Talking with a Child Soldier and the Young Man He Refused to Kill

He was 13 and meant to kill him. Instead, they escaped and later reunited in Canada.

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May 28 2017, 12:11pm

The Iran-Iraq War did not involve Americans, so it has gone largely unknown in the United States. A new memoir, I, Who Did Not Die, hopes to change that. Told from the point of view of Zahed Haftlang, an Iranian child soldier who became a member of Iran's Basij militia at age 13, and the adult Iraqi conscript Najah Aboud, the book details the war from both sides. Iran orders Zahed to kill its enemies, but he saves Najah. It's part of the two men's epic, nightmarish journeys that include separate time spent as prisoners of war, multiple deaths, and a final escape to Canada, where Zahed and Najah reunite and finally learn each other's names.

Haftlang and Aboud were not alone in their experiences. The Iran-Iraq War lasted from 1980 to 1988, and according to the New York Times, at least 95,000 children died during the conflict. The violence renders I, Who Did Not Die one of the most jarring and scary memoirs in recent years. It's also contemporary, thanks to current debates about the Syrian refugee crisis .

Most of all, I, Who Did Not Die is a moving coming-of-age book about escape. The violence is specific, but with help from journalist Meredith May, the story becomes universal.

Over the phone and in email, Haftlang and Aboud looked back on their experiences in the Iran-Iraq War and what it was like to put it on the page with May. This interview has been edited and condensed.

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What is the biggest misunderstanding about young soldiers?
Haftlang: I believe children join thinking they will be rewarded by Allah, they are thinking that it's just like a game [and that you will be] playing with guns. But the fact is that they are still just children, and they would still like to go home with their mothers and fathers at the end of the day.

Aboud: I did not have a choice to become a soldier—where I am from [Iraq], everyone has to become a soldier when they turn 18. Most people don't want to do it, but they have no choice.

Meredith May:
Especially from the Middle East, the misconception is that they're Islamic fanatics and that they'll kill for Allah. In working on this story with these two gentlemen, they taught me that it's much more prosaic than that. It's boys who are captivated by becoming a man, by adventure, by guns. One of the things I hoped to help them explain is how human we all are. Najah and Zahed are like anyone from any country—especially in Zahed's case, he was escaping an abusive father.

What sociological forces made boys into child soldiers?
Haftlang: The commander was coming to our school. He wanted to talk to us about Islam. He wanted to brainwash us. [He told us] if you become a martyr, you will go to heaven [to be with] God. All the boys like to play with guns and with military equipment; they have a lot of energy and they need to release their energy. The Islamic Republic of Iran was brainwashing [children] to make them believe that they will be martyrs, that Allah will take them into heaven. When I was a child I had a lot of questions, but I could not ask because I would get into trouble.


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Later, what was the worst thing that happened as prisoners of war?
Aboud: I worried about my fiancée and her son, if they were alive or not. The punishments became so regular. After a year I stopped counting the days and assumed we would be there forever. I had no hope and only saw darkness and hate [around me]. I was a man "without a spring [season]. I thought I would never be happy [as you are in the springtime], would never enjoy my future. I was mourning all of my loved ones who were dead, buried in the ground.

Haftlang: Everything was bad when I was a prisoner. When I was in the prisoner camp, I became the clown. They try to break you in any possible way, physically and psychologically. I was trying to stay strong outside, but inside I was breaking. I remember one time I was put into a shit hole in the ground for not following orders. They put me in that hole for two or three days. When you are captive you lose track of time; seconds and hours feel the same. One of the guards felt bad for me, and he threw a piece of chocolate for me to eat. Also, the commander saved my life by lying for me, because I was going to die in that hole. Other time I was beaten so bad that I literally died, and I was left for dead at a barn. That day I thought was going to be my last day on this planet, but miraculously I survived and I was able to stand and come out. Each second in the prisoner camp feels like a year. Time doesn't move.

When writing the book, did you worry about making it sensational?
May: I've also heard from other readers that the story was so brutal they had to put the book down; it was too difficult to read. My response to that is to push back: Ask yourself why this is so hard to read. As Americans, we know a lot through many books and movies about the Vietnam War and World War II, but not this [Iran-Iraq] war. It sort of happened on our periphery. So many people who fought in this war were killed, and many of those who survived are now in Iran and Iraq and afraid to speak openly. There are not many eyewitnesses left.

Is that why you decided to share this story?
Haftlang: [I have tried to make] a normal life. [We have] lost a lot of things, [so] communication is very important. If I am dead how am I going to transfer [this experience] to the next generation? Communication is very important—a father [needs to tell] his kids [about what happened in his life].

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Aboud: I did the book so other people would benefit from it, benefit from learning and reading about my experience. [I still] smell the dead; smell the prison...smell blood, smell weapons…I have nightmares. All of the bad things that happened to me are stuck in my head and it helps to get it out, to share [my story]; helps [me to] understand [what happened].

Why do you think people are afraid of refugees?
Haftlang: Here in Canada, [it] is not the same as in the USA. When I arrived to Canada, I was helped by many people. I was helped by strangers. The people in Canada have a different feeling about immigrants, I think, because here there are mostly immigrants and everyone has a story to tell about how they arrived here. Immigrants are just trying to survive—some refugees are poor, they have to steal to survive. People don't understand and think they are criminals.

Aboud: People are afraid of refugees because they believe the propaganda and bad things people say about them on TV. I did not choose to come to Canada—I found Canada when I ran away.

May: In our hearts, we are tribal, and have always made a difference between us and them to survive since the beginning of time. Being afraid of outsiders is a recycled hatred that has fueled World War II and all the wars after, and probably all the wars before. In our present time, our leaders are spreading this ignorant fear again—like blocking people from predominantly Muslim countries at US airports. When we have world leaders encouraging us to think this way, we think it's right. We can transfer blame for our own economic and social misfortunes on outsiders, rather than the democratic leaders who have failed to lead and help us prosper at home.