To the memory of the soldiers who fell before my eyes in the first Persian Gulf War. From my Iran-Iraq war memoirs that has been published in a book titled "A Path To Nowhere" >>> Part 1 -- Part 2 -- Part 3 -- Part 4 -- Part 5 -- Part 6 -- Part 7 -- Part 8 --
On my fifty-fourth day in Chazzabeh: Ten days after my due time for leave because of my own reluctance to go on leave; and in the midst of the war of cities I was sent on my first war leave of twenty days. By then Zeerakee had left for his second leave and Neekvarz was back in the region amazed at my not-caring manners as he saw me walking around with my helmet on the head, gun in hand, and a couple of hand grenades hanging from my belt living quite content among my soldiers. By then all conscript lieutenants of the battalion had gone on leave as well. I was quite adapted to the hardship of the war zone and was more or less able to better organize my soldiers to better protect their lives. The days that I used to lie on the ground as soon as I heard a mortar or a tank shell being launched belonged to the past. No more my hasty protective actions were a source of mirth and amusement among war-experienced soldiers of my platoon. Now I knew how far the mortar shells would land; when the tank shells would reach our position; and how I was to react to them. Also the time that upon hearing tanks engine noise I used to fearfully call out for artillery fire had passed. Sheeree, the artillery observer from Tehran, did not have to remind me to stop making noise by calling the observers for fire. I was fully adapted to the rules of combat and until then I had no casualty. This was the apex of my happiness. Neekvarz asked me why I did not want to go on leave.
“Quite honestly I feel more comfortable in the war zone than cities where I can’t see civilians daily plight dealing with inflation and the war,” I answered, “Also, I want to reach home sometime near the spring to plant some peach seedlings in my land. The land is frozen now.”
“I understand everything you say,” he said unexpectedly kindly, “But, it is almost time to plant your trees and if you put off your leave schedule, it will go against my schedule and I will have to go home late. I have a mother waiting for me.”
Neekvarz was right. I could not sacrifice someone else for what I liked or what I escaped from. I asked him to sent me on leave anytime he wanted. Thus, he gave me the needed paper next evening and sent me to the logistical supply spot of the company with a few soldiers who were leaving for their hometowns. He told me the sergeant in charge of the Politico-Ideology of the battalion who at the same time was the chief sergeant of our company would accommodate me in his own bunker over night before he got my leave paper signed by the commander of the battalion as it was required.
With this in mind at nightfall I was in the company logistical spot where I introduced myself to the sergeant who was busy with a turbaned man and told me he had no room for me in his bunker; and Neekvarz knew nothing about his limitations there. Therefore, I slept in the battalion mosque with the rest of the soldiers in my own coat.
The next morning after the sunrise the sergeant stretched my signed paper adding that I should not forget to bring him a gift as I was returning to the war zone. I snatched the paper and left the headquarters wondering at the demand of the chief of the personnel’s beliefs. Seyyed was right that this institution was indeed using religion as a means of tight control and extortion. While I was firm that I was not the person to yield to religious demands and bring the man a gift, I was dropped at Fakkeh Three-Way. The company driver returned to the headquarters, as he was not allowed to drive me further east.
It was around eight o’clock in the morning; soldiers who had left the company with me the night before had gone long before I reached Fakkeh Tree-Way; and I was waiting alone for a vehicle to take me out of the war field. A few military trucks had passed before a large truck stopped and I jumped on its back. Half way to Karkheh Bridge the truck slowed down and I jumped out, as it was turning southward. From there I started to walk toward Andimeshk in a cold windy sunny day.
The Zagross Mountain Range on the eastern horizon loomed in a hazy air left after a week-long-rain that had caused flooding in Khuzestan. Far to the east plantations of cucumbers, tomatoes, watermelons, and potatoes were covered by rows of clear plastic to protect the young plants against frostbite until spring arrived.
All along the road remnants of old trenches, destroyed military vehicles, burned tanks, rusting shrapnel, bombs, and military boots were scattered, attesting to the old battles that had been fought in this plain that originally carried the name of “Dasht-e Abbass: Abbass Plain”, and now had been renamed “Dasht-e Azadeghan: the Freemen Plain”. This place with more than fifty kilometers into Iranian territories had been occupied in the early stages of war. In later combats Iranian forces had expelled the occupation forces and this land had witnessed the toil and strife of the warriors whose chopped bodies had once carpeted its surface along their burning and destroyed vehicles and war equipments. The growing grass and the young plants were growing in the blood of those dead men. This was a dull end: all our strife begot hatred for generations to come and the cycle of war would be renewed in this manner. Sad or happy, I thought my homeland well deserved all the blood that had been shed in its defense. That had been the manner our fathers had defended that very “land of every jewel” for millennia.
By ten I was in Andimeshk. More than two months ago I had left that city at night and had not noticed the differences between my appearance and those of the civilians’. Even if I had gone to Andimeshk during the day, probably I was too deep in panic to notice those differences. This time I instantly became aware of them. For the first time I could see people in loose clothes and long hair, speaking a non-military language that sounded inappropriate to me. Even a very young boy having his mother's hand and walking along the pavement could draw my attention. It seemed I had been dropped among the crowds from my isolation in outer space: it was a fascinating scene.
"My god! Look at this cute human kitten."
I made the sentence instantaneously and repeated a few times laughing at myself. Lest people noticed my irrelevant laughter and took me for a mad man who had emerged from the heat of battle, I abruptly stopped amusing myself. Instead, I looked at people's clothing and felt a sense of pride in my own tight uniform. I felt my uniform was more becoming than civilians’ dress. Curiosity made me see a few stains on my sleeves while I smelled the stench of my body. Pride gave way to embarrassment.
"What will they think of me if they smell this?" I asked myself.
I was very curious to find out if people’s appearance showed an aversion because of my stinking body; and noticed nothing. Even if they had noticed, they probably had excused me for I was coming from the combat lines.
In this state of mind I walked to the bus station. There was no ticket for Tehran and the fear of being bombed in Andimeshk took me over. I must have left the city before I died in a likely bombardment. A bus full of passengers for Tehran had stopped by the gutter. The driver said he would take me for a fare twice the regular price. I yielded to the unfair demand. All soldiers faced such demands and had to either yield or wait a long time to get a ticket at the original price. No regulation was in place.
At the end of the plain of Khuzestan we ascended the Zagross Mountains that have been an almost invincible castle and refuge for Iranians against invasions from either the west or the east of the Plateau throughout our history. These mountains have witnessed human occupation and endeavors since before the dawn of civilization: from Lorestan Man thousands of years before Christ to modern man. The Zagross were beautiful, romantic, and proud; and I had loved them as much as I loved our history. Each peak of those mountains was a page of Iranian long history: a history filled with adventures. After all, history has always been at war with Iran.
At two in the afternoon we reached Pol-e Dokhtar: one of Iraqi targets in the war of cities. Condensed in a small area surrounded by high mountains, the town should have been inhabited by about twenty thousand people. As I was passing by its eastern mountains in the bus I saw only one man on a motorcycle with a child behind him and an old man leaning on his rod waiting for a vehicle to take him out of town. It was a ghost town emptied after a plague.
Driving out of the town, we saw the town’s people. They had pitched their tents on the rough and cold slopes of the Zagross, living in peace. Once again the bosom of mountains provided refuge for those who lived in its valleys.
At ten at night I reached the Khazaneh Bus-Terminal in Tehran where I had started my journey. I was not dead yet and could not await the coming of the day to give me the opportunity to watch the Alborz again. The capital was totally dark; winking stars could be seen in the clear sky. To obscure targets for Iraqi planes, lights had been turned off. People of Tehran had bestowed Saddam Hossein a title: “Hossein the Leveler: Hossein Safkar”. He had pledged to leave no stone on stone in Iran.
At last the morning arrived and I was in a bus traveling east. Hours later, after watching Damavand’s white cap as long as I could see it, I had passed the Alborz serenity. I was calm, thinking if my calm was coming from the strength the Alborz had bestowed upon me or it simply stemmed from the dullness the ravage of war had created in me. It was at around four o’clock in the morning that I pressed the buzzer of our house in Bojnord in northern Khorassan: a city hundreds of kilometers away from the front line and the war of cities.
"Who is it?"
My mother asked behind the closed door.
"It's me: Manoucher," I answered.
"Thank you God, thousands of times thank you," she said.
She wept and opened the door to shower me with kisses and tear. I was home, dull to my mother’s feelings; dread of the war was following me to my remote hometown.
The next night in a deep sleep I heard a fearful whistling shell over my platoon.
"Lie on the ground! Lie on the ground!"
I shouted at my soldiers at top of my voice. I was so loud that I woke myself up and found my mother calmly asking me what was happening.
"I heard a shell whistling and ordered my soldiers to lie on the ground,” I responded, “That's normal, Ma," I went on.
"God have mercy on us," she exclaimed.
I fell asleep and did not notice whether I had yelled again.
Early next morning, still in bed, I reviewed what I had experienced in the past two months. I thought of all the mishaps I had witnessed: imaginary or real.
"What would have happened if that shell landed on my bunker?” I would think, “What would have happened if a grenade exploded in my hand, or that mine detonated beneath my foot? Mortar shrapnel had paralyzed me? Iraqi planes dropped their bombs on us; or they used poison gas; or they attack us?"
There was no end to "what-would-have-happened-ifs’" oscillation in my mind. This was strange. At the front I was perfectly adapted to what was happening around me. In fact, the last month had been quite amusing and I felt at home with all its hardship; but in the safety of home they had stormed me like endless nightmares. Was not Rumi correct: “now what are we to fear that we are in the very heart of catastrophe?” Finally, I could not stand the relentless lashing; threw the quilt aside; went to the yard and washed my hands and face with cold winter water only to awake to another disaster: inventory of the most recent incursions.
Several days had passed my homecoming that a funeral procession for the victims of the recent attacks in Shalamcheh, Sumar, and other fronts was held in Bojnord. At ten o’clock in the morning of a cloudy day I walked along the streets without participating in the ceremony, that was held to mainly support the official war cries, to observe people’s reaction to the continuation of the war.
Shadow of mourning had filled the city corner to corner. Every shop and office except bakeries and medical centers was closed according to a government order. There was no traffic along the main street that connected Revolution Mosque to Worker Square. Waves of people, mainly clad in black, had filled the street. Many women in black chadors: a robe that Iranian women wear, with tearful eyes were standing in the pavement watching the procession. Qur'anic verses were broadcasted on two loudspeakers installed on a blue pickup truck. Murmurs of objections towards war could be heard, though nobody had the stomach to voice his objection aloud.
Minutes later, thirteen coffins wrapped in Iranian flags with victims’ names attached to them were brought out of the Revolution Mosque on soldiers’ shoulders and laid on both sides of the streets. The name and place of the victim's birth and death were read. Sayings from Khomeini in praise of martyrdom followed. Relatives, friends, and strangers took the coffins on their shoulders for a few paces until hundreds of men joined them in carrying the coffins. Participation was so enormous that coffins went on people’s hands. The crowd was so numerous that reminded me of the days of the revolution and it was the largest number of deaths from a small city so far away from the war zone.
As the coffins were being carried Islamic slogans and sacred words such as "La-Ellaha-Ell- Allah: there is no god except Allah” and "Allah-o Akbar: Allah is Great” was pouring from the crowd. This time nobody chanted government-endorsed slogans. The Guard with the loudspeakers twice tried to divert attentions to the government-sponsored slogans of "War, War Till Victory" and "Allah is great, Khomeini is the Leader". Nobody followed the bearded man's words. The pervasive indifference made him to fall silent. And so the coffins were carried to Worker Square in whose vicinity I had seen Mahdi Elhamee’s coffin being carried on shoulders years ago. There, they were loaded on vehicles to be carried to the cemeteries in the victims’ hometowns mostly in nearby villages.
The same day similar processions were held in different cities. In Mashhad one hundred and fifty young men were carried to their graves in a single day. In Esfahan over four hundred bodies were buried after a processional ceremony. In Tabriz, Tehran, and perhaps all other cities and towns processions were held alike: no community was left untouched. The war was approaching its most devastating stage: it was taking more and more casualties and giving less and less results.
I could see people's growing indifference toward the war policy: it was a passive resistance as it is habitual to the Iranian nation. By negative and silent resistance we have conquered many invaders who had conquered our land by force. As my holidays advanced signs of this resistance became clearer. In the days after the procession the government tried to mobilize another army like the Army of Mohammad. This time the title was “Army of End-Of- The-Time Imam: Lashkar-e Akhero-zzaman”. Its efforts encountered indifference.
As it was a routine, the war-seekers did not give up the plan. They simply changed the name to the Second Phase of the Army of End-Of-The-Time Imam. Still no one showed enthusiasm. And as I was on my way back to the war front they were calling for the Third Phase of the Army of End-Of-The-Time Imam. Still, people did not support the war and they quietly stopped calling for that army.
Toward the end of my vacations I took a few days planting scores of peach seedlings in my land not knowing who would take care of them once I was back to the battlefront. Two days before my vacation ended I had set out for the fronts to reach Chazzabeh in time. Before leaving home my mother held the Qur'an over my head and poured a jar of water and a few drops of tear on the ground behind me (24). By now the war of cities had come to an end; the dead had been taken to their graves; and a calm after the storm was on its way. Life was returning to normal in cities of Zagross. Panic of aerial bombardment was diminishing, but one could feel skepticism about the restored tranquility. In Khuzestan the plain between Karkheh and the front line was covered with tall grass. Grain fields were dancing to the tune of the still cool northern breeze. The young cucumber plants were still under plastic covers and a new phase in the war was beginning as the tide of Iranian attacks was receding >>> Part 8
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