Towards An Archive of the Basij: Memories from Iran’s Volunteer Militia

This article serves as the inaugural piece for a series featuring materials from the Ajam Digital Archive. The Ajam Digital Archive focuses on twentieth century Persianate Life, and we have invited academics to shed some light on the Archive materials. If you are an academic interested in writing a similar piece, email us at info@ajammc.com. If you would like to contribute to the Archive, see here.

Narges Bajoghli received her PhD in socio-cultural anthropology from New York University and is a documentary filmmaker in NYU’s Culture and Media Program. Her research focuses on pro-regime cultural producers in Iran, and is based on over 18 months of ethnographic research with Basij, Ansar-e Hezbollah, and Revolutionary Guard media producers in Iran. Starting in Fall 2016, Narges will be a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Watson Institute at Brown University. You can follow her on Twitter @nargesbajoghli

War Soldiers
Group Portrait of Soldiers in Uniform, 1980s. Contributed by Ali Karjoo-Ravary. Ajam Digital Archive, http://archive.ajammc.com/

In winter 2010, I had traveled with a group of Iranian veterans to the south of the country along the Iran-Iraq border, visiting the first towns the Iraqi army invaded in September 1980. Right outside of Khorramshahr, the Iranian port city that the Iraqis occupied for the first two years of the eight-year war, veterans showed me the old battlefields where they spent endless days during their youth, fighting in close combat in dark and bloody trenches.

“I was in 10th grade when the Iraqis invaded,” Parviz, a native of Abadan, told me. “There was no one to defend us—we had no choice but to fight,” Parviz recounts, as he explains why he began fighting at the age of fifteen and joined the Basij, a paramilitary organization in service of the war effort. “Imagine your town getting pummeled, your friends getting killed, and your sister and mother being terrified of the invading soldiers.”

For the most part, veterans told me that they joined the Basij to defend the nation, their honor (namus), Ayatollah Khomeini’s vision, and the revolution. “I kept seeing news reports of our women being raped and killed in Abadan by the Iraqis and I couldn’t live with myself to sit and not do anything. It was insulting to our honor (be namus-emoon bar mikhord) ” said Reza, a man who volunteered with the Basij at the age of sixteen from Karaj, in the west of Tehran, and who, in his fifth year at the warfront, stepped on a mine that blew his legs off. He has been in a wheelchair for the last twenty-eight years.

“I fought for my Imam [Khomeini] and to protect the revolution,” chimed in Mammad, a former Basiji from Kashan, in central Iran, who now lives near Reza. Mammad volunteered along with his three brothers, one of whom was killed two years later on the front.

The Iran of the Pahlavi period (1925-1979) actively marginalized large swaths of the population who believed in Islam and outwardly showcased their religiosity through dress and comportment. With the triumph of the 1979 Revolution and the advent of the Islamic Republic, Ayatollah Khomeini tapped into this population and gave them a sense of purpose: “For the first time in my life, I saw that someone believed in our power and our ability to govern this country,” Ghassem, a Basiji and a veteran of the war who is in his late forties said to me. “He gave us confidence. And when the Iraqis threatened our revolution, he led us to fight for our nation.” Hasan, a 48-year old writer, who volunteered with the Basij at the age of 17 to fight in Kurdistan said to me: “Look at what he [Khomeini] did with our generation. The Imam turned all of us Muslim kids (bache mosalmoon) into men. He believed in us and gave us a purpose. I will always be indebted to him for that.”

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Soldiers on a Bus to the Front, 1980s. Contributed by Ali Karjoo-Ravary. Ajam Digital Archive, http://archive.ajammc.com/

With the once-powerful army of Iran in disarray following the 1979 Revolution, and the nascent Revolutionary Guard untrained and spread thin fighting uprisings in Kurdistan and Turkmen-Sahra, Iraq envisioned that its invasion of Iran in September 1980 would lead to a swift victory. This proved to be wishful thinking. The 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War turned into the longest conventional war of the 20th century, in which trench warfare was used nearly throughout the war, and in which Iraq dropped numerous nerve-gas and chemical bombs on Iranian military and civilian populations.

Iraq attacked Iran along its southern border, in the province of Khuzestan, home to Iran’s ethnically Arab population. Saddam Hussein banked on the hope that Iran’s Arab population would rise up against the new government and side with its Arab invader. With the surprise attack and the disarray of the country following the revolution, Iraq quickly occupied the port city of Khorramshahr, 22 miles from Abadan. Iraq’s eyes were on Abadan, where the Middle East’s largest oil refinery of the time was located.[1]

Despite Iran’s weakened army following the post-revolutionary purges of the Pahlavi military elite, and its nascent untrained forces in the Revolutionary Guard, the Iranian forces were able to fight off Iraq’s attempt to take the city of Abadan. It took two years for Iran to free the city of Khorramshahr (1982), at which point the Islamic Republic decided to turn on the offensive and attack Iraqi territory.

The war continued for another six years, while Middle Eastern and Western countries supplied both sides with heavy weaponry (although Iraq received the bulk of this weapons trade). Iraq began using chemical and nerve agents against Iranian forces as early as 1981, and eventually used them on Iranian civilians and soldiers throughout the war. By the end of the war, Iraq used these weapons on its own Kurdish population, including the infamous attack on Halabja in 1988.

Map of the Iran-Iraq War attacks
Map of the Iran-Iraq War attacks (source)

Given Iran’s size and population advantage in comparison to Iraq, Ayatollah Khomeini called for the creation of “an army of 20 million” to fight off the Iraqi army. Seeking new recruits for the warfront, Khomeini formally launched the Basij in 1980 as a volunteer paramilitary group. By 1981, the Basij-e Mostaz’afin (literally the “Mobilization of the Oppressed”) became a unit of the Revolutionary Guard (vahed-e basij-e mostazafan-e sepah-e pasdaran),[2] and volunteers received rudimentary arms training before being deployed. By the late 1980s, some three million volunteers had been inducted, with a full one-third of them seeing action on the military front.

The volunteers were organized via the Basij in their local neighborhoods. Each province in the country had at least one central Basij Command Center, while neighborhood mosques housed local Basij centers where volunteers could go to register for the warfront. At the time of registration, a file was made for each volunteer, pictures were taken, and permission for deployment (barg-e ezam) was given to the volunteer. The Basij center in each city and town coordinated their efforts and sent the volunteers to the Basij Training Center (padegah-e amuzeshi) in the province’s Basij Command Center for forty-five days of training. These forty-five days involved training in weaponry, shooting, body and strength training, and tactical and strategic training, including: how to fight in both the morning and at night (most attacks by the Iranian side were done at nighttime because they lacked sophisticated weaponry and could catch the Iraqis off-guard like this); how to fight in the mountains and on flat land; and how to deal with minefields. Once trained, based on the individual’s aptitude, some Basijis were then given specialties (i.e., reconnaissance, defusing mines, sniper shooting).

As a whole, Basij volunteers were deployed anywhere from 45 days to three-month periods, and then given a break. Some Basijis would renew their deployment and not take their vacations, thus prolonging their service at the front. Anyone could volunteer to become a Basiji: young, old, man, woman, though the women supported the war effort from behind the frontline as nurses and volunteers who made food and warm clothes for the soldiers. Men as old as 70 volunteered at the front with the Basij, and although the legal age to fight was set at sixteen, younger boys eager to defend their nation forged their parents signatures and were deployed to the warfront.

During the war, a great majority of Basij volunteers came from lower middle class families, with a smaller number hailing from middle class backgrounds. All Basij volunteers tended to be religious. Although some young men from landowning families did join the Basij, they were few and far between. For the wealthier families, and for families who were not as religious, many tried to send their sons abroad in order to avoid recruitment to the front, despite the closing of Iran’s borders and the extreme difficulty of securing visas for young Iranian men at the time. Even to this day, there exists a division between those who fought in the war and those who left the country.

The war was fought in close-combat, often times in trenches along the borders, making it one of the bloodiest wars of the last century. The number of war dead continues to be a controversial topic in Iran, with statistics ranging from 300,000 to 1 million. When both sides finally signed a United Nations ceasefire in 1988, no territorial changes had taken place as a result of the war. Needless to say, the war was a defining period for the Islamic Republic, allowing the regime to suppress opposition from the Revolution, while it also produced the new generation of political and military elite for the Islamic Republic.

Yet, today many Basijis do not agree with the way the state has memorialized their experiences and utilized their sacrifices on the warfront. The Islamic Republic, like any government, has spent endless amounts of money and energy memorializing its version of war. The official version celebrates heroic martyrs who readily gave their lives to defend their nation and their revolution. Despite a multitude of experiences and opinions from veterans and former Basijis that are not in line with the official version, the state has attempted to hold a monopoly over the memory of the war.

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Building facade in Tehran commemorating the diversity of soldiers who fought and died in the Iran-Iraq War, showing Jewish, Zoroastrian, and Armenian and Assyrian Christian martyrs with their names written in corresponding languages when applicable. Photo credit: Narges Bajoghli.

Ali, one Basiji from Ahvaz who I interviewed a number of times and came to know closely over four years, highlights this chasm between the official and unofficial narratives of the war. In the beginning of our encounters, Ali spoke to me very formulaically about his experiences at the warfront. With time, Ali, much like the other war veterans I came to know throughout the years, let go of the official war rhetoric and opened up, offering his own narrative of his experiences.

After we knew each other for three years, Ali began to speak openly with me about his doubts on what the war actually accomplished, about his mistreatment by the government’s Martyrs Foundation, and about his fears during the war itself. These conversations with Ali, and the countless other veterans, reveal the broader sense of when personal narratives about the war are allowed to be expressed and when they are intentionally silenced. The war veterans consciously distinguish between the “official version” and the “real version” of the war.  Their responses to state television crews, foreign journalists, and international delegates about the war are formulaic and nearly identical, whereby the discussions amongst themselves and those they trust take on a different register.

As such, in the past decade, there have been renewed efforts by veterans to challenge the official narrative of the war. Veterans have come together to create the Tehran Peace Museum, to make and distribute underground films that critique the state’s care of injured veterans, and to produce new media and books that challenge dominant state narratives.

Fuchsia Evening Dresses
Foyer of Tehran’s Peace Museum. Photo credit: Narges Bajoghli.

Archives such as the Ajam Digital Archive, which have the potential to forefront the personal stories of Basijis and soldiers, who sent photos and letters back to their loved ones from the warfront, are also a step in that direction.

[1] The Anglo-Persian Oil Company (later British Petroleum, BP), completed the Abadan refinery in 1912, one of the world’s largest oil refineries, and kept control over it until the Iranian Prime Minister, Mohammad Mossadeq, nationalized the oil industry in 1951. The Americans and British regained control of the oil industry in the country after an orchestrated coup d’etat in 1953 that reinstated the Shah and turned him into the United State’s biggest ally in the Middle East (Abrahamian 2015). By the time of the revolution, Abadan was a cosmopolitan and international city, and the hub of the National Iranian Oil Company.

[2] Although there were groups formalized following the 1979 Revolution that were antecedents to the Basij, this group became formally institutionalized in the service of the war.

 

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