvarz’ rudeness and the way I should have showed myself to my soldiers to avoid instances like what he had mentioned. I decided I had to show that I was meticulous, disciplined, cold, caring, and dauntless in facing any mishap. I knew the commanders who had showed fear had faced manipulations with undesirable consequences. So, I had to clarify that I was not that kind of a commander; however I was not certain if I had enough capability to play the roles of all these characters contrary to my own personality and beliefs.
As the person responsible for communications, Abbasspour knew my sergeant, he, and I ought to live together in the commander’s bunker. So, when we reached a big vaulted bunker, he invited me in. This bunker was made of curved metal beams above the ground and was covered with sandbags up to its middle to ward off incoming shrapnel. Despite being spacious, it was very cold at night. Later on I found out that once a mortar shell had fallen exactly on that bunker and had killed everyone inside. This incident had taken place before our unit occupied the area. I told Abbasspour I needed a warmer place and Karamee volunteered to take me to his bunker.
“But my bunker is too short Sir;” he said, “Besides, there are a few cats around that place. Perhaps, they have their kittens in the bunker.”
“I’d rather go there,” I said and walked with Karamee toward the southern corner of the platoon.
Beside a little bunker that was built almost entirely into the ground a fire was burning in a metal tin riddled with small holes to let the gust in to keep the fire burning as long as there was wood inside and at the same time to keep the flames brightness contained. In this way the enemy could not locate the fire and bomb the platoon. I was invited to join a handful of soldiers who were standing around the fire boiling water in a crooked sooty kettle. I went to them and sat on a metal tin they provided me beside the caressing heat while more and more soldiers were encircling me with “hellos” of respect and receiving my cold responses. To show my seriousness, I would avoid smiling at our first meeting. I was trying my best to play this role perfectly well, however, in heart I was laughing at my made-up seriousness.
Expectedly, the story did not end there. The most aggressive soldiers asked my name. Little by little they dragged me into their concerns about leaves. They reworded questions from different angles and scanned my vague answers. I guessed they were trying to figure out what sort of a person I was and if they could play normal military tricks on me. Apparently, I was successful in puzzling them by giving meaningless answers and making no commitment.
As we were talking the sun had set and I had a dozen soldiers around me. Karamee poured some tealeaves in the boiling water and put the kettle on the ground to steep. That night he was the chief of the guards and he had to assign soldiers to guarding positions on time. Despite instructions, the chief of the guards did not have his gears on. All of a sudden he shouted the name of a soldier called Seyyed saying he was late for his evening guarding duty. This seemed the best moment to show the troops that I was a serious man.
“Tell Seyyed to come to me,” I told Karamee in a cold tone, “I want to know why he is late.”
Karamee called out to Seyyed that a “Sir Captain” wanted to see him as soon as possible.
“He is in charge of the Politico-Ideology Organization of the company,” Karamee warned me, “Be more cautious with him Sir!”
This religious organization was a means of abuse. It was a means of intimidation against commanders for evading duties under the cover of religion. I never liked a commander like that organization to make decisions for me while it officially held no responsibility. To have a better command of the situations, I had to show that I did not care about the organization either.
“In that case he should be better disciplined than others,” I articulated, “They are the best believers in Islam and the holiness of this war.”
Karamee fell silent and a few minutes later a short soldier saluted me with his gun in hand and a helmet on his head.
“Why are you late Ideologic?” I inquired with scorn, referring to his secondary responsibility as religious boss.
“I was guarding until several minutes ago,” Seyyed replied in a low tone, “Now I was eating supper.”
“Try to be on time for guarding,” I said, “Unless you want me to punish you. Now you can go on duty.”
“Yes, Sir,” Seyyed said.
Seyyed saluted and left me with a question why a soldier who had been on guarding duty until a few minutes earlier had to be assigned to another duty after few minutes of rest. It seemed that without a commander soldiers were guarding as they desired or as it was convenient for them. This was the first thing I told Karamee to correct by next day. He said he would make the proper corrections as I had ordered.
Karamee’s tea was ready in a short time. He poured one glass of the dark muddy drink for me first. Then, he poured another glass for himself and two more glasses for his two bunker-mates. As we started sipping the tea the sergeant of the platoon, Alireza Motaffaker from Shiraz, came and the soldiers dispersed. I was convinced I had played my roles perfectly; especially I was happy with my talk to Seyyed and the change of the guarding schedule. I thought they would set the records straight for everyone that military tasks came before any other consideration.
As the sky darkened we had drunk our tea, had put out the fire, and had gone to the bunker through a door where I had to bend to my waist to avoid hitting the top of the entrance that was covered with a hanging khaki military rug. Even the roof of the bunker was so low that we could not stand up. A small kerosene lantern was burning in a corner providing a gloomy light with a thread of smoke bellowing above the yellowish orange dark flame. A glass like the one I had used for tea guarded the flame; but this one had no bottom either.
The bunker walls had been raised with sandbags of different colors and different sizes not designed for bunker-building purposes. They had been collected from civilians in the cities to help the soldiers. A few thick logs and an iron beam supported the ceiling of the bunker. The beams had been taken from an Iranian destroyed railroad track and the screw holes on the logs were still visible. Iraqis had taken these items from Ahvaz-Khorramshahr railway when they had the area in hand. A few iron plates with almost a meter of sand made the roof. All in all, the bunker seemed strong enough to withstand formidable explosions.
There was a hole in the eastern wall for the window and a piece of dirty plastic barred the sand way. Three military rugs carpeted the floor and two blankets were spread on them. There was no couch or board here. Two wooden boxes that kept the food out of the reach of rats were sitting next to the entrance. There was no heater in this bunker as there was none in other bunkers because there was not enough space for fresh air. Two men might have lived relatively comfortably here; but at that moment three soldiers lived uncomfortably.
After a poor dinner, I told Karamee I wanted to stay in that bunker with the sergeant and Abbasspour and they should move to Abbasspour’s bunker. Instructing the sergeant to awaken the soldiers for morning exercise, I left the bunker at around nine to visit guarding trenches with Karamee.
The whole region was bright with moonlight. Karamee warned me the area was littered with mines and I should have put my foot exactly on his footprints. I carefully followed his instructions until we reached the vicinity of a trench before the front line. There, we stopped and exchanged the password with the sentries under our breath. Nasser Saffee gave me a night-vision glass to look around and I could see some scattered bushes and dunes a few hundred meters away. Nothing was out of the ordinary.
We left Nasser and Asghar in front of the hill and went back to the trenches on the highest dune hill that had been rendered to my command. On its highest spot a small shack was built in the dune. During the day the shack was used for artillery observation purposes and at night my soldiers used it as a guarding post. In the clear moonlight I could see the dune hills smoothly sloping westward. It was so clear that I could see the hill on which the mortar observation post located hundreds of meters away. I wanted to linger in the quiet of the night and look at the bright bluish surrounding or run on the slope to the bottom of the observation hill; but I had gone there for a military inspection not enjoying the beauty of the plain in moonlight. Shortly we descended the hill to check other trenches.
After touring all trenches I saw the fragility of my platoon. Most of my soldiers had just two magazines full of cartridges with twenty cartridges in each while they were to carry five full magazines. There was no spare cartridge available to them. Karamee told me the platoon had a weekly quota of two thousand cartridges: one thousand for the Russian Kelashinkov rifles and one thousand for the Iranian G3. I calculated if the Iraqis attacked us, we would not have been able to resist them for one hour, not to mention a few days.
The next day at half past six I was awakened. It was cold. A thick fog was hanging in the air. Soldiers had swarmed around their morning fire with the sergeant. With hesitation in heart, I ordered them to line up. For the first time in my life a group of people obeyed my order and we slowly ran northward for about one kilometer while concerns of Iraqi likely infiltration were haunting me. Then, we returned, exercised for a short while, introduced ourselves, and went back to bunkers for breakfast.
During our short exercise another weakness of the platoon became evident. My soldiers were not in proper physical shape. Some were sick or had some chronic diseases. Davood from Ghom who was a heavy smoker suffered from asthma. Three soldiers had big Allepo boils (20) on different parts of their bodies: one had the boil on his thigh, another had it on the back of his hand, and the last had two big boils on his face and arm.
The terrain that I was to defend mainly consisted of a dune hill about one hundred meters high on the Iranian side and about three hundred on the Iraqi side. After Martyrs Hill this was the second highest hill and key position in the area. Similarly, an artillery observation post was on its top. Three artillery forward observers constantly kept an eye on enemy activities. The mortar observation post we had visited earlier was located on the northern flank of the hill that made the northernmost skirt of my defense zone.
Soldiers had dug a water-well at the eastern foot of the hill that had a considerable amount of water at that time. With many uncertainties of water delivery, it was a big break to have a well in your platoon. Soldiers could wash dishes and clothes and if it were warm, wash themselves with the same water. If we did not receive water by tankers, we could even drink the same dirty water after we boiled it.
To defend this area, I had twenty-four men while for an effective defense I needed, at least, forty combat-ready soldiers. My soldiers had to guard five hours at night in two shifts and one hour each during the day. Worse yet, there were some serious problems with my personnel that reduced their efficiency.
Fifty percent of my men were either countrymen or came from small towns. Ten of them were absolutely illiterate or could only write their names. Six were married and three of the married men were fathering more than two children. They were being kept at the front line against the law that prohibited active service at war fronts for the soldiers with more than two children. Also, there were three soldiers who had a brother or father at other front lines. They, too, were being kept in the front line against the same law that prohibited the first group.
One soldier wore thick eyeglasses. At dark nights he could see nothing. Another was hard of hearing and barely could distinguish shells whistling. Lacking sharp hearing equaled suicide for that kind of a person. Before they heard the whistling of the approaching shell, they would not lie on the ground to avoid flying shrapnel. At night I used to send these two men to guard together that they might complement one another’s weak senses in finding their way back and forth to their trenches and in facing oncoming shells. All in all, eleven of my soldiers were at the front without legal or health justifications. I believed they were there only because they were the most honest, vulnerable, and voiceless people of the society.
Although we did not need heaters for cooking food as it was prepared in the battalion kitchen and was delivered to us every day for lunch and supper, we needed them for making tea and warming ourselves. There was no heater, except the one that was given to my bunker after my arrival, for which we did not receive enough kerosene. They rarely gave sufficient kerosene to keep our lanterns going at night let alone the heater. Soldiers had to gather wood from nearby bushes to make the fire they needed for their tea. Making fire was quite dangerous. It could draw Iraqis’ attention and shells to the smoke and the flame.
Our public food containers consisted of one metal and one plastic pail originally used in the kitchen for storing cooking oil. One was for carrying stew and the other for rice: our lunch. The soldier in charge of food distribution had made two holes in the opposite sides of the pails and had passed a telephone wire through them making a handle to carry the contents.
Our dinner usually was military broth filled with sheep fat and bones. This soup that was cooked by inexperienced soldiers without enough supervision was often burned. Often, you would chew sand with your food. Sometimes, one would find insects and inedible substances. Once when we were dining I tried to break a piece of meat into smaller pieces with my spoon. My attempt was in vain. I took the lantern closer to see the piece better. What I was trying to pull to pieces was a piece of green scrubbing pad.
Our bread, the basic cereal in Iran, was another story. When baked in the cities it is delicious especially when it is served warm. We were receiving two thin circular pieces of pita bread for each soldier for twenty-four hours. Half of the bread was either burned in the corners or was left dough. Practically, what a soldier could eat was only half of one circular pita bread. This he ate with his evening soup and virtually nothing was left for his breakfast to eat with his cheese or butter and jam.
We always suffered from bread shortage. Early morning a soldier or two used to come to my bunker asking for some bread. I used to tell Abbasspour to show them what we had and to give my share to them. He showed them the half bread we had left for three of us.
“We haven’t eaten breakfast either,” he would add.
“I thought as commander you would have more,” they would say, “When you need it yourselves, I won’t take it.”
Several times I reported the food insufficiency to the company or directly to the battalion; but it was to no effect. In one case Haghee told me to shut my mouth and never mention the matter again. According to him, the bread shortage was because we were in the habit of gluttony and ate up to our “throats”; otherwise the military food was sufficient. It was strange that a high ranking officer could not comprehend that military had done its calculations based upon edible nutritious standard food not burnt and insufficient stuff that was thrown at us under the name of food.
I frequently witnessed squabbles between soldiers over food especially bread. Settlement of these quarrels took a lot of my energy without any permanent solution for them. What the government-run media and officials were saying and what I had heard in the garrison about government lavish spending for the Islamic Warriors were true only for the headquarters of the army many kilometers behind the front line. As a matter of fact, those who ran the media and the pens that wrote for the war never went to the front lines to taste the food that an infantry soldier ate.
Enemy shells, shrapnel, and bullets were not the only threats to soldiers’ lives. Their own laziness and improper protective combat gears were often as menacing. On an inspecting occasion I noted soldiers did not wash their dishes right after eating. Some dishes had been left unwashed for a couple of days and remnants of food had dried in them. That much carelessness in a place already infested with rats and other elements of contamination was dangerous. Uniforms and personal protection devices were dirty. There were many worn uniforms that were never mended. Almost nobody polished military boots. They argued the sand would remove the polish. It was apparent that if there were no regular inspection of everyday duties, they would not have been done properly. Those men had been forced into military service, were being held forcibly, were fighting in an imposed war, and the rules had to be coerced upon them.
Soldiers’ helmets were the most important protective gears they possessed. Even these gears had many serious damages and problems. Some had no strap to be tied beneath the chin; others did not have inside straps to protect the head from the metal cover and the shrapnel that could penetrate the outside cover; some had lost the opaque paint over the metal and reflected light betraying the person’s position. Even this slight protection was not being used. Only a handful of soldiers wore their helmets when they came out of their bunkers. Upon my insistence they filled their helmets with kerchiefs and pieces of military blankets and tied them beneath their chins with pieces of telephone wire. Some smeared mud in the shining and rusty spots of the helmets and wore them.
Iraqi large-scale use of poison gas was a reality widely known to us. Even in the West that had provided the chemical agents it was very well known that the Baath government was pervasively using their products against Iranian forces and even Iranian towns. Protection gears against these elements were in a dismal shape and in clear contrast with what we had been trained. There was no anti-gas clothing at the front lines whatsoever. No American-made gas mask of our training period was at anyone’s disposal. Some Korean masks had been distributed among soldiers; but they were mostly worn out. Some of them had big holes in them and offered no resistance to chemical agents; some had no fastening straps; some had defective filters. More than ninety percent of the masks were absolutely useless in facing a gas attack. In my opinion, the responsible officers had handed them to soldiers in order to have something to put on the table in case a disaster struck and they were questioned about the actions they had taken. Most important of all, soldiers did not carry them lest they were charged for the damages accrued to the masks.
According to instructions we were to have two types of anti-gas agents in our Chemical-Biological-Radioactive (CBR) bags that we were to carry all the times. One of them was an injection to be used against nerve gas of which we should have had three each. My soldiers carried one of them only. The second anti-gas agent was kept in tiny bottles and we were supposed to break them inside the gas masks in case a suffocating agent was used on us. According to training, we were supposed to have eight bottles of each for every person; but each soldier had only three bottles. If soldiers broke or lost any of the bottles, they had to pay a compensation and face extended military service for negligence. So, they did not carry the bottles with themselves. It had happened that a soldier had concluded his military service, but the army would deny him conclusion card because he had lost or broken an injection or a bottle. The injections were never replaced. We never knew if they really worked or not. Even worse was the fact that those items were not available in the market to be bought and replaced for the lost and broken ones.
Another matter of great concern was our weapons and ammunitions. For a unit to fight off attacks on a strategically important hill like the one we defended, every gun must have been kept clean and ready to be used in the shortest time. Also, I intended to ensure that all soldiers in my unit were able to use every weapon we had in the platoon lest in emergency situations I needed to assign different duties to different soldiers. In the first chance I called the soldiers to clean their rifles. They spread their rugs on the ground and sat on them in small teams of few soldiers. As I was observing I found the very disturbing fact that many soldiers did not know how to disassemble their guns in order to clean them; or, as they had disassembled their rifles I found a mixture of sand, weapon oil, and smoke inside their rifles. Obviously, those rifles would not have shot more than a few cartridges. Rifles in that situation could be used as clubs only. No warrior armed with a club could ward off the enemy who carried a rifle. With the help of the soldiers who knew how to do the job, I trained everyone how to disassemble and reassemble his own gun and every other weapon we had in the platoon, and keep them clean. After that I inspected the guns every other day making sure they were clean, oiled, and ready to shoot.
We had no reserved cartridges for a needy day. With two thousand cartridges and soldiers nightly shooting at suspicious spots we ran out of cartridges before the end of the week. Despite this kind of tight control, ammunitions were lavishly wasted. For instance, in one spot beside my bunker I found more than ten thousand machine gun rounds buried in the dune. They were the ammunitions Iranians had produced and had our machine gun calibers. It was not clear if it were a deliberate act of sabotage or it had happened in one of many instances that the hill had fallen to Iraqis and munitions had to be kept away from advancing forces. If a high-ranking officer saw this, he would penalize the present commander in the field for negligence.
There were many R.P.G.7.anti-tank grenades whose driving fuel had been used by soldiers to set fire to wood or even to make fire display for fun. There were many rusted hand grenades whose preservation or use was dangerous to soldiers’ lives. I buried all of them according to the policy of hiding defects.
With this sad situation I was certain there could be no victory for Iranians. Morally, technologically, and logistically the Iranian army was not in the position to win a war with the extent of the First Persian Gulf War. Some staff officers including Neekvarz shared this view. They believed the situation was still growing. The reality was that the war was not pursued as a military enterprise; it was to overshadow serious domestic political problems.
On January 4, 1987 I was spending my third night at the front line. I had already received a Klashinkov rifle with a magazine that could hold thirty cartridges and a few blankets to sleep in as Neekvarz had promised. That night it was cold and foggy. A storm was blowing from northwest raising sand and dust; making the air dark. Apprehensive about my sentries, I had visited all of them twice earlier at night either in Karamee’s company or on my own. All of them were awake and vigilant; everything seemed normal except the storm that was lashing across the plain and the hill.
On my last return to the bunker my head struck the ceiling log and badly hurt. As I sat down Haghee phoned:
“How are you Avaznia?” he asked.
“I am very well, thank you Sir;” I answered.
“I just wanted to know how the front line tasted?” he asked.
“As normal as life itself Sir,” I returned.
I reported that everything seemed normal; he warned that in stormy weather could lay more dangers. The enemy could have taken advantage of our limited visibility and hearing to sneak quite close to our position before we noticed their presence.
“Volleys of hot lead will be awaiting their madness,” I responded boastfully not knowing whether it stemmed from the pain in my head or from my own fear and he laughed, “In any case, we are all ready.”
In spite of what I had expressed, I was anxious. An unease was assailing my within without me knowing what was stored in the heart of the night. I reviewed my previous few days and thought about Haghee’s warning; but I could not find anything specific to worry about. I was in the front line and everything was as I had expected. Considering my family’s anxiety and the fact that I had told them I would be kept in the garrison for sometime before being dispatched to the front line could not be the cause either. Quitting smoking since my arrival to the front line had not made me anxious either; though it had made me utterly nervous. Failing to find a specific reason, I convinced myself to believe that my anxiety was because of all those factors. Putting my rifle beneath my head, I wrapped myself in my overcoat and slept in my boots with my feet towards the entrance while Abbasspour slept in my place.
At one o’clock in the morning our telephone rang aloud. The operator told Abbasspour a group of soldiers consisting of eight soldiers and an officer from our battalion were scheduled to go on a reconnaissance mission on Iraqi positions at four o’clock of the same morning from my place. I was to order my soldiers not to shoot forward until they returned at dawn.
For the first time I was hearing of such a daring mission happening under my own nose and profoundly revered the nine brave men. To make sure my soldiers would not shoot, I wanted to be meticulously careful the order reached every single soul under my command. Therefore, I sent Abbasspour to call Karamee to see me in person to receive the order directly from me.
Karamee was very late to show up adding to my anxiety. After almost half an hour he entered with a “Salam: hello” at the door.
“Hello and death!” I retorted angrily, “I have been waiting for you for half an hour. You were sleeping on duty.”
“I say hello and you return death,” he objected aloud, “It’s not the proper answer to hello. You don’t have war experience and get excited about ordinary things. We see reconnaissance groups every day.”
“Anyway,” I said, “These people are going on this mission. Make sure your guards do not shoot forward until all of them are back safe. Tomorrow I will find a more active guards chief to replace you.”
“Do whatever pleases you,” he said discontented and hurt while leaving my bunker with the piece of paper on which I had written the number of the people, the time, and the place of their dispatch.
Lying on the floor, I fell to an uneasy asleep. I did not know how Abbasspour was feeling about living with a nervous man that I was that night. In my nervous speaking I did not have anything less than the shell-shocked officers I had seen until then. Most probably, like most soldiers, Abbasspour thought: “two years of military life must be spent bitter or sweet”.
A conversation between Abbasspour and the wireless operator of the reconnaissance group woke me up again. It was around four in the morning. They were talking about adjusting their radio frequencies and channels. As they were still talking I fell asleep again.
At 6:oo a.m. of 15th of the Iranian Month of Day 1365, January 5, 1987 of Christian Calendar, I was awakened for morning exercise. It was still cold and misty, but the storm had stopped. Soldiers were awaiting me around their morning fire. We ran a short distance and returned to the place of exercise and while everyone was still exercising I left for my bunker for breakfast.
Abbasspour was sitting beside his wireless. The breakfast of cheese, bread, and tea was ready. We were chewing the first mouthful of bread and cheese that I heard someone saying: “Hurry up guys”.
Shortly after, I heard footsteps running around my bunker. The exercise should have been ended and soldiers must have been running towards their bunkers to take their guns to shoot at the flock of geese that flew northward from marshes of Hoor-al-Hoveizeh every morning. I had no objection to their shooting; rather I believed it would entice them to improve their skills. This did not last long though. In less than a minute Neekvarz called me on our telephone set. His voice was shaking, his words running into one another.
“They report a soldier of the reconnaissance group has been martyred,” Neekvarz said, “They need our assistance to evacuate him. Send two soldiers to their assistance. Don’t let more than two soldiers go. I am afraid Iraqis will pinpoint them with mortar rounds.”
I had not heard any explosion; no one had reported shooting either. What Neekvarz said was rather strange a thing. It meant my soldiers’ “hurry up guys” to be a disaster that had just struck. My soldiers were aware of the incident before any commander knew anything about it. They even did not let me know about it.
The news was grave; I was frozen; my mouth dried. I could not swallow contents of my mouth and threw it on the sand in front of the bunker as I was running towards my soldiers who were running to the place of incident between the two front lines. I stopped all of them as Neekvarz had ordered except Karamee and Gorjee who were running ahead of everybody. To train myself to overcome my dread of death, I kept running on the dune towards the victim. After all, being killed by shells and shrapnel was an everyday happening here.
Several hundred meters away, where the dune hills ended and the flat land started, I saw two other soldiers besides Gorjee and Karamee carrying a wounded soldier on a stretcher. Both of his legs had been broken and partially severed by explosion. There were some minor injuries inflicted to his arms and hands. He had put his forearm over his eyes. Bleeding had stopped and he could clearly hear and speak. He knew Karamee; apparently, both of them came from City of Dezful in northern Khuzestan.
“Do you know him?” he asked Karamee, “I am his brother. Tell him you saved me.”
Karamee told the wounded man his injuries were not serious in order to keep him in high spirits. I helped with the stretcher for a few paces before I noticed the expanse of the disaster went beyond what had been reported. A soldier had received shrapnel in his genitals unable to take even one step. Another had lost a foot and was still on the ground; a third had shrapnel in his arm. The commander, a third lieutenant in rank, had a wound in his shoulder. The fifth soldier had swooned: witnessing the scene was beyond his ability to bear. We needed more help to carry all the wounded. As long as mist had covered the area we were safe to deploy more help. I could not call out for more assistance lest the Iraqis heard me. So I started running back to mobilize as many soldiers as I could.
On my way I saw Neekvarz with Abbasspour: his wireless on his back, going to the wounded. He was pale, scared, frowned.
“Nobody’s dead,” I said as I was running, “But all of them are wounded.” I was so agitated that I did not know precisely what I was saying.
“Sir;” Neekvarz tried to call my attention, “Be careful with mines! They are scattered all over this area. I almost put foot on one. Put your foot exactly on my footprints. We don’t need more casualties.”
I heard nothing more of his words and kept running without much care about the mines that I had not seen yet. Before reaching the platoon I saw my soldiers walking in a track that led to the place of the incident. They started to run as soon as I told them about the wounded. In my bunker I telephoned for another ambulance and walked toward the injured: being carried on stretchers and my soldiers’ backs and arms. The group radio operator was sitting on the ground unharmed, weeping. To lift his spirits, I tapped him on the shoulder.
“A brave man like you never cries,” I said.
He tossed his wireless on his back, I took his gun and we walked toward my platoon.
“I have lost my compass,” he said sobbingly.
“It doesn’t matter,” I interrupted, “You are not injured.”
“I am not afraid of injury and death at all,” said the young man, “The hurting thing is that I don’t understand why we are losing our lives in this useless war.”
“Nobody understands that,” I said, “Everybody knows that fighting is a dirty business.”
“More painful is that they don’t care about our lives,” he said still crying, “But they will ask me about the compass. We did not have enough metal plates to build a good bunker and so we tried to take a few plates from the Iraqi abandoned bunker when the trapped mine went off.”
Minutes later all the wounded were evacuated to the ambulances behind the hill and were driven to the hospital. I was left with my soldiers and a bitter memory. All of us were sad. I wanted to thank my men for the excellent work they had done and called them together.
Sad figures with hung-down mustachios and bloodstained uniforms gathered with eyes tied to the ground awaiting me to break the dull and dead silence.
“Guys!” I said with a lump in my throat, “I thank you for the excellent job you did for your wounded friends. I am proud of you. You should know that in this butcher’s house you are the first ones and the last ones to help one another. Karamee; I am sorry about last night. I had smelled blood without knowing it was coming in this way!”
I could not continue and asked if they had anything to add. Nobody said anything. Lest an Iraqi shell landed among us, I told them to go to their bunkers.
My soldiers dispersed; I began smoking my first cigarette after five days; and the disaster that befell us in this way overshadowed Hassan’s stories and plight. He could walk and live his ordinary life; he was able to attend university without wheelchair and crouches. The man who had lost both feet would not be able to do most of what Hassan could do. The one who had received shrapnel in his genital, I heard was one of Taghee’s captors, lost his life. Is there a correct way to compare and measure people’s plight, although some overshadow others? Where is the scale?
At night I asked Abbasspour about the mine the soldier had mentioned to me. In a calm and low-pitched tone he answered that the mine was called Valmeri and he guessed it was made in the Soviet Union.
“It has five feelers and a knot for trapping,” he added, “If any of the feelers or the trap line is touched or pulled, the mine jumps to the air up to the waist of the person and detonates with thousands of shrapnel.”
I told him the wireless operator had mentioned metal plates.
“Right now we have two soldiers from our own platoon in the hospital for the same reason,” Abbasspour answered, “When we came here we were crazy. There was not much supervision and soldiers used to freely go to the area between the two front lines to harass Iraqis in different ways. Even some commanders took part in the adventures. Lieutenant Assadi, who has lost a brother to the war, used to take a soldier and go all the way to the Iraqi line shoot at them and come back. Valee who is a crazy man in the neighboring platoon and two of his brothers have been executed for drug trafficking once went all the way to the Iraqi minefield by himself and brought back an anti-tank mine. No one could take the damned mine away from him. He was threatening he would drop it with the pedal to the ground to kill every one who tried to take it away. Finally, the commander of the battalion charmed him with nice words and promised a-one-week-leave and took the mine away from him.
Any way, the result was that the soldiers discovered Iraqis had abandoned some well-built bunkers between the two front lines. We needed their materials as we needed to build bunkers for our protection. A few soldiers went to the abandoned bunkers without Zeerakee’s permission and brought back a few plates and a log; as we say they carried out a “tack”. Hearing of these bold moves, Zeerakee sent a group of soldiers to bring back more materials. He even grew bolder and decided to destroy all the bunkers and bring everything once and for all.
One day at sunset he took fifty soldiers and set out for the bunkers. They destroyed most of them and started carrying the boards, logs, and plates. Half way across, the shining metal plates reflected sunshine towards Iraqi positions. The sun was nearly setting and Iraqis had the best observation; and they spotted them. They took it for an Iranian evening invasion and bombarded them with 120mm mortar shells. Assuming there was larger number of forces behind the hill, they stretched their range up to our platoon. A shell landed near one of our bunkers and wounded four soldiers. Two received golden shrapnel (21); but two were seriously wounded. They are still in the hospital. I think after that Iraqis planted mines in and around the bunkers to catch our soldiers if they went to bring more logs and plates.”
A couple of weeks later I saw one of the hospitalized soldiers: Ghodrat Raheemee, back in the platoon. He had received a large piece of metal in his neck near his throat. The metal had been left beneath the skin to dig its way out.
“What happened to the other one?” I asked Ghodrat as I was touching the shrapnel.
“He was hit in his spinal cord,” Ghodrat replied sadly, “He is paralyzed and is still in the hospital.”
With the disaster of January 5, 1987, the dread of mines began haunting me. When one of Lieutenant Assadi’s soldiers lost a foot to a mine, my dread grew to the level of a nightmare. In my area there were hundreds of mines that could take their toll of my soldiers’ limbs. Although these mines were not of Valmeri type, I had to find a solution for the problems they posed. Their planting in that area had a story different from those near the Iraqi bunkers.
When Iraqis had the area under occupation, they had scattered those mines randomly with rolls and rolls of barbwire in front of the hill facing east to defend it against Iranian parachutists or helicopter-borne forces. In an area about three square-kilometers they had left four narrow paths for their sentries to descend to the foot of the hill to monitor the possible approaching of Iranian forces. Now, a few years later, Iranians had the hill. Iraqis’ former front line was behind us and, indeed, we were hiding ourselves from their observation and shells among the mines that they had scattered. Of the whole mined area about one square kilometer was my share.
My mines were anti-personnel; I believed they had been made either in Italy or in Germany. They were as big as a small fish can; their color was khaki: exactly the color of the surrounding sand with a little black rubber pedal visible on the top. If someone pressed the pedal, a tiny needle that had been attached to the lower side of the pedal would touch a fuse in the bottom of the container and would explode the TNT and the container together. There was no pellets or other kinds of metal fragments in them. They were not powerful enough to kill, but they could easily sever a foot or a leg.
It was dangerous to move among mines in the narrow paths that were easily lost due to the moving sand and the darkness of nights. Removing them seemed to be the only way to permanently get rid of them. To do this, we should have known their distribution plan, their exact type, ways they exploded, and whether they were trapped or not. We needed a mine detector to locate the precise place of each and every mine.
Our most important limitation in dealing with the problem was that the mines had no specific distribution plan that we could discover by following patterns and contemplating on them. The moving sand might have covered some of them; or it might have entirely changed their location. There was an uncertainty about the type of the mines as well. We could not tell with certainty whether the visible mines were the only ones in the field. We knew that, almost always, different kinds of mines and traps were used in one minefield to deter different combination of forces and movements.
Of mine detectors we had none. It was too expensive to provide every platoon with a mine detector, though possibly the engineering units of the battalion or the regiment had a few at their disposal. Even if available, a mine detector would be useless as the mines had been almost wholly made out of plastic except for the tiny needle and the fuse: too little to be detected. In addition, there were many pieces of shrapnel, cartridges, bullets, and other metal fragments of the bombs scattered over the area. They could constantly set off the detector’s alarm without detecting mines.
Combination of these factors made the job very risky. It required a strong morale and a certain amount of foolhardiness to deal with them. I had such a fear of mines that I never dared go near them. Just looking at them made me uneasy, leave alone touching them. But as time advanced and I grew bolder with explosives, I took shelter behind a mound and shot at a mine from a long distance. I hoped to explode them in this way and enjoy the risky game; however any time I hit one it would simply shatter or would lose a chunk of it. In brief, I failed to explode any of the mines.
One day Abbasspour told me he could disarm mines and asked my permission to show me how. Having shuddered with fear, I denied permission; but he was not going to give up. He told me the explosive inside the mine could be burned without exploding. I had never seen the explosive to be burned. I always thought explosives would explode when exposed to any element of heart, force, or electricity. Once again he asked me to let him show me how he disarmed a mine. This time I agreed with one condition: I stayed beside him while he worked on a mine. I wanted to equally share his suffering if a mine exploded.
We went to the minefield near our bunker and found a mine near the path. Abbasspour walked to it without any fear as I grabbed his shirt and pulled him aback. That much carelessness was not admissible. I told him to use his bayonet to examine the soil to make sure there was no mine under the ground in front of the one he was trying to reach. While he was assuring me there was no danger to walk straight to that mine he took my advice and examined every inch of the place. At last, he reached the mine. Once again I told him to make sure it was not trapped. He almost burst to laughter at my untried goat-heartedness saying that type of mine had no spot to be trapped. Nevertheless, he dug around and beneath the mine as I had ordered which took him several minutes.
When he reached his hand to grab the mine, I was so scared that I felt my feet were trembling beneath me. He took the mine without mishap and walked out of the field. Unscrewing the fuse at the bottom, Abbasspour removed a round piece of pink explosive with a hole in the middle and handed it to me. We threw the TNT to our evening tea fire and with my surprise it burned with an intense yellow and orange flame.
After Abbasspour’s experience I grew bolder. In few instances I disarmed a few mines myself dispelling my fear; but, the field remained a frightening obsession and I spent a long time to find a permanent solution for it. Sometimes, in the middle of my decision-making process I told myself:
“Don’t be stupid. If a mine explodes, it will cost you at least a limb. You must be out of your right mind to lose a limb in this damned war.”
After a bitter struggle I decided to collect the mines whatever the price. I resolved that if there were a price to be paid, I must be the first one to pay it. On the determined evening I chose six soldiers to make a line across the field and walk forward alongside me with myself in the middle. They were not to touch the mines they saw; they were to stay beside it and call me to pick it up. In this way we inched our way deep into the field. The soldiers carefully carried out my order and I gathered the mines one by one. So far, I had put aside more than ten mines without a mishap.
Now, I had two mines in my hand and was putting my foot near a third one. As my right toe touched the ground Khodadad Zand-e Lashanee shouted from behind my back. I froze: with my toe on the ground and my heel in the air. I looked over my shoulder to see the source of the voice.
Khodadad’s mouth was wide open.
“What happened?” I asked calmly, but frightened.
“Don’t move,” he said, “Just look beneath your heel.”
There was a mine under my right heel. Shifting my foot, I picked it up with many thanks to Khodadad.
Thus, I swapped the minefield. We kept our collection in a safe place for a few days. Then, we planted them in a place where enemy penetration was probable and encircled them with the Iraqi abandoned barbwires. The question of mines was solved, though I faced Captain Jalalee’s criticism.
On his first visit to the front Jalalee was in Zeerakee’s bunker. It was a Friday morning. Neekvarz was on leave and Zeerakee was back to the front line. Fridays were always quiet. As a respect for the Islamic weekend, there was an un-written convention of ceasefire between the two sides. If there were any violation, it was the Iranian side that initiated it. Taking advantage of the calm, I was washing my laundry when Abbasspour told me I was wanted in Zeerakee’s bunker. He said Zeerakee wanted to introduce me to the commander of the battalion who was visiting the front line. I washed my hands, put my helmet on, took my rifle and walked to the commanding bunker.
Upon entering I saw Zeerakee in his best military uniform with a clean green kerchief around his neck and a wide smile on his face. Beside him a middle-aged man with broad shoulders and slightly protruded stomach sitting on Zeerakee’s couch stood to his feet, shook my hand, and in a hasty tone introduced himself as Captain Jalalee. It appeared to me that he did not expect to see me in my full combat gears, as officers normally did not wear them.
After I sat at their invitation, Jalalee asked what was going on in my area. I gave a short verbal report and complained about our inadequate food, poor sanitary situations, and the dire state of our combat equipments. Jalalee skillfully digressed what I had raised by saying he had heard about my work on the mines. In his view mines were dangerous and I was not allowed to change their location that had been determined by the platoon of combat engineering.
“At the end of the war they have to clear the minefields according to the distribution charts they have,” he added, “This time I overlook what you have done. I hope I won’t see it repeated.”
Jalalee paused a bit, searching for a proper start to express an important thought.
“Sometimes, my family and friends ask me if I have ever killed anybody at war,” he resumed thoughtfully, “It is a hard question to answer; and I have always replied that I have never committed homicide. It is simply because I don’t see enemy forces to shoot at them myself. But when I muse on the question, I find that I commit homicide too. Artillery, mortar, and infantry forces operate at my command. I order them to bomb; I order them to attack; and if during these operations someone gets killed, I have committed it. Probably the better title for me as commander of more than one thousand combatants is the “ringleader of criminals”.
Of course, our crimes are legitimate. I mean nobody persecutes us for committing them; otherwise, I don’t see any moral or humane legitimacy in them. Our immunity from persecution is because we operate at the command of super-killers. Let’s avoid philosophical debates,” he sneered at what he said last.
“It is what it is Brother; we cannot change it,” he said and burst into laughter leaving me baffled and thoughtful.
I was stunned at the professional soldier’s brutally honest admission. A challenge of contradictions was in this high-ranking officer’s outspokenness: a confrontation between what his military career dictated and what his conscience was telling his heart. He badly needed to justify himself to his conscience and to the listener, but could find only the weak argument that since war had been practiced from the beginning of history, perhaps his fighting was justifiable. This reconciliation made only a fragile peace between the two striving feelings. Any impetus could renew the challenge and keep it going, probably, as long as he lived. This bitter strife was shared by thousands of warriors: the uniformed men who could find no justification for fighting. Once I wondered if the warmongers, arm-producers, and arms-dealers had ever faced such a challenge; and if they had, had they ever thought of sacrificing their profits for the sake of peace and a clear conscience?