On September 10, IranWire published an interview with Iranian photojournalist Alfred Yaghobzadeh, a former winner of the World Press Photo who is well known for his war photography. A day later, the news agency Fars, which is owned by the Revolutionary Guards, accused Yaghobzadeh of falsifying history.
Fars’ main criticism of Yaghobzadeh concerns the story of Hasan Jangjou, an Iranian young soldier who went missing in action in 1983 during the Iran-Iraq War and whose body was returned to Iran on September 5 after 34 years. The agency also challenged a number of references to child soldiers, military conscription, and facts about how the war with Iraq began.
In the early years of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), the press published Alfred Yaghobzadeh’s photograph of teenager Jangjou crawling through water and mud with a rifle in his hand. At the time, the photographer identified his subject as a 13-year-old soldier. “When Iraqi forces started shelling, we were supposed to lie on the ground,” he told IranWire. “Taking this picture was one of the first times that I had come face to face with danger. I was thinking what a mistake I had made and that I must resign from being a photographer. As I was struggling with myself I noticed this teenager who was also very distraught. He was the youngest warrior [at the scene]. He was scared and embraced me. I was scared, too, and asked him why he was there; he answered that his father had sent him.”
Yaghobzadeh talked to IranWire about the child soldiers of the war, and the tragedy that ensued: “They brought children who had no military training to the front. These children had to learn while fighting…as far as I can remember 95 percent of them were killed.” He also described how he tried to help and comfort the young soldier. “I said, ‘I am as scared as you are. Calm down. You will learn little by little.’”
Commenting on the interview for Fars, journalist Mehdi Bakhtiari dismissed Yaghobzadeh’s words as “dishonorable” and said they were designed to challenge “a system that he [Yaghobzadeh] does not believe in” through statements that “are either biased or — if one is an optimist — ignorant” in order to “disfigure these symbols of sacrifice for the Iranian people.”
Aged 20 and not 13?
Bakhtiari argues that, at the time, Hasan Jangjou was 20 years old and not 13 as Yaghobzadeh states in the interview with IranWire. However, when Hasan Jangjou’s remains were returned to Iran after 34 years, Fars was one of the first media outlets to celebrate the young soldier. In a report [Persian link] published at 19:25 on September 3, the media outlet referred to him as the “13-year-old warrior,” and a “right-minded Azerbaijani,” publishing Yaghobzadeh’s photograph alongside the report.
In an interview [Persian link] with Fars on September 12, Hasan Jangjou’s brother said Jangjou was born in 1960 and was 20 at the time the war started. However, at the time of writing, Fars’ article stating that Jangjou was 13 has not been amended.
Other outlets published the same information. “Now, after 34 years of separation, the 13-year-old martyr has returned home,” said a Mehr News report [Persian link] published at 18:10 on September 8. At the start of the war, the report said, “even though he was small and short, he and a group of his friends and classmates managed with difficulty to get themselves to Dezful,” a city in the southwestern province of Khuzestan, the war’s main battleground. If, at the time Hasan Jangjou was 20 years old, then it is logical to assume that if he had classmates, he must have been in college. But there is no record of this, so the Mehr report suggests Jangjou and his classmates were middle-school students when they set out for the front. Although it was customary for individuals who set out to fight in the war to be issued with IDs, so far such an ID for Jangjou has not emerged.
Child Soldiers: A Lie?
According to the Fars News commentator, the IranWire interview suggested that during the war “a huge number of children and teenagers were sent to fight — by force, by deception or by irresponsible encouragement of the officials — and that it was a big injustice” against children, carried out by the Islamic Republic.
“In the military, it is normal for soldiers to go to the front in times of war,” wrote Bakhtiari for Fars, “but an organized dispatch of child and teenage forces within the framework of a general mobilization is a complete lie…The dispatchers prevented teenagers and underage individuals from going to the front…And many of these teenagers were forced to leave the front when their real age became known.”
IranWire’s interview makes no mention of the “organized dispatch of teenagers” to the frontlines, and the Fars journalist himself admits that the IDs of many of the young people who fought were manipulated — and that their participation was voluntary, not organized. What is crucial, however, is that child soldiers did fight in the war. Whether these children were persuaded by the government or their families, or did it of their own volition, Fars acknowledges and confirms that child soldiers fought in the eight-year war.
Parents Sent Their Children to War
Bakhtiari also criticizes Alfred Yaghobzadeh for some of his comments about families who sent their children to the front, dismissing this claim.
But perhaps the writer has failed to do his homework — or, at the very least, not read family accounts of those killed in the war. Alfred Yaghobzadeh uses the phrase “at the time they said” to make it clear that he is quoting others, and only relating what he had heard.
In response to Bakhtiar’s claims that were no documented reports of families admitting they had sent their young sons to fight in the war, IranWire wishes to highlight an interview with Ms. Tayebeh Mesri, the mother of the martyr Ali Asghar Rastegar Abdollahi [Persian link], published by Anaj News Agency on September 22, 2015. Ali Asghar Rastegar Abdollahi had also been missing in action for 21 years.
“When the war started I sent him to the front with my own hands,” she said. “He got his wish to become a martyr. And throughout the years I never gave in to the accusing eyes of others who considered me the murderer of my only son. I only thanked the Lord.”
Regardless of how various people might judge the words of this mother, the basic point made by Alfred Yaghobzadeh remains valid. There were reports that some parents had sent their children to war and, as Ms. Mesri points out, there were others who viewed those parents as murderers of their children.
IranWire is not aiming to prove or disprove these reports; it simply cited this one example in order to correct Fars News Agency’s commentator.
Speaking in his interview with IranWire, Alfred Yaghobzadeh said: “I have many pictures of young fighters. One said that his family had sent him. Another said that he had come voluntarily. But I believe that the basic question was the role of the families. When a 13-year-old teenager says he wants to go to war, it is the family that must prevent him. Why didn’t the father or the brothers of this youngster go to the war themselves? Why did he have to go? At that time, these questions did not come to my mind to ask them. At the time they said that they were sending the children to the front to accept death easier, but I saw every age at the front — from old men to teenagers.”
The Army after the 1979 Revolution
The Fars journalist also points out that there were errors in IranWire’s interview regarding the repeal of military conscription, the dissolution of the armed forces soon after the revolution, and how the war with Iraq started — though he provides no specific detail about these points. At any rate, the IranWire interview with Alfred Yaghobzadeh was presented as one man’s account of his own experiences, including his own exemption from military service.
For a few years after the 1979 Islamic Revolution, the situation regarding conscription was vague, and the law concerning it did not go through parliament until 1984. It seems plausible that Alfred Yaghobzadeh did not carefully follow the changes in military conscription from 1979 to 1984.
With reference to the issue of dissolving armed forces, Yaghobzadeh talks about the distrust Ayatollah Khomeini and other revolutionaries had toward army commanders, and about their orders to execute some of those commanders. Some details of Yaghobzadeh’s stories about conscription, the army or the war might be wrong. But Fars Agency’s correspondent on defense and security affairs is probably aware of documentary filmmaker Hossein Dehbashi’s interview with Iranian navy Captain Hooshang Samadi. In the interview, Captain Samadi says that Mohammad Gharazi, who was then the governor of Khuzestan Province, “executed 19 senior officers…[only] 45 days before the war started. So what was the army left with?”
Gharazi has denied this, and Captain Samadi then challenged Gharazi to a debate — it could be an event Fars News Agency is well placed to host, giving the public the opportunity to better learn about what happened to the armed forces in the days following the 1979 revolution.
“At the time, there were two groups who were fighting,” Yaghobzadeh told IranWire. “One was the Royal Armed Forces that had now become the Islamic Republic Armed Forces. They were disciplined and would not accept teenagers. The other one was the Basij Organization. At the time I was a student and I was trying to be a professional judo athlete. I had decided to continue with judo, go to the Olympics, become a champion and then study interior architecture. At the time I was not thinking about money and income. But I let it all go and went after photography. After the revolution, Khomeini said that soldiers were not needed and that ‘we will have the Basijis.’ I was drafted and was one of the first Islamic Republic soldiers to be discharged. Teenagers and young soldiers were mostly members of the Basij and they lacked any kind of discipline. They would give them a rifle and tell them to go and fight for God. And when they returned, these youngsters complained that they had not been martyred. They were told not to worry and that there was going to be another attack the next day. ‘Go fight and if today the Lord did not want you to become a martyr, tomorrow He will!’ I am not sure if these children were mostly sent to walk on landmines. In that war, most people preferred to get killed than become POWs.”