Two men met under bloody circumstances a world away nearly 30 years ago. In Vancouver, their paths cross again.
Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud in Vancouver today. Photos: Gregory Crow, who is online here and here.
[Editor's note: In the first half of this account, published yesterday, two enemy soldiers, Iranian Zahed Haftlang and Iraqi Najah Aboud, meet on the battle field of Khorramshahr, Iran, in 1982. Haftlang risks his own life to spare the life of Aboud, who spends the next 17 years suffering in Iranian prisons. When finally released, Aboud sets about immigrating to Canada, where his brother lives.]
For Zahed Haftlang, Khorramshahr was not the end either. It was barely the beginning. He went on to see eight more years of fighting. He was wounded many times. Took shrapnel in his abdomen. He was burned with chemical gas across his shoulders. Shot through the calf. A bullet tore part of his ear. But he suffered the greatest wound of all after spending time in a hospital unit where he met a young nurse who showed him kindness. Her name was Mina. A few weeks later, after they had decided to marry, she and her family were killed when their home was destroyed in an Iraqi air raid.
Something changed in him. "Mina left me and my world transformed from love and kindness to anger and revenge." He hardened, grew dark. He'd seen what war could do to people. He knew young men who'd grown compulsively violent, or unreachably depressed, or addicted to gasoline fumes. His own sickness was anger. After pointlessly killing a ram that belonged to a family that had befriended him, he sank into depression.
On one of the final military engagements of the Iran/Iraq war, in the spring of 1988, Haftlang left for a mountainous region of Ilam province. The Iranians were suffering heavy losses there as a result of an Iraqi operation called "Eternal Brightness." By the time Haftlang took his position on the front line, most of the Iranian battalion in the region had already deserted. Just days before UN Security Council Resolution 598 was passed, ending the war, his position was overrun and he, too, was taken prisoner.
Compared to Aboud's 17-year nightmare, Haftlang's imprisonment was short: two years and four months. But his experience was every bit as brutal. Instead of Iranian guards, it was Iraqi guards beating him, burning him with cigarettes, hanging him by his thumbs with wire, tearing the tendons in his wrists, executing his friends in the parade square.
"Do you know the meaning of the word 'captive'?" he asks. "A captive is a forgotten human who is no different than flies and insects. A captive is a tool in the capturer's hand, a diversionary instrument, a forced worker, a creature crushed under a soldier's boots. A captive desires two things: one, death; two, becoming a pebble or something inanimate and without nerves that feel, eyes to see, and ears to hear."
When Red Cross agents finally arrived, it was a sunny, hot day in 1991. The Iranian prisoners were escorted onto buses. And when the buses started up, they headed toward Iran, a plume of Iraqi dust rising in their wake. Zahed Haftlang was 22 years old.
"How did you get to Canada?"
Najah Aboud thinks and scratches his chin. "It's a long story," he says. "Let's just say my brother helped me."
I try again: "How'd you feel when you arrived here?"
"Good. Strong," he says, brightening. He was free here, with no one threatening to beat him or worse. "I feel like I can work all day! Twenty-four hours!"
But then his expression grows serious. It's not all strength and happiness, being a survivor. He tries to speak, his voice choked with emotion. He says: "There are bad memories."
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A foreign destination
Back in Iran, Haftlang did his debrief interviews with intelligence officials, then tried to settle back into a life he hadn't known in 10 years. He returned to his hometown where his childhood home was still standing. But when he knocked, a stranger opened the door. She invited him inside, but he ran to the graveyard instead, thinking his parents must be dead. There he found a family tombstone. Only it had his own picture on it. Frightened graveyard workers, seeing the man who was supposed to be in the ground, tried to explain that his family had assumed him dead. Haftlang collapsed to the ground at this news.
With the help of neighbours, he did eventually track his family down. They'd moved to Isfahan, south of Tehran. But reunion only proved that old family wounds don't heal easily. His father and he got along worse than ever. Having made a pledge to an Afghani man he'd met during the war, Haftlang went to visit the man's daughters in an orphanage. When he demanded money from his father to support the girls, his father surrendered it, but threw him out of the house. Haftlang ended up homeless and living in an Isfahan graveyard. "It was a dark time," he remembers. "I had lost my way."
Still, he used the money to help the girls, and struggled to straighten out his own life. One day at the orphanage, his chance at a new life presented itself. She was 17 years old. She wasn't a resident of the orphanage; she too was visiting. And when he approached her, he stammered awkwardly his first attempt at civil conversation in a long while. "Do you know the time?"
With sparkling, dark eyes, the young woman said to him: "Well, you're just out of the jungle, I see."
Life has its moments of unexpected uplift. Maryam Solaymani was her name. They married and moved to Capadan together. Through a sympathetic friend, Haftlang tried his hand at various jobs. He and Maryam also tried to have children. "But my body was full of shrapnel and chemicals," he says. "My head was full of all the horrible memories of war. I felt depressed and considered my life useless."
Maryam miscarried twice. Then, on April 24, 1994, shortly after their helpful family friend had intervened again to land Haftlang a job with the merchant marine, Maryam had a healthy baby girl. They called her Setayash. Haftlang went to sea the next time as a father, a cause for much happiness.
But the wind was rising. The sea state worsening. Some memories you struggle to lose, and Haftlang's anger still bubbled within. In Australia, one of 54 countries he visited during his years with the merchant marine, he lost control of it. A Christian priest had befriended Haftlang and a shipmate, and taken them to dinner. Haftlang's colleague accepted the man's favours, then assaulted him brutally, leaving him on the roadside. This so enraged Haftlang that he brutally beat his colleague in turn.
There were many ports still to visit. Time stretched like an ocean around Haftlang, who desperately missed home, missed Maryam and his new daughter. He'd reached the depths of depression by the time his ship steamed down an unfamiliar green arm of water, the Juan de Fuca Strait, through whitecaps into Georgia Strait, then towards the pearly glint of a city nestled on a fold of land at the base of snow-covered mountains at the lip of a cobalt sea. This foreign place was called Vancouver.
"It was the first time I'd ever come to Canada. I thought of an old saying: 'When you are somewhere for the first time, your prayers will be met.' I looked at the sky from the window and said: 'Oh God, I'm so tired of my job, of my homeland. I'm tired of people who behave one way when alone and another with others. I hate everything. I'm sad about all inequalities, all oppressions. Oh God, save me please.'"
He didn't leave his cabin for days, provoking a violent argument with the "officer of ideology" aboard the ship. The man shouted at him. Haftlang lost his temper. Seizing a picture of the Ayatollah Khomeini from the wall, he smashed it on the deck. It was a fatal error. Now, the officer informed him, he'd go straight to prison on his return home.
Pushed to the brink, Haftlang jumped ship. He had $200 and the clothes on his back. He ended up sleeping in Stanley Park, shivering and wet, hating the greenery, hating the rain. He missed the comfort of his dry, brown desert home. Two weeks he lasted. Then he stumbled into a corner store to spend his final 50 cents on food and the Iranian owner recognized him as Persian. Within 10 minutes, he'd been picked up by another Iranian, who arranged a room for him at Welcome House on Drake Street, run by the Immigrant Services Society of B.C.
He was safe. He was dry. In the space of months he had a refugee application pending. But he was 18,000 kilometres from Maryam and Setayash and he'd severed all avenues of return. His heart ached. He was sick with the poison of war. In late 1999, alone in his room at Welcome House, unable to imagine a future for himself in this strange place, Zahed Haftlang decided he'd had enough. He climbed onto a chair. He tied a rope to an overhead beam and fashioned a noose, which slipped easily around his neck. Then he stepped off the chair.
Najah Aboud knew nothing of what had happened to his long-ago saviour. In 2000, he'd just arrived in Canada, haunted by memories and the absence of his girlfriend and son. He had family here, including a brother and his father. He settled with them in Richmond, which the local community of Iraqi-Canadians have chosen as their own. There, he started a small moving company.
And he started counselling. If you've been through years of torture and move to Vancouver, you soon learn about the Vancouver Association for the Survivors of Torture. VAST, they call it. Founded in 1986 to provide support services to survivors of political violence, the agency is funded by the U.N., by the province's immigrant services, by the city, and by the donation of time and money from individuals and community groups. If you survive what Aboud survived, you learn about VAST because there is safety, comfort and the promise of a future there. It was Aboud's brother who first took him to their offices on Hastings Street, in the bustling stretch just east of Nanaimo.
Aboud remembers one day sitting in the waiting room, idly reading a magazine, when a stranger walked in and took a seat opposite. Younger than himself but with the haunted air of a wounded survivor, the man caught Aboud's eye. They nodded and exchanged hellos in English. Then, judging that Aboud came from the Middle East, the man asked if he was Iranian.
"No," Aboud answered, speaking in the other man's language. "I'm Iraqi."
The man smiled. "But you speak Persian."
"I learned," Aboud said. "I was in Iran a long time."
The man was curious. Had it been a government job?
Aboud laughed. No. He'd been in Iran because he had no choice. "I was a POW there for 17 years."
The man grew serious. Then he chuckled. "Well, I guess we're even, because I was in an Iraqi POW camp for two years myself."
A moment passed. Then the younger man turned to Aboud again. He said: "Where were you captured, if I may ask?"
"Mohammarah," the man said. "You mean Khorramshahr."
"Khorramshahr," Aboud said. Sure. He meant no offence by using the Arabic name of the city.
But the man hadn't taken offence. He was simply repeating the name as if to make sure he had this detail correct.
"Khorramshahr," he said to Aboud. "I was there, too."
Zahed Haftlang stepped off the chair in his room at Welcome House, but the noose never tightened. Just as he himself had appeared like a guardian angel to save Najah Aboud nearly 20 years before, so too did Haftlang have an angel who intervened at the required moment. He stepped off the chair and into the arms of a fellow resident who had burst into his room at the precipitous instant.
After that, it didn't take long for friends to convince Haftlang he needed to get himself over to VAST. Haftlang remembers going for one or two sessions. Then, on the third occasion, he struck up a conversation with an Iraqi gentleman who spoke surprisingly good Persian. When the man told Haftlang that he'd actually been taken prisoner of war by a young Iranian soldier who'd saved his life, Haftlang interjected.
Yes, he said, he knew that. The incident happened in a bunker.
"You've heard my story from my brother!"
"No," Haftlang said. "That young soldier was me!"
For Aboud, whose memories had long been patchy, things were starting to return. Still, he could not comprehend the improbability that this man was actually the angel he remembered coming to him from the sky.
"I held out my Koran to the young man," he said.
"It had a picture of your wife and son!" Haftlang said.
"The boy had a light."
Now Aboud was on his feet, tears in his eyes, starting across the room. Haftlang stood up himself. He said, "I don't want to start a fight."
"If you really are that boy, tell me more of the story."
"Take off your hat -- you have a scar on your head from stitches. And your teeth! You have no teeth here!"
Aboud was weeping now. Haftlang, too. It all came flooding back. Yes, they had met again in the field hospital. Yes, Aboud had tried to kiss Haftlang's hand, but he'd pulled it away and kissed Aboud's cheeks instead. Yes, yes, all true. The two were laughing and shouting and crying now, embracing, while the staff and clients of VAST stood by, wondering what was going on.
'A new window'
In Powermax Auto Repairs, that unassuming mechanic's shop on East Esplanade, Haftlang sits back in the chair in his little side office and shakes his head. He and Aboud are like brothers now, he tells me. They visit one another's families, sometimes go to the movies. "I love him like I love my own son," Haftlang tells me, speaking of Niayesh who was born in 2006 to him and Maryam after the family was reunited in Vancouver.
If he could do one thing with his own future, Haftlang says, he would raise enough money to scour the world and find Aboud's lost son. Because for Haftlang, while he once saved Najah's life, meeting the man again after 20 years has saved his own.
"When Najah came into that room," he tells me, "a new window opened in my life. And my depression disappeared."
We walk out into the garage. I can hear traffic on the Esplanade, airplanes and boats in the harbour beyond. Haftlang has closed his shop for the afternoon to tell me his story, and now he's going to pull the chain and raise the heavy front door again. And then business and clients and auto repairs will begin again.
But not before he shows me the Pontiac StratoChief. A fine project. He has the engine out and is rebuilding it. When the whole thing is done, it'll be perfect, you can tell already. Something from history, something destined for the junk pile, brought back to life and entirely restored. Made new.