March 2, 2011


Blood Brothers: In 1984 two soldiers, an Iranian and an Iraqi, meet on the battlefield. Amazingly, 20 years later, in Vancouver, they meet again (Timothy Taylor, Feb 28, 2011, Vancouver Magazine)

The date is May 24, 1982. It's called Day of Martyrs in Iraq and Liberation of Khorramshahr in Iran, both labels referring to what happened that day in one of the bloodiest battles of the Iran/Iraq war: the battle for Khorramshahr. A port city in the oil-rich province of Khuzestan in southwestern Iran, Khorramshahr was an affluent city before the war. But situated on a crucial waterway, it was also a strategic prize. When the Iraqis invaded in September 1980, Khorramshahr was among the first objectives.

The fighting was brutal. Tens of thousands of civilians are thought to have died in the assault. And despite committing thousands of troops, a lengthy artillery barrage, and as many as 500 tanks, Iraq faced tenacious opposition. They took two months to secure the area, losing over 6,000 men in the process. As a result, Khorramshahr became an emblem of resistance to Iranians. In one widely told story, a 13-year-old Iranian travelled to the city without telling his parents after hearing of the invasion. He fought alongside adult soldiers before being killed disabling an Iraqi tank with a hand grenade. Within months of the boy's death and the news that Khorramshahr had fallen, thousands of Iranian boys had volunteered. Haftlang was one of them.

He'd been living east of Khorramshahr in Masjed Soleyman. He was 12 and had nine sisters and five brothers. Home life was difficult, especially with his father. One incident in particular spurred him to action. He was caught stealing money from his father to go to the movies. His father punished him by branding his heel with a skewer heated to red hot in the stove. Haftlang recuperated at a friend's house, where they concocted a plan to run away to war.

Without telling their parents, the boys enlisted in the Basij regiment and were shipped out the same day. A volunteer paramilitary group founded by the Ayatollah Khomeini, the Basij was notorious. As Jon Lee Anderson wrote for the New Yorker: "Very young Basijis were encouraged to offer themselves for martyrdom by clearing minefields with their bodies in what became known as ‘human waves'-literally walking to their deaths en masse so that more experienced soldiers could advance against the enemy."

Haftlang wasn't asked to do that. After proving himself less squeamish than his friends, he was made a paramedic instead. He was appalled by the horrors at first but eventually became proficient and confident in this work.

In Khorramshahr, meanwhile, 18 months had passed since the Iraqi takeover and the Iranians were now planning for the city's recapture. Haftlang's Basij battalion was sent to help. The Iraqis had dug a deep trench along the front, the western wall of which-nearest the Iraqis-had been filled with dynamite. To start the attack, around midnight, the Iranians flooded this trench with water from a nearby dam that had been closed and filling for several weeks. Then they blew the trench wall, flooding the Iraqi defences.

"We thought we were under attack, but it was just the opposite," Haftlang recalls. "The Iraqis were flooded and their equipment, tanks and troops were ripped away. Many were buried alive in their shelters. The water flowed onto the Plains of Shalamcheh, leaving behind an army lost in its path."

Over the next two days, 70,000 soldiers of the Iranian Revolutionary Army fought their way into the city. The youngest and greenest Basiji were held back to use in a second wave, which was unleashed May 24. Haftlang was among them. And when he entered the city, still under gunfire and shelling, he was tasked with going through a row of bunkers to ensure there were no survivors.

The significance of Haftlang's assignment was plain. Captured Iraqis were being taken prisoner but, he says, "most of the prisoners ended up dead." Indeed, various accounts suggest that up to 2,000 Iraqi prisoners were executed in Khorramshahr around May 24 in retaliation for the rape of Iranian women during the original 1980 takeover. Haftlang's orders were to kill any surviving Iraqi or deliver him to his almost-certain death at the hands of others.

Hoping he wouldn't find anyone alive, Haftlang began moving through the bunkers. In the third one he entered-grimacing against the pressing smell of corpses bubbling from decomposition, his small flashlight held aloft for its meagre light-Haftlang heard a voice. It cried out. It cried out for mercy. It was a man. He spoke Arabic words Haftlang couldn't understand but could intuit. The man said: Brother, brother, we are both Muslim.

Haftlang acted as he'd been ordered to do. He seized the Iraqi's weapon. Then he stood, his rifle aimed at the helpless man, poised to fire.

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 2, 2011 6:11 AM
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