I Hid as the School Next Door Was Bombed
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
When policy fails to constrain our baser instincts, no one wins.
By Ali May
The morning was crisp. Icicles hung from drainpipes like daggers. The city was occupied by fear — the evening before, for the first time during the war, it had been bombed. Despite that, my mother insisted nothing must stop me from going to school.
It was Feb. 1, 1987, and I was 280 miles northwest of Tehran, in Mianeh.
The gate to the elementary school was on the main street. After you entered the gate, you walked a narrow alleyway all the way up to the schoolyard where we had our breaks, the same yard that separated my school from the girls’ high school. There were about 30 7-year-old boys in my class. Only six turned up that day.
Midmorning I asked to be excused from class for a drink of water. The fountains were at the other end of the yard, by the windows of the girls’ school, where I would go to chat to the teenage girls. As I drank, I noticed frenzied movement on the rooftop of the Revolutionary Guard base next door.
Smell is the only sense capable of storing all other senses in it, keeping them in its belly.
Young men were fiddling with an anti-aircraft gun. I returned to the classroom and reported what I had seen to my teacher, Mr. Booteh (Mr. Bush, if translated from Persian). My report was interrupted by a sound that resembled that of the sky cracking open. Turning, I saw the explosion of the rocket that had just ripped through the high school. Mr. Booteh shouted, ordering us to crawl under the benches. I remember my friend Farhad’s head being squashed under my weight. In seconds, we were inside a cloud of dust, shattered glass, ash and fear.
Ater the noise of the jets had subsided, we retreated to the backyard. Mr. Booteh took my hand and my friend Shahram’s and led us through the alleyway. I think shock prevented me from seeing the carnage. All I remember is a man just outside the school lying amid all the rubble and bleeding from the knee. Mr. Booteh took us to his house, probably a 10-minute walk away, and tried to call our parents. With air raids all over Iran, the lines were dead. Mr. Booteh allowed Shahram, who lived in the same neighborhood, to leave, but insisted on walking me home.
One of my uncles had borrowed a large truck, one that usually transported grain or livestock, and ushered my family and me into the back of it and then drove to a friend’s chicken farm in the suburbs. In the afternoon, I lay on my back in an irrigation ditch and watched the flight of two metal birds. They roared, leaving a white line behind them, as if they were messengers of peace. They roared, and something inside me, a gaping hole, pulsated. I closed my eyes to escape, but as soon as my lids lowered, I was shot back to the middle of the dust cloud, and to blood and human parts.
I opened my eyes. All that the metal birds had left behind was a scattering of white. In the distance, I saw plumes growing out of my hometown like massive mushrooms. Was it another school? Perhaps the hospital? I didn’t know and I dreaded finding out.
All the families that had escaped in the hopes that a chicken farm in the suburbs would be a safe bet to keep them alive had to cram into two rooms, men in one, women in the other. I shared a corner of the floor in the embrace of my mother, who was also tending my 6-month-old brother.
It was during that long night that I learned about insomnia, and that sleep was not a blessing dished out to all in abundance. I also learned something about smell, something that I didn’t understand until years later: Smell is the only sense capable of storing all other senses in it, keeping them in its belly. The smell of that night was etched in my memory and turned into a demon that I would live in fear of.
The eight-year war started in 1980 and ended only after a million people were slaughtered on both sides.
An old woman I didn’t know screamed. She said she had dreamed that the airplanes returned and unloaded their harvest of destruction on the city again. There was no stopping her screams throughout the night. Each time she woke in terror and shrieked, as if she was trying to save us all, to warn us so we could flee and save ourselves. Someone stroked her arm to try to calm her.
For years to come, the sound of passenger planes, backfiring cars and thunderstorms would frighten me. Three decades later, the piercing roar of those fighter jets still lives in the back alleys of my mind. Hearing air-raid sirens, even if they’re just in a movie, makes my heart palpitate. That experience is not unique to me. My generation — “the burnt generation,” those who were born around the time of the Islamic Revolution, and exposed for eight long years to fear, hunger, cold and loss — has a lot to say about the war with Iraq.
The eight-year war started in 1980 and ended only after a million people were slaughtered on both sides. A war that was the longest of the century. A war that scarred two countries and many millions of lives. A war that, on a winter’s day, claimed the lives of 38 girls I used to talk to.
- Ali May, OZY Author Contact Ali May