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Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 22 May 2018

Web documentary tells incredible story of Iraq-Iran war veterans who became friends

The legacy of the Iran-Iraq war is being re-examined in a new documentary web series through the eyes of two former soldiers reacquainted by chance decades after the conflict, Mitya Underwood writes.

Najah Aboud, left, and Zahed Haftlang in Vancouver. All photos courtesy Fathom Film Group
Najah Aboud, left, and Zahed Haftlang in Vancouver. All photos courtesy Fathom Film Group

Thirty years ago, Najah Aboud and Zahed Haftlang became sworn enemies when they were recruited to fight against each other in the war between Iran and Iraq.

But a chance meeting and a spur-of-the-moment decision by one of the men changed their fates. Now, three decades on, the two former soldiers are firm friends living in Vancouver, Canada.

Their incredible stories are being documented for a web series and feature film, which has already had a screening run that makes it eligible for an Oscar nomination to be considered.

My Enemy, My Brother, directed by Ann Shin, is being released in short chapters with the latest episode out on Tuesday.

The series explores why neither man has been able to leave his past behind and how both are determined to return to their home countries to find lost loved ones.

Najah’s story is the first to unfold. As a young man he was conscripted into the Iraqi army after the war began. He was taken prisoner by the Iranians shortly after, leaving behind a partner and a baby.

“This story cost me 17 years of my life,” he says in the film. “I was between 18 and 19 years old when the war started between Iraq and Iran.

“Suddenly we hear in the news, ‘go right away to the army’. Nobody likes war but we have no choice. You will be killed, you and your family, if you don’t go.”

After the Battle of Khorramshahr he was taken prisoner. The battle lasted one and a half months and became known by the Iranians as Khuninshahr, or “City of Blood”, because of the violence.

The Iranian city was hit by Iraqi airstrikes on September 22, 1980. Tanks moved in and by early November the city was under Iraqi control. About 7,000 people were killed or wounded in the fighting.

Najah was injured in the battle and was later found in a bunker by Iranian soldier Zahed, who had been recruited as a child soldier. He was patrolling the bunkers and under orders to kill any Iraqi fighters he met.

“I tried to go out from the bunker but I couldn’t,” Najah remembers. “I heard weapons very close to me. It meant that they had started to kill whoever was alive. They could kill me.”

Zahed found Najah before the bunker was blown up.

“I saw the face, not of our people, and he did not talk my voice, not my language. Now I know I’m in the enemy’s hands.”

Zahed took the wounded soldier’s wallet and found a black-and-white photograph of his girlfriend and baby.

“Because of his family, that photo, he changed my mind. I made a decision to save him.”

Najah says he could see Zahed change his mind and right away he became “human, not an enemy, or not a killer”.

It was the last time the pair saw each other for more than 20 years until they met by chance in Canada.

Viewers of the mini series, produced by Canada’s Fathom Film Group, will have to wait to see how they became reacquainted and good friends. Zahed’s story will be broadcast in the autumn.

Najah was held prisoner for 17 years and very little news about what was happening in the outside world filtered through to him. The war officially ended in August 1988, but Najah and his fellow prisoners had no idea it was over until their release almost 10 years later.

After his release, he returned to his hometown in Iraq to try to trace his girlfriend and son. The two had never been reported dead.

“When I came to my country I had no information about my family. I felt tired. I looked everywhere. I went to the house but it was destroyed completely. I started to hate my country.”

The story is even more complex because Najah and the mother of his child never signed their marriage paperwork; when he went to war she was an unmarried woman with a child.

For Najah’s family, this could mean trouble when he returns to Iraq to seek them out. It could be especially difficult if she has remarried and her history is a secret.

“There is no joking with this at all,” says Ali, Najah’s brother. “Her family will come after me, or Jasem of Fatma, or anyone from our family.”

Najah is determined to return to Iraq, despite his family’s reservations. He has just been granted Canadian citizenship, so he feels now is the right time. The film crew plans to accompany him.

“It has been a labour of love from the start because at first the miraculous part of the story was all in the past,” says director Shin.

“I was trying to get financial support to tell that, but I found that these days they’re not so much interested in the past. They all want to know what the present day and future story will be.”

Shin’s previous works include The Defector: Escape from North Korea, a documentary about smuggling North Koreans to the South.

The Toronto-based Shin began filming with Najah and Zahed in December 2012 and plans to release a full feature film next year.

Zahed’s story is just as emotionally charged as his friend’s, Shin says, and will also involve a difficult but therapeutic trip back to the country of his birth.

“His father and mother are located and he knows where they are now. He just hasn’t seen them,” she says. “With him, it’s a very bittersweet trip because his father is the reason he ended up being a child soldier and the reason for a lot of trauma.

“Aside from the war itself, his father was a very abusive man. He was a very violent and aggressive man. But he wants to see him.”

The web series, Shin says, began as an experiment but has already whetted people’s appetite for more.

“We wanted to deepen the whole documentary filmmaking process, and to see if there was a way to talk with people while we are making the film and see if that worked. It’s an experiment in that regard.”

The team will also post behind-the-scenes footage on the website as they go along.

Making a documentary in such a personal way, Shin says, comes with its difficulties.

“There is this issue Najah’s sister doesn’t want to tell him about. A documentary filmmaker finds themselves in an interesting position throughout the whole process. Sometimes the making of the film is as dramatic as the film.

“I wanted to open that up. What do you [the viewer] think? Do you think we should withhold this information?”

Follow the story of Najah and Zahed at www.myenemymybrother.com

munderwood@thenational.ae