Birds were chirping from the blooming trees, as we walked through the grassy gardens. A little girl ran up to us and offered us some cookies from her family's picnic. No we weren't in a park celebrating the end of No Ruz with the thousands of other picnicking families; this was not a festive celebration. Quite the contrary, we were at Golestan-e Shohada, or The Rose Garden of Martyrs, in Esfahan. Golestan-e Shohada is a memorial for the thousands of people from Esfahan who lost their lives during the grueling 8 year Iran-Iraq war.
Our friend Mohammed, who lives here in Esfahan, took us to the memorial. At first I found it a bit strange how happy he was to take us there and how he kept describing everything as "Zeboke", which means "Beautiful" in Farsi. But I soon started to realize that Mohammed wasn't alone in his feelings. The people of Esfahan, as with the people of Iran in general, are very proud of their martyrs, of the people who risked their lives fighting what they saw as a just and holy war with Iraq.
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I walked through the beautiful flower-lined memorial, looking at picture after picture: black and white images of smiling faces, most of them merely boys that died fighting a war that had no winner.
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"When a country has been at war for 8 years, and has lost as many citizens as have been killed here, even if you win you are still a loser," said Louie, our translator here in Iran as we walked through the memorial. There were thousands of photographs of soldiers and civilians from Esfahan who had died during the war. Esfahan is not even in the Khuzestan Province , the oil rich province on the border of Iraq that hosted most of the war, and yet it felt the effects so sharply. So many of the faces I kept seeing were so young.
"How were they allowed to fight? Wasn't there an age limit?" I asked Louie. "Was there a draft to force them to go to war, or did they go willingly?"
I was surprised to see the enthusiasm and pride with which Iranians talk about the war and all those that lost their lives in the war. There were many posters for sale at the small shop in Golestan-e Shohada, that I found very disturbing, but many Iranians described as "Zeboke" (beautiful). They were gruesome pictures of bloody battle scenes and dying soldiers with quotes like:
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"We went to the war in the name of the 3rd Imam. Imam Houssein was killed in the war too."
"I hope the pen of any historian who does not write the truth of what happened to all the soldiers of Imam Houssein breaks."
Imam Houssein is the 3rd beloved Imam of the Shi'ite people, which is a sect of Islam. The Shi'ites believe there are 12 descendants of the Prophet Mohammed who succeed him as leaders of the Muslim people. This is the fundamental difference between the Shi'ites and the Sunni Muslims. Iran is a Shi'ite country and the nation as a whole holds a special reverence for Imam Houssein, the grandson of the prophet Mohammed, who was martyred by the Sunnis at the battle of Karbala in Mesopotamia over 1300 years ago. These posters at Golestan-e Shohada are comparing Imam Houssein's valiant death to the deaths of all the Iranian soldiers who died in the Iran-Iraq war; relating martyr to martyr, holy war to just war.
"There was no draft officially, but people were pressured in to going to war in many other ways," explained Louie. "There was pressure from the community, workplaces and schools, questioning a young man's loyalty who didn't go to fight. Boys were teased at schools for not going to war and teachers would question parents who did not send their sons.
"The army would take kids as young as 14 years old. There were only a couple weeks or so of training," he continued. "You don't need much training to go to the top of a mine. The younger boys were usually sent forward to open the land mines."
Mohammed who was only 12 years old when the war finally ended in 1988, told us that he wished he had been old enough to fight in the war too. He would have been happier. Instead, he had to wait at home with his mother, while his older brothers and friends went and fought.
"You mean even women went to war?!" I asked surprised to think of a woman joining the army of the Islamic Republic of Iran.
"Women could join the army, but they were not sent to battle. They worked in hospitals and other back-line jobs," explained Mohammed. "But these women over here," he said pointing at another row of graves. "These women were some of the many civilians that died unnecessarily during the war." There were graves of men, women, and children...tiny babies that were killed during one of the many bombings that Esfahan endured. During the last few years of the war, Iran and Iraq raised the stakes, and instead of keeping the war contained to the border provinces, Iraq started to send long-range missiles to other big cities of Iran like Tehran and Esfahan.
"I still remember the sounds," recounted Mohammed. "The missiles would come at night. All night long the sky thundered with loud booms."
The more I walked, the more photos I saw, the more it started to sink in: this war really effected everyone in this entire country for many, many years. It didn't just affect the people living in the Khuzestan Province. It wasn't constrained to just the young men. Esfahan lost over 23,000 people. The entire nation of Iran went to war for eight long years, and it wore the country out. Families were left without their fathers and brothers. Schools were left without teachers and students. The government was left without money and resources. And everyone, to a certain degree, lived in fear.
Louie comes from Mashad, all the way in the eastern region of Iran. Even in Mashad, thousands of miles away from the Iraqi border, the war had its affects. Since government funds were all being spent on the war effort, public services like schools and even water and electricity were operated at a minimum. The most obvious effect was that the population of Mashad doubled to over 4 million people during the war years, as Iranian people fled in terror to the farthest city from Iraq as they could get to.
grueling - exhausting
martyr - a person who sacrifices their life for an ideal
reverence - honor or respect felt or shown
valiant - possessing or acting with bravery or boldness
The melodic voice of a singer reciting verses of the Koran played through the open door of a car parked beside a picnicking family. I walked towards the haunting songs that somehow seemed to accentuate the silence more. The kind family immediately invited us to join their picnic. They were joined together to remember one of the women's husband, who was killed in battle during the war. Her brothers and sisters and their families came to share the beautiful day together and teach their children about this important period in their history. The woman whose husband had died was proud to show us his picture and seemed proud that he had died for such an heroic cause. Little boys ran between the pictures playing as little boys do. They were lucky enough to not know what it's like to grow up during a war. They did not have to stay up all night listening to the crashing of missiles, wondering if the next one would hit their neighborhood.
Click here for more information on the graves at Golestan-e Shohada.
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