Nobody won the first Gulf war, which began 15 years ago and killed a million Iranians and Iraqis. Yet today Iran looks back on it with pride and joy
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THEY USED to take us to the war in a Hercules C130, barrelling through the night down to Ahwaz or Dezful, we passengers sitting in our bucket seats, sweating, notebooks and cameras on our laps, praying that the Iraqi air force didn't sniff the engine exhausts in the dank night. We'd fly into the desert air base at dawn, see the oil fires burning, hear that heavy rumbling of the Somme-like guns, and fear for the next 36 hours - a night in an underground bunker with the dust rising from the floor when mortars landed outside the door, a day of driving through battle lines with shells cracking overhead, corpses stinking by the roadside, young men without helmets holding Korans to their chest. And we understood a little bit more about the 1914-18 war, the war my father fought.

It's easier now to go back to the battlefields of the Iran-Iraq war, the eight-year war, the "imposed war" (as the Iranians like to call it), the Gulf war as we called it then before America's little spat with Saddam over Kuwait. You turn up at Mehrabad airport for Iran Air's 4.45am Flight 417 to Ahwaz, eat hot rolls with marmalade on the Airbus as your guide from the Ministry of Islamic Guidance and Culture snores beside you and, an hour later, circle the butane gas flames above the refineries - Bosch- like in the purple dawn - before picking up Gholamreza's Peugeot taxi to the deserts where we all lost a few years of our lives. The moment you pass the first sand revetments, the sun a white blister at seven in the morning, Gholamreza points into the grey immensity of dust and says: "Bang bang! Jang."

Jang means war, and "bang", for all its cliche-engulfed, simplistic quality, is an accurate enough representation of the sound of the 155mm Iraqi field- gun piece that destroyed 25 per cent of the hearing in my left ear, just across the desert to the west of here, a decade-and-a-half ago. As Gholamreza accelerates the Peugeot through the dawn, I can still hear the tinnitus ringing from that distant bombardment, as if the guns were still firing over these hot killing fields. To left and right of us, as the desert grows from grey to dun-coloured in the rising sun, the trenches and tank emplacements stretch away for scores of miles, some turned by farmers into wind-breaks for corn, others untouched by a breeze in 15 years, the tracks of long- destroyed Iraqi and Iranian tanks still cut into the sand. Already it is 100 degrees in the shade, and perspiration is slicking down my face. In the back of the car, the man from Islamic Guidance has fallen asleep.

Perhaps a million men died here and in the battle-line that snaked 600 miles north to the snows of the Turkish border, almost twice the length of the 1914-18 Western Front and fought over for twice as long. A whole generation of Iranians and Iraqis walked up the line to death in villages and towns that sound, to the survivors and to the families of the dead, as sombre as Ypres and Verdun, Passchendaele and Hill 60, Vimy Ridge and the Somme. The names of their calvaries are not so familiar to us, of course: Kerman and Shalamcheh, Pengwin and Khorramshahr, Abadan and Fateh and Ahwaz and Fao and the Battle of the Fish Lake. The Iranians suffered most, the victims of Saddam's aggression - an invasion we happily supported, the Europeans and the Russians and the Americans furnishing Saddam with Mirage jets and T-62 tanks and satellite pictures. I used to ask in my reports then, stunned by the resilience of the Iranian defenders, whether they had their Owens and Sassoons to write about war and the pity of war.

But - perhaps because the Iranians were so xenophobic, so alien in creed, so hostile to the West, even to us reporters who risked our lives to visit their trenches - we never really tried to understand their motivation, or the effect of this bloodbath upon their minds. We even, today, forget this, the longest conventional war of the 20th century. The Iranians, of course, do not. Did they, like so many soldiers in the First World War, return home broken in body and spirit, their faith abandoned in the blood-drenched desert? I asked a senior Revolutionary Guards Corps officer this question. What, I asked him over dinner in Tehran, was the worst moment of the war? "20 July 1988", he snapped back at me. "It was the day we accepted the UN resolution to end the war, when our Imam said he had to eat poison and accept a ceasefire. I was driving a two-and-a-half ton truck to the front at Shalamcheh and I couldn't believe my ears when I heard the news on the radio. I drove off into the desert and switched off the engine and I lay down in the sand, on my back with the sun above me. And I asked God why I was here on this earth. This was the worst day of my life."

Gholamreza's car raced south, the temperature rising, past a massive stockade of rotting Iraqi armour and trucks, mile after mile of it, stretching to the horizon and beyond. An Iranian sentry stood guard at this enormous war park, a museum of Iraqi tanks and smashed vehicles that belittled anything we saw in the aftermath of Norman Schwarzkopf's puny offensive against the same army back in 1991. On the right, a great train of burnt, twisted carriages lay on its side next to the Ahwaz-Khorramshahr railway line. The Iraqis had crossed and re-crossed this bit of Iran; the trenches and gun-pits streamed away from the road, thousands of them, each year of desert warfare grafted on to the next. With a telescope, you could see this webbed terrain from the moon. We crossed the fetid brown waters of the Karun river; the last time I was here, there were corpses floating in its hot currents. It was now 110 degrees; they fought in this heat, died in these oven-like winds, rotted in less than three hours. No wonder they buried the Iraqis in mass graves, and freighted home the Iranian dead in less than half a day.

The poetry they wrote - for they did write war poems in their thousands, the peasant (Basiji) volunteers and the Revolutionary Guard (Pasdaran) and the artists drafted to the front - was not like Owen's or Sassoon's. In the volumes of war verse in the Tehran bookshops, old soldiers thank God who has matched them with His hour. Prowling through the shops near Tehran University, I found the ghost of Brooke and WN Hodgson in these fat volumes. Here, for example, is the Iranian poet Mohamed Reza Abdul- Malikian, writing his "Letter Home" from the Ahwaz-Khorramshahr front, where 12-year-olds led suicide attacks on the Iraqi wire:

Here on our front line, Our gift of sacrifice is strewn around, Their power greater than the Karun's waves. Right here, you can admire the children and old men Who crave to walk the minefields. It's here for all to see.

There was something frightening in this: not just the terrifying image of child martyrdom, but what appeared - to my Western eyes - to be a kind of stasis of maturity and development. True, Hodgson was writing like this in 1914 ("Sons of mine, I hear you thrilling/To the trumpet call of war... Steeled to suffer uncomplaining/Loss and failure, pain and death"). But by 1916 our war poets had comprehended the obscenity of war. Abdul- Malikian had written these lines after many more years of war. He hadn't lost his faith. Was this because he was fighting to defend his own country (except for their courageous and suicidal offensive into the Iraqi Majnoon oil fields, Iranians were always fighting on their own soil)? Or because Islam does not permit doubt in a believer? Or was it because in Iran a poem is supposed to be something holy, words that are intended to be spiritual rather than provocative? We in the West wait to be moved by a poem - simple patriotism and faith were not enough for Sassoon or Robert Graves. Wouldn't they have said something more than Abdul-Malikian? After all, in the eight years that followed Saddam's invasion of 22 September 1980, the war had embraced both poison gas and missile attacks, the worst horror of the First World War and one of the most terrifying weapons of the Second.

GHOLAMREZA'S car was hissing on the melting tar of the desert road when the man from Islamic Guidance tapped me on the shoulder. "Look over to your right," he shouted. Gholamreza slowed the car, the blow-torch heat swarming through the open windows. There was a railway track beside the road but beyond it the detritus of an army in defeat: burnt-out Iraqi tanks and armoured personnel carriers, barrels cracked open, machine-guns rusting on tank turrets, Saddam's monsters still rotting in the desert. We walked across the track and past a quicksand - the man from Islamic Guidance walked into it, up to his knees - and found ourselves among the wreckage of a great battle. Many of these vehicles had been driven into the sand and bogged down by their terrified drivers, their steel tracks snapping on rocks and concrete emplacements, their interiors turned into cauldrons by rocket-propelled grenades.

I climbed on to a T-62 tank, eased open the turret and lowered myself inside. The gun's breach had been blown apart, the driver's seat melted. A million tiny fire-flies moved around this scorched, claustrophobic gunner's compartment. Perched on top of the tank, I began taking photographs but realised that I could find no colour through my camera lens. I put the camera down and still saw no colour. The sun, the sheer whiteness of the desert, had sucked colour out of my vision, turning Saddam's armour into a dull monochrome. The man from Islamic Guidance was talking, more to himself than to me, but in English so that I would understand. "Think that he came here, Saddam, to our land, think of his arrogance, to think he would get away with this... How can you not understand why we had to fight him?"

On the other side of the main road, I recognised the skeletal outline of a Russian-made truck, and walked across to it. Only the front of the driver's cab remained, pin-pricked by a thousand shrapnel holes and rusted grey. Behind it, punched into the desert floor, was a massive crater littered with ammunition tins that had been torn apart by some long-ago explosion and, half buried in the sand, thousands of heavy machine-gun bullets, congealed and twisted into grotesque shapes - a direct hit on an ammunition lorry. On the lip of the crater was some flaky white powder, perhaps human bone. The man from Islamic Guidance was sitting on the sand nearby, exhausted.

We walked off into the desert. We found an Iranian helmet with a bullet hole through it, dozens of army boots, one of them torn off at the heel with something dark inside. There were shell-holes filled with dirt, and barbed wire, and a line of dug- outs behind a trench, the floors lined with the lids of wooden ammunition boxes, the sand-bags burst open. Somewhere near here, the Iranian poet Ali Babachohi had written a strangely moving poem about a dream in which an old man from Nachlestan - a date-growing province in the south of Iran - appeared before him in the desert:

Hey, look over there! I can see him with my own blind eyes. Do you see him? It's old Shir Mohamed from the coast at Nachlestan With the glint of the sun on his musket. ... I saw him with my own blind eyes. And old Shir Mohamed said to me: "I came to plant my rifle Instead of wheat and barley Across my land of dates."

A FEW days earlier, in Tehran, I had talked to university students about the war. They were attending a philosophy seminar, 14 young men and three women. Half of the men had fought during the eight-year conflict, one of the women had been a military nurse. Ex-Basiji volunteers, soldiers and Revolutionary Guards, they had been trying to analyse an impenetrable essay by an American sociologist. Then they tried to explain what the war had meant to them and why I did not understand it.

Shojae Ahmmadvande was bearded and looked to be in his thirties though he must have been younger; he was just 18 when he was sent to the front at Mehran on the Iraqi border, almost exactly 100 miles east of Baghdad, in 1984. He spoke slowly, choosing his words with infinite care. "My involvement in the war was a reflection of the nature of our Islamic revolution. It was based on a new interpretation of religion - getting involved in the war was a sacred duty. We were led by a prophet-like statesman [Khomeini] so this is how we perceived the war. This was the reason for our overwhelming commitment. The war could not be separated from our religion. I saw many incidents that cannot be described. I ask myself 'Was it real or not?' There were extraordinary scenes that touched me."

And here Ahmmadvande looked at the floor, speaking to the ground rather than to me. "There was one day at the beginning of our 'Val Fajr 5' operation in 1984. We were in the Mehran area and I was sitting with several other soldiers on top of a small hill. There was a man sitting with us, about 30 or 35 years old. And suddenly we all noticed that his head had fallen forward, just a little. We didn't know what had happened. Then we saw blood running from his arm and then from his head. A bullet had hit him in the head. And at this moment, he turned slightly, knowing he was hit, and he put his hand in his pocket and took out a Koran and started looking at it, and the blood was all the while flowing down his arm. Three of us just stood there in amazement - we couldn't do anything - this man was almost gone, he was in the seconds before his death, and he had taken out his Koran and was looking at it. It was a scene I will never forget all my life, the power of his commitment."

There was a long silence, and then one of the women, at the end of the room, dressed in a black chador, spoke. "In general, we were very proud of what we did in the war. Our nation of Iran proved its sovereignty. We know how people have returned home after other big wars. I've read about it in Hemingway. But this did not happen in Iran during the war. You have to understand the importance of morality in our war - morality was better than food. You think the number of deaths and casualties are important - you work these statistics out on your computers - but my impression is that here people died regardless of the material worth of their lives. It was their Islamic faith that mattered."

Exactly how many men died in the war may never be known - the Iraqis have never given figures - but the man who was in charge of the Revolutionary Guards during the 1980-88 conflict insisted to me that the Iranians lost well under 500,000 men. Mohsen Rafiqdoost, who now runs a multi-million dollar foundation for the war-wounded and the families of dead soldiers, claimed to me that 220,000 Iranians were killed and 400,000 wounded. "We think the Iraqis lost 500,000 dead. We don't know how many of their men were wounded. In addition to our Iranian war dead, we lost 70,000 dead in the Islamic revolution [which overthrew the Shah] the year before the war began."

Many of the war casualties died in the first months of the war when the Iraqi army stormed into the Iranian city of Khorramshahr on the Shatt al-Arab river and attacked oil terminals outside Abadan. So many were slaughtered defending Khorramshahr that the Iranians renamed the city "Khuninshahr" - City of Blood - before they recaptured it two years later.

Among the soldiers trying to fight off the Iraqi invaders was Mujtaba Safavi. He told me his story as he sat in the back of a Tehran taxi, locked into one of the capital's fume-clogged, traffic-jammed streets. "I was captured about 20 miles outside Abadan. We were surrounded at night. We had no chance. They took us to a big prison camp in Iraq, in Tikrit, the home town of Saddam Hussein. Our first years there were very hard. They killed some of us, tortured others. It was a year before the Red Cross visited us, took our names and brought us books. The younger ones among us were stronger than the older ones. I think it was because the younger ones felt their life was still in front of them. But two of our men in the prison killed themselves; they couldn't stand it any more. You know, if you are a prisoner, you have got to be very, very strong. I learnt a lot about myself in the prison, about how strong I could be. When the Red Cross brought me letters from home, they were already a year old. I wrote letters back and my mother still has them, but I do not want to read them now. They will remind me of terrible days." When I asked Mujtaba the date of his release, he said it was the year after the war ended, 1989. He had been in prison camps for nine years - longer than any British Second World War POWs. Iran believes that 15,000 of its POWs are still being held in Iraq to this day, some of them 15 years after their capture.

WHEN Gholamreza reached Khorramshahr, he shook his head at the ruins which still lay across the city. Fought over for two years, its brick- built apartments and factories were turned to dust by Iraqi bombardment and Iranian counter-offensives. It was Iran's Stalingrad. In the centre of the city, by a waterway littered with overturned, burned-out cargo ships, next to a mosque whose blue tiles are still being repaired, was a small museum of photographs marking the 13th anniversary of the city's liberation. "The photographer who took these pictures was martyred later in the war," the guide said creepily. His right hand gestured to a corpse on the floor.

The soldier's body was so graphically re-created in wax, the dark blood seeping through his back, his face buried in sand, his helmet covering most of his hair, that for a moment I believed that the Iranians had somehow preserved a real soldier's remains. Next to the sand pit with its "martyr" stood a massive photograph of Ayatollah Khomeini beneath a legend in Persian: "Martyrdom is the Highest Point of Human Life." The photographs were of splintered trees and smashed railway yards, of ruined mosques and pulverised homes and bodies in side streets.

Another poet who fought in the war caught the sense of fury when he wrote about Khorramshahr under Iraqi occupation. Parvis Habib Abadi used traditional Iranian symbols of love - the butterfly hovering round a candle - and the anger of Abu Zahr, loyal friend of the Prophet Mohammed, to illustrate his rage:

My friend, how lonely we are, Away from this city that was ours. The candle's guttered out, the butterfly consumed by fire Everywhere, in every alley, I see just ashes, rubble, blood. A head here, over there some long, blood-matted hair, No hands left to comb it with. So until the time that head is recomposed upon the corpse, I wear my clothes as a shroud, screaming like Abu Zahr To put fear in all my enemies.

But one man who liberated Khorramshahr had not wanted to die. He sat with me in a restaurant in Abadan, munching on his fish and potatoes, his mouth open, making too much noise. "I was in the naval service of the army and we came in at the liberation. I didn't see many bodies. You know, most of the Iraqis surrendered. 20,000 of them - can you imagine it? All with their hands up, like this." And there in the restaurant, to the surprise of fellow diners, he stuck his hands on his head, palms down. "But we should have ended the war then, in 1982. Saddam had offered a ceasefire, the Saudis offered Iran $70m to rebuild. If we'd have stopped then, Saddam would have been overthrown by his own people. But another group of people had the Imam's ear and Khomeini decided to continue the war until Saddam was destroyed, to fight for Najaf and Kerbala and capture Basra [all Iraqi cities that were never captured]. It was a big mistake. I decided to keep clear of the war then and got a job in Tehran. It went on for another six years. And we didn't even win. We only got all our lost territory back when Saddam was facing you after his invasion of Kuwait."

His was a rare voice of dissent. Khorramshahr is being rebuilt. There are new schools, two new hospitals, new factories and apartment blocks under construction. But the port is still in ruins, its wrecked ships blocking the river. At the harbourside, I stood next to one old hulk - the Race Fisher, registered in Barrow-in-Furness - taking photographs, until two burly plain clothes cops turned up, suspicious of a foreigner with his camera. The man from Islamic Guidance sprung out of Gholamreza's taxi to rescue me. "They are suspicious of foreigners with cameras," he said meekly. "People were hurt very badly in this city."

I toured one of the new hospitals where a doctor told me how the war was a "necessary" event, in his life as in the lives of all who fought. "I was 21 at the time and had a friend, Hussein Sadaqat from Tabriz. He was an Azeri, a good friend, very loyal. And one day during an advance, he was hit in the head by something and his brains came out all over me. I was right beside him, you see. I didn't want to believe it. There were no last words, nothing. Then I got hit in the shoulder by a piece of an 80mm mortar shell. I was half-conscious and felt nothing at first, the pain came later." He pulled down his shirt to show me the wound. All over Iran, men showed me wounds, in their arms, their necks, their legs. One man talked to me through a false jaw - the original had been shot off - while another coughed through his words. He had been gassed. But when I asked the doctor if it had been worth it - all the pain, suffering, sacrifice - his face lit up. "Of course. We were defending our earth and our Islamic heritage. And we were angry, angry at our enemy."

Anger was what the Dezful poet Ghaysar Amin Pour felt when his home city came under nightly Iraqi air attack. Perhaps because of this anger, his poem seems closer to us than others, touched with spite, even cynicism:

I wanted to write a war poem But I knew it wasn't possible. I would have to put down my cold pen And use a sharper weapon. War poems should be written with the barrels of a gun, Words turned into bullets... Here it's always red-alert, The siren never ends its moaning Over corpses that didn't finish their night's sleep, Where bat-like jets which hate the light Bomb the cracks in our blind black-out curtains... We can't even trust the stars in case they're spies, We wouldn't be surprised if the moon blows up...

Sometimes, this sense of indignation becomes political. Here, for example is what Yahya Fuzi - 31 years old now, 24 when he fought in the war - said at that same Tehran University philosophy seminar. "War taught us about why people in the West who say they believe in freedom and human rights were ready to relegate these ideas to the background during our war. This was a major lesson for us. When Saddam invaded us, you were pretty silent, you didn't shout like you did when Saddam invaded Kuwait 10 years later. But you were full of talk about human rights when he went to Kuwait. The crimes of Saddam were much more widely publicised then."

Another student, bespectacled, interrupted. "In our revolution in 1979, anti-dictatorial slogans were our cries against the Shah. But the war with Iraq completed this process of nation-building. At the top of a hill under shellfire, we would have guys from Baluchistan and Kurdistan and other provinces all together. We all had to defend the same hill. And we had a lot of immigrants because of the war, people from Khuzistan driven out of their homes by the Iraqis who fled to Tehran and Tabriz. There was this interaction with the rest of the population, an ethnic infusion. In this war, we were isolated, abandoned by everyone else, so we came to the conclusion that it was good to be alone - and we learnt about our fellow citizens, we felt united for the first time."

The idea that the Iran-Iraq war was, in a sense, the completion of the Islamic revolution in Iran - at the least, an integral part of it - is widely felt. The middle classes, who tried their best to stay out of the war, cut themselves off from history. The sons of the rich, using their visas to Canada, the United States, Britain or France, saw no reason to participate in what they regarded as a war of madness.

"I spent the war in Canada, watched it on television and was glad I wasn't there," one 29-year-old told me at a party in Tehran. I couldn't dispute his logic but I wondered whether it had not deprived the rich, the old guard Iranians who regretted the revolution, of their claim to Iran. They, too, were isolated by the war, because they refused to defend their country.

But it is the dead rather than the survivors who speak most eloquently about the war. South of Tehran, at a place called Behesht Zahra, close to the tomb of the old man who sent them to die, lie tens of thousands of Iranians who returned in body bags from the war.

I don't like Behesht Zahra, because it glorifies death, refuses to mourn lost youth. It reminds me too eloquently of the dangers - minuscule by comparison with those experienced by those who fought - which we reporters went through when we visited the front. I remember the Reuters reporter who died in a minefield (along with his "minder" from the Islamic Guidance ministry). I recall the German reporter who suffered a fatal heart attack during an Iraqi air raid on Fao. Like them, I and my colleagues flew into battles aboard Iranian helicopter gunships, crouched in fear beside rotting Iraqi corpses. I interviewed - all of 13 years ago - a group of 12-year- olds in a dug-out near Ahwaz as the shells burst in the trench outside, all claiming that martyrdom would fulfil a dream. Some were brothers, most of them from peasant families in the south.

Today, they are at Behesht Zahra, or still arriving there in plastic bags, a few bones, a skull or two with a body tag, recovered from the battlefields as the Iranians go on digging for lost souls along the western front. New graves are still being dug for corpses yet to be found.

The tombs are not marked, like those of our World War dead, with simple, identical gravestones, but with slabs of inscribed marble, engraved pictures, photographs, flags, sometimes even snapshots taken by frightened comrades in the minutes after death, the shells still falling around them, pictures of bodies covered in blood. Here lies Namatallah Hassani; "Born 1 August 1960, martyred 30 October 1983 at Pengwin, student of the Officer's College," it says on his grave. "You have to sacrifice yourself before love - that is to say, you must follow the Imam Hussein." (Hussein was the grandson of the Prophet whose death at the seventh-century battle of Kerbala gave Shia Muslims their cult of martyrdom, betrayed by his own people when he rebelled against the power and wealth of the Umayyads.) A face printed on a cloth screen shows Hassani, young with a small goatee beard. And here lies Mohamed Nowruzbei, "Martyred 1986, place of martyrdom Shalamcheh" and Bassim Kerimi Koghani, "Born 1961, martyred 22 April 1986, place of martyrdom Fakeh."

Many of these young men wrote their last messages to their families before they died, long rhetorical speeches that begin with flowery praise of Ayatollah Khomeini and then disintegrate into humanity when they finish with personal wishes to their family. "I hope that I have done my duty by sacrificing my blood in the name of Islam," wrote Mohamed Sarykhoni (born 1963, killed in action 17 March 1984 at Piranshahr in Iranian Kurdistan).

But then he goes on: "Give my best wishes to my father and mother, my sisters, my brothers, my friends. I hope they have been satisfied with me. I ask God to protect, forgive and bless you. To my wife, I say: it's true that my life was very short and I couldn't do all that I intended to provide for you. But I hope this short time we were together will be a wonderful memory for you. Take care of my child because he is my memory - for you and for my family too."

They speak from the dead, these men. Hassan Jahan Parto, who was 21 when he was killed at Maimak in 1983, writes to his parents: "I advise my generous father and my family not to cry if I am martyred - don't be sad because your sadness would disturb my soul." But they do cry, the families, praying over the graves each Friday afternoon, eating beside their dead sons and husbands and brothers.

Mustafa Azadi, a Basij volunteer, was fighting in the hot desert at Shalamcheh when he was told the news that his nephew Haj Ali Jasmani had been killed. He offers me dates at the graveside. "He was one of the first men to join the Revolutionary Guards, and he fought until his martyrdom. He was hit by a shell. I was in the battlefront when I heard the news. We were close to each other but it wasn't possible for me to see his body. What do I think now? That all the martyrs have put a responsibility on our shoulders to defend our faith."

I had taken Mujtaba Safavi, the ex-POW, with me to Behesht Zahra, and he translated for each mourner, slowly, sometimes clearly moved by their stories. Bahrom Madani described his dead cousin Askar Tolertaleri, killed at Mo'ut, as "fascinated by God". Mohamed Junissian saw his son Said just 10 days before his death. "We were talking at home. And his mother asked him 'Why are you going back to the front again?' My son said he had to defend his country. His mother said: 'But you can be more useful to us here.' He said it was good to be at home but that the enemy was in our land and we have to push them back. I agreed with him." An old man with a grey beard said that he had lost his 19-year-old son, Hormuz Alidadi, in a minefield 12 years ago at Dashdaboz. "It was God's will," he said. "We thank God he fought for Islam and his country."

Mohamed Taliblou only got his son Madjid's remains back last year, "a few bones" dug up in the mud at Pengwin. "I have no feelings. He went to defend Islam and his country. It was in 1985, and I heard he had been wounded. One of his friends who was with him at the front came to see me and said, 'I saw Madjid fall down, but I didn't see if he died or not.' It was during a counter-attack by the Iraqis. He was killed by a single bullet."

Mohamed Reza Abdul-Malikian wrote of last goodbyes in a poem called "Answer":

"Why are you fighting?" my son asked. And me with my rifle on my shoulder and my pack on my back, While I'm fastening the laces of my boots. And my mother, with water and mirror and Koran in her hand, Putting warmth in my soul. And again my boy asks: "Why are you fighting?" And I say with all my heart: "So that the enemy may never take your light away."

The war has been over seven years now. Iranian diplomats are visiting Baghdad. The sons of the revolution - those who came home from the war - didn't find a land fit for heroes; it is they who are angrily denouncing the corruption in Iran. But they came back, it seems, having found faith rather than lost it, after an ecstasy of martyrdom that must leave us - horrified at the slaughter of two world wars, fearful of even the fewest casualties in Bosnia - aghast and shocked and repelled. We mourn lost youth and sacrifice, the waste of young lives. The Iranians of the eight- year Gulf war claim to love it not only as a proof of faith but also as the completion of a revolution.

To one wounded Iranian survivor, a fluent English-speaker, I dared to read a verse of Siegfried Sassoon:

Do you remember the dark months you held the sector at Mametz - The nights you watched and wired and dug and piled sandbags on parapets? Do you remember the rats; and the stench Of corpses rotting in front of the front-line trench - And dawn coming, dirty-white, and chill with a hopeless rain? Do you ever stop and ask, "Is it all going to happen again?"

He looked at me with blank incomprehension. !