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Looking into the eyes of Iranian victims

It is easy for us, as Americans, to talk casually of Iran, the Islamic revolution, and the excesses of the previous regime, without sensing the magnitude of the horror that the Iranian people have endured. Sitting comfortably in Boston and reflecting on events halfway around the world is rather different from looking into the eyes of a torture victim in Tehran.

Like many Americans, I have been following the news concerning Iran and Afghanistan by reading several newspapers, watching TV news, and listening to public radio broadcasts daily. Although hundreds of articles have been written and untold hours of broadcast time have been devoted to the situations in those two countries, the coverage has not been balanced. The differences in "coverage ," that is in the "focus" of the news, is striking, if not disturbing.

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In the reporting of the situation in Afghanistan, the plight of its citizens is a constant theme. From the time of the Soviet invasion in late December we have read and heard a great deal about the "freedom fighters" in the mountains, the shopkeepers in Kabul, the beleaguered people of Baluchistan, and so on. Dozens of articles have depicted the hardship, repression, and suffering these people experience on a daily basis.

But in the midst of all the coverage on the hostage crisis, the students at the US Embassy, the government officials in Iran, and so on, we have seen very few articles that parallel the kinds of articles coming out of Afghanistan. Nevertheless, the factors which led the people of Iran to revolution, the memories and symbols which inform their lives are not dissimilar from what we see and hear about in neighboring Afghanistan.

I am convinced that Americans must come to a better understanding of the suffering and anguish through which Iranians have come if we hope to achieve a framework for future cooperation. While we have heard about the policies of the Shah and SAVAK (the dreaded secret police), for example, very little has been written about their impact on individual lives. Talking and writing in generalities tends to insulate us from the harsh realities of individual human experience.

I had many encounters and conversations in Iran which helped me to understand the widespread disdain for the Pahlavi regime and its policies of brutal repression. One such experience which left an indelible impression involved our visit to a private home. We were invited by the family of the late Dr. Kamran Najatollahi to spend the evening of Jan. 1 with them and several of his former colleagues at the Polytechnic Institute in Tehran. Three of his fellow professors, who were with him at the time of his death, related the events surrounding his murder.

In December, 1978, a number of professors from the Polytechnic Institute took over a science building to protest the fact that the university had been closed for months. They were unarmed. The scene they described reminded me of college demonstrations in the 1960s in the US. At 2 a.m. on the second day of the peaceful occupation, Najatollahi and two friends went up onto the roof for some fresh air. No sooner had he stepped onto the roof than he was shot and fatally wounded by a SAVAK sniper. Within 15 minutes of the slaying, SAVAK agents stormed the building and attacked the professors with guns, clubs, and bayonets. Some of the professors were dragged off and have never been seen or heard from since that night. The others, including the three I talked with, were severely beaten and needed hospitalization.

Najatollahi was a well-known scholar with a promising future. Consequently, many people joined in his funeral procession. His father related how the street was packed with mourners. Then, in the midst of their grief, the crowd was attacked by the military police. The army arrived during the procession, blocked the streets with armored cars and tanks, and began firing into the crowd with automatic weapons. This was not an attempt to slaughter the crowd of mourners. Rather, it was a display of force. The gunfire stopped after a minute or so and the army withdrew. Six mourners were killed, and scores of others were wounded.

Sitting in the living room of this modest three-room apartment and listening to the parents and friends of the slain professor was overwhelming. I recall vividly the expressions of grief and disbelief on the faces of Najatollahi's two younger sisters, ages 14 and 11. At one point, Mrs. Najatollahi asked rhetorically, "Why do I tell you about Dr. Najatollahi? After all, he was only one man among the sixty to eighty thousand who died during the revolution." She paused a moment, looked down at the floor, and said, "I tell you because he was mym son. This is ourm story."


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