Reza Barhaghani’s English was totally fluent with that little sibilant whisper the Iranians have when pronouncing an ‘s’ which is quite distinctive. He sat at the desk a little crumpled as if he was a piece of origami left on a schoolroom window ledge and with a measure of weariness about him that years of living in this desert prison had caused. His skin had dried to fine tanned parchment with the hot air and sun as he and other men played soccer in the yard or exercised in the gym without air conditioning but with a tin roof.
“At first we worked well away from Tehran then later in a place a few hundred kilometres north west of the city. Not too far away were a few buildings enclosed by a security fence and cars would come and go from there, sometimes trucks. We could see it from the hill.”
“What was your work?”
“I was a gravedigger with my cousin. We exhumed bodies.”
Normally this was the opposite of what one would expect from a gravedigger who would inter bodies.
“ You dug them up?”
“Yes. This is the implausible story. This is what your government told me was implausible.”
He sat forward in his chair mashing his hands together squeezing the top of one fist then the other.
“You know about Evin prison?”
I knew about Evin prison from the statements of others and by my research to verify their claims of torture. This together with researching the torture methods of the Chinese and Americans left images flickering at the edge of my view of the real world which I still have trouble rewinding onto a spool and putting away into the archives. I was particularly haunted by a secret film of a prisoner having his eyes scooped out by a mullah holding a sharpened spoon and will never forget the piercing animal screams that came from him as the mullah loudly intoned the verses of the Koran that permitted him to do such a bestial act.
Women were raped by their torturers in groups of three or four men or singly, often filmed to show their relatives in order to pressure them to reveal information clearly often just sadistically because they could. The women would disappear from the room in their chadors accompanied by the men, struggling and crying trying to drop to the floor and being dragged out like some giant black salamander over the banks of a stony river bed. Some would go quietly not wanting the extra violence or not knowing what was about to happen to them. One particularly nasty video showed a woman vomiting into a basin surrounded by the men raping her while she leant on all fours, oh no, I forgot, that’s right that was the Americans, it was on the net for a few short hours then disappeared but no doubt they showed great manners in allowing her a basin to vomit in, most considerate. Then these poor souls would return to the interrogation room weeping and moving like tortured willows in a gale, some would be thrown to the floor and stay there like rag dolls tossed by some hateful and indifferent child.
They used teased electric cables to thrash the soles of the feet even of children and electrodes to burn the genitals, anuses and nipples of men and women and on and on it went, the human imagination perverse and wicked beyond comprehension dreaming up ways to inflict every type of pain possible.
There were the hangings from cranes, the hangings by chains, ropes, cables, over the lampposts over a girder over a doorway (suicide apparently). There were the blackened pools and smears of blood, semen and other body liquids and it was sickening, all of it so when Reza asked me if I knew Evin prison, I nodded and said, “A bit. Just a bit of reading.” I got ready to take notes. “Tell me your implausible story.”
He looked nervous and tired, his hands continued their roundabout wringing and squeezing, like some Lady Macbeth caught in a loop. I waited.
“I had qualified with a PhD in metallurgy but couldn’t get work. Everyone in Iran is qualified in something impossible to get a job in and I was desperate to get something, anything. Anyway, my cousin Mehdi, called me and told me about this job he had just started, they were looking for another guy to work with him finding and reclaiming the bodies of martyrs from the war to send them back to the families for burial. It happens periodically that they find a few dozen bodies in a group and ship them back so the families can mourn and celebrate the martyrhood of their son or husband. There are places where they bury unidentified martyrs and people go and weep over them just as if they were family. The martyrs are revered in Islam, people go to extremes in Iran about them especially back then. Did you hear of the Fountain of Blood?”
I nodded. I had heard of the Behesht-e-Zahra the huge cemetery in Tehran where the martyrs of the war were interred. The Fountains were a symbolic reference to the blood of the martyrs and were simply fountains with water coloured red to inspire faith and a spirit of sacrifice. They fell out of fashion eventually and the colouring of the waters was halted much to the chagrin of the faithful few.
He went on. “At first I wasn’t interested when he called me. I trained to dig up minerals not human remains but in the end, what are we but minerals and water? So I asked about the pay, it was good. I said yes.
We had to go out into known battlezones and begin looking for bodies. There were over a million people killed in the war so there was plenty to look for, no shortage of bones. We’d dig them up and try to find ID but not everyone had it, soldiers would have dog tags but plenty of volunteers had nothing.”
This sounded normal post conflict procedure and nothing to get excited about and I had dozens of clients booked that day during the taskforce into Baxter Detention Centre and was keen to move through quickly, assessing which claims were suspect and which held enough veracity for a Ministerial appeal. Not all were truthful of course as I was to find some time down the track which was both disheartening and hurtful but at that time I gave everything to these men abandoned for years in the desert of South Australia, the longest being seven years in detention, no charges, no criminal behavior, just for coming across the sea to claim a new life on the basis of the shit of the old.
“We did this job for a few months, digging up skeletons and bodies, some in a pretty good way, I guess the sand preserved them, sometimes you could still see the person in the face sometimes there was no face. “ He abruptly leaned back and grimly laughed, “Sometimes no head! Anyway, then something changed maybe about ten months or more after we started.”
“We used to see if we could find ID as I said before but often there was none. Then as I said, things changed. We started to get ID sent to us.”
I looked up. “What do you mean?”
He smiled grimly. “Just that. They gave us the ID of the person before we dug them up.” He leaned back and pushed his hands firmly between his crossed legs, as if he was posting a large envelope.
He frowned at me as though I was some cretinous thing lumped in front of him. I said nothing.
“The bodies were sent back to the families of the martyrs!”
This didn’t make any impression on me at all. One million bodies, one million families; the genome project asserts we all go back to a pair, an Adam and Eve so what did it matter if one femur belonged to Ali and one to Hussein, a soupcon of homogeneity, who cares? It was no wonder his case was rejected.
“You got anything else?” I said starting to pack up the folder.
“Yes! That’s not all!” He looked at the doorway to the little glass window above the push plate. “The guards, they are there, looking and listening!”
I turned around to see the face of one of the guards quickly move away from the window then got up apruptly and opened the door. I called out to the retreating guard who had a head like a smacked melon. ”Hey!” He kept moving down the corridor, pretending he hadn’t heard me. I went back in a bit rattled by this blatant breach of protocol.
“Usually, before the changes, we would bag up the remains and write where we had found the body, if there was any ID on him and so forth, now we had to put the dog tags on the body and write the serial numbers and details on the label of the cloth we put the remains in. Then after a month of this we were given simple coffins to put the remains in.”
I was truly unimpressed and again made movements to pack up, there were no claims of persecution to be made here. He put his hand out onto the desk to halt my movement.
“Please, miss. Then we were re-located to another area near the buildings I first told you about. I think now they call it The Zoo but we didn’t know what it was called back then. We were also told that another team had joined us and they would be the ones exhuming the bodies, we just had to tag them, box them up and ship them off to the address provided. Then one late afternoon I got a call from my cousin asking me to meet him on the hill overlooking the Zoo at about ten at night. I didn’t like it but, family, what do you do?
A car arrived, some prisoners were pulled out of the car and taken inside one of the buildings. We waited a while in the dark and I wanted to go, it was really cold up there and I was scared. Then the screaming started and I panicked, I really didn’t want to stay there listening to those terrible screams but it stopped pretty quickly and some people came out of the building without the prisoners, got in the cars and drove away.
I asked. “What did you do then?”
“We went home. I was frightened and a few days later we were told some new martyrs had been found and we were to get some coffins ready with the tags.
My cousin was a very pious man but not too smart. He believed in the holiness of the martyrs, so he was personally upset and offended at this swindle of the families. He told me he was going to his supervisor after the shift to tell him what was going on. I didn’t think this was such a great idea and warned him not to say anything but he yelled some hadiths at me which I ignored, because I am not interested in religion at all. He called me later and was very pleased with himself saying his boss congratulated him for his cleverness and courage and that he was going to get some kind of honour. He was about to take his wife and kids out for dinner and would call me later that night. He never called me and when I rang and rang there was no answer. I tried many times for the next few hours and then I knew in my guts I should run. I took only my phone passport and my wallet, nothing else, no goodbyes, no-one seeing me leave and I went into hiding for a while in Tehran at the house of a friend, he arranged for me to get out stowed in a truck full of tyres that was going to Quetta and then it was pretty easy to get in touch with a people smuggler to Indonesia. My cousin’s family searched and searched for him for months since he had never shown up at the restaurant that night but finally one day they got a special delivery which they sent to me Quetta with a short letter. I have it here. I gave Immigration a copy.”
He put his hand in his pocket and pulled out a piece of paper with Persian writing on it and underneath an object clinked.
“What does it say?”
He trembled as he spoke, “The paper says. ‘Don’t come back.’ ”
I held the dog tags in my hand. “These?”
“Reza. Reza Bahraghani martyred Khorramshahr December 12, 1987. Implausible, they said.”