Our Boy; Their Prisoner of War

Mehdi Shamlou

I met Mehdi Shamlou by chance. He was standing in front(jpg, gif) of his father's home appliance store in Sohrevardi Avenue (ex-Farah). My friend introduced him as his brother-in-law. He was courteous and had a gentle smile on his face when he spoke. He seemed like a typical young Tehrani.

After exchanging a few pleasantries, we shook hands and I went along with my friend to the building next door. As we were going inside, my friend told me that Mehdi had been a prisoner of war in Iraq. I quickly asked to set up an interview.

I had not read any accounts concerning Iranian POWs. There might have been some that I overlooked. But certainly there has not been any extensive coverage of their plight. I wanted to know for myself about what had happened and use this opportunity to record a tragic but important part of our recent history from an individual's point of view, rather than some official's.

The following day, I went to Mehdi's home in Ekhtiyariyeh. A large sensual portrait of an innocent-looking girl (jpg, gif) in a black ballet outfit hung above his bed. On the opposite wall (jpg, gif), there were blue and dark glass-encased butterflies and small bunches of dried flowers. Above them he had framed these words from an Iranian poet: "How lonely I feel inside."

Mehdi put on some music -- the soundtrack of "1492: Conquest of Paradise," a film about the discovery of the Americas -- brought out the khaki military outfit (jpg, gif) that he wore at the time of his release and the carrying sack he had made in captivity out of mustard-colored prison clothes. He then began to describe his hellish experience in a calm voice. J.J.

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Mehdi Shamlou

Three Times a Day

I have nightmares that the Iraqis have captured me again and I beg them not to kill me. I still don't believe I'm free.

Every morning, noon and night, we received physical punishment from the Iraqi guards. They would line us up, sitting down, five in each row -- the Iraqis called it khamsah, khamsah, meaning five in a row -- and one guard on each side would whip us with cables.

Each of us would receive at least two blows. The ones in the first and last rows got hit the hardest. By the time the guards reached the middle rows, they would lose some of their strength.

The whipping became so routine that it became unbearable when the guards would not show up on time. We would call them ourselves and tell them to beat us so that we could get it over with.

But one day the beating was more brutal than usual. Instead of cables, the guards used electric batons that would shock on impact. One of the prisoners got hit in the face and his eye was crushed.

How I was Captured

I joined the military over a family argument. My father wanted me to go to college. I didn't. Kallam boo qormeh sabzi midad. I became a Takavar (Iranian equivalent of a Green Beret) and in June 1987, I was sent to the war front.

Almost a year later, six months before the end of my military service, and days after Iran and Iraq accepted a cease-fire according to the (U.N. Security Council) Resolution 598, our positions came under a major Iraqi attack in the Sumar border region (in Kermanshah Province).

At the time, we were getting ready for the cease-fire. Our forces had pulled back tanks and heavy weapons and our senior commanders had left the field. All I could see in the distance was Iraqi tanks -- and more Iraqi tanks. We had no choice but to leave our positions. But we had no vehicles. Everyone went on foot in a different direction, away from the advancing Iraqis.

Me and a few other soldiers walked for three days and four nights, without food or water. From a distance we saw a large body lying on the ground. We got closer. It was a dead donkey with parts of its body torn off. Other hungry soldiers had gotten to the poor animal first. We made a fire, cooked and ate what was left.

We moved on and reached a cave-like opening in a mountain. There were about 40 soldiers lying close to each other on the ground, close to death. One of them had his hand pointed above, murmuring something.

A few hours later we saw the Iraqis coming. There was no way to escape. I was captured. It was July 24, 1988. I was 19.

My family did not know I was alive until the day before my release two years later. The Iraqis refused to release the names of our captured soldiers because they didn't want to reveal how many were actually held.

Iran had three or four times as many enemy soldiers in captivity than Iraq did. In fact their last offensive was aimed at capturing more Iranian soldiers. By keeping the lower number of Iranian POWs secret, the Iraqis thought they would be in a better bargaining position when it came time to swap prisoners.

50 Prisoners
Crammed in Each Cell

Once we were moved inside Iraq, we were first kept 23 days at a POW camp in Ba'qubah, north of Baghdad. Then we were taken to a camp in Baghdad, where we were kept for a month. Finally we were taken to the Salaheddin camp in Tekrit, Saddam Hussein's birthplace, where I spent the rest of my captivity.

There were about 1,200 Iranian POWs at the camp -- 50 in each cell. The room was so small we couldn't sleep lying down. We would sit on the floor and rest our head on the shoulder of the person to the right or left. Our neck would get painfully tired after a few hours and we would wake each other up and switch directions.

Our daily meal consisted of lentil soup for breakfast, plain rice for lunch and onion and water for dinner. We were given two pieces of bread per day.

Every ten prisoner got one glass of tea per week, every twenty prisoner got half a blade per week to shave -- no one was allowed to grow a beard -- and each prisoner got half a bucket of hot water per month to bath.

We had a small prison salary of 1.5 dinars which was enough to buy two packs of Baghdad cigarettes. Non-smokers would sometimes buy sugar and eat it with bread. That was our luxury meal.

There was a tin can just outside the cell door for anyone who had to urinate. To defecate, we had to stand four or five hours in line to use the toilet outside.

Many died of various diseases. Bloody diarrhea was one of the most common. I and about 75 others were taken to Baghdad's Al-Rashid hospital to get treatment for bloody diarrhea. Only 25 of us made it back to the camp. The rest died.

We didn't get a tooth brush for the first seven months. Many developed dental problems. At one point there were 400 of us waiting to go to the dentist. But he saw only five patients per week. I was able to move ahead of the line when one of the prisoners saw that my toothache was worse than his.

To make sure I wouldn't escape, my hands, legs and neck were chained to the dentist's chair. The dentist opened my mouth and pulled out my aching tooth without administering any pain killers.

Paper Chess Sets

Wake-up call was every morning at 6. And every morning, without exception, they would play the same Iranian song through the loud speakers: Ahdiyeh's "Showhar, Showhar." Every time it went on, we all said: "There she goes again!"

We were divided into groups of 10 and each group had a particular chore, such as cleaning the cell floor, washing dishes or some kind of construction work at the camp.

There was no entertainment, except once a month when the Iraqis would bring a TV set and all the prisoners would gather to see Iranian music videos taped in the United States. We had to create some entertainment for ourselves.

In the evenings, we would make the best of our time together by entertaining ourselves in whatever way we could. For a full year, we had no light to turn on at night. But there was a lamp post and we used the light that came through our window to play games.We had made chess and backgammon pieces out of paper and cardboard. We also made playing cards.

Or we would pretend that we wanted to go on a trip. We would look across the room and see an inmate from Mashhad and we would say, "Let's go to Mashhad." Or we would sit next to a prisoner from Chalous and we would pretend we had gone to Shomal.

Sexual Abuse

On some nights, some prisoners would rape others for various reasons. Usually they were the result of personal fights caused by our intolerable conditions.

The sexual assaults did not end there, however. The Iraqi prison wardens also raped the prisoners. They favored the younger prisoners, especially volunteer soldiers who were sometimes as young as 10 or 11 years old.

There were some prisoners who, in return for privileges, would actually search for these boys and pick them out for the Iraqis. These mercenaries -- one of them had the nickname "Mohsen Amrikaie" -- would cloth the boys in Arabic garments, put make-up on them and hand them over for the sexual pleasure of the wardens.

Up in Smoke

One day, we were told our misery would soon be over. An Iraqi officer placed his hand on the Qoran and promised us that we would be free in five days. It was when Iranian and Iraqi officials had gotten together for their first round of negotiations. But the talks did not get anywhere.

The same officer came back and showed us the headline in the daily Al-Jomhuriya which said Iran had not accepted Iraq's terms for a prisoner swap. I remember that moment very well. Seven hundred inmates lighted cigarettes at the same time. Those who weren't smokers, became one.

Days and months went by. I was preparing myself to be a prisoner there for 10 years. And in the meantime, the Iraqis did everything to ensure there would be no trouble at the camp. They exploited political and ethnic rivalries among the prisoners and were thus able to divide and rule.

Those prisoners who were sympathetic to the Mojahedin Khalq were most trusted by the Iraqis and they were often put in charge of looking over the rest of the prisoners and given various responsibilities.

Prisoners with Arab backgrounds were also in favor. At first, though, they were beaten more severely than others because the Iraqis wanted to punish them for joining the Iranian army against an Arab nation. But, once they became sure of their loyalty, the Iraqis put the Arab Iranians in charge of various privileged responsibilities.

Lori, Turkish and other ethnic Iranians also got their turn to become bullies, all because the living conditions were so harsh, and often so life-threatning, that they were willing to do almost anything to survive.

Rare Humanity

There were also rare instances of true humanity.

Alireza Abdolhamidi was a close cell-mate of mine. He knew that some of the other prisoners were selling their bodies to the Iraqis in order to get cigarettes.

Without anyone noticing, he would write a note saying they shouldn't become prostitutes for cigarettes. He would then give the note along with some cigarettes to those who had been selling themselves. Alireza himself was not a smoker but would buy cigarettes just for this purpose.

Alireza, who recently died as a result of a stroke, was able to get ahold of an English grammar handbook. I think it was called "Living Structure" or "Learning Structure." We would read it together. Other prisoners laughed because they thought it was a waste of time. Eventually though our cell turned into a literacy class because of Alireza's persistence.

And there was this Iraqi guard who was in love with Gougoush. He had at least 20 different pictures of her in his wallet. We called him "Seyed Gougoush."


The day we were all waiting for finally arrived. On the 29th of August, 1990, I was among a group of 1,000 POWs who were put on buses and sent back to Iran.

For a year after my release, I was depressed. I mistrusted people, especially my family, because I blamed them for my joining the military. I couldn't tolerate or speak to anyone, except for a few friends. And I still suffer from physical side effects caused by long hours of sitting during my captivity.

The agency responsible for the welfare of former POWs has not done anything for us. All I have received from them is a kilo of tea, some toothpaste and some chador material. I deposited 100,000 tomans with them in hopes of getting a piece of land, but it has been five years and still I have received nothing.

A group of us once went to see Hojatoleslam Abu Torabi, who was also a POW in Iraq for 11 years. He is now a member of the Majlis. His activities in helping POWs during and after captivity are well-known. We complained about the lack of support from responsible agencies. He said he was aware of the problem and would try to help.

But I don't see any opportunities. That's why I'm trying to go abroad. I tried once to get a visa to go to Germany but my application was rejected. Now I might be able to go to Romania. I have some friends there.

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