The Odyssey
The Odyssey
Base Camp
Trek Connect
Time Machine
Multimedia and Special Guests

Middle East Abeja Dispatch

A War with No Winners: Visiting the Iran-Iraq Border
April 22, 2000

Click image for larger view
Why do these bombed out buildings remain, 12 years after the war?
Walls riddled with bullet holes and bombed out buildings line the streets of Khorramshahr, Iran. It looks like a war zone, because, well, it was a war zone. Even though the war has been over for twelve years, this town has not been fully rebuilt or cleaned up. Along the Karun River, which divides the town in half, old, rusty shells of boats line the shore, and masts of sunken ships rise up from the water. A large bridge touches both shores, but is missing the middle section, the part that runs over the water.

The heat is oppressive, even though it's only April, which adds to the sense of hopelessness that this part of the city conveys. "This used to be a beautiful town," Hady tells us, as we survey the destruction before us. We drive near the mouth of the Karun River, where it lets out into the Arvand River, which leads to the sea.

"There." Hady points out across the Arvand in the distance. "That is Iraq."

Click image for larger view
The Iranian border guard must be pretty bored in this desolate place.
We charter a fishing boat to take us in for a closer look. This is not exactly my idea of a pleasure cruise, but it is worth the look. Steering our way around the fishing nets, the boat takes us all the way down to the mouth of the river, guarded on both sides by Iranian soldiers. The guards seem incredibly bored, and don't mind at all that a boatload of Americans is playing around the border. I suppose they wouldn't really care if we left Iran...they're just trying to keep people from coming in!

The Iranian side of the border-along both sides of the Karun River-is the town of Khorramshahr-a beige mess of half-built, half-destroyed buildings and a bit of grass and some palm trees to add color. Across the Arvand on the Iraqi side, there is only one building visible, everything else is green grass and palms trees. I don't even see a border patrol...but I don't think we'll risk checking it out!

Click image for larger view
Jazzy over the Arvand River. In the far distance is Iraq.
This is the Khuzestan province of Iran, which Saddam Hussein, the president of Iraq, claimed was historically part of Iraq back in 1980, setting off the 8-year Iran-Iraq war . Of course, this area just happens to be very rich in oil reserves. According to Saddam, the Karun River was really part of the Arab world, and he wanted to take it back. Hey, wait! Isn't that the same trick he pulled back in 1990 when he invaded Kuwait, and claimed that it was historically part of Iraq as well? Did the US come to the rescue this time, too?

Well, no. As a matter of fact, the US had decided back then that Saddam Hussein was the lesser of two evils, and we supported Iraq in their aggression against Iran. "Everyone was against us." Hady told us. "Saddam called the Karun River the Shatt-al-Arab, the 'Arab River,' in order to raise the support of the other Arab nations."

"But Iran won the war, right?" I asked Louie. "Iraq didn't get Khuzestan."

"No one won the war." He told me with a sad look in his eyes. "Both sides lost. The only winners were the arms dealers."

Click image for larger view
These boats were dragged out of the water to be sold for scrap metal.
I thought of the rows of young men's faces in graveyard I visited with Kavitha in Esfahan, and the statues in every city we've seen in Western Iran, commemorating the war. I think of the famine and misery that I hear about from Iraq today. No, there doesn't seem to be a winner, does there? I wonder if the wealthy US arms dealers ever think about this.

As we motored up the Karun, the fisherman pointed to each boat along the way. "This one, they pulled up from the bottom and are going to restore." He explained via Louie, our interpreter. "And that one there used to be one of the biggest boats in Khorramshahr. Now they are taking it apart to sell the metal for scrap. Look at that mast sticking out of the water right there. The bottom of this river is covered with sunken boats."


oppressive - (in this case) overbearing, too much to withstand
conveys - shows, displays
commemorating - making a memorial or show of honor to
aggression - acts of violence, war, or anger
revitalize - to bring life back into
humbling - causing one to be meek or modest in spirit

During the war, the Iraqis had occupied the northwestern side of Khorramshahr, on the left as we rode upriver, away from Iraq. What once was a beautiful, active port and a booming oil town was reduced to rubble. We passed the remains of a huge old dock, where kids were playing in the water.

"I have six kids," he tells us, "and I have only caught one fish today. Since the war, there are no more fish in the water."

Most of the population of this city left during the war, moving far away from the Iraqi border. Looking around, I can see that there was not much to attract anyone back after the war was over. There is one large soap factory here, but little else. Even though this is an oil-rich region, the money has not been used to revitalize this town. Has the city been forgotten? Was it left this way as a reminder? What will happen to the people still living here? Will they continue to survive by fishing the last fish out of a polluted river, and selling scrap metal from sunken ships?

Click image for larger view
These metal pillars used to support a huge, bustling dock.  Now its a swimming hole!
While we were gone, some boys broke into our bus, which is a very rare occurrence in this country. But then again, this town is different from the rest of Iran. It is a border town, where the people have seen a lot of war and violence between human beings. Nonetheless, the people of the town helped us get our things back, and treated us very well. That, in itself, was a humbling experience, considering the fact that the bombs and bullets that leveled this town were sent to Iraq by our government. Check out my other dispatch for the rest of the story.


p.s. - Please e-mail me at


Kavitha - Life is not a Picnic
Abeja - Islamic Law: A First Hand Experience
Kavitha - Welcomed into the Folds of a Kurdish Village
Monica - A Jewish Iran!
Jasmine - Achaemenians: In the Beginning...
Team - Earth Day: a Celebration and a Reminder

Meet Abeja | Abeja's Archive

Base Camp | Trek Connect
Time Machine | Multimedia and Special Guests

Home | Search | Teacher Zone | Odyssey Info
Meet Abeja