Monday , 18 October 2021

Roses on a Mass Grave: A Love Story, Part I

Iranwire – The trial of ex-Gohardasht Prison official Hamid Nouri for his role in Iran’s 1988 prison massacre is ongoing in Sweden. Witnesses have taken to the stand one by one in recent weeks to recount their memories of the defendant sat before them in Stockholm District Court: how he walked them down the corridor to face the death panel, and escorted their cellmates to the gallows.

Many survivors and their families are still in Iran and cannot get to Europe to give evidence themselves, but are watching the trial unfold from the other side of the world, with their hearts in their mouths. One such person is Homa Rezaian, who lost her husband Rasoul Rezaian that bloody summer. This is the first instalment of the story of their lives, as narrated to IranWire.

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“Though we’re not there in Hamid Nouri’s courtroom, our hearts and souls are with you, and we hope to discover the truth.”

Homa’s voice cracks as she speaks down the phone. While images of the victims of atrocities in 1980s Iran played out on the screens of Stockholm District Court, her own heart was pounding. It was, she says, as though the days of her politicized past, her falling in love, imprisonment, torture, freedom and her husband’s execution were passing before her eyes again, like a movie.

Rasoul and Homa Rezaian were both supporters of the communist Organization of Iranian People’s Fedai Guerrillas. They met back in 1978 and after a whirlwind romance, got married in the midst of the heady days of the Islamic Revolution before having children. Then in October 1984, both were arrested.

Rasoul was sentenced to seven years in prison, Homa to three. She was released in July 1988 and waited for Rasoul to join her. But her husband was hanged in Gohardasht prison that September, and was laid to rest in Khavaran Cemetery.

In August 2021, the trial of former Gohardasht prosecutor’s assistant Hamid Nouri got under way in Stockholm. Accused of war crimes and murder, Nouri has so far been variously accused by witnesses of beating up prisoners of conscience, taking them blindfolded for questioning by the infamous Tehran death panel, and then dancing and distributing sweets in the corridors while those who had given the wrong answers were systematically slaughtered. Rasoul Rezaian was one of them. His wife cannot attend the trial, but she can watch from afar – and keep making the journey to the mass grave at Kharavan Cemetery every year, with red roses spilling from her hands.

A Mountainside Meeting

In the febrile atmosphere of 1977, then-Shah of Iran Mohammad Reza Pahlavi was forced by a combination of domestic and international pressure to open up Iran’s political space. As a result, the country’s universities became new, vibrant hubs for revolutionary activity. Even newly-released prisoners would go straight to Tehran University to join the ranks of the activists. The campus was the site of regular demonstrations that spilled out into the streets.

It was in that year that Homa arrived to study history, aged just 20. Rasoul was five years her senior. Both were supporters of the People’s Fedai Guerrillas and attended the group’s frequent mountain hikes, which were meant to build up strength and endurance among new recruits, lest they one day come under attack or be tortured in the Shah’s prisons.

In those days, members were supposed to keep their romantic attachments separate from political activity so that nothing could stand in their way. Some did take part in “tactical” marriages so that they could cover one another in future. For many, though, this was out of the question as their parents held different political views. Homa had long struggled to get her family to accept her “revolutionary” ideals. She didn’t have a dowry, and there would be no wedding party. Nevertheless, she and Rasoul met and fell in love, and married soon after.

Dissent Within the Ranks as the Clerics Take Over

At that time, the first cracks were beginning to show between leftist factions. In 1977, Homa remembers, some of their comrades had already come to the conclusion that armed struggle would never win the people over. “Before the revolution,” she remembers, “the Shah had cut the ties between political organizations, especially left-wing groups, and the masses. The poorer areas of large cities, factories, and some villages were under SAVAK [Shah-era secret police] surveillance. That’s why the organizers recruited from universities, and why communist beliefs lingered among some intellectuals but did not find their way into the hearts of the masses.

“In the pre-revolutionary marches, many people even rose up against the leftist forces, while the influence of the clergy was channelled through village mosques into people’s hearts. The Mojahedin-e Khalq [MEK], because of their religious approach, were able to get through to people more than any other group.”

Debates broke out among the demonstrators. The left-wing factions, which were generally drawn from the Fedai Guerrillas’ ranks, tried to engage in discussions with the people and seemed to keep their distance from those chanting slogans against the Shah. Meanwhile, ardent Islamist supporters of Ruhollah Khomeini kept their distance from the communists and waited for their leader’s return.

Part of the documentary Pulse of History, by Asghar Ferdows and Davood Kanani, shows the distance between leftists, ordinary citizens and Khomeini’s supporters at street protests in the run-up to 1979.

Homa and Rasoul found each other in those days, unaware that after Islamic Revolution the clergy and Revolutionary Guards would come for them all. First supporters of the Shah were rounded up and dispatched; then the liberals and the accompanying Freedom Movement; and finally the MEK and the leftists, who would be murdered in their thousands in 1988.

“At that time,” Homa says, “the guerrillas and even the MKO thought they were a small engine. That they’d work hard, and not get married, and sacrifice their lives for the revolution. They believed that if this small engine worked well, then the bigger engine, the people, could be driven in the right direction. A slap in the face. We’d seen the real face of the revolution by then, but many were still hopeful.”

She recalls attending one demonstration, just a few short months before the revolution. Hadi Ghaffari, a cleric, member of the Central Council of the Imam Assembly Forces and co-accused in the subsequent killings of Shah-era officials, was stood nearby in a robe. “I wore a shawl,” Homa says, “and my hair was visible. I was repeating their slogans: ‘The victory is near’. But the female protesters told me to fix my hijab first, then come down to the people! It was clear to me from that moment that the religious factions wanted us at their demonstrations, but in their image and form. We didn’t realize we could not penetrate the masses.”

Demonstrations had been taking place all over the country between October 1978 and February 1979. There was a discernible rift between the political forces, but there also seemed to be no opportunity left for reconstruction. The clergy had got to everyone, Homa says: “I’m personally very critical of our side. Khomeini had written the book Velayat-e Faqih 15 years ago and fully explained the ruling power structure from his point of view. He paid attention to the pillars of religion, not to the problems of the people. But we hadn’t read this book, and nor did we know about him. The people and even some leftist groups also sided with the clergy because of their opposition to the United States.”

A Covert Love Affair in the Shadow of the Revolution

When Homa talks about Rasoul, the father of her two children, sometimes she laughs; sometimes she breaks down. After the pair met in 1977, she would regularly visit Rasoul’s house on the pretext of going for another mountain walk: “I’d tell my family I was going on a mountain walk for two weeks, but I’d go and stay with him. We lived together, read books and went to the movies. Once, one of the college guys came to his house and Rasoul didn’t want anyone from outside to know about our relationship. He hid me under the blankets on the bed, but the guy had no intention of leaving. I had to stay there for five or six hours. It was a deadly serious situation; I didn’t dare come out.”

She laughs at the memory. “The guys told Rasoul that he’d changed. He used to lead and train teams of 40 people for the mountain hikes. But then he got interested in me and no longer took responsibility. He said he was tired, and let the others do it, so that we could be together.”

They also went to demonstrations together, and went to debating and brainstorming sessions with other young activists. In the end they got married at the end of 1978, according to their own leftist beliefs: “My father told me to buy a house for myself. I said no. I didn’t want a wedding or anything. We just bought two rings. Our attitude was strange to families and society, our beliefs isolated from theirs. We exchanged rings, I introduced Rasoul to my family, we had a small party and ate some food, and that was it!”

The pair then rented a house in Karun Street in Tehran; not a self-contained home, but one of the so-called ‘team houses’ where young leftists could gather, socialize and plan their activities. Love in that time, Homa says, was a different creature: “When you’re that idealistic, you don’t know the meaning of earthly love. It was as if we were created to change the lives of others. But love for another human being is empathy, and the world can be viewed through that lens.

“People who love each other very much should have tangible experiences and shared values. Rasoul and I were in agreement. He was a very good man. We became interested in each other at a time when the drier beliefs were fading, and many of us had realized our ideals had no place in people’s hearts, though we didn’t know what we wanted out of life ourselves. The shadow of a kind of sacrifice, to change people’s lives, followed us.”

Regardless of the differences of approach, none in that time thought for a moment that they and their partners in struggle would one day be walked down a corridor to be shot and hanged in groups. After the executions of supporters of the Shah, ethnic and religious minorities including Kurds, Turkmen and Baha’is, it was the turn of the MEK, and finally the leftists.

With the rise of the clergy in the 1980s came a period that would change the lives of Homa, Rasoul, and their two children forever. Theirs was a love story that started with the 1979 revolution and ended in bloodshed, for which Hamid Nouri is today standing trial.

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