Archive for the ‘Iran-Iraq war’ Category

The Hero and Heroin (Part 3)

April 1, 2009

Photos/Kamin Mohammadi

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pageA war veteran loses the drug battle.


Tehran Bureau | dispatches

Click here for Part 1, Part 2.

‘During the war,’ says Farideh, ‘the days were dark and the nights were light in Abadan.’ Farideh now lives in Shiraz, one of the millions of refugees displaced by the war. I am in Shiraz — famous for its verdant gardens, springtime orange blossom and great poets — to talk to refugees like her and try to get a sense of what it was like for Ebby when they left a burning Abadan to escape the war.

Like the tens of thousands of other civilians who fled the fighting, Ebby’s family, as well as all our other aunts, uncles and their families, left Khuzestan throughout 1980 and 1981, and headed to cities such as Shiraz, Tehran and Esfahan (during the two-year Iraqi foray into Khuzestan, the government had to shelter up to 1.5 million refugees). The government had set up refugee reception areas in these cities and provided accommodation to refugees — Ebby’s father decided to keep his wife and young children in the lodgings provided by the government. Like my other uncles, Ebby’s father had to return to Abadan to work and only visited Shiraz when he could get leave every few weeks. It was here, as a 12 year old, that Ebby first started to dabble with drugs. ‘All these families were mixed up together,’ Farideh says, ‘and a mother couldn’t possibly control who her kids came into contact with.’

Life in Shiraz then was not easy. The locals did not take kindly to these new arrivals. Rationing was in force and Shirazis resented extra resources being handed out to the refugees. There was discrimination at every turn and Farideh, whose eldest son is the same age as Ebby, tells me that they were isolated at school, distinguished by their Abadani accents and teased and taunted by the other children. ‘And remember none of our children had their father standing above them,’ she says, ‘Our men were obliged to stay in Abadan and could only visit irregularly. It was hard for Ebby’s mother, she had six children and she was in refugee housing, not with us. It was a hard time.’

Shiraz is now a lively city of more than one million people, but back in 1980, ‘there was hardly anything here,’ says Farideh. ‘We came from Abadan, remember, which was built by the British. We had lovely lives, we were sophisticated. To us Shiraz seemed very provincial so it was very insulting to us to be treated this way by these people. On top of everything else.’ She shows me pictures of her wedding. The young couple captured in black and white are handsome and carefree. A slim Farideh pouts at the lens, her skirt several inches shy of the knee, her black beehive dropping teased curls on her brow while beside her my youthful uncle seems filled with confidence of the future. You can almost hear the money jingling in his pockets, an air of immense well-being pervading the scene. ‘Ah,’ Farideh sighs, ‘Those days in Abadan. Dances at the yacht club, parties at the Abadan Hotel…’ Farideh still possesses cheekbones to swing off, but her hair is hennaed to cover the grey and her figure long ago permanently shrouded in a shapeless dress.

She is suddenly fierce. ‘When they first bombed Shiraz, I was happy,’ she declares, referring to the first ‘war of the cities’ in 1984 when Iraq bombed 30 key Iranian cities for two weeks. I stare at her in surprise. ‘Because finally they understood what we had lived through,’ she explains. ‘Finally they understood that the war was real, that we hadn’t made it up.’

It may be 20 years later and she may still be living here, but Farideh has never forgiven the Shirazis.


Although the eighth-century martyrdom of Imam Hossein drives Iran’s Shi’ism, with thousands collecting during the month of Moharram to commemorate Imam Hossein’s death, flagellating themselves, beating their chests and crying, in reality, most Iranians didn’t want to be martyrs, most mothers weren’t praying that their sons be killed for the glory of Allah. Iran liberated Khorramshahr in May 1982 and in June, Iraq called a ceasefire which was rejected by Iran. The Iranian Chief of Staff General Sayed Shirazi vowed to ‘continue the war until Saddam Hussein is overthrown so that we can pray at [the holy Shi’ite town of] Karbala and Jerusalem.’ This marked a turning point in the war, when Iran turned on the offensive, trying to push into Iraq.

For Iran’s new Revolutionary government, the war may have served a useful purpose of allowing it to consolidate its power and see off opposition groups. The Revolution had empowered many disenfranchised Iranians and the war held them together. For the world’s powers, the Iran-Iraq war ensured a weakened Iran, one unable to spread its fundamentalist fervour throughout the region. At different times through the eight years of the war, various western powers supplied arms to both sides though Iraq received the most conspicuous help, in both armaments and economic aid.

By 1984 it was reported that some 300,000 Iranian soldiers and 250,000 Iraqi troops had been killed, or wounded. Saddam started using chemical weapons against the Iranians in 1982 with use of non-lethal tear gas but its success in disabling the Iranians led to many more chemical attacks where mustard gas and Sarin nerve gas were used. Iran charged Iraq with 40 uses of chemical weapons between May 1981 and March 1984 and in 1986 UN secretary general, Javier Perez de Cuellar, formally accused Iraq of using chemical weapons against Iran. Citing the report of four chemical warfare experts whom the UN had sent to Iran in February and March 1986, the secretary general called on Baghdad to end its violation of the 1925 Geneva Protocol on the use of chemical weapons.

Iraq attempted to deny using chemicals, but the evidence, in the form of many badly burned casualties flown to European hospitals for treatment, was overwhelming. According to a British representative at the Conference on Disarmament in Geneva in July 1986, ‘Iraqi chemical warfare was responsible for about 10,000 casualties.’

According to his wife, Ebby didn’t want to be a martyr. By the time he was called to the front, war weariness had set in among Iranians and the troops. With Iranian troops called to push into Iraqi territory, many of the soldiers had lost their zeal: they had wanted to defend their own land, not invade Iraq’s. The battles were horrific and losses heavy: mass graves harboured thousands of bodies and tales of drug addiction in the trenches was rife. Away from the front line, Iran’s economy was suffering — by 1987 nearly one in two Iranians was unemployed and shortages of basic commodities grew worse. The population had boomed, nearly tripling in the years since the Revolution to 60 million by the end of the war. The five ‘wars of the cities’ had spread the terror to all of Iran’s main cities and nowhere felt safe.

From Abadan’s cemetery we drove back into town with Esmael and Ebby’s sisters. His wife departed for home in a nearby town, she was rushing back to make dinner for her children. They didn’t know where she was, years ago she had told them that their father worked in another town and could never get time off, so she hadn’t yet told them what had happened, couldn’t show them how upset she was. ‘At least,’ she told me, ‘I think my son may have guessed. He is 12 now and I have a feeling someone has said something to him.’ I asked her when she was planning to let them know and she fixed me with a blank stare: ‘How do I tell them? What do I tell them?’

Sitting around dinner with my cousins, no one talked of Ebby’s life, his drug addiction. Afterwards when the other guests had departed and we sat over steaming black tea and almond and rosewater sweets, I asked them to tell me about him. Esmael sighed and took a deep breath. ‘I was in the war too,’ he said, ‘But I was lucky not to be at Shalamcheh. Ebby was scared. He was weak already,’ he was referring to his dabbling with hashish in Shiraz. ‘And he saw too much. He once told me about the night before one of those ‘human wave’ attacks. No one was sleeping, they were praying and weeping and most were really scared. There were suddenly loads of drugs around — hashish, opium, everything — Ebby said that it really helped. Maybe that was how he got into the heavier stuff…’

I had certainly heard plenty of anecdotal evidence about drugs and even alcohol at the front. Maybe that is how Ebby became addicted to opium, but we will never know. All they knew for sure is that by the end of the war, when Ebby came home, he had a habit and his parents, worried and not knowing what to do, protected him.

Iranian society is formal and much store is set by respectability. A drug-addicted child is a problem that affects every member of the family: Ebby had two marriageable sisters and so he was sheltered and supported by his parents who gave him money to feed his habit, having no idea what else to do — at that time there was no formal support for addicts or their families.

When he met Mina, her parents were against the marriage, they had heard the rumours and wouldn’t allow it. Yet Mina was strong-minded and for a year she refused to marry anyone else. ‘From the first I loved only him,’ she told me. After their marriage, like many young Iranian couples, they lived with Ebby’s parents. Ebby worked and held his life together. Their son was born after a couple of years and a few years later, they had a daughter. ‘We were happy,’ Mina dabbed at her eyes. ‘We were ordinary.’

They were living back in Abadan where Ebby’s family had returned after the end of the war in 1988. Abadan was a ruin and the economy was a mess but Iran restarted petroleum refining and petrochemical production in Abadan on a smaller scale using reconstructed plants and the city’s port reopened in 1993. As Mina says: ‘There was work and we had a small comfortable life.’

It was after the death of my uncle and his wife that the situation began to change for Ebby and Mina. In their own home, Ebby started a cycle of battling the drug. His elder sister got married and her husband, who was a friend of Ebby’s, would periodically find a house in to which they would take Ebby to help him go through the trials of withdrawing. But he would always start again. As the years dragged on the strain started to tell on the relationships, Ebby’s brother and sisters started to draw away from him and Mina, who they accused of encouraging him. I asked her if she too was involved with drugs and she looks horrified. ‘Of course I wasn’t,’ she pursed her lips. ‘Look, we weren’t like that, like those people you see on the streets.’ Then she grew a little sheepish. ‘But after his parents were no longer here, I did buy the drug for him sometimes.’ She looks down at her nails. ‘I had to, he was my husband and he couldn’t do without it. I loved him and it made him happy…’

They may not have been ‘like that’ then, but eventually Ebby ended up on heroin and on the streets. Soon after I saw Ebby for the last time, Mina’s parents insisted that she leave him, and she took his children and moved back into their house. She got a job and got on with life as a single parent. She never divorced him, though within Iranian law she easily could have on account of his addiction. I asked her why and she said simply: ‘Because I loved him.’


Abadan is no longer the sophisticated city of pre-revolutionary days. The grand Abadan Hotel where my parents would dance the night away is now a broken down shell of a building. Braim, the residential area of the oil company still has clean streets and rows of bungalows but the entrances to its streets are now fenced off to prevent locals coming in. The refinery is still at work — in 1997 it reached the same rate of production as before the war — and the waters of the Shatt still flow gently between the town and Iraq’s fields of palms, but the main town is a dusty relic of its former self, the pavements half unpaved, and streets with their neon shop fronts a mixture of new buildings, shambolic old buildings, and gaping holes where bombed out ruins have not been rebuilt.

My cousin Milad is taking me on a tour of Abadan. He is a young man in his early 20s, typically Abadani, with slicked back hair and a pair of Ray Bans permanently fixed on his face. He speaks with an Abadani accent, his Farsi peppered with English words (another legacy of Abadan’s cosmopolitan past) and he is wearing pointed shoes — the latest fashion — and he takes great care over his clothes. Khuzestanis have ever been thus: they have a reputation for being fond of looking good and having a good time, the fashion for slicked back hair and Ray Bans stretching back to the glory days of Abadan. (In our home in London there is a 1960’s picture of my youthful father after a decade of living in Abadan. His hair is slicked back and he is wearing Ray Bans. He is not from Khuzestan but it is infectious.) It was Milad who came across Ebby a year ago, begging on the streets, and it was Milad who identified Ebby’s body when he noticed him missing from his usual post.

It is early evening and and as it is winter, the climate is at its best, balmy and breezy with no sign yet of the hellish humidity that besieges Khuzestan nine months of the year. He points out the various bazaars that bring in goods from Kuwait, brand goods that people clamour to buy, from shampoo to coffee whitener. He points out the area called the Kuwaiti bazaar, opposite the cordoned off site of the old infamous Cinema Rex, historically the starting point of the Revolution: on 20 August 1978, the Cinema Rex was locked from the inside and set on fire, resulting in 430 deaths. It was widely believed that the government of the Shah was responsible: there were several dissidents inside. This sparked mass demonstrations against the Shah, who was overthrown six months later. Recently there was another fire on the site and now it is being prepared to become a new shopping mall, selling shoes. Milad tells me that several sets of bones have been unearthed since the work started.

Turning down a side street, Milad shows me where Ebby used to sit, outside a shop selling brightly patterned blankets. ‘He was cold at the beginning of the winter,’ he says, ‘so I bought him a blanket here.’ Across the street, on a corner outside the bank where Ebby would post himself through the mornings begging for money, stand his ‘friends’ — other addicts clustering around a blind cigarette seller with an Arab scarf around his neck. They are in various degrees of narcosis: one man is standing, leaning at a dangerous angle, another is crouching on the ground, head falling forward, shoulders hunched. Everyone knew Ebby, Milad says, and they let him do whatever he wanted. They knew he had AIDS, they didn’t want to go near him.

There are an estimated 2 million drug addicts in Iran though some put the real figures as high as 6 million. 200,000 are injecting drug users. This is a high proportion of a population of 68 million — the United States, for instance, has one million opiate addicts in a population of around 270 million. Last October, Reza Sarami, who heads the anti-addiction programme of the national anti-narcotics trafficking body, reportedly said drug use was rising by eight percent annually, at this rate Iran could be counting nine million addicts — one seventh of the population — in 20 years.

Iran borders Afghanistan, the world’s largest producer of opium and the drugs come through Iran on their way to lucrative western markets. Historically there has been a tradition of opium smoking in Iran in which older men would gather at home to talk and share an opium pipe. This was a social activity and the opium smoking wouldn’t interfere with their lives. The big change is the move to intravenous heroin use, a change that can be partly attributed to opium prices skyrocketing after the Taliban’s ban on growing the poppy and heroin became cheap and available instead — a hit of heroin costs less than a packet of cigarettes. Add to this the largely young population of Iran, living with high unemployment rates, scant opportunities for recreation, fiercely contested, limited university places and growing rates of depression and you can see why there is such cause for concern.

With intravenous drug use comes HIV and Hepatitis, and sure enough, AIDS is now being seen as a real problem in Iran. The first reported AIDS case dates back to 1987, when a six-year-old haemophiliac child was diagnosed to have been infected, resulting in the establishment of a National Committee to fight AIDS. Since then, there have been 4,237 reported cases of HIV/AIDS. Of this number, 626 have developed full-blown AIDS and 585 have died.

But these figures are nowhere near accurate and even the government acknowledges that a better estimate is around 20,000. The figures don’t include the likes of Ebby, who was never treated or registered as an AIDS patient. Last summer, my uncle, Milad’s father, came to Abadan and took him to a local drug clinic. They refused to take him in, he was too infectious. There was no hope for him, they said, better not to risk other lives for one that could not be saved. Ebby returned to the streets with his swollen legs and the weeping sores on his feet.

Ebby had had full-blown AIDS for a few years. The majority of Iran’s AIDS sufferers — 65 percent — are men who have contracted the virus through contaminated needles. Prisons are the main source of HIV infection; addiction is a crime and addicts possessing 5gms of heroin or 30gms of opium are routinely jailed. Some 180,000 people are incarcerated in Iran’s prisons, more than half on drug charges. Up to 100 inmates reportedly share a single needle. Ebby had been regularly in and out of jail over the years.

‘After Mina left and he became homeless,’ Milad continues, ‘Ebby would sometimes try to get jailed so he would have somewhere warm and dry to sleep.’ After he was so obviously suffering from AIDS, he literally couldn’t get arrested and Shapur Park is where he would mostly spend the night, sleeping by a cedar tree.

According to other addicts, getting heroin inside prison is easy. Experts have called for a more moderate approach in order to curb the spread of drug-related AIDS, most notably by way of the free distribution of syringes to avoid contamination. A recent law has made it possible for pharmacies to supply free syringes to registered drug addicts signifying a sea change in the Iranian governments’ policy. Until recently the emphasis was on reducing the supply of heroin — now it is shifting to reducing harm.

In the deprived streets of southern Tehran, I turn into a dusty cul-de-sac to find a door that I have been told has no sign. There is a curtain hanging across the open doorway and lifting it, I look down into a small courtyard filled to bursting with men, queuing. On the other side of the courtyard, there are steps leading to a gallery and the queue snakes up here, filtering to the right where, from small window, someone hands out methadone. I squeeze up the steps, turn left at the top and am ushered into a small office, also bursting with people, three desks and stacks of boxes.

This is Persepolis, a harm reduction NGO, and Iran’s first methadone programme in a non-governmental organisation. Started in a town in the province of Fars near the historical monument Persepolis in 1998, it was originally a drop-in centre for addicts as part of a GP’s surgery. Dr Bijan Nassirimanesh, the NGO’s founder, was keen to remove the stigma and the amount of referrals it took for addicts to get treatment. After nearly four years, he moved the operation to Tehran and chose the south because ‘there the need was greatest.’

When I drop into one of the three Persepolis day centres now established in southern Tehran, Dr Nassirimanesh is away. I sit down opposite Mr Rouhy, a fast-talking man who runs the centre. He tells me that the lessons learnt in Fars persuaded them that harm reduction was essential, so the centre offers addicts a package of syringes, clean needles, tape, alcohol pads, condoms and distilled water — as well as food, clothes, a bath and medical attention, including wound and abscess management, all for free. The 200 addicts that drop in every day are all homeless and those registered for the syringe package have to bring back the used syringe the next day before they can get another package. ‘It’s part of the education,’ he says, ‘Plus we don’t want the streets littered with used needles.’

The team consists of doctors, a psychiatrist and an outreach team that takes the same packages out into the community. Many of the other staff are former addicts and often they just listen to the addicts’ stories, inspiring them with their own success at beating the drug. Rouhy insists that, despite the need for sensitivity in the Islamic Republic where extra-marital sex is illegal, teaching the addicts about condoms is essential. ‘We try to be sensitive,’ he shrugs, ‘But it is really important. And of course we don’t judge. We don’t force anyone to come off the drugs. We just make sure they are safe.’

There is a kitchen and on alternate days, lunch is offered. Below the office there is a day room where people can sit and drink tea and talk. Until recently, Dr Nassirimanesh tested every addict that came to him for HIV. Of 500 addicts he tested, 25 percent were found to be HIV-positive. However, the centre no longer has the resources necessary to carry this out. Rouhy sighs. ‘There is such a need for what we are doing,’ he says. ‘We have no shortage of people who want to work, no shortage of people needing treatment. What we don’t have enough of is funding. Get me funding and we will happily open a Persepolis in every district in every town.’

Centres such as Persepolis or the 65 ‘triangle clinics’ located in hospitals and prisons concentrating on a three-pronged approach (treating AIDS, sexually transmitted diseases and drug addiction at once) are pinpricks of hope in a dark landscape. As is the government’s new approach, in which about half of the approximately US$80 million allotted annually to fighting drugs now goes for supply reduction and half towards decreasing demand. Still, the numbers they are fighting are massive and while the causes for addiction are not being addressed, then people like Mr Rouhy and Dr Nassirimanesh are just fire fighting.

Although there is now better education and families across the whole social spectrum are affected by this epidemic, there is still a stigma attached to having a drug addict in the family. By the time Ebby died, none of his siblings had seen him or talked to him for years. After years of trying to assist him to give up, after all his lies and deceit, they had all finally given up. His elder sister says to me: ‘He stole from me, he lied to me and I still gave him money and tried to help. But in the end, it was impossible to try to find a husband for my sister with Ebby coming around every time he needed a fix. So in the end I had to stop him from coming to me, and eventually when we moved, I never gave him my new address.’ She is crying as she tells me this. ‘He was my brother and I loved him. But what could I do? Our parents aren’t here and we have no family left in Abadan. I had to look out for my sister.’

His younger sister is nursing her first child. She is less emotional. ‘He brought this on himself,’ she declares. ‘For me, Ebby died a long time ago. And even though I told my husband about him after we were married, his family still doesn’t know about his addiction and I have no desire for them to find out. Ebby was a disgrace to us all. At least now that he is dead I can get on and grieve him. But for me, Ebby died a long time ago.’


Twenty miles from Abadan, we alight in Khorramshahr, declared holy ground since the two-year Iraqi occupation. Many buildings are still mere shells, the reconstruction here is slow; the economy has never really recovered from the destruction and depopulation the city suffered during the war. The city centre has shifted since the war as the old city centre has not been reconstructed, meaning that the uncle who accompanies me, takes a little while to get his bearings, even though he knew this area ‘like the back of my hand before.’ We head to the city hall to get a pass for Shalamcheh, the no-man’s land between here and Iraq which saw so much blood shed. Since it has become a shrine to the war, a place of pilgrimage, visits have been formalised: only special taxis make the trip to Shalamcheh and usually the passes are only handed out at the weekends, not during the week, as we went. However we were lucky to find an amenable official who, without looking up, wrote the requisite letter for us in response to our entreaties.

The taxi speeds the couple of miles along an empty two-lane highway, flanked by a flat wilderness, usually dusty and empty, but in the last two days turned to marshes of mud by heavy winter rainfall. As we near Shalamcheh, there are mounted signs extolling the virtues of martyrdom, and there is a burnt out Iraqi tank half buried in the ground. This land used to support many villages but now there are only the straggling remains of one or two. ‘There are still lots of mines here,’ explains our taxi driver, a Khuzestani Arab whose own village is not far.

We come to a small outpost manned by a couple of young guards. The driver hands over our letter while chatting to the guards who he obviously knows well: he is licensed to come here certain days of the week. They usher us through and we turn right onto a long straight road, surrounded by this vast emptiness, the odd shelled-out tank the only punctuation. There are the odd remains of machine guns and the burnt-out shells of tanks abandoned at the side of the road. Occasionally there are large banners bearing the garishly painted images of martyrs who died in the war, of generals, of ordinary soldiers too. We draw into a muddy parking lot, all around us the dips and elevations of trenches and dug-outs still clear in the landscape.

‘Shalamcheh: welcome to Iran’s Kerbala’ announces a sign. Kerbala, in Iraq, is where, in the 8th century, Imam Hossein was martyred. Ahead of us lies a prayer area to the right, just an aluminum ceiling covering the devout from the sun and rows of billboards displaying pictures. The shrine itself lies to the left, a dome covering a cool hall supported by columns and culminating in a centrepiece of a glass case, set in a depression in the floor edged by sandbags and red paper flowers. In the glass case there is the broken remains of guns, helmets, Korans and other relics of soldiers’ lives collected from these killing fields, all watched over by the picture of a dead, bloody soldier.

Outside, there is a path leading to a small graveyard for unnamed soldiers and beyond, a couple of watchtowers, a few metres from border with Iraq. We head up to the watchtowers, passing a couple of guards, all very young men, looking bored and surprised to see us — we were the only visitors. From the top of the watchtower, an Iranian flag dancing lazily in the breeze, I spot an Iraqi outpost on the other side of the border. A lonely guard waves to us. ‘Sometimes,’ says one of the soldiers who has wandered over, ‘they come over and borrow some sugar lumps for their tea, or come and share sweets with us.’ He grins, barely out of his teens, just serving his National Service: ‘You know, we are all friends now.’

I wander off as I’m listening to him, a little way from the path. ‘Stop!’ he shouts after me, alarmed. ‘Mines’ he explains. ‘There are still mines here. All the way to Ahvaz.’ Ahvaz is some 120km away. ‘As soon as we think we know where the mines are, they shift,’ he explains. When it rains like this in the winter, the mines move in the marshy soil. ‘We lost a couple of men just a few weeks ago,’ the young soldier says. He hands us a pair of binoculars. ‘Pity you weren’t here half an hour ago,’ he laughs, ‘The Iraqis were singing and dancing over there.’

Stories abound of shocking incidents the war made commonplace here: half a garrison lying down on an electric fence so that others may go through; a hundred boys throwing themselves in a river to act as a human bridge; the children that ran at Iraqi tanks with Molotov cocktails or hand grenades. You can see why the Iraqis were scared.

There are burnt trunks of date palm trees spiking the flat wasteland, and looking over the scrub and mud, I think about Ebby living through the winter here, waiting in muddied trenches, scared. Rousing religious tunes would be played over Tannoys and mass prayers led before battles to whip the troops into religious frenzy, but by the time Ebby was here, war weariness had set in and volunteers were drying up. Many of the troops were conscripts like Ebby and they didn’t have the same zeal as those who had flocked to enlist in the first few years.

The silence here is eerie and somehow full. Underneath my every step may be the bodies of men and boys: a troop of 400 that came from the holy town of Mashad in the northwest of the country, only to be buried alive by the Iraqis on arrival. Four major battles were fought from April to August 1988, in which the Iraqis massively and effectively used chemical weapons to defeat the Iranians, using nerve and blister agents against Iranian command and control facilities, artillery positions, and logistics points. In the last major battle of the war, played out here, 65,000 Iranians were killed, many with poison gas. The pictures lining the prayer area don’t shy away from any of this: there are bodies, dismembered, beheaded, bleeding, wounded. Men praying in the trenches, looking shell-shocked, men marching, laughing, fighting, bearing their arms and hugging their comrades. Pictures of the dead with their names underneath: some just young boys, some in the height of late 1970’s fashion, frozen forever in their youth. Just as shocking as all this blood and guts is a picture of a troop marching in the area at the start of hostilities: Shalamcheh was like an oasis, green and lush with date trees and all shades of bushes and plants. The men marching through this fecund land are laughing with confidence, convinced of their victory, passionate about their God and their land.

The pictures are here as a testament to the glorious values of martyrdom, of the bravery of Iran’s sons. To me they just speak of futility, a waste of young lives and of land as old as time.

The war between Iran and Iraq was one of the great human tragedies of recent history. Perhaps as many as a million people died, many more were wounded, and millions were made refugees. The resources wasted on the war exceeded what the entire Third World spent on public health in a decade. And even now, as those who lived through the war struggle to come to terms with their memories, the war is still claiming its casualties.


In death Ebby has found a status he never enjoyed in life. For many of the men who fought in this war, the only honourable outcome was death and the martyrdom that entailed. For those that survived, living proved too much to bear. For some, it meant reintegrating into a society that every year cared less for their war. For others locking away the war years and striding on with life as if those years never happened was the only way to go on. For the likes of Ebby, that was not an option. Despite support from family, a loving wife and children, Ebby’s love for the drug that helped him forget was stronger than anything and to it he sacrificed his family, his home and, in the end, his life. While still alive, reeling through the streets of Abadan, he was a disgrace to his family, an embarrassment to his country and a shameful testimony to the war that shaped him. In death, Ebby has finally become once again a beloved son, a much-missed brother and a loving father and husband. Another martyr to the war that continues to haunt its survivors.

An abridged version of this article first appeared in the Financial Times magazine.

Kamin Mohammadi’s first book, a family memoir and modern history of Iran, will be published by Bloomsbury later this year.

The Hero and Heroin (Part 2)

March 27, 2009

Photo/Kamin Mohammadi

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pageTracker._trackPageview();A war veteran loses the drug battle.


Tehran Bureau | dispatches

Read Part 1 here.

In the autumn of 1980, Iraqi forces invaded Iran, still in the throes of its 1979 Revolution. Saddam Hussein’s decision to invade was not just an exploitation of Iran’s post-revolutionary vulnerability and attempt to place Iraq as the dominant power in the Persian Gulf, but also motivated by the fear that Iran’s new leadership would threaten Iraq’s delicate Sunni-Shia balance and would exploit Iraq’s geostrategic vulnerabilities – Iraq’s only access to the Persian Gulf is via the Shatt al-Arab. The historic animosity between the two countries stretches back to the pre-Islamic rivalry between the Achaemenid and Babylonian empires. More recently, the 1937 treaty between the two countries resolved the ancient dispute about the Shatt al-Arab waterway. However, as the last Shah grew more confident in his power and determination to make Iran the ‘guardian of the Gulf’, in 1969 he overrode the 1937 treaty’s rules on navigation in the Shatt al-Arab, leading to the two countries to deploy military forces along the delta.

However, Iraq and Iran came to terms in 1975 with the signing of the Algiers Agreement, in which the Shatt dispute was settled, terminating the armed confrontation, and Iran promised to withdraw its support from the Iraqi Kurdish separatist movement. According to the agreement, the joint border would be demarcated to imply Iraqi renunciation of its claim to Khuzestan (called Arabistan by the Iraqis).

Enter Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979, still bitter over his expulsion from Iraq in 1977 after 15 years in exile in Najaf and vowed to avenge Shia victims of Baathist repression. Once installed, the revolutionary leader started to call on Iraqis to rise up against their leader. By 8 March 1980, relations had deteriorated to the point that Iran withdrew its ambassador from Iraq. Skirmishes along the border followed until, in September, Iraq abrogated the Algiers Agreement and declared full sovereignty over the Shatt al-Arab waterway. On 23 September, Iraqi forces invaded Iran. On 22 October Abadan was besieged by the Iraqi army and on 24 October Khorramshahr – then Iran’s largest port – fell to the Iraqis.

Baghdad planned a swift victory, expecting the native population of ethnic Arabs living in Khuzestan to rise against the new Islamic regime. However, the uprising didn’t come, the Arab minority remained loyal to Iran. Saddam also knew that despite the Shah’s stockpiled arsenal of the latest weapons, Iran had just executed or lost to exile all its top military personnel – between 1979 and September 1980, some 12,000 senior officers had been purged – and so lacked cohesive leadership, and, in the event, spare parts for the equipment as well as the knowledge of how to assemble or use them correctly – the Iranian air force was only able to fly half of its aircraft by the start of the war. Iran’s military was thus depleted and the Pasdaran (Revolutionary Guards) were led by clerics with little or no military experience and often armed only with light infantry weapons and Molotov cocktails, so Iraqi morale was certainly running high in the first few months of the war. In spite of this, it dragged on for eight long years, a protracted and very costly war – a war in which trench warfare was seen for the first time since World War I and nerve gas was used – by Iraq – in combat operations for the first time ever.

What Saddam perhaps underestimated was the extreme passion of his opponents for their land and the strength of the ideology that Khomeini immediately employed to motivate the populace. Iraqi forces were repulsed from entering Abadan by a small Pasdaran unit and its fierce inhabitants and Khorramshahr was only captured after a house-to-house fight so bloody that the town was nicknamed khunistan (town of blood). Some 6,000 Iraqis fell in the battle for Khorramshahr, Iranian death tolls were even higher, with 7,000 dead and seriously wounded.

Another unforeseen factor was the Basij, the People’s Militia, what Ayatollah Khomeini called the ‘Army of Twenty Million’. By the end of November 1980, some 200,000 new Pasdaran and Bajis were sent to the front, troops so ideologically committed that some carried their own shrouds in expectation of impending martyrdom.


In Tehran I meet Hassan, a veteran of the war. Courteous and serious, Hassan has an almost imperceptible limp, a result of the war years. Hassan is from Tehran, so unlike Ebby he never lived through the early horror of the war. Like Ebby, Hassan is from a secular middle class family, not particularly religious. But, as a teenager during the Revolution, he became a fervent supporter of Ayatollah Khomeini. He believed in the Revolution and he believed in the Islamic Republic. He saw Saddam’s invasion as a threat to the values of the Revolution and he longed to defend Iran.

We are sitting in the Laleh Park in central Tehran and I am chaperoned by an uncle: for a devout man like Hassan it would be wrong to be alone with me, an unmarried woman, especially in a park, the setting for so many illicit meetings these days. ‘The Imam called it a “holy war”‘, he says quietly. ‘He promised us that anyone who died in the war would be a martyr and go instantly to paradise.’ He laughs. ‘I know how it sounds now but at the time, whenever a mullah came to talk to us about the war at school, I was burning to join up.’

The regime used aggressive recruiting techniques, particularly in mosques and schools in lower income urban and rural areas where passionate talk of religious sacrifice and martyrdom fired up the populace. Iranian television broadcast pictures of young men – boys – with their red Basij headbands and guns, saying how wonderful it was to be a soldier for Islam, to fight for freedom and your country. There were films of women saying how proud they were that their sons had died martyrs for the cause. The Basiji orders were founded to absorb young men who were not old enough to join the regular military. Although Hassan was 16 when he joined up, he says there were plenty of much younger boys. ‘There was a kid who was 12,’ he says. ‘He lied about his age but they let him join anyway. He said he had his parents’ permission but I can’t imagine any mother would willingly let their child go to war like that.’

The cult of martyrdom is still in evidence in the mass of published books, the towering poster-art billboards in every town with names and pictures of the dead, the street names changed to commemorate the martyrs. In a country where getting ahead is often a matter of who you know, veterans of the war benefit from preferential treatment – university places, government jobs – as do the martyrs’ families. There is a sense of resentment from the general public who tend to exaggerate the benefits, but nonetheless this signifies a change in attitude to the war and those who fought or died in it. Duel, a film made by Ahmadreza Darvish and released last year was remarkable for two things: it was the most expensive film ever made in Iran and, unlike the multitude of earlier war films, it made no attempt to glorify martyrdom and sacrifice. In fact it made a pretty good case for the futility of war.

Hassan went to the front in 1981. He won’t talk to me about the actual fighting, but I know that in the rain and mud of that winter, Iran first employed what would become a trademark tactic, the suicidal ‘human wave’, when thousands of ecstatic soldiers would storm the Iraqi lines without any artillery or air support, chanting ‘Allahu akbar’. An Iraqi officer once described the effect this had on his men: ‘They come on in their hundreds, often walking straight across the minefields, triggering them with their feet as they are supposed to.’ He said that his men would cry and try to run away from these men – most of them very young: ‘my officers had to kick them back to their guns.’

The Basiji had a piece of white cloth pinned to their uniforms as a symbol of a shroud, and wore a plastic key around their necks, issued as a symbol of their assured entry to paradise. At first they had little or no training and were used mostly as human minesweepers, but as the war raged on, they became more sophisticated in their training and preparation.

In July 1982 Iran launched Operation Ramadan on Iraqi territory, near Basra. Although Basra was within range of Iranian artillery, the clergy – who had taken charge of operations earlier that year – used ‘human-wave’ attacks by the Pasdaran and Basij against the city in one of the biggest land battles since 1945. Ranging in age from only nine to more than 50, these eager soldiers swept over minefields and fortifications to clear safe paths for the tanks. Unsurprisingly, the Iranians sustained an immense number of casualties, and it is from this battle that Hassan has his limp.

Despite what were horrific injuries, he went back a few years later, towards the end of the war. I ask him why and he hesitates. ‘It’s hard to explain if you weren’t there,’ he says, looking into the distance. ‘But it was hard to get back to normal life. People in Tehran were scared of the bombing and my family wanted to go north to be safe. I just kept thinking of my friends and wondering what was happening.’ He looks embarrassed and clears his throat. ‘You know, I felt close to God there.’

As Hassan contemplates this state of higher being, identified by one psychiatrist who has worked with war veterans as a common phenomenon, I watch a young couple walking by. They are giggling and well dressed.

Like most of the girls I have seen, especially in Tehran, this girl’s hejab consists of a short, tight coat that skims her mid-thigh, while the obligatory headscarf perches precariously at the back of a towering hairstyle, all topping off an exquisitely and elaborately made up face. Her man is clean-shaven, his longish locks slicked with plenty of gel and he clutches a mobile phone. They may be married but it is more than likely that they are out on a date, and as they walk by, they throw Hassan, with his short beard and collarless shirt a glance, muttering to each other. These are the children of the Revolution, the under 30s that make up 70% of Iran’s 68 million population. They didn’t live under the Shah and didn’t long for Revolution and didn’t fight in the ‘holy war’. They have grown up in the Islamic Republic and now, the majority are impatient for change.

They watch illegal yet ubiquitous satellite television beaming Persian pop music programmes from Los Angeles, they surf the internet and watch Hollywood films that they buy on the black market. They are tired of uncertainty and repression: they want their social freedoms.

Hassan catches their look and says to me: ‘Look, I have a family of my own and I am a liberal father. But I have friends from the war days who are very devout. And they look at these kids today and they wonder what it was we were fighting for.’ He considers before going on. ‘My children are very respectful but I still don’t talk about the war. I prefer to leave it in the past. But I know when I see some of their friends that they don’t care about our sacrifice. They don’t have respect.’

Click here for Part 3.

An abridged version of this article first appeared in the Financial Times magazine.

Kamin Mohammadi’s first book, a family memoir and modern history of Iran, is slated for publication in the spring of 2010.

The Hero and Heroin (Part 1)

November 27, 2008

Photo/Kamin Mohammadi

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pageTracker._trackPageview();A war veteran loses the drug battle.

Tehran Bureau | dispatches

It is Friday and Abadan’s graveyard is busy. The second day of the weekend, this is when many Iranians head to the cemetery to pay their respects to their dead. Families come en masse, bearing flasks of rosewater and boxes of sweetmeats to hand around to other mourners. The graves are raised stone platforms topped by a gravestone or often, a picture of the deceased set in a glass case. Beyond, the recent rain has turned the marshland into fields of mud, palm trees swaying in the breeze.

I am here with my cousin Esmael and his wife and we are bearing trays of homemade halva, honey biscuits, rosewater and fruit. In the martyr’s section of the cemetery there are special prayers taking place, the flags placed above each grave flapping in the wind that wafts round the scent of the rosewater used to wash down the graves. We are here for the rituals marking 40 days after my cousin Ebby’s funeral, hence the special collection of funereal sweets we are carrying.

We walk past the martyr’s section to another part of the cemetery because, although Ebby was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war, he died not martyred on the battlefield, but 16 years later in an abandoned slum in Abadan, a homeless heroin addict with AIDS and Hepatitis.

Already gathered around his grave are his two sisters and estranged wife. His sisters – my cousins – leap sobbing into my arms and his wife, a moon-faced woman in a voluminous black chador, her face washed clean by tears, mutters quiet words of grief and gratitude for my presence. After years of feeling alone in their struggle with Ebby and his addiction, they are touched that I have made it from England. Neither Ebby’s sisters, his wife nor his brother Esmael had seen or had contact with Ebby for years before his death. Finally they could lay aside their anger and grieve. Not just for his death, but also for his life.

I take my place by their side, crouching in the mud by the grave (washed of the dust of Abadan earlier that day by Esmael), which is set like a table at a party: white gladioli make up the centrepiece surrounded by dishes of dates, halva, fruit, sweets dripping with honey and biscuits. I eat some obligatory halva, and pass on the sweets to the others who come to pay their respects. There is some shaking of heads and mutters of a wasted life, but no-one talks about Ebby’s ignominious death, the drug addiction that soared out of control after he came home from the frontline of the war.

The last time I saw Ebby was seven years ago, when he still shared a home with his wife and two children. I had returned to Abadan, the town of my birth, for my first visit in nearly 20 years, and in the multitude of family celebrations that followed, my grandmother insisted on Ebby’s presence. Reluctantly, my uncles tracked him down and one night, Ebby, Mina and their two children joined the party. Mostly I remember that Ebby, another cousin and I, all around the same age and childhood playmates, sat cross-legged on the floor late into the night, while Ebby chain smoked, his foot twitching uncontrollably against the floor, as he tried to talk of everything but the war, the war that filled the gap between each sentence, the silence after each breath.

No-one mentioned his drug addiction, but it was obvious. Soon afterwards I heard that Mina and the kids had left him to move back in with her parents, that Ebby had lost the house and there was no news of him. Until last summer when a cousin who had a job near Abadan, found him begging on the streets, riddled with disease, his hair dreadlocked to his waist. The same cousin occasionally visited him and bought him food until, paralysed and unable to score the drug that was so necessary to his body, he died of withdrawing from it. He was 38.

Ebby was the second child of my eldest uncle. Although my parents moved away from our native Abadan soon after my birth, the rest of my family mostly remained and I recall many holidays and celebrations all gathered together in my grandmother’s house, us children all firm friends. Ebby was a lovely, scruffy boy with his nose always running, more gentle and loving than the other, rougher who were always getting into scrapes. In the years after we left Iran, Ebby grew up to be an equally affectionate adolescent, according to everyone I spoke to. ‘Despite everything,’ I heard over and over again, ‘Ebby was the nicest man.’

I was haunted by memories of the snotty-nosed kid and his ignominious death. I decided to return to Iran to see if I could find out what had happened to change so dramatically my cousin’s destiny.

* * *

‘Abadan: don’t call it Abadan; call it Paris’. So ran a local song 30 years ago when Abadan was in its heyday. The centre of Iran’s boomingoil industry, this small town in the province of Khuzestan sitting on the banks of the Shatt al-Arab waterway was then home to Iran’s largest and most important refinery. From its small airport one could step on a plane for London, New York and, indeed, Paris. Now, it supports only a few internal flights a week.

The Iran-Iraq war destroyed much of Iran, but the areas on the border with Iraq suffered the worst and still Khuzestan is struggling to come to terms with its devastation. Situated in the South-West of Iran, sharing a border with Iraq and dipping its toes into the Persian Gulf to the south, this is an area of immensely humid heat and salty soil, and, aside from a few pre-Islamic ruins at Choqa Zanbil and Susa, it does not have much else to recommend it. But this dusty earth harbours the source of Iran’s wealth – and much of its troubles – oil. It was here that, at the beginning of the last century, a British government-backed Australian named William Knox D’Arcy found the first well and so, in 1908, the Anglo-Persian Oil Company was born.

Abadan lies on an island of the same name along the eastern bank of the Shatt al-Arab, some 30 miles from the Persian Gulf. The island is bounded on the west by the Shatt and on the east by the Bahmanshir – an outlet of the Karun River. Legend has it that Abadan was founded by a holy man, ‘Abbad’, in the 8th century, and it was a prosperous coastal town in the Abbasid period, known for its salt and woven mats. Silt deposits extending the delta of the Shatt Al-‘Arab caused the coast of the Persian Gulf to gradually recede from Abadan so by the time the town was visited by the Arab geographer Ibn Battutah in the 14th century, it was described as little more than a large village in a flat, salty plain.

Iran and the Ottomans tussled over Abadan but Iran definitively acquired it in 1847. In 1909, when the Anglo- Persian Oil Company established its refinery at Abadan, it was still just a village. The refinery began operating in 1913, and by 1938 it was the largest in the world. By 1956 Abadan had become a city of more than 220,000 souls, with a booming economy almost entirely based on petroleum refining and shipping and a sophisticated population of foreigners and Iranians. The refinery complex was served by pipelines running from oil fields to the north, and eventually, all the way to the capital Tehran and to Shiraz. By the late 1970s Abadan’s population was hovering just under the half million mark.

My family had been in Abadan since the 1930s when Reza Shah had consolidated his power by stripping the local khans of their land and absorbing them into local government. My great-grandfather, from a family of khans ruling the southern Gulf province of Busheir, had gladly escaped the play of politics for a top job in the local government of Khuzestan, based in Abadan. Soon after, he had given his precious only daughter, my grandmother, to a local merchant in marriage and they proceeded, over the next 24 years, to produce 12 children, the eldest of which was my uncle and Ebby’s father.

Within this vast family, us kids grew up close. Even after moving away, we would visit for prolonged stays several times a year and I remember long lunches at my uncle’s house, falling in the dust as we kids chased each other outside, Ebby helping to pick me up and divert me from my bleeding knees as he led me inside to be attended to by his formidable mother. My uncle was a gentle person with springy hair and soft eyes, keen on tinkering with his car and always ready with a laugh and a hug.

After we left Iran, I never saw my uncle again. He had died before I made it back. Like all my other uncles and everyone else employed by the oil company, he was not allowed to leave his post during the war and he stayed in Abadan throughout the bloody eight years. A few years after end of the war, he died of cancer, followed swiftly a few months later by his wife.

When I last saw Ebby, he had grown from the snotty-nosed kid to a man in his 30s with an uncanny resemblance to my beloved uncle. He told me that he fought along the border for the last 18 months of the war. ‘I can’t even describe the things I’ve seen,’ he muttered when I tried to ask him about his experiences. Eight years after the war, he was still suffering from nightmares. ‘There were the Iraqis, large men you know, much bigger than us, and they had the latest arms, brand-new kalashes, shiny tanks… You felt – here’s a war where there are bigger powers against us. And us, just disorganised and poor.’

Ebby insisted that the effects of the war went on, unrecorded. He and his family lived in a small town an hour away from Abadan, but he wanted then to move. ‘Saddam used chemical weapons you know,’ he pointed out. ‘In the last few years two members of our family have died of cancer.’ He was referring to his father and another uncle of ours. Ebby worried about the water, the soil, the health of his children. His brow was constantly furrowed. I was not surprised that he was one of Iran’s growing army of heroin addicts.

Click here for Part 2.

An abridged version of this article first appeared in the Financial Times magazine.

Kamin Mohammadi’s first book, a family memoir and modern history of Iran, is slated for publication in the spring of 2010.