Da (Mother) 76

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni
Translated from the Persian with an Introduction by Paul Sprachman

2023-12-18


Da (Mother) 76

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

Translated from the Persian with an Introduction by Paul Sprachman

Persian Version (2008)

Sooreh Mehr Publishing House

English Version (2014)

Mazda Publishers

 

***

 

Chapter Fourteen: Refugees and Evil Zahra

After the death of Ali, almost all my memories faded. Thoughts of Ali occupied my mind so much that my attention to other things dwindled to nothing. Time and space collapsed for me. I went on working out of habit. This is why my memory of many things is not that reliable. Time erased many of the events. I was like a sleeper who awakes from a dream with a start and only remembers a few things about it.

The mosque was still very busy. The crowds there swelled with people we pulled from their neighborhood homes. Groups of people were constantly leaving, and others were coming to take their places. Families had their own particular problems. The food situation was not good. The adults could tolerate it, but the little ones, especially the children who were on powdered milk or the ones feeding on a solution of sugar water and dissolved biscuits couldn’t get their fill. On most nights the sounds of their crying echoed in the mosque, driving everyone to the limits of their patience. The men were worried most that a shell would hit the mosque directly, causing mass casualties. Once, when I was not at the mosque, this actually happened.

When we told people there was no point in staying, they would ask, “Where should we go? We don’t have cars. How can we get to other cities without them? Abadan is also being shelled. You have to do something for us.”

Which was what happened. Once someone called me out of the clinic, saying a vehicle was coming and I should help them get people.

I would ask, “How? With what? If they hit the car on the bridge, then what?”

“There’s no way we’re taking the bridge,” I was told. “We’re going on the Shatt by boat and dropping them off somewhere above the bridge.”

“From where?” I asked.

“The Khombeh side, where the Forty-Meter Road ends. It’s safer there.”

Khombeh meant the part of the Shatt by the Mosaddeq Hospital. At that point the Karun River entered from the northeast, then changed course flowing to the center of town. This was considered the easternmost part of the city. The other girls and I got busy rounding up people from the prayer room, telling them they had to be ready to leave the city.

This made quite a few of them angry at us. Although we had been warning them from day one it was not wise to stay, they still hadn’t cut ties with their old lives and villages. “Where should we go?” they asked. “The war’s going to end. We’ll wait it out here until we can get back to our lives and homes. Where are you going to make us live like refugees?”

Even the children were complaining, “We want to go home. We want to go to school.”

By contrast, there was another group of people ready and eager to leave. They had every right to be fed up with the shelling and not knowing what was going to happen to them. These poor people were always with their bundles of possessions by their sides, ready to flee at a moment’s notice. At night they would untie their things and in the morning repack them, expecting something to happen.

With the news a truck was at the door, we asked the people to get up and bring their things outside. We helped the armed civilians and the guards at the mosque see to the needs of people. Everybody loaded what they had lugged to the mosque: large boxes, old metal trunks, cardboard cartons, even televisions.

Some people helped us move their possessions aside, because there wasn’t room for everything in the truck. We loaded women and children first. There were no young men in the crowd. The elderly and those who were unable to fight and were in the mosque stood to one side.The truck filled with women, children, and old ladies, some sitting and some standing, then it started to go, traveling from the Forty-Meter Road in the direction of the Farmandari Circle. The driver stopped at the end of the avenue that led to the Shatt. People got out and made their way to the water. I always liked this part of the waterway. So many reeds had taken root on both sides of the avenue it was now a beautiful, green meadow. The water level along the Shatt was high, and the water was murky. Skiffs, small launches, even rowboats crowded around taking on passengers. To get people in the boats they had to put planks in the water and, despite my fear of the water, I tried to help several of the women with small children board.

It was difficult to walk because my feet sank deep in the soft mud. In addition to the people we had brought, there was another crowd waiting to cross. People already on board stood up in the boats to make room for more, though the boats didn’t have far to go to get to the other side. During the move, a corvette-class warship came through the Shatt, and several of the sailors shouted their greetings and encouragement to the people on shore. The people waved back at them. Although the corvette was moving slowly, the water turned choppy in its wake. The small boats rocked, terrifying the passengers and making it difficult for those on the narrow planks to maintain their balance. The poor things thought they would fall in. The panic caused by the choppy water combined with the roar of enemy planes and bombs, terrorizing them even more. The crowd on the banks and the corvette made a tempting target for enemy fire. Suddenly all hell broke loose. The people on the banks started to run in all directions and then dove to the ground. The people in the boats looked up at the sky in fright, at a loss as to how they would get to the other side. At that moment I caught a glimpse of a young boy who had lost his balance and fallen into the water. No one else saw him. I ran into the water shouting, “Get him! Grab him! He’s fallen in! There’s a boy in the water!”

No one heard me in that din. Terrified that the innocent child might drown, I dove in even though I couldn’t swim. Thank God it was not that deep near the boat, but deep enough for a five-year-old to drown. After I went in, one of the men on the banks also rushed into the water. I paddled with my arms and feet for five or six meters until the water was up to my chest. I became frozen with fear. Then everyone, noticing what had happened, began to scream, calling on the sainted Abbas Abol Fazl for help. The boy continued to flail about, as I got closer to him. I grabbed his arm, but he went under and I tried to pull him up. At that point, the man who was right behind me dove down, caught hold of the boy, and lifted him out of the water. The people on the boat took hold of the boy and slapped his back to get him to spit up the water he had swallowed. I tried to get back to shore as my chador bobbed up anddown on the surface of the water. I emerged covered in mud and slime, but just as I reached dry land jet fighters appeared in the sky above me. There was nowhere to take cover so I dove to the ground and covered my head. Everyone was terrified; a number of people wouldn’t stop screaming, while others tried to calm them by saying the planes were only for reconnaissance. Fearing the planes were on a bombing run, most people didn’t listen. The planes headed for the corvette, which had disappeared among the reeds. They dropped two bombs; the first didn’t go off, landing with a splash. The second exploded in the water, sending up jets of spray. We remained motionless for a few minutes.

Evil Zahra, a young woman who had come with me from mosque, was white as a sheet. Fear made her eyes bulge from their sockets. She wouldn’t let go of me. Soaked to my skin with my clothes all muddy, all I wanted was to find some privacy so I could wash, but, feeling sorry for the girl, I stayed by her side. I said to her, “Don’t be scared. It’s nothing. Try to control yourself.” After it was over, I got up but this Zahra stayed on the ground. She pretended to be struck dumb with fear. Familiar with these antics, I knew she was faking. “Enough drama,” I told her.

I walked away angrily, leaving her by the shore. Fear had scattered people in all directions; some even ran as far as the Mosaddeq Hospital. I went to retrieve them and, just as I reached the hospital, the sound of planes breaking the sound barrier froze everyone in place. My nerves were shot now. I didn’t have a chance to duck down, but as soon as I bent over to dive I caught a glimpse of the caretaker at the municipal motor pool making a mad dash from the yard. I kept my eyes on him. He was around forty and wore a blue shirt that seemed to be part of a uniform. His sleeves were rolled up to his elbows. He kept running until he was clear of the place.

The sound came nearer and nearer. I fell to the ground as the fighters struck the motor pool building. The explosion was truly horrifying this time; it shook the area like an earthquake and sent thick clouds of dust into the air. The blast, followed by the demolition of the buildings at the end of the compound, the smashing of glass, and the whine of the shrapnel as it burrowed into the walls was so deafening I felt like my eardrums were about to tear. I still had water in my ears from diving into the Shatt to save the child. This magnified the sounds even more. The shock wave from the explosion cascaded to the ground. When it broke, the pressure was so great it felt like my chest would crack open.

Lying on the ground as dust, dirt, and bits of brick shot toward me, I looked around for the caretaker. In the seconds it took for me to dive to the ground, a piece of shrapnel had decapitated him, but his headless body, mangled and bloody, and continued its mad dash until it ran into a partially open double door and hit the ground. The sight petrified me. Anxiously looking around, I saw the nearest person to me was a soldier from the base, whom I knew slightly.

“Come, let’s help him,” I said.

“What do you mean, help him?” he asked. “He has no head.”

“Maybe something can be done,” I said.

Over the roar of more jets, he shouted, “Take cover! There’re about to blast this place!”

 

To be continued …

 



 
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