Da (Mother) 98

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni
Translated from the Persian with an Introduction by Paul Sprachman

2024-5-19


Da (Mother) 98

The Memoirs of Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

Seyyedeh Zahra Hoseyni

Translated from the Persian with an Introduction by Paul Sprachman

Persian Version (2008)

Sooreh Mehr Publishing House

English Version (2014)

Mazda Publishers

 

***

 

No one spoke along the way, but they signaled to one another to be careful so often it scared me to death. Worried my footsteps on the dry grass and leaves would make too much noise, I tiptoed as I moved with the column. At the head of each alley we reached, the soldiers would signal us to stop while scouts reconnoitered. Then they would signal us to take turns crossing the open space, while maintaining separation. This became the routine at alleys and crossroads.

As soon as they heard a sound, the Iraqis would rake the area with machine gun fire. We had to stop or change directions when that happened. We didn’t see them but expected them to jump out of the grove or from the roof of a house at any moment. We finally came out of the grove and reached the wall of the customs building. I had originally thought we were going to reach the entrance of Sentab by going down Mowlavi, which ran parallel to the tracks; but we were forced to cross the tracks and head straight to customs and then follow the wall to the entrance.

As we went forward, we encountered a number of bigger and newer homes. Suddenly all hell broke loose. They were firing at us from everywhere. We were so dumbstruck we couldn’t tell where the Iraqis were firing from or how they had found us. The only thing we were conscious of was the commander and his subordinates barking rapid orders, “Retreat! Get back on the double! Move!”

The sounds of Kalashnikov rounds, machine guns, and RPGs came from everywhere. Dazed and confused, I didn’t know where to run, where to take cover. This was the first time that I found myself in the thick of battle. I followed the boys wherever they ran, but bullets were coming in every direction, forcing us to crouch and stay close to the ground. We remained motionless for a while. Then they signaled for us to crawl forward on our bellies. The boys took the boxes from us and dragged them along the ground, making a terrible racket. Snaking my way along the sandy ground was very hard. My shins and knees started to ache, but I had to go on. At several points, I felt I didn’t have the strength to continue. I sat up to straighten out my legs for a few seconds.

Our situation was nothing to brag about, but at least we had gotten out of range of the Iraqis. We took cover behind a house to catch our breath. I was bathed in sweat and my heart was racing. The commander appeared, looking ragged and on edge. One of his subordinates said, “God was very merciful. Two of our scouts were leading us straight into the heart of the Iraqi forces. If we had listened to them during those last moments, we would certainly have been captured.”

My heart sank. We had been about to be ambushed by the enemy and weren’t even aware of it. I had admitted the possibility of capture to Aqareb Parast and was prepared for it; but now that things had reached this stage, accepting the reality was difficult. It tormented me to think I could be captured without putting up any resistance or firing a shot at least. I always thought I would fight back if surrounded. As the enemy’s hold got tighter, a person was expected to resist and, eventually, die. But thus far I hadn’t done anything; I hadn’t fought, nor had I provided help to the wounded.

As we were taking a breather, someone said, “It’s impossible to go any farther this way.”

Having gone halfway, we had to retrace our steps. After conferring with a couple of the soldiers, the commander chose another route, and we slowly and quietly got underway. We passed through some of the village huts and areas where the downtrodden lived and reached a half-built structure near customs. The building was two or three stories and overlooked the interior of customs, giving us relative control over our surroundings. The commander asked us to divide up quietly and take positions on the different floors of the building.

It was decided that three of the six nurses would be on the lower floor, three on the second, and the rest who were to do the fighting would occupy the roof. As we took up our positions, they told us to walk on the steel girders because the ceiling of the unfinished building might cave in.

We went inside. Sabah, Dr. Sa’adat, one of the young men, and I were to go up to the second floor. The “stairway” consisted of loose bricks piled up, which made the going very difficult. The boxes we carried were heavy and there were no decent footholds. Finally, after much slipping and falling, we reached the second floor and sat on the girders. From that vantage we could see the first and third floors through the unfinished floor and ceiling. We also had no trouble hearing the Iraqis. They were at the port. The commander believed one of them was spotting for their artillery.

We had just sat down and were looking around when one of the boys on the roof started shouting, “Death to Saddam! Death to the Iraqis!” Then he began to fire. It was the same young man who had lost his nerve when we were first under fire. He was so enraged he couldn’t say more. His colleagues had been trying to calm him, but he had apparently become unglued at the sight of the Iraqis. Maybe the looting of the port had sent him over the top.

By opening up on the Iraqis, he drew all their fire on us. They hit the building with so many RPG rounds that it shook. One shell managed to penetrate the floor we were on, hitting a wall a nearby wall and exploding. We jumped up in a panic. Dr. Sa’adat asked me whether we should run downstairs.

“Yes,” I said. “You go first.”

I grabbed a box and retraced the wobbly brick stairway we had so carefully negotiated on the way up. As soon as my foot reached the sloping surface, the box began to slide down ahead of me. I realized that if I didn’t let go, it would pull me down with it. I let go and the box tumbled down the stairs, coming to a stop on a pile of sand at the bottom. The box was shut tight so the contents didn’t spill out. I began to slide down myself and made clumsy landing on the floor, covered in dust, scrapes and bruises. The building was still under fire, and I thought the buckling iron beams could come crashing down on our heads at any moment.

They told us to drop everything and run.

Almost everybody raced from the building, exposing themselves to gun fire. We gathered by a mud wall, apparently part of a animal pen, and took cover there. “What damned fool fired?” we asked one another. Somebody said it was the same boy who lost it when they had first begun to shoot at us. When he saw the Iraqis looting the port, he couldn’t stand it and started firing. Then he jumped from the roof.

People were certain he had died. To make sure we got up and ran behind a wall, which wasn’t all that high, and took cover. The firing was so intense we didn’t dare raise our heads; nevertheless, the boys managed to sneak peeks and shoot back at the enemy. All we could hear was Iraqi gunfire. They must have had us under surveillance from the Port Administration Building and customs. From there and from the containers piled up in the yard, they had control of the high ground. We were stuck. The seconds ticked by with no improvement in our situation. All the soldiers were riled up by the boy who had thrown himself from the roof, saying it was his idiocy that put us in this fix, killing himself in the process. He was the one who gave our position away to the Iraqis so they could fire on us. The commander signaled the men to be quiet, but some of them continued to grumble.

In front of us was an open area with houses in the distance. The leaders insisted we shouldn’t make a move until the fire died down, so for two hours we didn’t move a muscle. Finally the firing died down, and we were about to make a move when we heard a sound. Thinking the Iraqis were advancing toward us, one of the boys peeked around the wall and yelled, “He’s alive!”

“What are you talking about?” asked the others. “Who’s alive?”

“The one who threw himself off the roof, and he’s moving toward us,” he explained.

I listened carefully; it sounded like he was dragging his foot. I snuck a peek at him. He was covered in straw as he sidled in the dirt toward us. Still under fire he would sit up at times and then crawl. Noticing where he was headed, the Iraqis began to rain down more fire on us. The boys motioned to him to keep coming. It seemed to me his leg had been broken, and he was in a great deal of pain as he tried to cover the distance to our position. He fell down a few times but got up again. After he finally reached the wall and sat down, they asked him, “Why did you do that? How did you survive the fall?”

“I couldn’t come down the stairs. I saw a load of straw and dove into it. I almost suffocated.”

After he had calmed down a bit, they told him, “That was not the right thing to do. You almost got us all killed. Do you have any idea how long we’ve been pinned down here?!”

Upset at himself, the boy said, “When I saw how easy it was for them to enter the port, saw them rushing in without a care, it made me sick. I couldn’t stand it.”

The boys said, “We’ve probably seen worse, and if this was all about taking it, then we’d never have come to the front.”

With all the soldiers worn out and some even reluctant to go on, we decided to go back. The commander said, “Let’s return so we can say our prayers and renew our forces. We’ll get back to the front using a different way.” We retreated along the same path we had so painstakingly taken. Aqareb Parast was no longer in the bunker. His forces had evidently gone forward.

We crossed the railroad tracks and, after leaving the alleys and lanes of Mowlavi, entered a small mosque. The courtyard of the mosque was bustling. A squad of reinforcements was there. Most of the men were soldiers, but there was also a sprinkling of civilian militia from the area. People were running back and forth. They had placed some food and munitions in the rooms opposite the prayer room. The doors to the prayer room were closed, forcing all to mill about in the courtyard. In one corner was stacked all kinds of materiel covered with tarps. I didn’t try to see what was under them. The crowd was making such a racket I couldn’t make out what was being said.

With the water cut off, medical services were in bad shape. There was an awful smell everywhere. A tanker was parked by the latrines, but I didn’t know whether it had water. Despite this, Sabah, a girl who had joined our group at some point, and I managed to find a strip of sheeting, which gave us some privacy. We used the water from the ablution pool in the center of the courtyard to wash for prayers. Not having been replaced for a while, the water in the pool was fetid and murky.

 

To be continued …

 

 



 
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