TEHRAN, IRAN—It’s a cold Friday morning, and small clusters of men and women dressed in black are shuffling through the gates of Beheshteh-Zahrah (Zahrah’s Paradise), Tehran’s main cemetery. As is the case every Friday, they are headed to Golzareh-Shohadah, the Garden of Martyrs, to see the sons, husbands, and fathers they lost in the Iran-Iraq War. It is the first time they have come here since news of Saddam Hussein’s capture made headlines around the world.
Golzareh-Shohadah is lined with marble plaques and tin stands, each containing a small shrine to the dead soldier, giving each a human face and story. Every Friday, mothers come with rose water and small brooms to sweep the headstones before they sit down and cry for their lost sons. “I start with my oldest son,” says Zainab M. “My other two are buried on the next block. I lost them all within three days of one another.” For Zainab, news of Hussein’s capture doesn’t mean much. “It won’t bring my sons back. The closure must come for the other families, those who never got the bodies back.” She motions a few plots away. “That family lost eight sons; only six of them were found. Most without heads, Saddam is to blame. He must answer for our dead.”
Others come with surviving family members to sit silently among their dead, laying their hands on the stones to recite silent prayers. A mother and father sit on a bench next to their son’s grave. The father is on his hands and knees with tools he has brought to repair minuscule cracks in the cement surrounding the plot. There is a small government plaque recognizing their son, Said Nikkhoo, as the first soldier to die in the war. “How do we know they have really found Saddam?” asks Nikkhoo’s father, echoing a popular sentiment. “It doesn’t look like him; how can we know for sure?” As for justice, Nikkhoo’s mother has her own ideas. “Give him to me,” she suggests. “I will skewer him the same way he did my son.”
Despite the exhilaration at his arrest, many Iranians wonder if coalition forces have the right man. “Everyone knows Saddam had body doubles, how do we know it is really him they captured?” asked Ali, a 28-year-old engineering student. “How could he look so fit after living in a hole for so many months? Maybe the Americans are using one of the doubles to improve their image.”
The Iran-Iraq war began in 1980 after Saddam attempted to overtake the oil-rich southern regions of Iran. By its end, eight years later, over 250,000 Iranians were dead and hundreds of thousands disabled. Many continue to suffer the effects of the chemical weapons used by Iraqi forces. Nowhere outside of Iraq does the demand for Saddam to be put on trial resonate more than in Iran. While massacres like the one in Kurdish Halabja in Iraq gained national attention, the atrocities committed against Iranians during the war have garnered less interest.
“The Americans should give Saddam to Iran,” said 56-year-old Ezat Purmasinah. “We must first get justice for what he did to Iranian families. We must find out what happened to our missing sons, then they can do whatever they want with him.”
Before leaving to visit her other sons’ graves, Zainab joined some of the other families who had gathered. “Saddam killed his own people just like he killed ours” she said, “Iraqi mothers cry over their sons’ graves like we do. We mourn for their dead like our own. It is Saddam who did this to all of us.” Everyone nodded their head in agreement.
Special thanks to Mehyar Mehrdad.