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Iran: long years of incertitude and anguish

29-02-2008 Feature

During the Iran-Iraq war of 1980-88, tens of thousands of soldiers went missing on both sides. In Iran alone, the families of some 11,000 people continue to wait for news. Close-up on three Iranian women who have lived through the pain of uncertainty.

Although they receive compensations and pensions from the country's Martyr's Foundation and have been told their loved ones are most probably dead, the women want definite confirmation. Until the mortal remains of their missing relatives have been identified, the families keep hoping, unable to mourn and come to terms with their death.

  ©ICRC / M. Monem    
  Iran: for 20 years, women have called for news about their missing loved ones 

For some of these women, like Zarah and Mahin, it took many years to find out what happened to their loved ones. Others, like Maryam, are still waiting – and hoping. (Names have been changed to protect the identities of these women.)

 Maryam – forlorn hope rekindled  


Maryam was still a teenager when her family lost track of her older brother who had left – barely more than a teenager himself – to fight in the war. Now, at the age of 32, Maryam lives with her husband and her son in a small flat.

Maryam has a full-time job and takes care of her family. But often, in quiet moments, the anguish over the fate of her older brother comes back. “Years have passed, and we still do not know whether our brother is alive or was killed; whether he was wounded or taken prisoner, " she says.

For Maryam the worst part is the constant shift between hope and despair. " Conflicting reports tear open our wounds that are still fresh. Once, one of our relatives phoned us from his home town, and said:'I heard your brother’s voice on the radio…' Our forlorn hope was rekindled.

" Years went by, and just when we thought we were getting used to the idea of his not coming back, there was a mass repatriation of prisoners of war. They informed us that our brother was among the prisoners, and that he was on his way home. 

" I will never forget how my father gave away his vases, which were his pride and joy, as presents to the neighbours and other relatives. We lit up the street, and watched constantly for his arrival. Nothing happened. It was just a confusion of names. "

With no information to the contrary, Maryam and her family keep hoping that one day her brother will be walking down this street, coming back to his family.

 Zarah – "sorrow broke my husband's back"  

Zarah lives in an old, run-down house. She used to have a little shop but now, in her seventies, she feels too old and sick to run it. Zarah passes her days alone waiting for her children to come to visit and looking at the pictures of family members that cover the walls.

All her children are shown on these pictures but most of them are of Reza, her son who went missing during the war. For years Zarah has been in anguish about what happened to him. When she talks about him tears well up in her eyes, although when she mentions his childhood she laughs.

Sadness returns when she remembers how the long-lasting distress slowly broke the back of her husband: “My husband passed away due to constant worry about Reza. He had been a strong man, but all his strength was sapped. "  

The incertitude also took its toll on her oldest son, Mohamad. " My poor older son had no life of his own, from searching for his younger brother,” Zarah recalls.

Mohamad continues his mother's story. “I spent 16 years running around looking for my brother. Then the Martyrs’ Foundation informed us that they had brought a number of new photographs to the Iranian Red Crescent Society’s photo exhibition of Unknown Martyrs to help the families identify their missing. 

" I went there. I knew well the old photos, and went over to the new ones. The second picture rooted me to the spot. It was my brother, shot. His lifeless body in the picture was pitiful. I thought: could this really be my brother ...?”

Zarah thinks of Reza every day but she has come to terms with his death. " Now that I know what happened to him, I can devote more of my attention to the rest of my family. "

 Mahin – calm, at last  

Mahin's husband, Taghi, was already in his fifties when he decided to enrol as a soldier. Looking back, she says: “My husband wanted to go. His pride did not allow him to sit at home and let his boy go to war. So he went to the front, and after that, no news! "  

Her son had already left for the war some years before. He came back, just when his father had left. With her husband absent, Mahin had to struggle to support her family. " I have raised four children. Hard work never tired me, " she recalls. 

A small pension from the Martyr's Foundation and help from Taghi's brother has enabled her to make ends meet. However, she feels that the hardest part was not the financial struggle but her children's emotional needs.

" When they started asking about their father, I struggled for words. When my husband went, my youngest son was four years old. He was a very impatient boy. I couldn’t tell him that his father had been martyred. And I couldn’t say that he was in prison, or that he should get used to his absence. How long were they supposed to wait for him?”

Six years ago, Mahin finally received Taghi's mortal remains. " I have become calm at last. Before, whenever the doorbell rang, I hoped it was Taghi. Whenever I saw prisoners on the news, my heart would go wild, " she explains.

Looking back, she is content – she was finally able to mourn her husband's death and answer her children's questions.