PART II: If you want the ultimate pleasure step on a landmine

Boom! We heard the sound of the explosion just as we reached the cellar. It was March 1988. The sound was so close. Another house was destroyed. Madar began to pray, calling on the Prophet and naming all the Imams and saints one by one. We all heaved sighs of relief. We had survived another rocket attack and some other family had died. We were sorry for them but there was no time for compassion. It would take the Iraqis only a few hours before they launched another missile at Tehran.

The Iraqis had relaunched the ‘war of the cities’. The first missile landed in Tehran immediately before New Year’s Eve, Norouz. The Iraqi army had not made any advance on land and Saddam had therefore decided on a diabolical strategy. He began by using cyanide bombs in the second wave of his chemical attacks against Iranian troops and even against his own people, the Kurdish villagers of Halabja. Thousands of civilians were massacred in the blink of an eye and thousands more suffered long-term effects from which most died over the next few years.

This was followed by a new series of missile attacks, every few hours, against the major Iranian cities. It wasn’t like the aerial bombing of the cities in 1980 at the start of the war. There was no time for anyone to seek refuge in a shelter. When TV or radio announced the Red Alert, it was only a matter of seconds before we heard the explosions that destroyed houses and left dead bodies in their wake. Iran began a counter-attack on Baghdad and the other major Iraqi cities within its range. The citizens realized with sinking hearts this war of the cities could go on for a long time. They began to leave the cities for the small villages outside Tehran, particularly in the North, where they were protected from the Iraqi missiles by the high mountains of the Alborz. Schools, universities and public offices were shut down so that everyone could run for their lives.

It would have been my fault had anything happened to us at that time. The more Mum and Dad insisted that we leave Tehran, the more I resisted. The National University entrance exam was only three months away and I was by no means prepared. My time over the past three years had been spent in rebellion rather than in preparation. I told Mum and Dad that the next three months were my only chance at catching up; I was staying in Tehran no matter what. My room was in the basement and I felt I’d be safe there. I encouraged them to leave me behind and go North. They didn’t agree, of course. Even Madar left her home in Qom and joined us, to make sure that we were all right.

I spent the next three months studying under siege. People were dying all around me, the Iranian troops were exhausted by the Iraqi chemical attacks and the US Navy had recently entered the war on the Iraqi side, bombing Iranian oil platforms in the Persian Gulf.

Two days after I attended the Concours, the US navy shot down an Iranian civilian aircraft and killed all 290 passengers, including 66 children. The US claimed to have mistaken it for a warplane. No one in Iran believed this story, even for a minute, the gaze of the gazelle

and it came as the final blow against the fragile forces of Iran. On 20 August 1988, Khomeini declared that Iran would accept UN Security Council Resolution 598 on a ceasefire.

Happy are those who have departed through martyrdom . . . Unhappy am I that I still survive . . . Taking this decision is deadlier than drinking from a chalice full of poison. I submitted myself to Allah’s will and took this drink for His satisfaction . . . You know that I had made this pact with you, to fight to my last drop of blood and my last breath but my decision today is only based on expediency discernment. I have defaulted on all my promises, only hoping for God’s forgiveness, and if I had any honour, I have now traded it with God.

I heard the news of the ceasefire from Dad. I was standing in front of the door of our house, waiting for a friend. Suddenly, Dad’s dark-blue Peugeot 304 turned into the narrow alley and screeched to a halt. He jumped out of the car, flushed with excitement and smiling from ear to ear. Crushing me in a bear hug, he shouted: ‘Arash, the war is over!’

I had an acute sense of déjà vu. We were replaying a scene from 10 years ago, when Dad jumped out of the same car and shouted to me that the Shah was gone. I didn’t know whether to be excited or worried. The last time I had seen Dad so happy, things hadn’t turned out quite the way he’d hoped. The Shah was gone and the first instalment of Dad’s dream was fulfilled but that had led to the establishment of another tyranny, far more cruel than that of the Shah and with a million deaths to its credit so far. What would happen now? Dad’s dreams usually came true but usually also with dire consequences.

The war was over but we had lost a lot: so many friends gone and so many horrors witnessed. It was hard for us to be completely happy. The war had taken away part of my youth. We were neither happy nor sad. We were confused. No one could be quite sure that the future would be any brighter.