It’s a rare day when I fail to take in two or three newspapers, and I often look at more. It is time well spent, because the papers offer stories, opinions and cartoons that give me things to ponder, daydream about, take issue with, mourn over or chuckle at. This keeps my brain chugging along rather than gathering dust, and I hope it will prevent the gray matter behind my blue eyes from turning into Jell-O sometime down the road.
Today a short documentary in the online version of the New York Times caught my eye. It’s a story that has an ugly beginning but an uplifting ending, and, I think, offers a timely lesson. I’ll start with bare bones summary of a 2011 article in Vancouver Magazine by Timothy Taylor.
In 1980, Iraq invaded Iran, attacking Khorramshahr, an Iranian port and driving Iranian defenders from the city during six weeks of fighting. Among the soldiers in Saddam Hussein’s army was Najah Aboud, a 19-year-old who had been given no other choice than to join the army.
Iraq was unable to advance further, but controlled the city for more than a year, knowing that Iran would eventually try to retake the city. During that time, Iran recruited a superior force that included many boys in their early teens. One of the boys was 13-year-old Zahed Haftlang, who had run away from home to escape an abusive father.
When Iran attacked, they easily overwhelmed the Iraqis, who defended from a network of bunkers. The Iranian solders were ordered to kill every Iraqi the encountered, so as they took each bunker, they sent a storm of bullets in, even when the Iraqis attempted to surrender.
After the battle, Zahed was ordered to enter several bunkers to make sure every Iraqi was dead. In one of them, he discovered Najah, who had miraculously survived the attack. Najah begged Zahed as a fellow Muslim to spare his life. A Qur’an in Najah’s pocket and a picture of Najah’s wife-to-be and their son, led Zahed to try to save Najah’s life.
Zahed knew that his actions could mean his own death, so he built a wall with the other bodies in the bunker and hid Najah behind it. He treated Najah’s wounds, and once the order to kill all Iraqis was lifted, he took Najah to a field hospital. For the next 17 years, Najah was a prisoner of war.
Zahed fought for eight more years and was wounded several times. Just before the war ended, he also became a prisoner of war, and remained a captive for more than two years.
The war had wounded both men, not only physically, but mentally and spiritually as well. Combat had left them with terrible memories and they suffered from depression and built up anger. Torture by their captors added to their mental problems.
Najah could not locate his family nor the girl he had planned to marry and their son. His only relative, a brother, had emigrated to Canada many years earlier, and he convinced Najah to join him. Najah accepted the offer and settled in Vancouver, where he started a small business, but he remained haunted by the war until finding help at a counseling center devoted to men like him.
Zahed found his family, but his father was even more abusive than before and he left. He worked to help children in an orphanage, and married a girl he met there. Eventually, he found work as a merchant seaman. Like Najah, though, Zahed could not get over the war. He was filled with anger, which led to an argument with a ship’s officer who was assigned to insure loyalty to the Iranian Revolution of the Ayatollah Khomeini. During the argument, he destroyed a picture of the Ayatollah, which would mean prison if he returned to Iran, so he left the ship while it was in port at Vancouver.
Other Iranian immigrants in the area helped Zahed, but he still suffered from depression. It wasn’t until he attempted to hang himself and failed only because a friend arrived at the last second, that he agreed to accept counseling.
One day, in the waiting room of the center, Najah noticed a man who looked familiar, and Zahed became curious about a man who appeared to be from the Middle East. A brief conversation revealed the action that had bound them together. Najah now knew the man who had saved his life, and Zahed believes Najah has saved his, because he said meeting Najah made his depression disappear.
Today, the two men are close friends. The spend time together, and their families get together as well. Zahed’s wife and daughter have joined him in Canada and Najah hopes to search for his girlfriend and their son.
One of the truths about war is that it requires each side to dismiss the humanity of the other. That’s why the other side is so often labeled with racist or demeaning ethnic names. Those names allow us to see our enemies as less than human, and if we see them that way, we can rationalize destroying them.
But there doesn’t have to be a war for this dehumanizing behavior to appear. We divide ourselves as Americans into countless minorities based on race, ethnicity, religion, political persuasion or residence, and find a derogatory nickname to label them.
That’s a lot harder to do when you meet a person face-to-face and approach them as fellow human beings. Then you learn that not every welfare recipient is a lazy bum or a welfare queen, and not every rich person is a heartless, greedy fat cat.
In short, the more we know about each other, the fewer conflicts there will be, and that’s what we should strive for.