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His Brother's Keeper

By Nancy Macdonald

pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses gave Zahed Haftlang a second chance at life. More than a decade ago, shortly after arriving in Vancouver as a refugee, the Iranian mechanic and former prisoner of war attempted to kill himself in his tiny Yaletown apartment. Zahed was broken, lost. He believed he would never again see his wife, Maryam, nor their brand-new baby girl, Setayesh. Both were in Iran, a country he could never re-enter. He had spent half his young life at war—and the remainder tortured by its memories. “I’m exhausted,” he thought to himself. “I’m tired of breathing.”

So Zahed found a bicycle brake cable, which he fashioned into a noose. He bought a strong length of rope. And, on July 1, 2001, moments after his roommates left for the Canada Day fireworks at English Bay, he climbed onto a chair. He watched from a window as his friends disappeared, then attached the rope to a support beam. He put his head through the noose and bound his wrists, stepping over them, so his hands were tied behind his back. Then he stepped off the chair.

He’d been hanging less than a minute when his roommate Akhbar burst through the door. Akhbar, who was obsessed with his Ray-Bans, had jogged home to grab the shades he’d forgotten on his bed. He started screaming when he opened the door, drawing the attention of a third man, who cut Zahed down. He was rushed to nearby St. Paul’s Hospital, where a psychiatrist urged him to seek counselling at the Vancouver Association for the Survivors of Torture (VAST).

That’s how Zahed survived, and ended up in a cheap vinyl chair in VAST’s waiting room in the summer of 2001. The only other person in the room that day happened to be another ex-POW. Najah Aboud was Iraqi. Like Zahed, he didn’t like doctors, didn’t like talking about the war. He didn’t want to be there at all. But all that changed in the next few minutes. In an improbably beautiful twist of fate, it turned out that the man seated across from Najah that day in East Van was his saviour: the boy soldier who’d risked his own life to save Najah’s 20 years earlier.

Their incredible story of loss, redemption, triumph and destiny has been chronicled in the new documentary My Enemy, My Brother, by filmmaker Ann Shin. It launches at Toronto’s Hot Docs Canadian International Documentary Festival on April 24. Shin, a former CBC radio producer, is the director of 2013’s award-winning documentary The Defector, about a shadowy figure who helps smuggle North Koreans to safety in China and South Korea. My Enemy, My Brother is currently in short form, just 14 minutes in length. Shin is launching a companion web series to take viewers behind the scenes. She hopes the buzz generated online and at Hot Docs will help fund the longer version, which, in part, will follow the next leg of Zahed and Najah’s journey.

Zahed Haftlang and Najah Aboud are among thousands in Canada with hidden pasts, people who have made it here against all odds, smuggled onto ships and across countless borders, people who have survived war, trauma, political oppression, people you pass every day on the street or in the bus, the people who serve you coffee at Tim Hortons, who change your oil or give you your flu shot. Over the past couple of weeks, with the film about their lives set to premiere, Zahed and Najah opened up to Maclean’s about the tortuous paths that led to their improbable reunion in Vancouver, more than three decades after meeting on the battlefield in southern Iran.

They were enemies then. Today, they are best friends.


Zahed Haftlang (left) and Najah Aboud in Vancouver

t was 1982, and Zahed was just 13 when he joined Iran’s Basij paramilitary in Tehran’s fight against neighbouring Iraq. One of the 20th century’s ugliest wars, it would leave the border unchanged and 1.5 million dead. Zahed, a teen runaway, had signed up after a dispute with his father, an embittered and increasingly violent man. Mostly, his anger focused on Zahed, his curious, resourceful, seventh-born child. Unable to live with the cruelty at home, Zahed left. He rode a pistachio truck to the front, hidden among bags of nuts.

Boy soldiers—ill-trained and lightly equipped—played an appalling but vital role in the Iranian offensive. Tehran, badly outmatched by Iraq’s Western-supplied weaponry, deployed “human waves”: thousands of young Basijis sent directly into Iraqi lines to draw enemy fire and clear minefields. Real soldiers would follow behind them.

But Zahed, who proved more capable than other boys, was ultimately made a medic, not a martyr. The first man he treated was so badly wounded, Zahed couldn’t believe he was still living. When Zahed vomited at the sight, the doctor beat him and berated him. “I changed that day,” he says: He lost his fear of death. He would later help dig mass graves so big that bulldozers and front-end loaders were required to move the bodies into them.

Najah, meanwhile, came from a middle-class family in Iraq’s oil-rich south. His father worked as a supervisor at the port at Basra. He had no interest in politics, and was oblivious to the brewing conflict with neighbouring Iran, which had been engulfed in chaos since the revolution that installed Ayatollah Khomeini.

Najah was conscripted in 1980, shortly after Saddam Hussein sent Iraqi troops sweeping across the border—a disastrous attempt to overthrow Tehran’s shaky new Islamist government. He had no choice but to fight. He was 19 at the time, logging 14-hour days at the falafel shop he owned, and preparing to marry his girlfriend, who had recently learned she was pregnant. Before he left, he wound a long piece of bright-green grass around her ring finger, tying it in an intricate knot. They would marry the second he returned, he promised her. He would only be gone a few weeks, he said.

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Iraqi troops in Soviet-made tanks trying to cross the Karun river near Khorramshahr, where Zahed and Najah met (AFP/Getty Images)

n the 1980s, at the start of the war, Saddam Hussein was expecting to easily topple Khomeini’s regime and make Iraq the Gulf’s dominant power. Instead, Baghdad’s invasion solidified Khomeini’s leadership, uniting Iran in resistance. Within a year, the tide began turning in Iran’s favour. By the spring of 1982, Tehran managed to drive the Iraqis back across the disputed Shatt-al-Arab waterway and out of the prized Iranian city of Khorramshahr.

The affluent southern port city had been claimed by Iraq in a bloody early battle. Najah had been part of a tank division that claimed it for Iraq. Nineteen months later, he found himself facing a massive counterattack. Iran launched the battle to liberate Khorramshahr from Iraqi occupation on April 24, 1982, at 2:35 a.m. Zahed, who had grown up east of the city, in Masjed Soleyman, was deployed to fight his way in, alongside the 70,000 Iranian troops flooding the city.

The Iraqis were badly outmatched: “I remember Iranian artillery fire falling like rain over our heads,” says Najah. Bombs were exploding all around him. The air was thick with gunpowder and the screams of dying men. Suddenly, Najah felt his tank shake: They were under fire. He leapt into the dark and ran for a bunker, diving into a mess of blood and body parts inside. He knew he’d been hit, but didn’t feel the pain.

“I didn’t know if I was still living,” says Najah. “As I lay there, I bid farewell to my life.” He’d taken a bullet to his head, and had an ugly gash across his left arm. He was quickly losing blood and consciousness: “I thought of my mother, my girlfriend. I felt myself grow weaker and weaker.”

Zahed Haftlang was among the first Iranian troops in Khorramshahr. His orders were simple: Clear the bunkers and execute any surviving Iraqis—retribution, it was said, for the rape and murder of many of Khorramshahr’s women by Saddam’s invading troops. Zahed prayed he wouldn’t find any. But, as he entered a third bunker, he heard a sound. He shone his flashlight inside: “It was a bloodbath.” He counted six dead Iraqis. There, among them, was Najah, who saw the thin, white light from Zahed’s torch. “I thought it was an angel, gliding down toward me,” he said.

“He was moaning in pain,” says Zahed. With the last of his strength, Najah reached into his breast pocket, pulling out a thin volume of the Quran, covered in his own blood. Inside was a photo of a woman and child: his fiancée and infant son. As he looked at the photo, Zahed says he “suddenly forgot war. I thought maybe, like me, life had brought him here.” In that instant, he reflects, “I decided to help him.”

Zahed knew no Arabic, and Najah spoke no Farsi. “But he trusted me,” Zahed says. He was trying to speak. I said: ‘Quiet, quiet—shhh.’ I dragged him by his feet to the other side of the bunker. I made a wall with the other corpses and hid him from sight.”

Najah was there three days. He remembers the smell of blood and rot choking the air. “There were corpses everywhere.” Every few hours, Zahed would check on him, giving him water, morphine, blood. He hung an IV drip from a knife jammed into a wall. Najah, who drifted in and out of consciousness, remembers only his strange dreams of his son. They were together, flying side by side.

On the third day, Zahed saw a group of Iraqi soldiers waving white cloths in surrender. Desperate to be spared, they were chanting, “Death to Saddam!” and “Viva Khomeini!” Zahed asked his commander what he should do, should he find an Iraqi survivor. His commander pointed his rifle at the group of Iraqis and mowed every last one down. “This is not a classroom,” he screamed, lifting Zahed by his ears, slamming him to the ground. “This is the front. Every time you see an Iraqi, you kill him.”

Eventually, orders came down that surviving Iraqis were to be taken prisoner. Zahed removed Najah’s shirt and folded his arms behind his head in surrender. He and another boy were transferring him to a field hospital when an Iranian soldier came running after them, smashing Najah in the face with the butt of his rifle, knocking out most of his teeth. Enraged, Zahed leapt onto his own countryman, pushing the soldier into a nearby canal.

At the field hospital—just a khaki-green tent—a Farsi-speaking Saudi doctor told Najah: “Never forget this soldier—he saved your life. He broke with orders to kill all Iraqi prisoners.”

“There are certain memories you never forget,” says Najah. “They’re like shadows, imprinted on your mind.” He can’t forget that moment: “I have no teeth. I cannot speak. When I try, blood gushes from my mouth. All I can do is smile at this boy who saved me.” Zahed was indeed a boy, eight years Najah’s junior, a 13-year-old. He reached out to kiss the back of Zahed’s hand, a sign of deep respect in Arab culture. But Zahed pulled his hand back. “I wouldn’t let him,” he recalls today. “Instead, I kissed his face. His smile made me feel human again.”


Personal documents of Najah Aboud, a few surviving mementos from his life in Iraq

hat happy moment was short-lived. For the next 17 years, Najah Aboud was a prisoner of the Islamic Republic of Iran. He spent much of his time at Sanga-e-Bast, a dungeon jail in the country’s northeast, deprived of light, heat and clean water. Prisoners were fed just enough to stay alive. “They turned us into animals,” Najah says. The most educated among them found ways to kill themselves.

Eventually, Najah began learning Farsi from a sympathetic guard. To pass the time, he began carving rocks. He fashioned a toy snake from date seeds and jewellery the guards would trade for pens or cigarettes. Eventually, the prisoners were able to acquire a small, tinny radio.

“It changed our lives,” says Najah. “For years, we’d known nothing but our injuries, our headaches.” They’d had no idea war had ended years earlier, that Saddam had dragged Iraq into yet another military disaster, in Kuwait. They were among the more than 100,000 prisoners of war slowly repatriated in the decade-and-a-half after the war’s end. They took turns listening to the news at midnight, buried beneath a pile of cloth and garments, the tiny speaker pressed to their ears.

An engineer had devised an ingenious hiding spot for the radio, but, within six months, guards learned of its existence and confiscated it. “That broke us,” says Najah. For months, no one spoke. The silence was only broken by the occasional long sigh. “We had nothing to live for,” says Najah. He stopped believing he would ever be freed. Zahed, too, was suffering. After being shot twice in the stomach, he was moved to a hospital in his hometown, Masjed Soleyman, where he spent 75 days in a coma. His appendix and part of his intestines had to be removed. While recovering in hospital, he fell in love with Mina Fadaei, the sweet, funny nurse who cared for him. When he awoke from the coma, she was smiling down at him.


Iraqi soldiers in a POW camp near the Iranian City of Ahwaz, 1982 (AFP/Getty Images)

The night before Zahed was discharged from hospital, he told Mina: “I want to tell you something, but I’m too shy.” She replied: “And I want to tell you something, but I am also shy.” “I have an idea,” Zahed said. “I’m going to write what I want to tell you on a piece of paper, and you write what you want to say on another sheet of paper. Then, we’ll exchange them.” “Mina, will you marry me?” Zahed wrote. On hers, she’d written: “What, are you going to propose to me?”

It was Mina who pushed him to reconcile with his father, with whom he hadn’t spoken in five years. But the day they were to be wed, Masjed Soleyman was bombarded by Iraqi aircraft. Zahed was travelling to her family’s apartment with his parents when bombs began exploding all around them. Zahed’s father’s skull was fractured in a blast and his mother was injured. Zahed leapt from the car and ran toward Mina’s home. Hers was the first body he found buried in the rubble. He remembers pressing his hot, fevered lips against her icy forehead.

“After I rose from Mina’s corpse, I changed. I was not the person I was before before. I was full of anger. I turned to the devil. The war had penetrated deep within me like a cancer. It was my own war with Iraq.” He abandoned the medic corps, choosing to command a machine-gun squad instead.


In the summer of 1988, just hours before Iraq finally agreed to sign UN Security Council Resolution 598 ending the war, Zahed heard the four words he most dreaded: “Put your hands up.” He was captured. He says he wet his pants from fear. He knew what was coming.

An Iranian search party would later find the military overcoat he’d left behind. From his breast pocket, they pulled a Quran embossed with his name. Shortly after, Zahed’s family was informed he was dead. They buried the arm the army had returned to them, believing it belonged to Zahed.

Instead, Zahed was very much alive, and being terrorized by his Iraqi jailers. He was hanged by his thumbs. His fingers were broken over and over again. He was whipped with green bamboo. Cigarettes were burned into his knuckles. Today, his body is a tapestry of scars: “We were like toys, there for the amusement of our guards.” In all, guards broke 36 bones in Zahed’s body.

He was held for two years, four months, 17 days and 24 minutes. “Every moment felt like a year,” he says. When he was released in 1991, he was 22. He could barely remember life before war.

One night in 1999, Najah, then 38, was woken at midnight. He was among 120 prisoners blindfolded, handcuffed and loaded onto a bus. It was only the next morning, as he stepped off the bus and his blindfold was removed, that he realized they weren’t being transferred to a new prison. They’d arrived at a mosque, where they were allowed to wash their hands and faces, and were given fruit, milk and the first meat Najah had eaten in 17 years. “I had no teeth, but I ate like a tiger,” he recalls with a chuckle.

Then an Iranian general barged in. He asked Najah, who’d long been acting as the guards’ translator, to tell the men they were being returned to Iraq. The men jumped to their feet, shrieking with joy at the news. One, confined to a wheelchair, threw his hands up in triumph, rolled backward, out an open window, and plummeted to his death. Back in Iran, Zahed eventually found his family, who had moved north. He’d married a kind and beautiful woman named Maryam, a classmate of his sister’s. Eventually, he joined the merchant marines, but the well of anger within him kept bubbling to the surface.

He hit his breaking point in late 1999, on a ship bound for Vancouver. When the ship’s “officer of ideology” chastised him for drinking a beer, he beat the man, then smashed a framed photo of Khomeini. Then Zahed beat the captain, who’d intervened. He faced a choice: return to Iran, where he would be jailed on arrival, or flee. He knew he would rather die than spend another minute in a prison, so he jumped ship and swam ashore at the North Vancouver Esplanade.

He recalls panic beginning to rise in him as he watched his ship grow smaller and smaller in the distance. He realized what he’d done. As the ship disappeared into the Burrard Inlet, he bade farewell to Maryam, to Setayesh—his baby girl—to his mother, to Iran. For the second time, his family had lost him. Zahed slept in Stanley Park for two weeks, huddling through the wet, cold winter nights. He ate from Dumpsters in Vancouver’s bustling west end. And he fell into a deep depression. He was racked with crying fits every day. Eventually, he found shelter at Welcome House, run by the Immigrant Services Society of B.C. But he remained deeply depressed: “I’d lost everything,” he says.

eanwhile, back in Iraq, life was no easier for Najah. His sister Shamira had gone to the Iraqi border base to greet Najah and bring him home. But she couldn’t pick him out from the other men: Gone was her stocky, square-jawed, confident brother, replaced by this skinny, broken, tiny old man. Only his voice was still familiar.

“The Kurds have a saying,” says their brother Jasem, who lives in suburban Richmond: “If you remove a rock from a mountain, you can never return it; it is lost for eternity. The old Najah is lost forever. There is nothing left of him.”

Najah returned to Basra, but his restaurant was gone. His fiancée was gone. Their son was gone. Then Hussein—one of the most paranoid and savage despots the world has ever produced—ordered the execution of all returning prisoners of war. Of the 120 who returned with Najah, only two survived.

Two years later, in 2001, Najah was smuggled to Vancouver, where he joined his father and two brothers, Jasem and Ali, and made a refugee claim. He started a small moving company. He rebuilds old radios, lawnmowers and cameras, which he sells at flea markets on the weekend. But he still struggles under the weight of his nightmarish memories. Eventually, Jasem convinced him to seek counselling at VAST. That’s how, in early 2001, he ended up sitting across from the man who had saved his life.

When Zahed walked through the door, Najah was thumbing through a pile of dusty magazines.

“I saw his face,” Zahed explains. “I thought to myself, ‘He must be Iranian.’ So I asked him: Are you Iranian?”

“No,” Najed replied in Farsi. “I am Iraqi.”

“But you speak Farsi?”

“I was a prisoner of war in Iran.”

“I was a prisoner of war—in Iraq,” Zahed said, laughing. “Where were you captured?”

“Khorramshahr,” Najah replied.

“Where in Khorramshahr?”

“Please,” said Najah. “I don’t want to talk about it. Just leave me be.”

But a few minutes later, Zahed, an irrepressible type, tried again: “I was in the same operation. What happened to your teeth?”

“An Iranian knocked them out with his rifle.”

Zahed suddenly stared at Najah. He moved closer. “Where did this happen?” he asked.

“In the commander’s trench,” said Najah. “I almost died. But a young boy saved me.”

“You were in a bunker.”

“Yes. Did my brother already tell you this story?” Najah’s brother Ali, also a veteran of the war, had spent time at VAST.

“No,” said Zahed. “Keep going.”

“I had a Quran,” Najah began—

“With a photo of a young woman and a boy inside!” Zahed shouted.

“That boy—that boy was me!”

“I tried to kiss your hand—”

“But I kissed your cheek instead!” Zahed interjected.

By then, the men were standing, facing each other, gripping the other by his shoulder, shouting. The receptionist, certain a brawl was about to break out, was about to call police, when, suddenly, the pair embraced.

“You never told me your name,” said Najah, tears streaming down his face.

“I’m Zahed,” he said.

“I’m Najah.”

“He became my saviour, my angel,” says Zahed. “I was so badly damaged from war, I was about to destroy myself. This time, he saved me.” In that moment, his depression lifted. “It was like a rebirth.”

It took four years, but he was eventually able to bring Maryam and Setayesh to Canada. He spent tens of thousands of dollars on phone cards in the intervening years, listening as his daughter took her first steps and spoke her first words.

Today, he and Najah are closer than brothers. They visit every few days. They’re able to draw out stories from each other no one else can—their closeness the result, perhaps, of shared experience. It is Zahed whom Najah phones at 3 a.m., when he wakes from a vivid dream of his son and can’t sleep. Each is the other’s last tie to a lost history, a buried chapter of life.

Though they fought on opposite sides of the war, in many ways, their lives were lived in parallel: Both were imprisoned by the enemy army, and tortured. Each has struggled to move beyond the damage wrought by war, and to establish himself in this wealthy, rainy, foreign city. “We’re like a finger and nail,” says Zahed, “intricately attached.”

That fateful meeting in Vancouver also filled Najah with a renewed sense of hope: “If my angel is still living, maybe my wife and son are, too,” he says. He’s never remarried, never been able to move on. “I can’t give up. I can’t move on until I know what happened to them.”

Najah’s plight is hardly unique. As many as one million Iraqis are missing, a result of three decades of conflict. But Najah plans to return to Iraq this summer to begin searching for his wife and son—a move his family strongly opposes. After all, a Canadian passport will offer little protection from Iraq’s thuggish security police. And his brothers fear his fiancée’s family may hunt him down: The pair were unable to marry before she gave birth, which may have brought them shame.

Only Zahed, who underwent surgery in Burnaby this week to remove a piece of shrapnel from his neck, supports his friend’s quest. “I know what it feels like to lose everything,” he says. “It eats you.” Zahed, who raises his family in a North Vancouver basement apartment, has struggled to find work as a mechanic; his written English is not strong enough to pass the certification exam required to practise. But he’s planning to give his savings to help Najah in his quest. “It’s my greatest wish in life that he find his family.”


The journey to film

For filmmaker Ann Shin, this short documentary on Zahed and Najah is just the beginning. Shin had trouble selling My Enemy, My Brother to commissioning editors, who she said “failed to see the magic of the story.” So she decided to simply start filming; she’s hoping to fund a feature-length film on the buzz created by the short doc, and an open-forum web series and social media campaign that launches this spring at, which involves the audience in the filmmaking project.

Shin, who’s also working on documentaries about superfoods and so-called “smart drugs,” will open up her process to viewers, asking them to help her puzzle through such quandaries as whether to tell Najah a secret that his sister has asked Shin not to share with him, or if she should follow him to Iraq if his family does not condone it.

Next month it will play at New York’s IFC Center as part of an Oscar-qualifying run. The feature version will be shot by cinematographer Duraid Munajim, whose past credits include The Hurt Locker and Zero Dark Thirty. But, ultimately, to Shin, it’s “a story about two people thrust into the most dangerous situation imaginable, and one guy who rose above it and decided to save his enemy.”

For more on the story of Zahed and Najah, go to CBC Radio Ideas' award-winnning documentary, "Enemies and Angels."

Writer: Nancy Macdonald Editor: Sarmishta Subramanian 
Designer and developer: Amanda Shendruk 
 Photographer and videographer: Jimmy Jeong Video editor: Michelle Turingan Photo editor: Natalie Castellino