During the eight-year Iran-Iraq war, from 1980 to 1988, thousands of Baha'is went to the front alongside their compatriots. Dozens of them were killed, wounded or captured. The Islamic Republic is reluctant to name them alongside other victims of the conflict – officially termed “martyrs” of the war.
This series of articles looks at the Baha’is who died as a part of this conflict. If you know any Baha’is who were killed during the Iran-Iraq war, and have a first-hand account of their lives, please contact us.
“If we buried his body ourselves, he would be considered a ‘martyr’ and this would be carved on his gravestone, but if you take away the body and bury him according to Baha’i law, then he will not be a martyr.”
So said an army representative to the family of Saeed Masoudian, a casualty and ‘martyr’ of the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, who had gone to the army's headquarters to recover their son’s body.
Saeed Masoudian Shishavan was born on July 4, 1960 in Shishavan, a village in the province of East Azerbaijan. At the time, the population of Shishavan consisted of both Muslims and Baha’is who lived side by side in peace. After the 1979 Islamic Revolution, however, most Baha’i villagers had to leave because they were harassed and threatened. The last Baha’i remaining in Shishavan died in 2019. He was a respected figure among the villagers. For years he had served the people of Shishavan and surrounding villages as a bone-setter and, during the war, he treated soldiers voluntarily and for free.
Saeed was nine years old when he and his family moved to Osku, a city 30 kilometers from Tabriz, capital of East Azerbaijan province. Saeed’s father worked for the Tabriz Bureau of Roads and every morning he traveled to Tabriz to work, returning at night.
Saeed finished his primary and middle school years in Osku. After finishing middle school, he and another student, who had graduated with honors, were sent by the Ministry of Education to a high school in Tabriz. In those years the government would sent top students from small towns to high schools in provincial capitals and paid their tuition fees.
After a year in Tabriz, Saeed returned to Osku and received his high school diploma as a top student in that city. He was accomplished in English and Arabic, wrote poetry and one of his school compositions came first at the provincial level. While in school, Saeed was interested in sports as well and was a member of Osku’s football team.
In early 1980, shortly after the Revolution, the house where the Masoudians lived was confiscated by the new revolutionary authorities and they had to leave Osku for Tabriz. They lived in a house that had been donated to the Baha’i community by an individual Baha’i. It was of historical value for the Baha’is but the Revolutionary Court of the Islamic Republic confiscated it and threw out the family.
At the time, anyone who received a high school diploma in East Azerbaijan would move to Tabriz to work or continue their education. Earlier, three of the family's children had moved to Tabriz, so the parents decided to move there too after being evicted from their home in Osku.
When Saeed received his diploma, his family wanted to get some money together and send him abroad to continue his education. But he did not want to leave Iran. He participated in the nationwide university entrance exams and was accepted at Urmia University in the capital of West Azerbaijan province. He did not register, however, because he wanted to take his exams again, hoping to be accepted by the more prestigious universities of Tabriz or Shiraz.
The Iran-Iraq War
When the Iran-Iraq began in September 1980, Saeed decided to join the army, but his mother was not happy with his decision. “Everybody has a mother and if every mother says that this one or that one must not join the army then they [the Iraqis] who are now in Khorramshahr would reach Tabriz in a couple of days,” Saeed told his mother. “After all, this is our country and we must go.” Eventually, after the Baha’i World Center announced that the Baha’is are not against military service and are always ready to serve their country, Saeed’s mother consented that he could register for military service.
Saeed started his military service in late 1980. From the start until he was killed, he fought on the frontlines as a member of Hamzeh Division21, an infantry outfit from Azerbaijan.
On June 30, 1982, Seed was on Shalamcheh front, a border town in southern Khuzestan, the site of fierce fighting during the war where some 50,000 Iranians would be killed. One morning he told Nosrat, his closest comrade-in-arms: “If I am martyred and before my mother gets the news at home, please go to my brother’s address in Tabriz and tell him that I have been killed. I don’t want the army to bring the news to our home because, at the time of the Shah, my uncle was a pilot who was killed in Lorestan. They army told my mother [that he had been killed] and my mother has carried bad memories from those days.”
A couple of hours later it was time to bring water. It was not his turn but that day he volunteered to bring it. Saeed was in the habit of keeping his hair clean and combed. “You stay here,” he told his comrade-in-arms. “I’ll go instead of you because I want to wash my hair.”
Seed was filling the cans from the tanker when it was hit by an Iraqi shell and exploded, killing Saeed. Nosrat got a leave of absence on the same day and set out for Tabriz to give the news of his death to his brother.
A Baha’i Burial Means He is not a Martyr
The army informed the Masoudian family that their son would be considered a martyr only if they were allowed to bury him in an Islamic ceremony, like other martyrs; if they buried him according to Baha’i law he would not be a martyr but just a “fatality”.
The family did not agree and wanted to bury their son themselves. They did not want to ignore the beliefs and faith of their young son right at the moment that they were bidding him farewell. Saeed had officially accepted the Baha’i faith as an adult and had suffered discrimination and harassment along with his whole family. On his military registration form he had identified his religion as Baha’i and the soldiers who served with him knew that he was a Baha’i.
Saeed was buried in a Baha’i ceremony on his birthday on July 4, 1982 in Vadi Rahmat Cemetery in Tabriz among other Baha’is. The memorial service for him, attended by many, was held at his parents’ home at South Shahnaz Street in Tabriz with the recitation of Baha’i prayers.
Government officials had not recognized Saeed as a martyr, but people in his neighborhood raised a flag in his memory at the local mosque. His non-Baha’i friends kept pictures of him on their walls for a year.
It had become a tradition that each year, during mourning processions in the neighborhood to mark the martyrdom of Hossein, the third Shia Imam, the mourners would stop in front of the homes of war martyrs for a few minutes and ritually beat their chests in lamentation. Local people knew that Masoudians were Baha’is but for years they would do the same for them in memory of Saeed.
“Saeed was in the habit of buying boxes of cookies and visiting patients at mental hospitals during the new year holidays,” remembers Saeed’s sister. “A gentleman who was suffering from mental illness used to sit at the entrance to our alleyway and Saeed always brought him food and fruits. When Saeed was martyred you could see the pain on his face.”
Saeed Masoudian was a soldier who lost his life for his country. The government of the Islamic Republic may not have recognized his sacrifice but the Iranian people and history will remember him as a martyr.