Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Post #191 - Travelling among the Iranians

The following are some highlights from my 2006 return to Iran, which I will continue in a later post:

This was the first image that confronted us after our drive from the airport – the TV news told us that Ahmadinezhad had reached out to Bush in the form of an eight-page personal letter – what did he say in it?, we wondered. What would it lead to? Could this be the break that was needed? Yet, in the days following we asked in vain for news of a U.S. response, except that the letter was deemed “not on point” with what Washington wanted. We began to understand why there were not going to be negotiations between this administration and the Iranians – our leaders have no interest in listening to anybody. (That would mean that they might have to entertain thoughts contrary to their own, find out their intelligence was wrong, even – God forbid! -- re-examine long-held assumptions.)

Our first substantive meeting was at a university. Their human rights program is in dialogue with many other universities., including The Catholic University of America. The only real hostility we encountered on the whole trip (and this still was couched in very polite terms) was from a British woman who is on the faculty of the center. She was clearly fed up with American/British actions in the Middle East. The faculty was candid about the fact that their country had failings in the area of human rights and much work to be done to improve the situation of women, religious minorities and journalists; they were reluctant to be similarly critical of U.S. practices (as we had expected that they might be). They did not hesitate, however, to advocate diplomacy as a means of solving the nuclear stand-off.

We visited what was once a city residence of a Persian prince. Now it houses a community organization that gives counseling and instruction to women who are single mothers and must support themselves and their children. The director, Mrs. Lida Bonakdaran, started this program nine years ago, using her own money to buy materials for handicrafts projects. She particularly tries to help the women develop business skills so that they can support their families. They learn practical skills such as rug weaving, making artificial flowers, sewing, and baking. Their products are sold in a cooperative, so that they will have a constant income. A City of Tehran official, showed us the preserved portions of the grand house that had existed, and walked with me as we toured the training facility, and their small lending library. As always in Iran, we were offered tea and sweets before ending our visit.

Lest we forget: Saddam Hussein didn't just use chemical weapons on “his own people,” as President Bush reminded us countless times. First and foremost, he used them on Iranians, shelling border towns & villages mercilessly during the six-year war that he instigated with support from the United States and other nations. Many thousands died, and some fifty thousand people are still living with the medical effects of those weapons.
Iraq used mustard gas (1800 tons), nerve agents like sarin (740 tons) and conventional bombs in such numbers that health systems and facilities in the western part of Iran were overwhelmed. The atrocities were repeatedly investigated and documented to the UN and the International Red Cross, but their official findings came (uselessly) in August of 1988 -- after the war’s end. These crimes, second only to Hiroshima and Nagasaki in the number of civilians affected, oddly played no part in the judicial proceedings that led to Saddam's execution.
There are lakes in the western region where to this day no fish can survive due to the contamination by residual WMD materials. Our program included hearing from a 19-year-old Kurdish girl and her father whose home had been hit when she was just six months old. Her mother and sister having been killed outright, she survived and had been taken care of by her father through long years of surgeries, treatments and medical crises that have left her a pulmonary cripple. I spoke with her father after the meeting – not that I could find the words to express fully what I was feeling (even if he could have understood English) -- but I told him that I was a father, too, was thankful for my intact, healthy family and my grandchildren, and was so sorry for his losses...he told me about court proceedings in Europe that had exposed the lines of supply for these chemical agents – from the U.S. and German companies to Saddam's weapons facilities.

We listened to the story of Mr. Allatzadeh, who volunteered to go the front at 15 and came back blinded and armless after a landmine explosion on the battlefield. Many of his fellow volunteers lie in a huge cemetery outside Tehran, where their families tend personalized memorials, with photos of the dead – average age 16 at the time of their death on the Iraqi front. And, we heard from a Society volunteer, Sarah Moriarty, wife of the Australian ambassador to Tehran about her work with the victims. Sadly, we haven't had any U.S. embassy staff representing us in Iran since 1979. No wonder we must guess about their intentions.

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