The Sunday Magazine

A daughter remembers her mother's torture and execution after the Iranian Revolution

Chowra Makaremi's mother was imprisoned and executed by the Islamic Republic in the 1980s. Her grandfather Aziz Zarei kept a notebook about what his family endured, and left it behind for her to discover.
Chowra Makaremi's mother and aunt were executed by the Islamic Republic in the 1980s. Years later, Makaremi discovered a notebook her grandfather kept about what happened to his daughters, and she published it in English, French and Farsi. (Submitted by Chowra Makaremi)

Chowra Makaremi was born one year after the Iranian Revolution. Its aftershocks have shaped her life.

Both her parents opposed the shah and were involved in the revolution. But after the religious leader Ayatollah Khomeini rose to power, they became part of the opposition to the new Islamic Republic.

In the 1980s, her mother and her aunt were both jailed and executed for their political activities. Her mother Fatemeh Zarei was killed in a 1988 prison massacre Amnesty International describes as "one of the most heinous chapters of state violence in Iran's recent history."

Up until today, we don't know if it's really my mother's grave.- Chowra Makaremi

To this day, the family doesn't know where her body is.

"It's a feeling of living with with a ghost, a feeling of something unfinished. A page that cannot be turned," said Makaremi.

Years after her mother's death, she discovered a notebook her grandfather Aziz Zarei kept while his daughters were in prison. In heartbreaking, poetic entries, he described what his family endured.

"I decided to bring the adored beings who are no more, Fatemeh and Fataneh, back to life in a notebook intended for my beloved grandchildren. Only on rare occasions in my life have I picked up a pencil and a sheet of paper; so what should I say now that I am an old man of 70, with trembling hands, bloodshot eyes, a broken heart and a life that was swept away by the wind, the pernicious effects of this revolution? My inner voice … shouts: "Write down what you saw, what you heard and what you endured." - Aziz Zarei​

"He's living in a society in Iran in 1988 where these executions are kept secret … and there is heavy propaganda," Makaremi said. "So he cannot say out loud what weighs on his heart."

She and her brother had already left Iran, and were too young to understand what was happening to their mother.

"My father managed to escape Iran in 1984, and he brought us with him in exile," said Makaremi. "Maybe my grandfather was feeling the need to transmit something to us."

Physical and psychological torture

It wasn't until she read her grandfather's journal that Makaremi learned her mother was tortured in prison.

"She spent seven years and six months in prison, three of those years in isolation; she was not allowed to speak for a year. What torture did she know? They lashed her until her toenails fell off, they slapped her until her eardrums burst, they broke her teeth. All the while they did not allow her poor children to visit her. All this suffering was inflicted in the name of Islam and the defence of Islam." - Aziz Zarei

But it was the descriptions of psychological torture in the notebook that affected Makaremi most deeply.

"It was not only the bodies that were put under pain. It was really their whole being as mothers and daughters, and their family relations that were used by the guards and the prison system to blackmail them," she said.

Chowra Makaremi's mother Fatemeh Zarei was executed by the Islamic Republic in a 1988 prison massacre. (Submitted by Chowra Makaremi)

The prison authorities tried to make Fatemeh renounce her ideals, and collaborate in the torture and execution of other prisoners.

In his journal, Zarei recounted what she told the family about why she refused.

"I understand the consequences of my acts. I know my parents will die of sorrow, that my children will have no sense of identity and will have to look after themselves; that my husband, if he is still alive, will go mad ... But however much I have thought about it, unfortunately I am incapable of doing what they ask of me. Death seems much gentler and more preferable to the kind of collaboration the administration expects of me … Even if you chop me into little pieces, I am not ready to be a traitor." - Aziz Zarei

"She strongly believed in her ideals and her political positions and she really wanted to stand firm on those on those beliefs. And she had decided that these positions were more important than her family life," said Makaremi.

"I really respect her, and I when I think about her, I just want to wrap her into a lot of love."

'We don't know if it's really my mother's grave'

Fatemeh was supposed to be released in 1989, but in August 1988, at the end of the Iran-Iraq war, prison authorities abruptly cancelled all family visits.

No one knew what was happening.

Many family members still went to the prison every week, in hopes of finding answers.

Months later, Aziz finally found out what happened to his daughter in a meeting with a prison official.

"He held out a printed document saying, 'Read it, it is the agreement stipulating you have no right to organise a funeral of any kind, private, in a mosque, at home or at the cemetery. You are not allowed to cry aloud or to have the Koran recited for the dead' ... He handed me the paper and asked me to sign. I tore the letter up into little pieces on the table ... Then, two people came into my room and caught hold of me. They drove me up to the airport crossroads and made me get out ... slipping a piece of paper into my pocket. It read: 'cemetery, alley 25, row 5, grave number 2.'" - Aziz Zarei

"Up until today, we don't know if it's really my mother's grave. But but her name has been put on that grave, even if her body is not there," said Makaremi.

The Mujahedin

Fatemeh Zarei had been arrested for her involvement with the People's Mujahedin, an Islamic Marxist group that had participated in the revolution, but later opposed the regime.

"The Iranian Islamic revolution was one of the greatest scourges of history. Since its inception, it has progressed like leprosy, devouring the skin, the flesh and the bones of those who founded it and participated in it."- Aziz Zarei

In 1981, Zarei ran as a candidate for the Mujahedin in an election. That summer, the Mujahedin organized mass protests against the Islamic Republic. The government cracked down and arrested thousands of people — including Zarei.

The group's leadership turned to violence and assassinated some regime officials. At the end of the Iran-Iraq War, some Mujahedin members who had been exiled to Iraq launched an incursion on Iran's western border.

Khomeini used that attack as a pretext to execute Mujahedin prisoners, regardless of whether they had anything to do with assassinations or the war. He also ordered the execution of political prisoners belonging to leftist and Kurdish opposition groups.

In just a few weeks in the summer of 1988, the regime executed at least 5,000 political prisoners.

Ayatollah Khomeini ordered the summary execution of at least 5,000 political prisoners in 1988. (GABRIEL DUVAL/AFP/Getty Images)

According to a report from Amnesty International, "most of the prisoners killed were serving lengthy prison terms imposed because of their political opinions and peaceful activities such as distributing opposition newspapers and leaflets, taking part in demonstrations, collecting donations for prisoners' families or associating with those who were politically active."

'These crimes against humanity are ongoing'

The Iranian government still refuses to acknowledge the 1988 prison massacres or to tell relatives where their loved ones are buried.

"Until Iran's authorities come clean and publicly reveal the fate and whereabouts of the victims, these crimes against humanity are ongoing," writes Amnesty International.

Mourning has a social function. The absence of mourning has a social function.- Chowra Makaremi

Today, Chowra Makaremi is an anthropologist who teaches at University Paris Est-Créteil. She has published Aziz's Notebook in French (2011), English (2013) and Farsi (2014).

She has thought deeply about the consequences of not knowing what happened to a loved one — both as a daughter, and as a scholar.

People hold funerals and develop cultural rituals around mourning in part to "be victorious over the destruction of death," she said.

"What happens with the disappeared is that the destruction of death is victorious over the social bonds, and the community. So you have lost this battle. That's why I think it has such a strong impact on the society — and not only on the family."

"Mourning has a social function. The absence of mourning has also a social function … of piercing holes in the social body," Makaremi said.

A culture of impunity and secrecy

Makaremi said efforts to hold the perpetrators accountable are difficult, because of the secrecy surrounding the executions and how many people were involved — "the Sharia law judges, the prosecutors, the intelligence officers, the prison administration and also the intelligence ministry."

Some of the people she holds responsible for her mother's death have since occupied the highest positions in the Iranian government.

There has never been justice.- Chowra Makaremi

Ali Khamenei, who was president in the 1980s, became Supreme Leader after Ayatollah Khomeini's death in 1989.

"Other leaders now belong to the democratic opposition, like the 2009 Green Movement candidate, Mir Hossein Mousavi who was Prime Minister from 1981 to 1989. He led the administration under which mass crime became a State policy, then went on to become a figure of the resistance following the 2009 uprisings," Makaremi wrote in the foreword to Aziz's Notebook.

Makaremi said two of the members of the committee responsible for deciding who would get executed in 1988 have served as justice minister under the current president, Hassan Rouhani.

"There has never been justice," she said. "But not only that, there have also been rewards within the administration."

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