Da (Mother) 90

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

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


Da (Mother) 90

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 Twenty Two: Iraqi Prisoners

We were in the area around Arya Lane in a truck with three wounded we were taking to the Taleqani Hospital when we saw a man standing beside the road waving his arms. The driver stopped and the man stepped forward. I knew him vaguely. He worked at the Jannatabad mosque. “We found a body here,” he told us. “We were bulldozing and it came up in the blade.”

“We’ve got wounded. Let us get them to Taleqani, and we’ll be right back,” I said.

We delivered the wounded and returned. The man and two others had been working the bulldozer and filling sacks with loose dirt and sand. They explained the sacks were for protecting the hospital. I walked to the bulldozer and saw the body of a soldier in the blade with his torso and the head hanging out. The corpse was skin and bones and dried up as if it had been mummified. The skin had turned violet and was singed in places. Clearly it had been there for several days. Despite multiple shrapnel wounds, there was no blood. There was a smell, but it wasn’t strong enough to drive people away. To me it was strange that it hadn’t disintegrated. The soldier, I guessed, was part of the invading Iraqi forces coming by water from Minu Island and had been caught in our mortar fire. He tried to take cover in the pile of dirt, but then died from fatigue and hunger.

“Did you go through his pockets?” I asked.

“We didn’t dare touch him.”

With disgust I pulled an ID, a family photo, and some crumbled cigarettes from his shirt pocket. The ID was illegible because it was wet and the ink ran. The only word I could make out was the Arabic al-naqib, which seemed to be his rank. I looked at the picture, which showed several women, children, and men standing next to one another. Their faces and clothing said that they were Iraqi Arabs.

They loaded the body in the truck and it drove off. While we waited for the truck to return, we took a stroll in the area looking for a radio and other equipment. We crossed the road, and about 150 meters away a barrel caught my eye. I suggested to the people with me that we look inside.

One side of the barrel was dotted with bullet holes. To my surprise, we found the body of another Iraqi soldier in it. From the pool of fresh blood at the bottom, I assumed he had been killed that day. The body was crammed in the barrel making it hard to get out. As it emerged blood spilled to the ground, and the stench turned my stomach.

I wondered if there was a connection between the two men. Had they come to spy or were they trying to surrender? I went through the man’s pockets but found nothing. The body was in pitiful condition. There was a lot of shrapnel in the back, and the area around the kidneys was completely butchered.

The poor driver returned only to be confronted by yet another body. They put it in the truck. I got in, and we delivered the corpse to the Taleqani morgue.

In front of the hospital I saw that an ambulance with the Oil Company insignia had pulled up with more wounded. The driver told the nurses, “We’ve got many burn victims at the Oil Company Hospital. There’s no room for them, so we brought them here.”

I walked over to the ambulance. I had heard that during the first days of the war, they had bombarded the refinery at Abadan. Forty people had died, and between 120 and 140 were wounded. The fire fighters who had come to put out the blaze also fell victim to the disaster.  Every day would bring word of new horrors. Seven firefighters had been burned. One person had fallen into a pit so fiercely on fire they couldn’t retrieve his body.

When they opened the door to the ambulance, I saw there were two wounded inside. One was badly scorched, a blackened piece meat. There was no way of telling whether his skin was naturally black or whether it had been charred. The man’s face was in relatively good shape, but strips of flesh had been torn from it. Blood flowed from the wounds on his arms and face. The man didn’t groan when they put him on the stretcher. They put a blanket over his face and quickly took him away. The second wounded man seemed to be in better shape. He had burns on his arms, hands, and back, and some of his skin was hung loose from his body. His burnt hair and blistered face made him look quite scary but, apart from this, his condition was not that bad. Because of the burns on his back, they put him on a stretcher and carried him away.

After all this time, they still hadn’t managed to put out the fires in the big oil storage tanks. They stopped traffic from going on the avenue that led to the refinery. When we were in Abadan, we could feel the heat of the blaze and see flames shooting up several meters in the air. The temperature was higher than normal, and in several parts of the city people were finding it hard to breathe.

I had seen burn victims before. Once I was bringing bodies to the morgue with the help of a couple of the boys. It was dark, and I got to the door of a home before the others to open it. As soon as I turned the handle, I saw a man squatting on the floor with his hands over his head. The man was black from head to toe. I figured that, having come to be with one of the dead, he was in his own world. It was dark, and I couldn’t see clearly. I said hello but heard nothing. I figured he was so grief stricken he hadn’t noticed I was there.

The boys brought up the corpse, and I opened both parts of the double door. Since the man was in the way, I said, “Would you mind getting up? You’re in the way.” Again, there was no response. I shined a flashlight in his face. All at once I saw this charred body. I began to tremble and my heart leaped from my chest. Terrified, I ran outside. The boys told me that the body was probably that of a helper on a tank, who had been burned alive while in a sitting position. Since we didn’t have tanks, they reasoned, he had to be a Baathist.

And there was the time I saw one of the Iraqi prisoners. It was during those first days when we moved into the Sheybani clinic. They had shifted a large number of people from the mosque, clearing it out considerably. They closed the prayer room, and the foot traffic became mostly military.

That morning the girls at the clinic said they had captured prisoners at the front.

When I went to Jannatabad, they said the same thing, adding that all sorts of people were among the prisoners—English, German, and Iraqi. This surprised me, and I asked, “Well, how did they end up here, I wonder?” I wasn’t aware that the rest of the world was backing the Iraqis and supplying them with materiel.

On the way back to the mosque, I heard they had captured a jeepful of foreign reporters. They had also taken many Iraqi’s prisoners. They also said that there had been women in the foxholes. These reports made me curious to see the prisoners. I wanted to see for myself if there were actually foreigners among them. Toward evening the boys said that they were bringing prisoners to the mosque. When I got there, I saw that a lot of people who, like me, wanted to see them and had gathered in the yard, making quite a commotion. After a quarter of an hour, several young men brought in a relatively heavy-set, tall man who seemed around thirty-five. He was a good-looking man who bore no resemblance to an Iraqi. His light-colored eyes, sandy hair, and fair skin, which had gone red either from the heat or fear, said that he was non-Iraqi. He was wearing a fresh uniform, but there was no indication of rank on his shoulders. Contrary to what I expected, his hands were free and his eyes were not blindfolded. He sat immediately in a corner of the compound, stretched out his legs, and put his hands behind his head. He had a horrible case of the shakes. He kept repeating rapidly in Arabic, “Help me. Help me. I’m your prisoner.”

The people standing nearby were yelling at him. A few were cursing and wanted to beat him up. The others stopped them. One of the boys said, “Son-of-a-bitch comes here begging for help. But when he was at the front, his shooting was making life hell for us.”

Then he held up the badges of rank worn by the prisoners and said, “He’s a captain. He tore off his epaulettes. I found them right where we had taken him.”

This enraged the people even more. When the prisoner saw this, he started to act strange and said, “This is a sanctuary. The house of God. I’m Shii. I’m Shii. Give me water. I’m thirsty.”

The boys began to tease him saying, “Don’t be afraid. We’re not cannibals like you. We’re not Baathists. Your people are the savages.”

I was just as anxious to see the prisoners, so I could let them have it myself, but when I saw how low he had come, how abject, how he expected to die, my heart went out to him. I stepped forward and said in Arabic, “Don’t be afraid. We won’t harm you.”

He looked at me and said in Arabic, “You’re Iranian?”

“Yeah,” I said. “I’m Iranian. Where are you from? Baghdad or Basra?”

“I’m not Iraqi,” he said. “I’m Jordanian.”

“If you’re Jordanian,” I asked, “what are you doing here? Why have you come to fight us?”

“I didn’t want to. They forced me.”

“That’s what they all say, but, given the chance, you fight us till the last bullet. When that’s gone, you surrender and say they forced you. If that’s true, why do you keep fighting until you run out of ammunition?”

He looked down. I continued, “Just look who you’re up against. A handful of women and some defenseless boys. Our forces are just like your kids. They’re the ones standing up to you.”

Although I was fighting back tears at that point, I went on. “What do you want from us? What did we ever do to you? Why don’t you let us go on with our lives?” The man quickly repeated, “Forgive me. Forgive me.”

“Don’t worry,” I said. “We follow the Prophet’s example. We treat prisoners kindly. Whatever you need, tell me and I’ll get it for you. No one will harm you here. You’re a prisoner and will be treated according to the dictates of Islam. Islam, not the Geneva Convention.” The man calmed down a bit and said, “I want water.”

I told one of the lads to bring some water.

“How about a cigarette?” I said.

From the way he said “Yeah!” you could tell he was dying for a smoke.

He took a drag on the cigarette they gave him, and my emotions got the better of me again. I said, “Look, I’ve stayed in the city so I could stop your troops. I buried my father and my brother with my own hands. You people killed them. You make war on us, but we don’t know the slightest thing about war. We also have no equipment, but we do have God. It’s our faith that gives us the strength to fight you.”

After I told him they had killed father and Ali, his cigarette went out. He kept his eyes pinned on me until I had finished. Again he asked for forgiveness. I stood beside him, waiting for them to bring the other prisoners, but there was no sign of them. They had taken the rest directly to Abadan.


End of Chapter Twenty Two


To be continued …


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