Thursday , 4 March 2021

Behrooz Mehregani: An Iranian Baha’i Martyr of War

Iranwire – Fourteen year-old Behrooz insisted on returning to Iran. He had refused to go to school for three days and had dug his heels in, saying, “I have to go back to Iran.” It had been three years since he had been sent abroad to study at the suggestion of his family. The Baha’is in Iran were in a perilous situation in the early 1980s. Arrests and executions of Baha’is had become daily news in Iran. Properties owned by Baha’is were being confiscated, young Baha’is were being expelled from universities, and they were being summarily dismissed from their jobs and barred from the public sector. Behrooz’s sister told him: “There is war in Iran [with Iraq]. You may have to serve mandatory military service and you may be killed.” But Behrooz insisted on returning.

Behrooz Mehregani and his twin sister Behnaz were born to a Baha’i family in Bandar Abbas in September 1968. Siavash and Sobhieh, Behrooz’s parents, were born in Yazd, but lived in the town of Adasiyeh in Jordan.

Adasiyeh was a Baha’i village on the Jordanian-Israel border. Bahai’s had purchased land in the village a century earlier and had established farms. During the First World War, when Haifa and Acre were under siege by the Allied forces, the people of these areas faced a famine. In July 1917, at the behest of ʻAbdu’l-Baha, the leader of the Baha’i community, wheat harvested from Adasiyeh fields was given to the famine-stricken people of Haifa and Acre and they were saved from starvation.

Tensions between the new states of Israel and Jordan mounted, in the late 1940s, and regional conflicts were erupting across the Middle East. The Baha’i community asked the Baha’is in Adasiyeh, who were of Iranian origin, to return to their ancestral cities in Iran to remove themselves and their families from danger. Siavash and Sobhieh Mehregani returned to their hometown of Yazd in 1950.

Life was difficult for them at first. They had little capital, and because they spoke Persian with an Arabic accent, few people employed them. The couple had grown up in a place where the inhabitants were all Baha’is, and all business was based on the teachings of their faith, so it was difficult for them to adapt to a new culture and new ways of doing business.

Three years into their new life in Iran, Siavash found a good job in Bandar Abbas, and the family moved there. Siavash was hired by a health center and worked as an ambulance driver. Sobhieh worked at the Gamron Hotel in Bandar Abbas (now called to Homa Hotel). In September 1968, the Mehregani family had two children, Behrooz and Behnaz. They were the sixth and seventh children of the Mehregani family.

Behrooz lived in Iran until he was 12 years old, about two years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Baha’is faced a difficult situation after the establishment of the Islamic government. Baha’i were fired from their jobs, their religious sites were confiscated, their cemeteries were razed to the ground and the corpses of many executed Baha’i corpses lay in city morgues waiting for burial. The new Revolutionary Courts said that Baha’is had been executed in cities across Iran and many had also fled. Baha’i students were also expelled from schools and universities. All of these incidents caused the Mehregani family to send Behrooz to safety abroad.

From India to Canada

The Baha’is in India had established an international school in Panchgani, near Mumbai. Behrooz left for India in 1980, together with the son of a relative, and he studied there for a year. He missed his family dearly and wanted to visit during the school holidays – but his family was opposed to the idea. Members of the Iranian Baha’i community’s National Spiritual Assembly, its governing body, had been detained and had disappeared; their successors were arrested and executed. Baha’is were not allowed to leave Iran and they were denied passports. Behrooz’s parents were worried that, if he returned to Iran, he would not be able to go back to India. The Iran-Iraq War had meanwhile also intensified.

None of this lessened Behrooz’s homesickness. He had accepted being sent to India on the condition that he could visit Iran once a year. But now his family were not letting him return. Farkhondeh, Behrooz’s older sister, was studying at Silliman University in Dumaguete, Philippines, at the time. Farkhondeh decided to try to alleviate her brother’s homesickness by asking Behrooz to join her in Dumaguete for a time. They lived together for a year and Behrooz went to school in Dumaguete.

In the early 1980s, the Baha’i community in Canada asked the Canadian government to accept the asylum applications of a number of Baha’i students and graduates, provided they did not receive any assistance or pensions from the Canadian government.

Many Iranian Baha’is studying in India and the Philippines claimed asylum or emigrated to Canada during those years. Farkhondeh and Behrooz were among them. The siblings arrived in Vancouver, Canada, in 1982, where they rented a room. The move was difficult: the Canadian education system did not accept their educational credentials and getting a job required employment experience.

Behrooz and Farkhondeh had arrived in Canada with few savings. Their family could not send money from Iran and the Canadian government did little to help the new arrivals – which lead to many difficult years. The two Baha’is, both graduates, had to take jobs as dishwashers and cleaners. But despite the difficulties they were eventually able to enter Canadian universities and create new lives free of religious prejudice. This would not have been possible had they returned to their homeland. Farkhondeh also had a job caring for the elderly while Behrooz studied.

But being with his sister and living in Vancouver, one of Canada’s most beautiful cities, did not diminish Behrooz’s homesickness. He insisted on returning to Iran. The Iran-Iraq War, which ran from 1980 to 1988, and the growing pressure and harassment of Baha’is in Iran, did not deter him from eventually deciding to return home.

Behrooz’s sister and friends finally gave up their fight to deter Behrooz from his plans. He boarded a flight in January 1983 and returned to Iran – in the midst of the war.

Going Back to Iran and Going to War

Behrooz soon felt the pain and hardship of war and the persecution of the Baha’is. He was still a teenager though he had seen the world and lived in three countries in addition to Iran. His family wanted him to return to Canada, but he was ineligible for a passport because he was Baha’i, and he was close to the age for mandatory military service. Behrooz’s family even tried to smuggle him out of the country but the trafficker took the family’s money and did nothing.

Behrooz turned eighteen and was required to serve in the army. He was a pacifist and hated war. And at first he refused to enlist. Officials searching for absentee soldiers initially passed over Behrooz because of his smaller stature. But as an absentee soldier he was deprived of many social services – yet another form of deprivation that he could not bear. Behrooz finally joined the army and was sent to military service in early March 1987.

He spent four weeks in training at the barracks of Kerman 05 training camp and, from there, went to the front line. Barrack officials told Behrooz’s parents they were not allowed to disclose their son’s deployment location. The last image Behrooz’s parents had of him was the sight of Behrooz waving from the bus that took soldiers to the front line.

Behrooz was sent from Kerman to the Arvand River front. In the only letter his family received from him, he told them that anyone who served for four months would be sent on leave for two weeks, and that his leave was close. Behrooz also said Baha’is were excused from bearing arms and he was employed in the field kitchen.

But the Mehregani family was contacted in June 1988 to receive their son’s body. He was at first called a martyr by the government – as were all casualties of the war – but the family never received any financial assistance from the Foundation for Martyrs and Veterans’ Affairs.

Behrooz Mehregani, a Baha’i citizen, was 19 years old at the time of his death. He lost his life under chemical bombardment on the Arvand River front in Abadan. According to the person who prepared Behrooz’s body for burial, there were no signs of physical injury.

His body was buried in the Baha’i cemetery in Bandar Abbas. A memorial service was held at his parent’s home. Behrooz’s tombstone bore these words from the Baha’i writings, “Abandon not the everlasting beauty for a beauty that must die, and set not your affections on this mortal world of dust,” together with the inscription “Veteran Behrooz Mehregani sacrificed his life for his homeland on May 25, 1988.”

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