The conflict between Iraq and Iran dates back to 1971, when the two countries broke off relations over a territorial dispute. At the end of that decade, Saddam Hussein, believing that Iranian forces would be weakened after the 1979 revolution that overthrew the Shah, and believing that the West would support him, began the reconquest of the disputed territories.
On 16 September 1980, Iraqi forces, with more than 200,000 men, entered Khuzestan province, where Hussein hoped to find the support of the people, something that did not happen. Even so, he had no intention of ceasing his enterprise and continued his advance to conquer both Khuzestan and Shatt al-Arab, the two territories that Hussein believed rightfully belonged to Iraq.
A few months earlier, in November 1979, Ayatollah Khomeini had declared that a country with 20 million inhabitants should have 20 million soldiers, thinking that in this way a country would never be destroyed. Thus, for all those who were not old enough to join the army (those under 18 and over 45), he decided to create the Basij Mostazafan, literally “the mobilisation of the oppressed”. With this movement, Khomeini intended to make up for the shortcomings of the Iranian military.
After the invasion by Iraqi troops, Khomeini called upon the militias, as well as the volunteers enlisted in the Basij, to move to the front lines. In a short time, taking advantage of the Iraqi army’s lull in the fighting because it found no support in the occupied territories, Iran gathered large numbers of soldiers and young volunteers on what became a 300-kilometre frontline.
Military expertise was on Iraq’s side, but manpower was on Iran’s side. Only Iraqi minefields impeded the passage of Iranian soldiers. Khomeini’s army tried all kinds of animals to detonate the mines and allow the soldiers to pass, but all the animals fled at the sight of someone else’s explosion. This meant that Khomeini carried out a plan only available to fundamentalist regimes.
He imported 500,000 plastic keys from Taiwan and they were given to children who were part of the Basij. The children hung them around their necks and were told that the keys they were holding were keys that would allow them to enter paradise. The children occupied the front lines of fire and were ordered to march in formation through the minefields while chanting songs related to the Battle of Karbala, in which one of the most important Shi’ite martyrs had been tortured and killed.
Young Basij member (1981)
Thousands of Basij children were used in the fighting, one of the events that allowed Iran to regain Iraqi-occupied territory in just two years. The war dragged on for seven more years, during which it is estimated that more than half a million people died between the two sides, with no victor.
While the children of the Basij did not immediately become history, the years and statements by war veterans have brought them back to prominence. One of the most harrowing testimonies appeared in an Iranian newspaper, Ettelaat:
In the past, we have had 14, 15 and 16 year old volunteer children. They walked through the minefields. Their eyes saw nothing. Their ears heard nothing. And then, a few moments later, you would see clouds of dust. When the dust settled back to the ground, there was nothing more to see of them. Somewhere, widely scattered across the landscape, lay scraps of flesh and pieces of bone.
Before going into the minefields, the boys wrapped their bodies in sheets and rolled on the ground, so that their body parts would stay together after the mines had exploded and someone could carry them to the cemetery.
Another no less horrifying story was reported in 2002 in the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemine:
Young people cleared the minefield with their own bodies. Sometimes it was like a race. Even without orders from the commanders, everyone wanted to be the first to be cleared.
The sacrifice of the Basij members was Dantesque. It was then, and still is to this day, a source of national pride. After the end of hostilities against Iraq in 1988, the Basij did not die out, but their influence and numbers grew. They have developed an anti-vice corps to uphold Islamic law in Iran, and their elite “special units” have been used as shock troops against anti-government forces. Examples of these can be found in 1999 and 2003 when the Basij were used to quell student revolts.
Members of the Basij
On a final note, since the Iran-Iraq War, several international organisations, including Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, have publicly denounced the Basij. Yet to this day it continues to enjoy strong support from the Iranian leadership, especially from the current president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who was a recruiting officer for the Basij during the 1980s war.
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