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

Why do I remember all this? Because we children were ineluctably doomed to know what was going on in our country. But we were also confused. We weren’t entirely sure that believing in Khomeini was the right path; even as 10-year-olds we could understand and condemn the violence that came next; even we could feel the terror spreading.

Ahmadreza was a 16-year-old boy and a neighbour of my Aunt Sediqeh. Whenever Madar came to Tehran to visit us, she would spend a few days with Aunt Sediqeh before returning to Qom. Whenever I could, I accompanied her; there, I would spend time with my cousins Kazem, Soussan, Soheila and their neighbour Ahmadreza. He was our mentor and the neighbourhood favourite. He was finishing high school and his range of interests and knowledge was considerable. After a game of football in the street, he would buy us ice cream and talk to us about everything, from his problems in studying geometry and biology to explaining how a wind was created. Sometimes we sat on the doorstep as he read to us and then quizzed us about what we had just heard. A faint moustache was making an appearance; a beard seemed far off. He was funny, energetic, kind and wise, and everyone anticipated a bright future for him.

It was the middle of June, 1981. I had finished my exams and the summer holidays had just begun. Elementary school was over and, in the long break before I began junior high, I was free to go with Madar to Aunt Sediqeh’s.

When we arrived, my excitement dissolved into anxiety as soon as I saw the tearful faces of the neighbours standing at their doors as well as two uniformed Committee members strolling in the street, asking everyone to go home. Madar took my hand and dragged me towards Aunt Sediqeh’s house but no one opened the door. One of the neighbours, a woman in a black chador, her eyes red from crying, came to us and whispered that my aunt and all the children were at Ahmadreza’s house.

‘What’s happened? Why is everyone crying?’ asked Madar.

‘Ahmadreza . . .’ the woman sobbed.

‘What’s happened to Ahmadreza? Is he ill?’

She looked around to see if the two Committee members were watching, then whispered, ‘He was executed last night.’

Madar slumped to the street and began to wail. I simply stood there, aghast. Why would someone execute a schoolboy? It couldn’t be true. And then I remembered Azadeh.

We went to Ahmadreza’s house. Aunt Sediqeh hugged Madar, sobbing. Kazem and Soussan had been crying silently; they grabbed me by the hand and pulled me to the corner where we all sat beside my other cousin, Soheila. Almost the same age as Ahmadreza, she had been his sweetheart. We all knew it. He’d follow her around with lovesick eyes even though she was not allowed to return his affections. It was a traditional neighbourhood and it would have been considered immodest for a girl to be ‘involved’ with a boy.

Soheila was sitting in the corner, staring into space. Every now and then a tear would fall, tracing a wet path along her dry cheek.

Ahmadreza’s mother was wailing and cursing everything and everyone, including Imam Khomeini, Ayatollah Guillani, the Jurisprudent Judge, and Asadollah Ladjevardi, Head of Tehran’s Revolutionary Court and chief of Evin Jail where Ahmadreza had been executed.

‘Soheila, what happened?’ I asked.

Soheila said nothing.

‘Soheila, it can’t be true!’ I cried. ‘Ahmadreza was the best! What will happen to you now?’

This question finally penetrated her silence. Perhaps she was thinking the same thing, regretting never having told Ahmadreza how much she adored him, how much she loved to hold his hand, even if only for a second. Later, I came to know that Soheila had always dreamt about the day when Ahmadreza would finally come home with his family and ask for her hand . . .

We listened to taped recitations from the Quran:

When the sun is folded up;
When the stars fall, losing their lustre;
When the mountains vanish;
. . .
When the oceans boil over with a swell;
When the souls are sorted out
And when the girl is asked
For what sin she was slain . . .

‘My heart is broken, Arash . . .’ said Soheila finally and began to weep. I sat there with her and we cried together for what seemed like an age. Time had stopped, and we felt that we could bear the loss as long as we could shed tears for him. But then came a time when all our tears ran dry. Soheila took our hands and we silently left Ahmadreza’s house forever. There was a photograph of him on the table, surrounded by black candles; his eyes seemed to follow Soheila with so much desire, as if he were trying to say, ‘Don’t go Soheila, at least wait until the candles have burnt out . . .’

Soheila explained everything to me that night. Ahmadreza had been a supporter of the People’s Mujahideen. Though it had a significant number of official members, its main power lay in the support from the youth who were, quite simply and in most cases, fond of its revolutionary rhetoric. The People’s Mujahideen had also been a key supporter of Khomeini during the Revolution.

A few days after the impeachment of Bani-Sadr and his going into hiding, supporters of the People’s Mujahideen had organized a huge demonstration in the streets. But the crowds were confronted by a massive police crackdown. Most of its leaders had already fled Iran; those in the streets were mainly its young supporters. Thousands were arrested during that demonstration on 20 June 1981; hundreds were condemned to death in collective trials and executed within hours. There was no question of either providing them with legal help or of allowing them a chance to appeal. Later, when a foreign reporter asked Ladjevardi why they had been deprived of their rights, he answered: ‘The crimes of these people are so clear that no lawyer would dare to defend them. Were they to do so, they, too, would be charged with the same offence.’ It was then that Ladjevardi was awarded the title of ‘Hangman’ by the people. Many years later, after he had retired, he was killed by an anonymous assassin’s bullet. People felt no sorrow or regret when they heard the news.

Next day, the names of all the executed prisoners were published in the afternoon newspapers and it was only then that hundreds of families discovered their loss. More names were published the day after and yet more the day after that; this went on for some time. Families with missing children formed long queues at the news-stands every afternoon, waiting to buy the paper and skim fearfully through the names of the hundreds who had been executed the night before, searching for mention of their children. A woman breathed a sigh of relief: although her 16-year-old daughter was still missing, at least her name was not on the list. Another woman shrieked and fell to the ground, having come across the name of her son. People gathered. Some shouted in anger, others tried to silence them lest a policeman arrested them, too.

The boys were shot instantly; the girls were given a few more hours. Islamic law forbids the killing of virgins. Therefore, each girl was forcefully married to one of the guards. After he had raped his new wife, she was eligible for execution.

Years later, I had an employee, Ali, who had been a guard in Evin Prison in the 1980s. After a nervous breakdown, he had picked a fight with Ladjevardi and hence been sacked. He recounted many blood-curdling tales from that time, repeatedly asking for God’s forgiveness as he did so.

‘They usually executed them in batches,’ he once told me, while we drove to Isfahan on a business trip. ‘I was one of the guards who had to be present during the executions, although I wasn’t in the firing squad. One night, about 24 young prisoners from death row were to be shot. When the squad began to fire, a 17-year-old girl who, miraculously, hadn’t been hit, threw herself to the ground and feigned death as she lay there in the blood of her slaughtered peers. To save the bullets, the victims didn’t receive a coup de grâce, and because of time constraints and the sheer speed and volume of the executions, no doctor was brought in to verify whether the youngsters were really dead.

‘They put the bodies in a huge trailer to take them to the cemetery. I was asked to escort it in a police car, and a city truck moved behind the trailer to wash the road clean of the blood seeping from it.

‘When we reached the cemetery, we found a mass grave dug and waiting for the bodies. The girl had escaped as soon as the trailer had stopped. But overwhelmed and paralyzed by the darkness of the huge graveyard, she simply squatted behind a bush and waited for us to leave.’

Ali slowed down the car and wiped the beads of sweat off his forehead.

‘She didn’t know there’d be a body count.’

I looked at him, surprised.

‘The officer accompanying the trailer soon found out about a missing body and he realized what might have happened. He sent all the guards to look for her. They found her soon enough and dragged her towards the grave while she howled and begged the officer to spare her life.’

I asked him to pull over. It was too risky being driven with those trembling hands. He obeyed and took a large gulp from his bottle of water.

‘You don’t have to tell me this, you know,’ I said.

‘No, no! I have to, now that I’ve begun.’

He took a deep breath and finished the story.

‘The guards kept her standing over the grave. The officer took out his gun and pointed it at the poor girl’s forehead. I was watching, and she turned towards me and begged: “Please . . .”

‘That was her last word. A blast . . . and she fell, like a young tree cut down, into the pit.’

Ali’s lips were trembling. He took another gulp of water.

‘I simply stood there, watching. She had been raped and beaten. She had seen her friends die around her. She had faced the darkness of the graveyard. She had looked into the eyes of her executioner . . . And she had looked at me and asked for my help . . . She was only 17. My daughter is 17 now.

‘I wish I had said something . . . I wish I had protected her . . . I wish I had died trying to save her life . . . But I simply stood there and watched. That’s why I’m never going to see a good day again.’

He told me he rarely slept without seeing those imploring eyes in his nightmares. He suffered from an anxiety disorder so acute that it could only be quelled with opium. His wife and children had left him and he had never managed to find a proper job since he left the police force—until I employed him as the company’s driver. And this misery followed him to his death: one day, he simply drove his motorbike into a few cement-filled barrels placed across the street as traffic barriers. Comatose for two weeks after that, when he finally regained consciousness he could recognize no one and was completely paralyzed. He died a few months later.

Ahmadreza’s family never got a chance to say goodbye to him, not even to his body which was buried secretly. They only received his clothes, his wallet and his will, and that too after they had paid the cost of the bullets used for his execution.

Soheila eventually recovered from the trauma. She studied hard and became a successful GP.

But she never married.

Thousands were executed and thousands more were sentenced to 7–10 years’ imprisonment. No country condemned these arbitrary executions at the time. Reagan was designing his Star Wars defence initiative while the rest of the world was steeling itself for what was to become the final decade of the Cold War. In the meantime, Iranian youth were being massacred, either by their own government or while trying to defend their country against Saddam Hussein (who thought he was destined to repeat the Arab conquest of the Persian Empire). The world remained silent. And there were no camcorders then to provide the international media with journalistic scoops. No one cared about the collective murder of these juvenile prisoners.

The people of Iran said nothing either. It was as if the country had been reduced to silence. Parents silently watched their children being butchered and didn’t take a single step to stop it, largely out of fear for their remaining children.

The executions went on for several years. Ayatollah Guillani signed the death sentence of his own two sons, who were supporters of the People’s Mujahideen, without a moment’s hesitation. ‘The Revolution will no longer tolerate any opposition,’ he announced to anyone who cared to listen.

Overnight and in retaliation, the People’s Mujahideen turned into a terrorist group. On 27 June, Khamenei, Khomeini’s delegate in the Supreme Council of Defence, survived an explosion from a bomb hidden in a tape recorder and placed beside him at a press conference. His right arm was permanently paralyzed. The following day a bomb exploded in the general assembly of the Islamic Republic Party and killed Muhammad Beheshti, one of Bani-Sadr’s most feared opponents, along with 90-odd other members, each a prominent political figure. Khomeini declared that nothing would change: ‘Kill us. It will simply awaken our nation.’

A presidential election was held in less than a month’s time and, on 15 August 1981, Prime Minister Rajaii, supported by Khamenei and Rafsanjani, became President without much competition. But he was destined to be so for only 15 days. On 30 August, Prime Minister Javad Bahonar and he were killed in another explosion, this time in his office.

The People’s Mujahideen accepted responsibility for this attack as well.

In the next election, Khamenei, promoted to the rank of ‘living martyr’ on account of the failed assassination, won the election to become Iran’s third president in a single year.