Ideas

'He's my angel. He gave me life': How two enemy soldiers saved each other's lives

An Iraqi soldier crawls off to die in a bunker. But he’s saved by an Iranian medic. Nearly 20 years later, and halfway around the world, they meet again in a breathtaking coincidence for another life-saving encounter.

Breathtaking coincidence reunites former enemies two decades after battlefield encounter

Zahed Haftlang (right) saved Najah Aboud’s life during the Iran-Iraq war. In a breathtaking coincidence two decades later and halfway across the world, the two would meet again for another life-saving encounter. (Greg Kelly)

*This episode originally aired on December 23, 2014.

It's tempting at times to despair at human history, both ancient and recent, with its carnage, hatreds and divisions. 

But the story of two enemies cuts through the darkness accompanying the anniversary of 9/11, and the seemingly countless conflicts around the world. 

It begins on a battlefield in the Iran-Iraq war, and ends 20 years later in a waiting room in Vancouver.

The Iraqi: Najah Aboud

Najah Aboud survived 17 years of torture and abuse in an Iranian prisoner of war camp before returning to Basra, where it was impossible to find his fiancée and son. (Greg Kelly)

The Iran-Iraq war began in 1980, and ended eight years later. It was the longest conventional war of the 20th century, claiming at least a million casualties. Najah Aboud was nearly one of them.  

Najah was from Basra, in southern Iraq, and a reluctant conscript assigned to a tank unit. As he told IDEAS, he felt no animosity towards the enemy.

"I didn't know much about Iran. I knew it was a neighbouring country. And that they were people next door to us. We enjoyed their music. They enjoyed ours. They were just like us."

But in 1982, Iraqi forces captured the Iranian city of Khorramshahr, where they committed atrocities. Iran plotted to recapture the city in an all-out, take-no-prisoners assault to annihilate the Iraqi invaders.

Shortly after the battle of Khorramshahr started, Najah was severely wounded in the head, chest and back. He crawled off to a bunker, where he saw corpses from both sides and prepared himself to die. 

The Iranian: Zahed Haftlang

Zahed Haftlang was captured a matter of minutes before the war ended and spent two years in an Iraqi prisoner of war camp. (Greg Kelly)

Zahed Haftlang was a 13-year-old runaway from an abusive home in Tehran. He joined the militia, or basij, and was assigned as a medic. Like Najah, he also felt no animosity towards the enemy. 

After the Iranians recaptured Khorramshahr in May 1982, Zahed was ordered to go into the bunkers and treat wounded countrymen. It was then that he heard something in the dark — someone moaning.

He shone his flashlight around, and then spotted Najah near the back.

Both men were suspicious of each other. Zahed thought Najah's body might be booby-trapped. Najah thought Zahed might kill him.

Then Zahed reached into Najah's breast pocket and pulled out a photograph. It showed Najah, with a beautiful woman, and infant son. It was at that very moment that Zahed decided to save Najah's life, even though it meant risking his own.

The Rescue

Zahed had set up a makeshift I.V. for Najah, but ran out of medicine. He told other Iranian soldiers about what he was doing, and they warned him: if he got caught helping the enemy, he'd be executed. But Zahed didn't give up. While getting Najah to a field hospital, Zahed fought off two Iranian soldiers who wanted to kill Najah. One of them actually smashed Aboud's teeth in with the butt of his rifle.

After finally reaching the field hospital, the presiding doctor refused to treat Najah, because members of his own family had been raped and killed by marauding Iraqi soldiers.

Zahed was about to give up. He prayed, wondering what more God could ask of him. At that moment, the doctor changed his mind, and operated on Najah.

Zahed visited Najah, now a prisoner of war, in the field hospital. But neither man could speak the other's language, so they spoke with their eyes. Najah tried to kiss Zahed's hand, a gesture of supreme respect in his culture, but Zahed took his hand in his own, and kissed Najah's face. When Zahed was ordered to leave, the two men wept in each other's arms. Najah was taken to a prisoner of war camp, where he'd remain in unspeakable conditions for the next 17 years. 

Iraqi president Saddam Hussein launched a land and air invasion of Iran in September 1980, triggering a bloody war that would last eight years. (Saade/AP)

After his release, Najah returned to Basra, but was unable to find his fiancée and son, so he eventually joined family in Vancouver.

Fate treated Zahed's courage and kindness with cruelty. His fiancée was killed in an Iraqi bombardment. And just one hour before a truce was called, he was captured by Iraqi soldiers and became a prisoner of war himself for two years, where like Najah he was beaten and tortured.

Zahed eventually returned to Tehran, broken, angry, and volatile. But his family had mistakenly been notified that he'd been killed, so they'd prepared a grave for him. Zahed visited his own grave, smashing the photo of himself on the gravestone. He was lost, dead on the inside,and  became a professional thug, hired by shifty landlords to get rid of unwanted tenants. 

Eventually, he became a merchant marine, as the angry seas matched his own turbulent spirits. At one point, the religious officer on board began to harangue Zahed, so Zahed threw a portrait of Ayatollah Khomeni against the wall, and beat the religious officer up, nearly killing him.

Realizing that he'd once again face imprisonment and torture if he returned to Tehran, Zahed decided to jump ship —which happened to be docked in north Vancouver.

The Reunion

Zahed had no money, no contacts, no way to communicate, after he reached shore, near Stanley Park. He watched the ship sail away.

"When the ship was getting farther and farther away, I just kept gazing at it and saying, 'Goodbye Iran, goodbye mother, goodbye motherland.' I said goodbye to everything."

Zahed survived a few weeks on the street, eating out of garbage bins and dumpsters. By July 2000, he was in a halfway house, and had become severely depressed, seized by crying fits over a dozen times a day. Feeling absolutely despondent, he decided to hang himself.

Zahed found an electrical cord and swung it over a ceiling beam. He tied his hands and feet together. And just as he kicked the table out from under him, some housemates came in and rescued him.

They convinced him to get help at VAST, a trauma survivor centre in downtown Vancouver. Reluctantly, Zahed decided to go.

Iraqi Najah Aboud (left) and Iranian Zahed Haftlang were reunited by chance at a trauma survivor centre in Vancouver, two decades after their initial encounter on a Middle East battlefield. (Greg Kelly)

While reading magazines in the waiting room, Zahed noticed the door open as another man entered the room. The two men started talking tentatively to each other. Zahed noticed that the other man spoke some Persian.

The questions started spiraling: "How'd you learn Persian?"

"I was a prisoner of war."

"So was I."

"Where?"

"Iran."

"I remember taking an Iraqi to a field hospital. His teeth were broken." Then Zahed noticed that the other man's teeth were broken. "It was at that moment that I started to feel that something was starting to happen," Zahed recalls. 

"He'd mentioned that he'd been captured in Khorramshahr. In a bunker. And I asked him, 'Which bunker, where?' And then I said to him, 'Did you keep a photograph of your family in your pocket?' and he said, 'Yes, how did you know that?' And I said, 'I'm the guy! I'm the soldier who was with you, caring for you!'"

The two men erupted into shouts, hugs, kisses and tears. Their screams of joy made the staff run out of their offices — they thought the two men were fighting.

But when they learned the real story, they started crying, too, and began embracing the men.

Their spectacular reunion, two decades years after the battle of Khorramshahr and on the other side of the world, was the mirror image of what happened back in that bunker, where Zahed saved Najah's life. In the Vancouver waiting room, they exchanged roles, with their embrace evaporating Zahed's suicidal impulses.

"Najah is like my family … he really is my angel, because he gave me life. After he got a new chance at life, he gave me a new chance at life. He is the dearest and most precious thing in the entire world to me."

Listen to the documentary Enemies and Angels and hear the full story of Zahed and Najah. 

If you are thinking of suicide or know someone who is, help is available nationwide by calling the Canada Suicide Prevention Service toll-free at 1-833-456-4566, 24 hours a day, or texting 45645. (The text service is available from 4 p.m. to midnight Eastern time).

If you feel your mental health or the mental health of a loved one is at risk of an immediate crisis, call 911.


*This episode was produced by Greg Kelly.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now

Comments

To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?

now