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 -- Part 9 --
In the morning of March 18, 1987 I was already in the war field. Both Neekvarz and Zeerakee were in the company. They told me our company along the whole battalion had been sent back from Chazzabeh Strait to a resting spot near the headquarters of the battalion, but my soldiers had accompanied another platoon to stay in Moshtagh Valley; that soldiers also used to call “The Apaches Valley” after a western movie, to protect the area against possible infiltration of Iraqi spies. I was to join my men there.
"You are required to be vigilant as you were before,” Zeerakee added, “Don't think there will be no enemy around that area. Once Iraqi elements penetrated the valley before advancing to other areas. That is the reason behind your new mission."
I boarded the food truck and was driven to the valley while thinking about the prevalent norm in the army: whoever worked better and harder was expected to do more. Because I cared more about my soldiers’ lives, I was being punished with this mission while others rested. Nevertheless, those who were in the resting spot had their own problems. They were under the close watch of the officers of the battalion and the regiment who constantly found faults with inferior personnel and units.
The next day I was introduced to a young soldier who had just come from training center. He was Mohammad Hozooree: a short skinny agile man with strong Tehrani accent. There were a few other new faces among my soldiers as well. My platoon had increased to over thirty permanent soldiers with a couple of sergeants who left the platoon shortly after I arrived.
In three days the Iranian New Year's Day of Now Rooz arrived. Soldiers started to prepare the traditional "Seven S's Table". This table is prepared with many items, but must include seven items whose names begin with letter "S" which give it the name. Some of these items require a few weeks of preparation. Some sacred items like the Qur'an and Hafiz’ “Deevan: book of poetry”, are also put on the table.
In the crude wilderness of military life we had just one conventional item of the table and that was the coin. We used our imagination and invented a coarse military Seven S's Table. We gathered stone (sang in Persian), needle (soozan), bayonet (sar neizeh), shoulder strap (sar dooshi), belt buckle (sagak), a piece of telephone wire (seem), and a coin (sekkeh) on a tablecloth and made our table with plenty of laughter and merriment.
To add more taste of military life to the Now Rooz, we added element of fire to it by arranging a line of fire and waiting to shoot at the highest peak of the Moshtagh as the New Year stroke. As Radio Tehran announced the commencement of the Iranian solar year of 1366 about sixty rifles, two 81mm mortars, three R.P.G.7s, one 60mm mortar, and one 106mm gun simultaneously opened a one-minute-long heavy fire on the peak. Then, the excited soldiers put their guns aside and started kissing one another on the cheek, wishing a peaceful, prosperous, and happy New Year for one another.
"I hope you live one hundred years in peace," they solemnly wished for their friends, “Let’s pray this year is a year of peace.”
In this way old friendships were consolidated and the previous year’s hatreds were cast out of memories while a different story was going on at the front lines. As the afternoon news reported, with the stroke of the New Year Iranian troops had bombed Iraqi positions with their long-range weapons all along the front line from south to north. Iranian exaltation at the front was equal to Iraqis suffering; Iraqi exaltation was our suffering. The old tragedy of seeking one's pleasure in others’ suffering was being repeated there like everywhere else.
On the second day of the spring Neekvarz had left for vacations, Zeerakee, few sergeants, and I went to Fakkeh for a preliminary reconnaissance of the battle line. We had been ordered to transfer our unit to Fakkeh at three o’clock in the morning of the following morning.
Fakkeh was a plain slightly sloped to some short hills on both the Iraqi and the Iranian sides. The Iraqi positions were higher; consequently they had the upper hand in observing and shelling our positions. Our infantry positions were in the middle of the two high positions: the worst situation of all. We could not observe Iraqi forces; nonetheless, we responded to their shelling with mortars and 106mm guns but this firing was always blind. We never knew whether we had reached the target or not.
Here, the army had raised a four-meter high earthen embankment stretching scores of kilometers from south to north. Another two-meter-high embankment had been raised behind the defense line with about twenty meters distance from the first one. At the foot of the forward embankment, soldiers had dug a one-meter-deep canal to move inside or take cover when necessary. All movements of vehicles and personnel were conducted between the two embankments. There was no defensive obstacle like minefields and so forth to protect us against advancing forces. An asphalt road that connected the Iranian city of Shush to the Iraqi city of Ammareh, the Shush-Ammareh Road, cut the embankment somewhere farther north of the position we visited. There was no traffic between the two cities during the war, though it was the main route for the warring sides to supply their troops with logistical needs and weaponry. By having the road the attackers could easily supply their forces with ammunitions and troops. Paradoxically, defenders could deprive attackers from an important road if they were to control it.
Our embankment was exposed to wind erosion which started to blow in early May from west to east. Sand erosion forced the army to renovate the embankment with bulldozers at night. Bunkers had been built behind the western embankment; guarding trenches, mostly concrete trenches, situated into the embankment. The embankment meant many things for our soldiers including shelter, traffic-rout, resting place, communications conduit….
Some five kilometers to the west, Iraqi positions were on natural heights and did not suffer our problems of raising embankments and living behind them. Many trenches were visible on their side, but mostly they were believed to be false trenches built to mislead Iranian forces. Before their trenches a dark ribbon of obstacles of mines, barbwires, and explosive traps stretched from south to north making a strong defense line against Iranian attacks.
In the extreme south of the Iraqi positions stood a dune hill named Hill 85. With about three hundred meters of height, Hill 85 was higher than both hills of Chazzabeh and made the highest spot in the region and so made it the axis of everything in the area. Every bush, mound, unit, and event was measured according to its distance from Hill 85. One frequently heard that one tree was how far from Hill 85, an event happened how close to it, or a unit was in the south, north, west, or east of it. Although we did not see any observation trench on the hill, we assumed Iraqis had sophisticated observation posts there; and they extensively used the strategic hill that came to my sight every morning and evening for many months.
At around three in the morning we prepared for our new position to replace a platoon that had the area in hand. The soldiers boarded in two large trucks and we drowsily moved with our lights off. At five we reached Fakkeh and within one hour we had settled in five bunkers in the northern most section of our company’s defense line that constituted the contact line with the neighboring battalion as well. The retiring soldiers wished us fun in confronting tanks and evacuated the area. Zeerakee left the company supervision to me and drove to the resting spot to supervise the rest of the company’s moving to the front while the previous unit was partially in place with a sergeant in charge as the unit had lost three lieutenants in Sumar attack and the commander of the company was on leave. According to military rules I had to obey the sergeant as long as his unit had not fully evacuated the place.
At around ten o’clock in the morning a loud noise of tank engines rose from the Iraqi side and half a dozen shells blasted our positions. Disheartened by the noise, the sergeant told me Iraqi armored units were advancing toward our position; and ordered his soldiers and mine to go to trenches to fight back the attack. Despite the loud noise, I could see no armored column leaving the Iraqi front line and no dust was raised to indicate the movement of armored column.
"Sir; send your soldiers to their trenches,” the sergeant told me nervously, “Once they start to move they will reach us within five minutes, even before we have enough time to go to trenches under fire and advance. This land is flat and most suitable for tanks advance."
I sent the soldiers to trenches and began to walk behind the embankment amongst sporadic explosions, checking how my defense line was. The tank and mortar shelling gradually intensified, but either they passed over our positions and exploded a short distance behind the embankment or they blasted the front part of the embankment. In both cases the shrapnel reached us. To avoid being hit, we had to lie on the ground or sit in the trenches as low as possible.
The bombing was a sign that Iraqis had reckoned our movement. It was not clear yet whether they were going to attack our front line or they simply intended to inflict the heaviest possible casualties before we were fully settled in place. We took the former possibility as the likeliest. Meanwhile, our tanks and artillery positions started to fire upon Iraqi positions. This did not change our situations behind the embankment any way. We were still receiving mortar and tank shells.
As I was walking two consecutive shells whistled in the air above my head and I lay on the ground; but momentarily stood up among a fog of smoke and dust the explosions had raised to the air not too far from me. Several more explosions battered the area before the front embankment all across the front line shortly after. From behind the smoke, a voice was calling me that one of my soldiers had received mortar shrapnel near the sergeant's bunker. I ran towards the position as shells were following one another and reached the man who had been brought out of his trench.
Shrapnel had hit his cheek, making a hole in it, breaking a few teeth. The wound was badly bleeding and his neck and blouse were red with blood. I pushed a kerchief into the wound and pressed it as hard as I could to stop the bleeding reminding the soldier that his wound was not serious as he was following me with his eyes. He was a new soldier and as I was told later he had stood up in his trench to look at the way the bombs blasted in order to get used to explosions: a brave but unwise move, and as a result he had received the shrapnel.
Minutes later the fire stopped. Unsuccessfully, I looked for a vehicle to send the wounded man to the hospital. I asked the sergeant to call for an ambulance; but he was late. I was at the end of my wits: angry, swearing, my mouth foaming from helplessness. In this despair, Zeerakee came in our own ambulance that he was using for transporting anything and everything that day and we sent the wounded soldier to the hospital. I never heard the man coming back to the front.
Thus, our almost three months in Fakkeh started with one injured man and went on with many more casualties. Especially, the second night after our transfer was frightening for my platoon that was located near the Shush-Ammareh Road. Within several hours after midnight we had received some fifty direct tank shells in an area that was about six hundred meters long. Consequently, sometimes we lost our telephone contact with the monitoring soldiers in front of the embankment and we had to contact them in person that increased the risk of casualties. With every explosion that normally took place before the embankment or behind it, our bunker used to shake. Fortunately, that nightmare passed without casualties, though Third Lieutenant Hassan Heidari who came from Sheervan in north of Khorassan and had served the army with the rank of sergeant for about twenty years and had become a lieutenant thanks to the changes introduced to the army after the revolution, was injured sometime later somewhere to the south of my position. He received shrapnel in his neck and was hospitalized for three weeks. Hassan who had a very good sense of humor used to carry the shrapnel in his pocket with his skewed bandaged neck and mention Khomeini's promise that was widely believed he had made in France before seizing power to distribute the oil money among the nation. According to the belief, Khomeini had said each Iranian would receive seventy Tumans a day.
"I received my share of the oil money through this shrapnel," Hassan would say with laughter and would show the big piece that had wounded him, "Sooner or later, you will receive your share too."
Besides unfavorable combat circumstances, in Fakkeh we faced drastic environmental changes not easy to adapt to. With early April warming of the area fogs of flies and mosquitoes swarmed the plain. Flies were everywhere during the day and at night mosquitoes ruled every square meter of the green plain. They took soldiers rest away and carried contamination elements and diseases everywhere. Some mosquito repellants were distributed among soldiers to combat mosquitoes. They saved soldiers from mosquitoes, but they were never enough to help them for too long. By the end of April the sun of the south had dried all vegetations. Only hardened small bushes were left behind in the vast expanse of the plain that was covered with yellow grass that caught fire as bombs exploded and burned for a few days. As the weather grew hot and plain dried, the number of mosquitoes drastically dwindled; however, flies were more obstinate to easily give up.
Heatstroke and related problems, sweating, and dehydration added more challenge to the soldiers’ lives. These problems were harder to tackle in Fakkeh than they were in Chazzabeh, as we had no water well in the company. As the problem grew, soldiers found a water-well by a heavily damaged palm tree in our neighboring company that belonged to another battalion. They used to go there to wash their cloths and sometimes wash themselves to cool off.
Scorpions became active at night in the bunkers, disappearing during the day. These creatures were mischievous and could bite a few men or one person in few spots of the body in a short period of time. In the first days we had several cases of scorpion bite and rushed them to the clinic to receive antidotes. None of them lost his life neither any of them stayed in the clinic more than one day. Snakes were not common in Fakkeh. We almost never saw any snake there; though later on as we moved further south we saw many rattle snakes that could easily disappear underneath the sand without leaving any trace behind. I heard of no instance of snakebite in the south, though some soldiers had lost their lives due to snake or scorpion bite in western fronts.
In early May a “food without meat program” aggravated the already bad nutrition. After the plan our food consisted of rice and a broth with pieces of tomatoes and onions, an eggplant, and some carrots. Even there was no peas or beans or potatoes in the food. The new food program was entirely based upon the foodstuff locally produced in Iran. In the company meeting Haghee told us a meat cargo bound for Iran, from New Zealand, had been drowned by Iraqi planes in the Persian Gulf and the army had lost its quota. If this were true, the plan could have been in force only temporarily; however it seemed Haghee meant what he had not told us: the government did not have enough money to afford meat; and our diet never fully recovered from that plan.
Despite these problems, it seemed the government was still spending a large amount of money on military equipments. It seemed the Guards were the main recipients of the new equipments. One day as I was taking my afternoon nap I woke up to the noise of a motorbike engine; but fell sleep again. As I woke up again I told Seyyed that I had dreamed of a motorbike noise. He told me the Guards were in the platoon flying a drone from back of a pickup truck to take picture from Iraqi positions. The mission had lasted less than one hour and the Guards had left after successfully trying the new equipment. This was late spring 1987 many years before drones to be publicly known to the world and extensively used in the war.
In Fakkeh composition of my personnel changed. Some soldiers left; and some new soldiers came to my platoon. All soldiers who had a close relative (brother or father) serving at front lines and those soldiers who fathered more than two children or were suffering from serious health problems were sent to non-combat units. Some soldiers were sent to garrisons and some new soldiers were given to me. Among the new faces was Shaaban Alibeighi who fathered two children. He was appointed to Abbasspour’s position as communications operator, Abbasspour going to the company communications center near commander’s bunker. Another new face was a brisk Torkaman conscript sergeant named Teimoor Ghaderee from Gonbad, full of energy and tirelessly active. In his early days Ghaderee was enthusiastic to become a staff army officer; but after savoring realities of military life he changed his mind. Both Shaaban and Teimoor lived with me in my bunker.
Sometime in May many rumors surfaced about our transfer to a new position. Soldiers would come to my bunker to check their hearings against mine or share theirs with me. In most cases what they had heard was more accurate than what I had been told; and they knew important information before I did.
As the person in charge of the platoon, I should have been the first person to receive any important news of transfer or the like; but it seemed I was the last in these cases. As time advanced, I realized that I was not the only unaware in the company. Soldiers through mouth-to-mouth learned so many things even before the commander of the company learned about them. The way they received the information was easy, simple, interesting, and effective. When a soldier in the headquarters of the battalion, regiment, or the army heard something important he talked to his friends. These friends shared the information with their friends and through them the information reached the front faster than the slow bureaucratic channel. Soldiers channel could easily leak strategic information to enemy agents. I wondered if decision-making officers in superior units were aware of the fact that soldiers knew most of their information; and if so how they could keep military decisions intact from soldiers and their likely being picked by enemy agents. Probably a good luck protected them: there were so many right and wrong rumors that confused the listener. Another tactic could have saved the information as well: perhaps alongside the correct information the army spread false rumors among soldiers in order to make it hard for the listener to distinguish between the right and wrong rumors >>> Part 9
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