On September 22, 1980, the Iraqi military marched into neighboring Iran under the orders of President Saddam Hussein (1937-2006). Tensions between Hussein and Ruhollah Khomeini (1902-1989) had been brewing over control of the Shatt al-Arab river, Iraqi nationalism and Khomeini’s calls for the Ba’ath party to overthrow the Iraqi government. The conflict raged for eight years before a cease-fired was signed in August, 1988. It is estimated that the war resulted in the deaths of nearly 1.5 million Iraqis and Iranians. On both sides, villages were destroyed, leaving thousands homeless and families permanently separated. Children as young as thirteen were conscripted to serve, becoming trained killers before the age of twenty-one. After the cease-fire, prisoners of war remained held in prisons on both sides before they were slowly repatriated. This book is the story of two of those prisoners who survived the war, living to tell their story about the war that changed their lives.
Zahed Haftlang was born in the town of Masjed Soleyman in Khuzestan Province, Iran. His relationship with his father, whom we come to know as “Baba”, is not good and serves as the main catalyst for his flight from home. At the age of thirteen, he joined Iran’s Basij paramilitary and for six years he fought in the war before being captured by the Iraqi army. in 1982. By Iraqi protocols, he should have been executed, but his captor showed mercy and transported him back to base for medical treatment. Along the way, he suffers more injuries at the hands of Iraqi soldiers but arrives in stable condition. He was then joined by other captured Iranian soldiers and for the next seventeen years, he remained there as a prisoner of war before being released in 1999.
Najah Aboud was born in Iraq and grew up in the Shula neighborhood in Baghdad. At the age of eighteen, he joined the Iraqi army and was formally discharged in his early twenties. He was called back to serve at the age of twenty-eight when the war broke out. In 1982, he was captured by Iranian forces and and spent seventeen years as a prisoner of war.
The two stories are interesting and although parallel, they show two different sides of the war. What is clear from the beginning is that neither man wanted the conflict but rather a normal life that would include a career, marriage and children. Their goals are simple and under normal circumstances achievable. In fact, Najah had been operating the Bruce Lee Restaurant before the war destroyed his efforts. The arrival of the war changed all of their dreams each one recounts how destruction settled in as the bombs fell and all hell broke loose. It is at this point in the book that the stories change gears and the ugly realities of the war become vividly clear.
What I noticed in each account is that on both sides of the war, chaos reigned. Neither goes through any type of basic training but rather are thrown into positions and forced to learn through baptism by fire. Their recollections of battle scenes and the horrors of war are graphic and sobering. Make no mistake, they do not sugar coat this part of the book, it is as real as it gets. Eventually, both are captured and their experiences as prisoners of war are where their accounts diverge, showing a very stark difference in treatment of prisoners of war. For Najah, his time served in Iranian camps is quite mild although mundane. He longs for his fiance Alyaa and son Amjad. But for Zahed, the Iraqi camp is nothing short of a nightmare. The descriptions given by him of his time as a prisoner of war are beyond shocking. Inhumane would be an understatement to describe his treatment at the hands of officials, most notably the antagonist Mira Sahib, whose sadistic behavior is repulsive. By the time Zahed is released, he is a shell of himself and man haunted by the war in which he fought. A shining light comes in the form of Maryam, whose entry into his life influences the decisions he makes as love becomes a very real possibility. Najah continues to carry his own own scars as well without any information of his future wife and son.
The realization that both Iraq and Iran suffered tremendously during the war hits home and they both realize that moving abroad is the only way to help their families and themselves. In a twist of fate, both end up in search of a new life in North America. Vancouver, Canada is the destination and fate intervenes in ways that no one could have ever imagined for them both. Upon arrival life is tough for both, but various figures enter the story, each to serve a different purpose in their lives. And even after adjusting to life in the U.S., there is still much they must deal with regarding their former lives as soldiers on the front line.
The ending of the book is beyond moving and puts the finishing touch on two incredible stories. Both express their gratitude to author Meredith May for writing this book and I do too. It truly is an exciting and emotional book to read but crucial in understand the effect of war on all involved.