Akbar Golrang. The Last Flight of a Nightingale. Chapter 1 & 2

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1 Akbar Golrang The Last Flight of a Nightingale Chapter 1 & 2

2 The Present Sweden 2007

3 1 The Last Flight of a Nightingale Kristianstad On the morning of the 21 st of March, 2007, the day for the celebration of Nourooz on the Persian calendar, it was drizzling when we arrived at the cemetery in Kristianstad. My father led my mother and me over to five graves. We saw a stylish man in his forties, with a small birthmark on his left eyelid, who had arrived there before us and laid a large bouquet on one of the graves that had a marble gravestone. At the sight of us the man turned without saying a word or even looking at us, and left the cemetery. We saw him walk through the gate and then sit in the back seat of a black limousine that was waiting for him just outside. When the car drove by my father shook his head and mumbled: Same story all over again. I did not understand what Papa meant. I only noticed that he went up to the graves and stood before the same grave that the strange man had laid his bouquet on. Papa stood there quiet and stiff for a long time and then clicked his well-polished heels together. I have since learned that this can be a sign of the highest respect for a military colleague. Happy New Year, Sergeant. Mamma looked at me. Do you know who they are? she asked. No, I answered. They were the best we ve had in Sweden. I ll be twenty-two soon. And still, I ve never heard of these people. Why? I asked my mother while giving my father a meaningful glance that expected an answer from him. Yes, they were definitely the best we ve had in Sweden, said Papa. 13

4 Akbar Golrang Then what happened to them? Why are they all lying here? That is exactly why we wanted to visit them today. We would like to tell you our whole story. I felt completely confused. What is it that Mamma and Papa want to reveal to me? Would you like to say anything to them, Sara? Papa said to Mamma. Happy New Nourooz everybody! she said to the graves and then laid the bouquet of flowers that she held in her hands beside the strange man s on the gravestone. I read the inscription on the gravestone: Bahram Saremi Poor Sergeant, he didn t even take his real identity with him when he died, sighed my father a little sadly. What did Papa actually mean by identity? I thought. When we got back in the car to drive back to return to Stockholm, first my father and then my mother started to insinuate what they had already decided to tell me about. 14

5 The Past

6 Part One Iran, the fire beneath the ashes

7 2 The Last Flight of a Nightingale A chain of relationships; General Arian, Major Hooman, Lieutenant Arman and Sergeant Zackaria Even though the sun had already risen and brought its heat to the desert on the 13 th of February, 1977, clouds periodically darkened the sky. The desert was still damp after several days of rain, and here and there one could see shimmering pools of water and distorted rock formations, many suggesting human figures. The ground was sandy as might be expected, and in some places bushes sprawled between protruding thistles. Three men were sitting in a jeep: Lieutenant Arman, Master Sergeant Josef and Sergeant Zackaria. Arman was light skinned, slim, stood around 5 9, and had a round face with thin eyebrows and a pair of small but penetrating, brown, falcon eyes. Zackaria was around 5 11, thin, light-skinned and sunburned, with an oval face, light brown eyes and a nose that had been broken a few times. It had been almost adequately repaired in the army s provisional hospitals, and thereby assumed the shape of a question mark. His jaw was tightly clenched, which made his face with its sharply chiseled features look harder than it normally did. Unlike the master sergeant who, according to their commander Major Hooman, knew every grain of sand in the desert, including how many sand dunes there were between Torbat and Tabbas, neither the lieutenant nor the sergeant had any knowledge of it at all. It was their first assignment and they wanted to get to know the area so that in the future they would be able to operate as a reconnaissance patrol in this desert, which covered the southern part of the Khorasan province in northeastern Iran. 19

8 Akbar Golrang The master sergeant that drove the vehicle was a fiftyyear veteran with pale eyes and a grandfather s friendly manner. He was 6 3 and very overweight, with a great belly hanging over his belt. He had been blessed with strong personal magnetism, which meant that the others listened to him. Arman had the feeling that whenever Master Sergeant Josef spoke, it was always the truth; never an exaggeration or a boast. I ll tell you something, said Josef, back in the year 1907, Great Britain and Russia agreed to divide Persia into the British part in the south and the Russian part in the north, while the middle stayed neutral territory. During the First World War Persia was thereby neutral, but a lot of the most important caravan roads were unsafe and nobody could pass without paying a toll to a robber or a local tribal chieftain. So the government called in Swedish officers to organize a gendarmerie to maintain law and order in the neutral zone. The man that lead them was colonel Harald Hjalmarsson. The jeep drove through an abandoned palm grove. Large palm fronds flapped in the wind. The surrounding ground had the hard luster of rock salt. The sand was yellow but strewn with black kernels of sandstone. The wind drove a dense rain of sand, causing a scraping sound among the palms. Signals sounded from the communications radio. The sergeant sitting in the backseat pulled out the antenna and started reporting their position. It was Major Hooman, their commander, wanting to check their routine patrol. Everything was in order. The conversation ended. Now they drove through a small village with four houses of sun dried brick, where green grass rustled on the field and a few palms shaded the side of the road. In the distance 20

9 The Last Flight of a Nightingale two sheep grazed on the sparse vegetation. In some places the road was slippery and they could feel the vehicle sliding and in two places the back wheels got stuck in the deep clay. After a while they approached an oasis. The master sergeant drove up to a man-made fountain with sparkling spring water and stopped. We can get something into our stomachs here, he said and looked at them with a fatherly expression and smiled. He opened the door and climbed out with difficulty. Then the lieutenant and the sergeant followed. The master sergeant went straight to the fountain and, cupped his hands, filled them with cold water and doused his hair and face. Then he drank. This water tastes like honey, he puffed. The lieutenant and the sergeant stood motionless, looking at him. The master sergeant stood up and noticed that the lieutenant seemed to expect some form of subordination, which he disregarded and walked over to a wooden bed that stood between two palms in front of a teahouse a little ways from the fountain, and sat down. There was the smell of burned rice and urine in the air. During the day this bed serves as a bench for travelers and at night as a bed for overnight guests, said the master sergeant. The lieutenant and the sergeant went and sat on the edge of the bed behind him. The master sergeant could feel that they were uneasy, but he said nothing. Around the teahouse lay broken wooden boxes, rusty metal oil cans and piles of other junk. Beside the metal cans sat a large Rottweiler with a pinkish-white spot on its left ear and cloudy eyes. It was calm, but tied up. A white cat sat by the other corner of the teahouse and yawned. 21

10 Akbar Golrang From inside the teahouse a woman in her thirties appeared, with a headscarf that had fallen down so that it hung around her neck. She was tattooed on the face and rings dangled from her ears. She smoked a cigarette. Hi, said the master sergeant. Well hello, it s been a while, said the woman grabbing the bottom of her dress and wiping her face with it. Yeah, it s been a while, said the master sergeant. Then he turned to the other two. She s been taking care of this oasis by herself for the past two years. Her brother is a saffron merchant and he has a truck that he drives here once a week with all the essentials. The woman looked into the master sergeant s eyes and took his right hand. She looked at his palm like a fortuneteller and gently stroked its lines with her forefinger. An omen, she said. Is something wrong? asked the master sergeant. Yes, there is, she said. Stay here tonight. Stay here overnight with me tonight. Why? She did not answer him but instead turned and walked toward the teahouse door. Before she went in she stopped in the doorway and looked at him longingly. The master sergeant looked at the ground. He felt embarrassed. She went into the teahouse and came out again with a full pot of tea. They each got a cup, but the master sergeant drank more quickly than he normally did, since he noticed that the lieutenant was nodding towards the vehicle. When the master sergeant went to pay the woman for the tea, she stroked his hand again and gave him a yearning look to try and convince him to stay. He pretended not to notice the invitation and they returned to the jeep instead, so they could leave. 22

11 The Last Flight of a Nightingale Now that they had drunk their tea, they were in a better mood. This part of the desert is called the Tabbas terrain, said the master sergeant and pointed at the map that the lieutenant was holding. We drive that way. They came to a seemingly endless plain with low hills of sand. There were dried up trees and wilted grass. A camel caravan was visible in the distance like a mirage. Nowadays, you get curious when you see a caravan in the desert, said the master sergeant pointing towards it. Something in particular? asked the lieutenant. I don t know yet, lieutenant. I suggest that we stop here a while and get a look at them through the binoculars, said the master sergeant. We ll do that, said the lieutenant. The master sergeant stopped the jeep and the three climbed out. In the sand they could see lizard tracks and impressions left from snakes. The lieutenant kneeled and looked through the binoculars at the caravan. He saw a column of camels that seemed to be standing completely still. The master sergeant gazed at the column of camels through his binoculars as well. In the old days it was common to see camel caravans in the desert, but these days it costs ten times as much to transport goods by camel than it does to transport them by truck. Do you suspect something? I suspect that they are smuggling cigarettes to Afghanistan, or opium from there. They got back in the jeep and drove towards the caravan. When they had come alongside it they discovered that there were no camel drivers. 23

12 Akbar Golrang The master sergeant stopped the vehicle, climbed out with great difficulty and hurried forward to one of the camels. He grabbed the camel s nose strap and looked carefully at the tears that ran from the animal s eyes. Then he smelled the cargo. The camels are loaded with opium. They are also drugged, said the master sergeant. These animals are addicted and walk by themselves, carrying bales from one place to another in a trance, without anyone getting suspicious about it. Report this to base, Zackaria! The fact that the lieutenant had called the sergeant by his first name felt both agreeable and significant for Zackaria. Will do, Lieutenant, said the sergeant and grabbed hold of the radio. As the lieutenant headed toward the car he could hear that Zackaria had made contact with the base. The base commander wanted the sergeant to give their and the caravan s exact location. A little later they climbed back into the jeep and continued on their way in the deep sand toward Tabbas. The character of the landscape changed as the road led them though a labyrinth of rock formations that appeared to be stacked on top of one other. The place was situated along a stony fault in the middle of a valley. In the distance a mountain was visible. As they approached they saw some stone houses pressed between rock faces on one side and palm groves on the other. Above them on the mountain, a large metal sphere was visible. It looked like a big eye that stared expressionlessly out over the desert. This feels surreal, said the lieutenant. A globe on a mountain! It belongs to the foreigners. 24

13 The Last Flight of a Nightingale The lieutenant turned to the sergeant. What do you think it could be, Zackaria? I think it s a reconnaissance relay station, lieutenant, said Zackaria. But it seems strange here in the desert! said the lieutenant and turned toward the master sergeant. Who are these foreigners? We can t go poking into this, Lieutenant! The lieutenant did not respond. He looked out through the window. The wind started blowing hard. This time of year the heat is usually followed by rain, said the master sergeant. And even if it s hot, there will be pools of water left in the desert after the rain. As long as you ve got water you don t need to worry about the heat. Water is God s gift. They came to an area where the earth was a greenish yellow-gray and the air smelled like rotten eggs. The ground had broken and formed a jigsaw puzzle of deep cracks. They say that this entire area was once underwater, said the master sergeant. But over time the heat dried out the wet clay until it cracked like glass. A little later they drove through an apparently endless row of green cliffs that stretched all the way to the horizon. The sky was suddenly covered by clouds and there was something moist in the wind. Dust devils started to move across the ground and they could hear the distant rumble of thunder. The master sergeant concentrated his gaze ahead, not wanting to end up going the wrong way. Suddenly, a bolt of lightning struck the ground directly in front of them, along with a crash of thunder. It would be best to drive back to the teahouse, advised the master sergeant. 25

14 Akbar Golrang No, said the lieutenant. We ll take the risk and continue. Radio signals sounded, but before the sergeant could pull out the antenna, the vehicle jolted to one side. The master sergeant put it in reverse and started backing. It didn t help. The vehicle spun and slid off balance. It slid even more and started to sink. It s a marsh! the master sergeant yelled wildly. Get out of the vehicle! The lieutenant opened the door, but hesitated a moment and turned his head toward the master sergeant, who tried but had difficulty getting out of the car on the other side. He saw how the sergeant quickly opened the backdoor and threw himself out. The lieutenant realized that the vehicle had now sunk down over the wheels. He crawled out through the window and slithered his way onto the roof. From there he leapt as far as he could towards the dry ground, but landed at the edge of the marsh and slid down in the boggy ooze again. He fought hard to pull himself out, but just sank back even more. He grabbed hold of a few strands of long grass that were leaning towards him, but the roots gave way. He watched in a daze how the master sergeant fought to squeeze out of the car, which had now sunk nearly to the windows and then he felt something heavy strike his nose. It was a buckle on a belt that the sergeant had thrown to him. He grabbed it with both hands. The sergeant pulled slowly but surely backwards. The lieutenant stopped struggling and let the sergeant pull him up out of the marsh. When the lieutenant was finally free from the threat of drowning, he wearily wiped his muddy face and looked towards the jeep with the master sergeant, which to his despair had now completely disappeared down into the marsh. 26

15 The Last Flight of a Nightingale My God! The lieutenant opened his eyes and tried to see in the darkness. His hands and feet were chained together, which made it difficult for him to move about. At first he didn t know where he was, but after a few moments he remembered something of what had happened to them. When his eyes had adjusted to the darkness he shifted himself around to see if he could make out the sergeant. Now he could see clearly enough to move around. The wind howled outside and it was bitterly cold in the little room. He recalled some dark figures striking him on the back of the head, but nothing else. He rose clumsily and stumbled across the floor. He hunkered down immediately and groped around for the sergeant in the darkness, without result. Nearly panicstricken, he reeled about, not caring about the throbbing pain in the back of his head. He felt dizzy and laid down on the cold cement floor again and closed his eyes. He tried repeatedly to reassemble the sequence of events into a coherent memory, but somehow the image blurred in places and caused him to lose it again. Finally the picture cleared and he remembered what had happened after the master sergeant had disappeared into the swamp and he and the sergeant had managed to save themselves. They had dried out their uniforms and headed back toward the oasis where they had met the tattooed woman at the teahouse. Battered and exhausted, they had walked a few kilometres without either of them knowing for sure if they were on the right trail. They didn t notice when they walked right into a trap in the form of a group of camouflaged soldiers. The soldiers had suddenly stood up in their trenches with weapons pointed at them. Neither he nor the sergeant were able to recognize the soldiers masked faces in the dim light of the sunset. The only thing they did notice was that the soldiers barked out some kind of code in a highly disciplined manner. 27

16 Akbar Golrang Then one of them came forward and tied his and the sergeant s hands behind their backs. Someone covered first the sergeant s, and then his head with a black sack and led them over to what he thought was a vehicle. Suddenly he felt something crash into him so that he lost his balance and fell over. What the? He tried to get to his feet but then something that felt metallic struck him in the back of the head. After that he had no memory. They were probably not bandits or any kind of smugglers either. Their behaviour was military. But who were they? He had no doubt that they were trained soldiers. But he could not place their unit. And he couldn t decipher their loud codes either. So is there no possibility of figuring out where this place is and where they have taken us? He searched for an answer as to why they had taken him and his subordinate prisoner. But he could find none. He sat puzzling over these things when he heard footsteps outside the door. He could feel his pulse rise as the creaking iron door was opened and four men dressed in camouflage with painted faces came in, automatic rifles drawn. What the hell is going on? demanded the lieutenant, his voice cracking. One of them motioned up and down with his weapon to indicate that he should get up and follow them. When the car stopped the lieutenant could hear the whining motors of a helicopter and shortly thereafter, another car coming to a stop. The foot shackles and sack over his head made it difficult for him to get out of the car. The driver shoved him out anyway and he heard the cars leave. Major Hooman pulled the sacks off of their heads, first the lieutenant s and then the sergeant s. Then he unlocked 28

17 The Last Flight of a Nightingale their hand and foot shackles with keys that he got from one of the drivers. He seemed calm, almost comforting. It took a few seconds before the lieutenant s eyes adjusted to the glare from the helicopter s floodlights in the dark night and when he recognized Major Hooman, he saluted. That s not necessary, said the major. He was big and powerful, his grey hair was close-cropped and he had grey eyes and a thin scar that stretched from his left eyebrow down to his lower lip. The scar, a souvenir from the war with the rebels in the southern province, gave him a threatening appearance. The moon hovered like a burning eye in the desert. A coldness accompanied the moonlight and lay heavy over the landing strip. As Arman walked toward the helicopter, he answered the sergeant s salute behind him. He saw a dead donkey laying a little further out at the edge of the landing strip. It smelled of rotting flesh. The major helped them up into the helicopter, fastened them in with their safety belts and sat in the seat facing them. He put headsets on them with microphones and then put one on himself. Then he flipped a switch to prevent contact between the passengers and the cockpit. I am aware of the fact that you are completely exhausted, said the major loudly. He was nearly forced to shout in the helicopter s dull roar. Do you know where we are? No sir, Major, the lieutenant answered, also nearly shouting. This is a temporary landing strip in Tabbas. We re taking the chopper to the base. The General wants to talk to you, said the major. Yes sir, Major, answered the lieutenant. What happened to you, Lieutenant? asked the major. 29

18 Akbar Golrang I don t know Major, sir. Do you know what happened Sergeant? No sir, Major! The major broke off his conversation with them and started talking into the microphone and listened in the headphones. After a half-hour the helicopter hovered over an open place outside of something that looked like barracks. It landed there and the pilot killed the motors. The major helped them to climb out and they went in through a door at one end of the building. Shortly, they came to another door. The major asked the sergeant to wait outside and motioned to a soldier standing guard outside of a conference room. The soldier went in, then quickly came out again and asked them to step inside. The major and the lieutenant saluted at the threshold. All the tables in the room were empty, except for one at the other end where two men were sitting. One of them was short, thin and wore civilian clothes and black glasses. The other was of medium height, powerfully built, and had a uniform showing the rank of major-general. Both men seemed to be in their forties. Dismissed, Major! said the major-general. The major left the room and the lieutenant saluted. Lieutenant, I am Major-General Arian, military commander of the province, he said in a sharp voice with an Azerbaijani accent. He looked toward the man dressed in civilian clothes and continued. And this gentleman is Brigadier General Pak, commander of the province s intelligence services. At you service General, Sir! said the lieutenant and saluted. The general rose and stepped directly over to him. He looked at him critically. 30

19 The Last Flight of a Nightingale Lieutenant, can you tell us what happened to you during your first patrol duty in this province, he said with a voice so rasping that it sounded like he was suffering from chronic bronchitis. Yes sir, General. We started the mission at six o clock. In my command were the master sergeant and the sergeant. First we arrived at a teahouse. Afterwards we discovered a caravan. After that we saw a metal construction up on a mountain. Then we came to a swamp area where our vehicle sank. The master sergeant disappeared into the swamp. The sergeant and I were captured by unknown individuals. In the dark of night I was driven by the same foreign individuals to the helicopter and released to the major. After that we were flown here. And what conclusion do you draw from this series of events, Lieutenant? asked Brigadier General Pak, his blank expression revealing no emotion. Arman hesitated to answer. His posture stiffened. General Lieutenant, the general asked for your conclusion. Out with it! commanded the major-general in a military tone. General, the actions of the unknown individuals were hostile, said Arman knowing deep inside that he had not answered the question correctly. Let me put the question like this. Your assignment was to observe the situation for the next reconnaissance patrol, said Brigadier General Pak in a friendly voice. Yes sir, General! First you come to a teahouse. There you see someone. Is that right? Yes sir, General. And that person stays there, or perhaps lives there. Is that right? yes sir, General. 31

20 Akbar Golrang Did you in any way examine what was around the teahouse? No sir, General. Were you inside the teahouse? No sir, General. So then you continue and you see a caravan. Yes General, sir. And you notify Major Hooman about the caravan s load by radio. Yes sir, General. And you discover that no one is with the caravan, and you see no one watching you? asked Brigadier General Pak in the same friendly tone. No sir, General. Then you continue until you come to a mountain and you see a metal construction on it. Yes sir, General. Did you in any way examine the foot of the mountain, or at least try to reach the metal construction to find out what it is used for? No sir, General. You then come to some wetlands where your car and the master sergeant disappear into a swamp? Yes sir, General. Why did this particular, experienced master sergeant, who served nearly his entire military life in the desert, make such a mistake? Can you explain this for us? No sir, General. Are you completely sure that the master sergeant and the car sank into the swamp? Yes sir, General. I saw it. Are you aware that everything one sees is not necessarily real, Lieutenant? Yes sir, General. 32

21 The Last Flight of a Nightingale And you and the sergeant were arrested by unknown individuals, Lieutenant? Yes sir, General. Just so you understand, I want to let you know that as a result of the interruption in your radio contact, the entire province was put into high alert and two units were assigned to search for you from the air and on the ground over the entire area, sighed Brigadier General Pak. And we got a phone call from the foreigners telling us that they were holding you under arrest. For an Iranian officer under my command to be arrested on Iranian territory by a foreign power calling themselves the British Development Office is unacceptable, said the major-general acridly. Can you put the puzzle pieces together now Lieutenant? asked Brigadier General Pak. Yes sir, General. Can you tell us now what conclusion you draw from this chain of events? asked the major-general. Yes sir, General. These unidentified persons are our enemies, sir, said Arman and this time he knew that he had answered the question correctly. I need to inform you about the British Development Office; what it is, and what their mission is in our country. Yes sir, General. During the major agricultural development that went on in the 60 s, 1965 to be exact, Great Britain asked the Shah for permission to carry out certain farming experiments in Tabbas. With the help of a new irrigation technique, they proposed to increase groundwater circulation, using pumps. A group of archeologists would also look for Persian cultural artifacts where they had already dug up the ground for the agricultural work. Their permission was granted and they started operations in

22 Akbar Golrang Get to the point, General, said the major-general impatiently. Yes, well for the first two years we suspected nothing, but mysterious things happened later that caused us to be suspicious and to begin to keep them under observation. But we just kept hitting dead ends and could never prove anything. And what s worse is that we are now convinced that they are involved in various kinds of criminal activities bribes to government officials, narcotics trade, murder and other crimes directed against the government, said Brigadier General Pak. We believe that some of these are freelancers within the international intelligence services. Mercenaries, hired killers, criminals, call them what you like. I m sure they ve surfaced in South Africa, Nicaragua and Guatemala as well, everywhere the job was dirty enough and the piles of cash high enough. The major-general searched his memory for the words. The room became quiet. Every group even remotely resembling military is dangerous in this country; we have got to give their reconnaissance highest priority. But as long as we have no evidence of their crimes, we cannot act, particularly when they have both political immunity from the government and continue to hold valid capitulation rights. This means that even if their crimes are proven in this country, they cannot be judged by Iranian law, but only by their respective countries in Europe or the U.S.A.. But this has never happened before; that they have dared to arrest one of our officers and then release him to us in shackles, said Brigadier General Pak. Once the stone begins to roll, we won t do anything to stop it, said the major-general. And we have received no instruction from either Savak or any other authority that would indicate that these elements have the right to commit crimes of any kind in our country. 34

23 The Last Flight of a Nightingale The lieutenant could feel the major-general s wrath, controlled but powerful. Even though Savak is a state within the state, they do not have adequate resources to keep watch on the region. It would require all the agents they have and it would still not be enough. And we can t trust the local informants either. Too many of them are either members of different religious resistance movements or else they re latent Communists, said Brigadier General Pak. So you shouldn t go to the dentist when it s your foot that hurts, said the major-general resolutely. And if we want to put an end to this game, we have to insert a commando force. They know how to deal with this kind of problem. Yes sir, General, answered the lieutenant emphatically. Loyalty is a beautiful quality. Yes sir, General. Do you have any men who are loyal to you, lieutenant? Yes sir, General. Name one. Yes sir General, Sergeant Zackaria, sir. Carry out your mission, Lieutenant, ordered the major-general. 35