PART III: You rebuild the country, I will rebuild my pocket

(Summer 1988–1998)

The summer of 1988 was the best summer of my life. The war was over and I was no longer afraid of falling bombs nor of being brainwashed to run through a field full of landmines. The Concours results had been declared and mine were good enough to secure me a seat at the prestigious Iran University of Medical Sciences.

That was also the summer that I met Maryam. Maryam was the sister of Mehdi, a schoolmate. That summer it seemed as if the world was opening up before us. I met Maryam at Mellat Park, Tehran’s Hyde Park, and it was love at first sight for me. She was not looking for a boyfriend, however, and our relationship began with us being good friends. It was five years before we would realize that we loved one another and take our relationship more seriously. That summer, I began to take pains about my appearance again. I wanted to enjoy my life and there seemed to be no reason why I shouldn’t: I was going to be a medical student, a dream come true for any teenager. And, most important, the war was over.

It wasn’t long, though, before the Committee’s 4WDs took to patrolling the streets again, arresting youngsters for flouting the restrictions governing the interactions between the sexes. No severe punishments were doled out to us, however, and we were let off with no more than warnings after a few of the girls burst into tears. Another day, we were on our way to the mountains when we were stopped by the police. Apparently my hairstyle was ‘Western’—I simply hadn’t cut it recently—and I was to be given an immediate haircut. But only one side of my head was shaved! I looked like something out of a science fiction film, a creature from another galaxy! I was left with no option but to come back to town and shave the rest of my hair.

Nevertheless, these were mere pinpricks compared to events in the political sphere. New horrors were on their way: Khomeini was about to launch his last and bloodiest campaign.

While we were enjoying ourselves in the parks, at our secret parties and in the mountains, the regime decided—now that the external threats were taken care of—to turn to internal security issues. Over the past eight years, thanks to the war and to the extreme national security measures, most of the internal opposition movements had been suppressed or rendered inactive. But in the summer of 1988, the People’s Mujahideen, now a terrorist organization based in Iraq, launched a massive offensive against Iran. The Revolutionary Guard discovered the plot, however, and trapped and massacred the invading troops near the border.

A few years later, during my military service, we were taken by bus to that same spot. The commander enthusiastically explained how they had opened fire from the top of the mountain and slaughtered thousands in this very valley, where we had set up camp. Most of the dead, both boys and girls, had been barely 20. To set an example, he said, they hadn’t spared a single life. Even those who tried to escape had been shot. No prisoners. No wounded.

I couldn’t help but imagine the field covered with the bodies of 18-year-olds. Most of those ‘soldiers’ had escaped Iran in search of freedom. The PMO had recruited them by holding out the false hope of overthrowing the Islamic Republic and then sent them off to fight alongside the Iraqi infantry. They had no access to any information about events in the outside world. Masoud Rajavi, their leader, was their only source of news, and they had been trained to worship him like a god. Trapped in yet another orgy of brainwashing, they were the burnt generation. A generation that was promised freedom but was given only death.

This was the situation when Khomeini, trying to discourage the rise of any domestic rebels, declared that all those members of the opposition who were being detained in Iranian prisons, who still did not believe in the Islamic Republic of Iran or in the values of the Revolution, would be executed.

The executions began in the summer. Between 3,000 and 30,000 political prisoners were executed and buried in mass graves at the Khavaran cemetery outside Tehran. The actual numbers were never revealed and perhaps never will be. Only the government has the figures and it has no plans for their disclosure. The Revolutionary Court set up branches across the prisons to try the political prisoners all over again. Those who convinced the judges that they had changed their attitude and repented were either released or allowed to continue with their sentences. Those who did not were executed.

The prisoners were divided into two main groups: Moharebs (Warriors against God) and Mortads (Apostates). The Moharebs were mainly PMO members or affiliates and the Mortads mainly communists. The tribunal had a different set of questions for each group.

‘The trials were short and decisive,’ Dad’s friend Hussein told us. ‘No lawyers were allowed. We were tried, one by one.’

Hussein was one of the few survivors and he told us all about it some months later, after his release. Though quite a few of Dad’s friends had gathered at our home to welcome him back, there were still many missing, most notably Reza Company. He had not been as lucky as Hussein.

‘We knew something horrible was going on but we had no idea of its scope. Inmates were summoned to the court in groups. Some of them returned. Most of them didn’t. No one knew what happened to those who didn’t. Having lived in the prison for the past few years, we knew we had to prepare ourselves for the worst.’

No one dared mention Reza Company. But Hussein had not forgotten.

‘Reza and I were summoned in the same group. Sitting outside the judge’s room, we discussed our strategies. He said he was a true communist. And since he was already serving his sentence for that crime, there were no reasons to renounce his beliefs now. But I’m a coward. I don’t care about communism any more. I only wanted to see Heidi and my son one more time.’

Heidi took his hand. No one said a word.

‘Reza went into the room first. I could hear him shouting, that these questions were irrelevant and that this was like the Inquisition. He said he wouldn’t answer. That, according to the Constitution, no one was allowed to enquire about anyone else’s beliefs. Then, everything went silent . . . And a few minutes later, another name was called . . .’

He took a big gulp from the glass of water.

‘You don’t need to explain everything,’ said Heidi.

‘I want to. Or else I’ll die,’ he said. His hair had turned grey over the past few years and his ‘four-square’ moustache was now white. But what struck me most was the look in his eyes. I couldn’t find a single sparkle of life in them anymore, in those eyes that had always shone with authority.

‘By the time it was my turn, I had already made up my mind. I entered. They didn’t let me sit. The judge, a middle-aged, man with a beard, calmly asked me my name, age, profession, conviction and the date for my release. Then it was time for the real questions.

‘ “Are you Muslim?”

‘ “I was born a Muslim. I never renounced my religion.”

‘ “But you were a communist, weren’t you?”

‘ “I was a member of the Tudeh Party but I never renounced Islam.”

‘ “Are you still a communist?”

‘ “No. I’ve learnt a lot about my mistakes in prison.”

‘ “Do you believe in the principles of the Islamic Republic and the values of the Revolution?”

‘ “I do.”

‘ “What will you do when you are released from prison?”

‘ “I’ll spend most of my time with my family. They have suffered a lot because of my involvement in politics. My son, who was only two when I was arrested, has been deprived of my presence during his childhood. I’ll try to find a decent job. I’ll never even think of getting involved in politics again.”

‘The prosecutor seemed pleased with my answers.

‘The room had three doors, including the one through which I had entered. While he finished writing his report, the man pointed to the left door and I assumed he meant I was supposed to leave the room through that door.’

He found out later that the prisoners were divided into two groups: those who exited through the left and those who went through the right.

‘Quite a few prisoners were standing outside in the corridor. No one knew what was going on. Most of them had told the prosecutor that they still believed in their original ideals, that they had not repented. I looked around for Reza but he wasn’t there. Someone told me that they took prisoners away in groups of five to seven, and that they had already taken Reza away.

‘Finally, four other prisoners and I were taken out and made to board a lorry waiting outside. As soon as the lorry began to move, the officer accompanying us told us that we were going to be executed. And that we had better use the short time we had left to make peace with God.

‘They took us to an open space, where the firing squad was waiting. The squad commander asked the officer for our death sentences. The officer said he had not yet received them. But he asked the commander to proceed with the executions. The orders would arrive in a few minutes.

‘But the commander protested and said that he would not proceed unless he had the official orders.

‘ “I have executed a hundred people today!” he shouted, “Two I killed while I waited for their papers only to learn that they weren’t supposed to die!”

That commander had saved Hussein’s life. When the papers arrived they realized that he was not meant to be there and so he was taken back to his cell.

‘That was how Reza Company died.’

Hussein kept his promise to the prosecutor: he stayed away from politics for the rest of his life.

A few months later, Grand Ayatollah Hossein-Ali Montazeri, Khomeini’s designated successor, resigned in protest against the arbitrary executions. Khomeini accepted his resignation immediately. Yet another coup was under way: the Constitution was changed and the post of Prime Minister dropped from the government. Absolute power was now vested in the Supreme Leader. Further, the Guardian Council, whose members were chosen by the Leader, was given the power to vet and veto any candidate seeking elected office.

Once Montazeri resigned, the jokes we had so enjoyed making at his expense ceased and he became one of the most popular clerics in Iran. He was put under house arrest in Qom for 10 years and banned from teaching or publishing in the national papers. Nevertheless, he managed to publish his memoirs online, exposing the scope of the regime’s oppression and cruelty. He played a significant role in the post-election protests of 2009, mobilizing the religious sector of society in which he was held in high esteem. When he died later that year, millions of Iranian protesters attended his burial ceremony. It was a way of showing their opposition to Ahmadinejad’s government at the same time as their solidarity with Montazeri and his views.

Montazeri was once asked by a reporter why he stood up to Khomeini, thereby giving the latter an excuse to remove him from power. He could just as easily have waited a few months for Khomeini’s death. Then, as leader, he could have implemented his more liberal and democratic ideas.

‘What if I died before that?’ he replied. ‘How would I explain my silence to Allah?’