[Editor's note: The Tyee is pleased to be able to share this superb piece of non-fiction by special arrangement with Vancouver Magazine, where it appears in this month's issue, and the author, Timothy Taylor, whose new novel, The Blue Light Project, is newly published to enthusiastic reviews.]
East Esplanade in North Vancouver, opposite the industrial waterfront. An unassuming storefront. Powermax Auto Repair reads the sign above the garage door, which is battered from use. Inside, all the typical sights and sounds of an auto mechanic's shop: the flash and buzz of an arc welder, the radio playing in the background, the big red box of Snap-On Tools and, of course, the house project car. In this case a 1950s Pontiac StratoChief that sits in a rear corner of the garage, awaiting the attentions of the proprietor as these become available between jobs.
It's an ordinary place, in other words. And yet -- through the man who founded this shop, Zahed Haftlang, born in Iran in 1968, a survivor of years of war and torture, and a refugee claimant to Canada in 1999 -- it is extraordinary too for the way it connects Vancouver to a critical place and date in Middle Eastern history.
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 Sept. 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.
'An angel from space'
Najah Aboud didn't volunteer to fight. He shakes his head remembering, his hands wrapped around a warm cup of coffee in a shop on Commercial Drive. His memories are troubling and his English is patchy. But he agrees to walk me through the painful story. He worked in a Basra restaurant before the war. He was 21, with a girlfriend and a son he loved very much. He'd been on a trip to Morocco when Iraqi authorities recalled all eligible men to join the fight. "You went," he tells me. "If you didn't, there would be big trouble for your family."
Aboud had military training and was assigned to drive a tank. His division was among those sent to take Khorramshahr in the fall of 1980 and then found itself, in the spring of 1982, facing the Iranian counterattack. They'd been expecting it, but they'd also been expecting reinforcements that never arrived. And the Iranians came in much greater numbers than Aboud had been told. The Iraqis were overwhelmed. The Iranians, whom the Iraqis heard had been ordered to kill everybody, spilled around the city, pressing right to the Shatt al-Arab waterway. Aboud's group was cut off as units to the right and left were broken and fled their positions. When his tank was hit by a round from a recoilless rifle, Aboud and his crew were forced to abandon the vehicle. With four comrades, he sprinted for a bunker where other Iraqis troops had taken cover.
They fought until they had no more ammunition. Then, when the enemy reached the bunker, they threw down their weapons. They put their hands in the air. But it did no good. Iranian soldiers stormed the bunker spraying arcs of bullets. Aboud saw men falling all around him. "They killed everyone," he remembers, grimacing. "One here, one there, another one there. I was covered with their blood."
He fell to the floor of the bunker, literally under the bodies of friends and comrades. He didn't realize it at the time, but he was himself badly wounded. He'd taken a bullet under his helmet, which had deeply gashed his scalp. He'd also been wounded in the arm. He was losing blood and consciousness. Eventually the firing stopped and the Iranian troops withdrew. Aboud lay in darkness. At some point, his eyes blinked open; above him, through the deathly gloom, he saw a light.
"I thought it was an angel," he says. "An angel from space, gliding down towards me."
His heart pounded. He hardly dared breathe. The figure came closer, down and down until Aboud could see the face of a young soldier. A boy, really. And this boy bent close to stare at him. As Aboud begged for his life, the boy took his weapon and stood again. He looked around, then back to Aboud.
He pointed the weapon and fired a bullet. Not into Aboud, but into the body of one of Aboud's comrades laying dead behind him.
'It's your business, not mine'
It was a pocket-sized copy of the Koran that did it. As Haftlang stood over the wounded Iraqi, he held out a blood-soaked copy of the holy book. When he took it, Haftlang found among its pages a photograph: a young woman and child, the man's family. And thinking of these loved ones left behind, the young Haftlang suddenly didn't know what to do.
"I thought maybe that, like me, life had brought him here," Haftlang recalls. "So I decided to help him, contrary to our orders."
Disobeying an order was risky at any time. But here -- in Khorramshahr, on May 24, 1982, in the pivotal early stages of a brutal war -- aiding the enemy would be seen as madness. Treason. Still, Haftlang couldn't kill the man. And, being a paramedic, if he wasn't going to kill the Iraqi, he was going to save him.
He took a sample of the man's blood, ran it back to the medical unit and had it typed, then returned and gave the wounded Iraqi blood. He patched up the man's head and arm wounds. He got him on an IV drip, using a bayonet to hold the bag aloft. And when the man wouldn't stop moaning, Haftlang gave him morphine. Then he dragged bodies of dead Iraqis around the man, building a wall of corpses to hide him from view.
For the next two days, Haftlang kept the Iraqi sedated, returning to the bunker secretly between other duties. On the third day, he asked an officer what should happen to prisoners. After berating him for being a schoolboy, the officer decided to check protocol. He received word that, since the area was secure, they should transfer wounded Iraqis to medical units.
Haftlang went to get the wounded Iraqi and take him. Halfway to the field hospital they were attacked by an Iranian soldier who struck the wounded Iraqi in the face with the butt of his rifle, shattering his teeth. Haftlang lost his cool. He tackled the Iranian and threw him in the canal.
At the field hospital, Haftlang found a doctor, but he refused to operate on an Iraqi prisoner. After trying vainly to persuade him, Haftlang left the tent and sat on the ground in despair. He said this prayer: "Oh God, you saw how much I tried to rescue this Iraqi's life, but if you want him dead, it's your business, not mine."
A minute later someone came running out to tell him the doctor had relented. Haftlang went to help. They re-dressed and re-stitched the man's wounds. They worked on his teeth and jaw. Several days later, the doctor called Haftlang back to the hospital to bid farewell to the Iraqi he had saved. The man beckoned Haftlang close and he bent near the Iraqi's face, as he had at their first meeting. Only now the Iraqi didn't beg for his life. He said instead: "Allah salmak, Allah khalilak." Over and over again. "May God protect and assist you." And when the Iraqi tried to kiss the back of Haftlang's hand -- a sign of deep respect in both Islamic and Judaic cultures -- Haftlang pulled his hand away and kissed the man once on each cheek instead. They cried together. They embraced. Then they parted.
"An hour later a bus came and took all the captives," Haftlang recalls. "I don't know where they went."
Najah Aboud doesn't know where they went either. He only knows where he ended up: handcuffed and blindfolded at a prison he remembers being called Sangabest. It was part of an old castle in the mountains close to Iran's border with Afghanistan. Here, in a dungeon, where they didn't know night from day, 600 men were sorted into groups based on their perceived identification with Saddam Hussein. Those least loyal to the Iraqi leader, most likely to be persuaded to help Iran, went into a group where supervision would be more lenient. Those thought to be strongly in support of Hussein received the harshest treatment. Aboud was put in that group.
They were interrogated and beaten regularly. In the darkness, on meagre food rations, Aboud lost track of time. Only when he was moved to a different prison did he determine, by asking a guard, that nine months of his life were gone. In the new prison, which they called Samnan, nothing changed. Aboud and his comrades had no medical attention, no news, no radio. They were routinely tortured. Sixteen of his friends died in this jail, young men who had been with him in Khorramshahr. Outside, the sun rose and set. Inside, Aboud and his comrades endured. Eleven years passed in this way.
When Aboud was 31, he was moved again, this time to a prison near Tehran. He remembers watching jet fighters in the sky through the crack of a window in his cell and wondering if they were Iraqi jets and, if so, if his liberation was at hand. But it never happened. And he realized he didn't even know if the war was still going on. He had no idea that the conflict between Iran and Iraq had been over for six years, that his country had since fought a costly war with the United States over Kuwait, and that Saddam Hussein had again moved troops into Kuwait only to withdraw when a new American president, Bill Clinton, scrambled troops to the area.
It was 1994, and Aboud knew none of this and could only hope that one day he'd be freed. Until then, he dedicated himself to learning the language of his captors. He picked up a phrase of Persian here and there until, alone among the prisoners, he could speak with the guards. He was moved again, this time to a prison in Tehran, the Iranian capital, called Hishmate. All the while the interrogations and beatings continued. The deprivation of light, food, human kindness. Five more years passed in cells, in handcuffs, blindfolds and gags. Until one day he heard the guards speaking of another move. And this time, they speculated quietly among themselves, perhaps these few remaining prisoners -- these hard-core cases who'd been captive for 17 years and still not betrayed their country -- perhaps they would finally be released.
Aboud rode this final bus head down, blindfolded, hands bound. His heart was beating hard as he thought of what the guards had said. When they were led off the buses and their blindfolds removed, he saw that they weren't in another prison. They were in a large, bright, clean mosque. And there was food -- fruit, milk, rice cakes -- things Najah Aboud, now 38, had not seen in 17 years.
An Iranian general entered the room and approached Aboud. "Tell them in Arabic," the general said in Persian, "that we're taking you to the border and releasing you." When Aboud relayed this news, the Iraqi prisoners shouted and cheered in joy. They surged to their feet. All but one man, an amputee, who had perched in a window after feasting. This man raised his arms in triumph at the news, rolled backward out the window, and plunged two storeys to his death.
They were bused to the border. And there they made their respective ways home. Carrying his terrible memories with him, the stamped presence of all he had seen and suffered, Aboud returned to Basra to find the city had been bombed. There had been wars and events and lives changed utterly while he was away. His family was gone. His girlfriend, gone. His son, too. "The country was upside down," he tells me. "Everything was upside down."
It took less than a month to decide what he must do. He contacted his brother in faraway Canada, a brother who had emigrated from Iraq in the distant twilight of life before Khorramshahr. Before the war. As unimaginably far back as 1974. His brother said: "Najah, come join me." And so another long journey began for Najah Aboud. Into the far distance and the utterly unknown.
Tomorrow: Iraqi Najah Aboud and Iranian Zahed Haftlang come together again, under the most unexpected circumstances, in their shared rainy city of refuge far from the battlefield of Khorramshahr.