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My life of fear in a war-torn city

Images of families fleeing to escape death revived memories of what now feels like another life

Gulf News

The setting and the issues that Babak Anvari reflects on in his horror movie, Under the Shadow, are all far too familiar to me as I lived in Iran during the course of the war.

Anvari’s images of the bombardment of civilians, men being ordered to join the army, families fleeing from cities to escape death and destruction while others stayed put — hiding in basements or wherever they could, despite the dangers — revived memories of what now feels like another life.

The exchanges with Anvari after the interview about our experiences during the Iran-Iraq war would have probably sounded bizarre to any bystander, but it had been our lives as children. “Do you remember the tapes they used to put on the windows to stop them from being shattered when a missile hit (nearby)?”, “We had a basement to hide in…”, “My mum refused to leave our place and move us…” Some of those memories, which are mostly shown in the film, are jotted down here.

I was born in Iran in 1980, a couple of months after the war started, a few years before Anvari, and I did not know what a life without war was until it all ended when I was 8 years old. When it all started, the south of the country, where my parents resided at the time, bore the worst of Saddam Hussain’s wrath as it was closest to Iraq. The constant bombardment prompted my mother, who was eight months pregnant, to travel to Esfahan, a city hundreds of miles from her home so that her first child could be born away from the bombs. This was a privilege many others did not have.

The entire country had become so unsafe to get around that my father did not meet me until I was three months old.

My earliest memories of the war are from when I was about 4 years old, about the same age as Dorsa in the film, when we were back in the south of Iran, Ahwaz, and alone with my mother.

My father, like most men we knew, was serving in the military. Luckily his health was deemed not fit enough for the army and he was placed in the “entertainment” team, where they organised movies, books and events for soldiers to lift their spirits when they returned from battle.

During this time my mother kept herself busy spending her days preparing boxes of homemade jams, delicacies and other treats to send to my father and his friends in the army while I did my part by drawing pictures for them.

If the bombardments got particularly bad in our area, we would move to a relative’s home in a safer neighbourhood until the situation calmed. None of this felt abnormal at the time, it was our life.

I do not recall when my father finished his service, but I can recall that the attacks on Ahwaz and its surrounding area became unbearable which prompted my parents to move us to Tehran. However, other family members, like my grandmother, chose to stay behind after all, just like Shideh in the movie. She said it was her home and that’s where she felt comfortable. My mother travelled back and forth between Ahwaz and Tehran, a 12-hour bus journey, despite the potential dangers. The message to us children was, nothing is wrong, life goes on.

Although Tehran was considered to be relatively safe, it too did not manage to escape the terror. I remember a time that it suffered such regular bombardment that school chatter revolved around anything to do with strikes. Whose home had felt the shakes or had been hit by a missile? We innocently tried to figure out what had become of schoolmates whose families had been killed.

I also remember little things like most buildings having tape placed across their windows to prevent them from shattering in case of a nearby attack and everyone seemed to have an escape plan, some of the other details Anvari got spot on in his film.

One night my parents woke me up in the middle of the night, just like Dorsa is in the film, because the radio, which was always kept on, had announced that there was an airstrike on the way and warned people to find safety.

We ran down four flights of stairs in our pyjamas to the basement along with the other couple of hundred people who lived in the building, as the radio played “the red” alarm, a very loud siren. We stayed in the dirty basement until the man on the radio announced it was safe and played “the green” alarm. The increased frequency of the basement trips over nights and a missile attack on a residential building close by, which was powerful enough to smash the glass in some of our building’s windows despite the tapes, prompted the community to clean up the filthy basement and make it sleep friendly — to save us the effort of running up and down the stairs in the middle of the night.

While our parents, no doubt, worried about how much safety the basement actually provided, at 7 years old, the few nights spent there were basically fantastic slumber parties to me and my friends.

As children we were all oblivious to the dangers of the war going on around us, which was probably mostly due to the fact that everyone carried on with everything as normal, never showing fear.

The war ended in 1988 when I was 8 years old and still living in Tehran. My mother was on one of her trips to the south to check on her family and had left me with her sister in Tehran. I still recall the moment that the news of the ceasefire was announced on the small television set, which had everyone in the house jumping with joy. To this day I still recall saying “is the war really finished?” and excited when I received the answer.

The neighbourhood burst into cheers as people went outside to confirm what they had heard and share the joyful occasion with one another.

On reflection, as children, war was just another part of life for us. It didn’t seem odd that there were no new cartoons or television programmes to watch, shows to go to, or play with the sand shelter in the school yard. Everyone just adjusted and made do with whatever was available, mostly indoors.

I can’t help but wonder. Is this how children around the world who are witnessing some of the worst wars and atrocities that humans have inflicted on one another feel? Is it all just normal everyday life for them too? That, to me, is the real horror.