I celebrated the Iranian New Year in the midst of dust and death. On the frontlines of the Iran-Iraq War.
But it was one of the most beautifully spiritual experiences of my life.
Set aside any religious and nationalistic affiliations, and just listen to these stories of brotherhood, courage, sacrifice, love and faith.
A commander who, before selecting which of his soldiers will go fight, writes his own name on each slip of paper. He draws his own name, says goodbye to his brothers, and is killed in the line of duty. His fellow soldiers discover afterwards what he did. They cry over their brother.
A leader who decides to blow up a bridge adjoining two cities, in the face of the advancing army. His act alone saves the city, that was also victim to a chemical attack.
A military diver is injured and screams in agony. His fellow soldier holds him and says “I know you’re in pain, but if you scream, you’ll give away our location to the enemy.” The injured soldier puts his face down into the mud and screams until he no longer feels pain.
A shaheed’s mother finally visits the place of her son’s death in a canal. The soldiers who fought at the canal died hungry and thirsty, when the Iraqi army refused to allow food and drink. She grieves, yet is given solace by tales of his bravery. Someone asks her: “How old was he?” She says: “13.” But only those 18 years of age were allowed to fight! “But he wanted to go, he begged me. He loved his country and he wanted to die for Islam.”
At every war front, I close my eyes and envision what it must have felt like. When the Iraqi army surrounded them and refused them water and food. When the military divers were captured, their hands tied and buried alive. When they fought helplessly, choking, as a cloud of chemicals was unleashed into the air.
I saw graves of babies, toddlers, families – all wiped away, thanks to the chemical warfare provided generously to Saddam and his army.
I saw graves of gomnaam, or those killed who were unidentified. My tears flowed for those mothers still waiting to see their sons one last time.
One mother, some 30 years later, was finally reunited with her son’s remains. She held the small bundle of bones wrapped in a white cloth, close to her heart like a mother holds her newborn. “He was this small when he entered this world. And now he’s this small when I’ll be burying him.”
The world of war is a complex place. There’s adrenaline pumping, a fervor to get the job done – and yet, this uncertainty of what’s to come.
Sometimes we see war as a child’s game. There’s no real foundation for it, just a push for a fight to reclaim some bragging rights. We’ve seen the sad outcomes of such games – soldiers coming home to horrific nightmares, suicidal veterans, PTSD, emptiness, guilt.
While there is no such thing as a ‘clean’ war, there is such a thing as an honorable reason to fight.
Throughout all the stories of war shohada, one thing was common: their love for Allah, Ahle Bait and fighting for Islam. ‘Ya Zahra’ was their battle cry. Their military units were named after the Holy Prophet (S), Hazrat Fatima Zahra (S). Their operations were named ‘Karbala,’ ‘Fath Mubeen.’ Their boats were named Ashura. ‘Ya Mahdi Adrikni’ was written on military vehicles.
Iran didn’t have the international backing Iraq did. It didn’t have chemical weapons. But it had the fuel to fight – and that’s what saved Iran.
There is a pride for those that gave their lives to protect an Islamic Iran. Citizens from all over the country descend on the south of Iran to pay their respects to the shohada. Their pictures grace the sides of buildings, billboards, and walls of shops.
Bodies of shohada are still being discovered today. Just last month 68 Iranian soldiers were found, along with 26 Iraqi soldiers. Last year thousands flooded the streets to honor the 175 military divers who were buried alive. Their bodies were discovered last year on an abandoned Iraqi base, in full uniform with their hands tied.
A picture of a man in military uniform adorns a large poster on the wall. He is a shaheed. His widow lovingly motions toward it, as she speaks about her husband’s desire to go to Syria and protect the shrine of Hazrat Zainab (S), where he was killed.
She holds back tears as she smiles when retelling the story of how her husband went to Syria. He was a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War. He was injured in Khorramshahr. But he wanted to go to Syria. The army wouldn’t give him permission. So he went to Mashhad and prayed to Imam Reza (A). Once he left the haram, he got a phone call summoning him to Syria.
“I see him everywhere. I see him standing here, I see him sitting there. The kids can even still smell his scent from his things.”
While you can see her sadness and feel her loneliness, there is a peace around her. Her sons and daughters-in-law welcome us into their home, with warmth and love. And here I’m feeling uncomfortable – they’ve just lost their father, I think to myself.
The family sits with us and makes us feel like we are old friends. They smile and laugh. They speak of their brave father with pride, not despair.
Only 50 days ago. 50 days before, they got the news that their father was martyred in Syria while defending Hazrat Zainab (S).
“That was his goal – to be shaheed. Although I’m sad and I miss him terribly, this gives me peace. I know he attained his goal.”
وَلَا تَحْسَبَنَّ الَّذِينَ قُتِلُوا فِي سَبِيلِ اللَّهِ أَمْوَاتًا بَلْ أَحْيَاءٌ عِندَ رَبِّهِمْ يُرْزَقُونَ
And reckon not those who are killed in Allah’s way as dead; nay, they are alive (and) are provided sustenance from their Lord.
(Holy Qur’an: Chapter Aal-e-Imran, verse 169)
I sit by a grave of a gomnaam. It eerily haunts me – there is no name, no father’s name, no date of birth.
I stand for a while and glance to the right and left. There are other gomnaam. They share a symbolic date of birth engraved on each stone: 15 Khordad 1342. The date of the initial uprising against the Shah. The day when Imam Khomeini gave his famous speech from Masjid Fayziye in Qom.
I’m a mother. My heart throbs for those left with empty hands. And for those men laid to rest with no name.
I can’t help but think of their last moments. Were they alone? Were they scared? Were they thinking of their families? I can imagine Imam Hussain (A) comforting them as they take their last breaths. It will be alright. You have succeeded.
Then I read the story of a shaheed’s love for Hazrat Zahra (S).
His sister writes: My brother had a special place in his heart for gomnaam. Because he considered Hazrat Zahra (S) a gomnaam. Bi mazaar, or without a resting place.
This shaheed so far hasn’t been found. He has a memorial plaque in Behesht-e-Zahra in Tehran honoring him and his service.
One can only wonder what love and faith he had. As he desired his end, he achieved it. I can only pray to be as lucky as him.
Dear shaheed e aziz, peace be unto you and your efforts. Although your family must miss you greatly, I know they are proud of you. We all are grateful for your sacrifice.
You must be at peace right now, even though you haven’t been found. Because Madar is with you. It is said that Hazrat Zahra (S) visits the gomnaam because their own mothers cannot sit by their graves.
وقتى كه تو با نام حسين نفس مى كشى
كربلا را پيدا مى كنى
زهرا را هم پيدا مى كنى
آيا عشق را احساس مى كنى؟
آيا زيبايی خدا را مى بينى؟
خوشا بحالت – آزاد هستى
When you live and breathe Hussain,
You find Karbala.
You find Zahra.
Do you feel love?
Do you see the beauty of God?
You are blessed. And you are free.