'I Could Not Imagine What Peace Looked Like'
by ALI CHENAR in Tehran
02 Oct 2010 19:04
[ dispatch ] Three decades after the beginning of an eight-year-long war that altered the very fabric of Iran's society and political system, many Iranians, particularly the young, struggle with how it should be remembered. Although many are respectful of the sacrifices made during that period, few consider the political establishment's emphasis on its commemoration to be sincere.
This past week marked the 30th anniversary of the beginning of the Iran-Iraq War in September 1980. When Saddam Hussein's army crossed the international border, revolutionary fever was at its peak in Iran. The Islamic Republic was only in its second year and had already experienced the downfall of its liberal provisional government. The hostage crisis was in full swing and there was an ongoing power struggle in a country where revolutionary cleansing had just begun.
Ironically, the day the war began coincided with the very first day of the Iranian school year. Millions of six- and seven-year-olds were about to start the first grade on the eve of the conflict. Violence loomed over the lives of many Iranian youngsters through most of their school years. Today they are in their 20s and 30s and they remember the days of war all too vividly.
Sanaz, a 34-year-old woman who works as an engineer and lives in central Tehran, is one. I shared a cup of coffee with her last week. As the TV in the coffee shop showed footage of the war's first phase, she suddenly exclaimed, "I miss those days!" Startled, I asked why. "It was horrible, I know, but people were different," she explained. "They cared more then. They helped each other. The society had not become this ugly. I miss that and I miss the songs."
People Sanaz's age hardly had anything else to listen to. The only music that Islamic Republic of Iran Broadcasting (IRIB) was allowed to share with its audience was either marching tunes or war songs. Almost everything else was banned, from folkloric to pop. In the absence of alternatives, war songs became popular hits. One of the most popular in the early days of the conflict, according to Amir, a 38-year-old shopkeeper, was "Pilots, Heroes."
He told me, "In those days, when they would sound the air attack alarm, we ran for the shelters. I always believed there was a fighter pilot somewhere who was going to shoot down those damned MiGs." He sighed. "To me, an eight-year-old kid, they were the ultimate heroes."
I asked him if he misses those days. "No, I do not. When the war ended, I could not remember or imagine what peace looked like. War had been everything and everywhere. When the 'war of cities' broke out and Saddam blasted his missiles at Iranian cities, we had to go to the countryside to live with my grandparents to be safe. My father was scared that any day the MPs would snatch me out of a bus and sent me to the front. So I always had my high school identification card with me. I still have nightmares about the bombings and the missiles."
It seems if there is one feeling that everybody remembers from those days, it is the sensation of fear. Fatemeh, a 26-year-old graduate student, still remembers that fear: "When the war ended, I was only six years old, but I remember the missiles and the little puff they made in the sky before falling down on their target." I asked her how she feels about those who fought in the war. "I respect them. They were very brave. I know many went to front because of their beliefs and some went because they had to and were conscripted. I think all of them were very brave to face those days and that danger. I respect them and admire them. They suffered and many, like the veterans wounded by chemicals, are still suffering." Her eyes lit up in anger: "And our government is not doing anything for the real heroes of the war. All of this propaganda means nothing. I know of a lady whose husband was chemically wounded at the front, and she had to work in people's houses as a maid. The compensation they were receiving was so little that it was a joke."
Despite all the media attention and public shows of appreciation and gratitude, many young Iranians believe that the government's platitudes are neither reflected in action nor rooted in genuine principles. Hamid, a 28-year-old single man who works for his father, is named after an uncle who was killed in the first year of war. "My parents and grandparents do not talk about the war and my uncle as much as the TV does," he observed. I asked him if he thinks people like his uncle are still around. "No, no. We do not have individuals like them anymore -- we do not have people who leave their livelihoods to risk their lives. Now it is all about business. My father lost a lot in the war, but I know of many who became billionaires over night because of the war. Many profited from it and still do while people like my uncle died. I admire my uncle for his courage, but I know I won't risk my life like him. No, we do not have people like that anymore."
"Respect" and "admiration" are words frequently expressed when one talks about the soldiers, Guards, and Basijis who fought in the war. Zeynab, a 30-year-old mother of two, shares those feelings: "The older I become, the more I respect the war generation, my parents and those who fought. I cannot imagine starting a family amid a war or supporting one in those days. The more time passes, the more I appreciate them. Because of them, I survived and become a grown-up. I know I owe them my life."
When I shared these reflections with Sanaz, she smiled and thought for a moment. "I think we should glorify that generation," she said, "the people and their courage, but not the war. War was a horrid thing. Still we should remember the courage and the sacrifice." Holy were the people, not the war.
Copyright © 2010 Tehran Bureau