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Children in prison

Memories of a political prisoner

Newborn to five-year olds in Teheran’s Evin prison

In Upper Cell Block 3 there were about a dozen children from newborn to 5 years. Their presence in the prison was both a joy and a pain. A joy because they represented enthusiasm and life. To be with them in the valley of death and extinction was to be transported to another world, pure and sincere Their childish laughter filled the air with happiness and you were whisked away from prison.

Painful because where even the minimal necessities of life for a prisoner were missing, how would children fare? Children whose presence in prison was an added pressure on their imprisoned mothers: mothers who expected to be sent to the firing squad once their babies were born; or mothers who had to abandon their children in the corner of the cell-block to go for interrogation, to answer never-ending questions and to return tired and anxious or with bleeding feet from torture to the block. I saw a child embracing and kissing her mother’s bandaged feet.

There were children who on hearing their mothers’ name read over the loudpeaker would turn pale, burst into tears and grab her legs hoping to stop her going for interrogation. What was their understanding of interrogation? Perhaps it was the exhausted, troubled faces and wounded feet of their mothers after each session which had conditioned them.

The unfavourable and terrible circumstances and unnatural prison life had made virtually all the children restless and highly strung. Little Yavar had witnessed a gun battle at home and the death of most of those in the house. He had been wandering for hours among fire and smoke before he was arrested with his mother. He was separated from his mother so that she could  be tortured. After 20 days of agitatation he sees his mother all bloody and wrapped in bandages. He developed a stammer and despite his three and a half years could not speak properly. He rarely left his mother’s side and would only play with other kids when she was there.

The various stages of a child’s growth - sitting, taking the first step, talking - was clouded over for the imprisoned mother. Often they wished the child would grow more slowly, so as to be spared knowledge of the world around them until later. The mother, who had lost count of the days, watched her child grow, sit up, walk, talk and suffered because her child did not even have enough air to breathe. As to toys, skates e.t.c., they really had no place in the mothers’ mind.

Those kids who became old enough to learn to speak picked it up rapidly. They were always talking and so many people talked to them. The kids saw the world through the televsion. Their vsion of a man were the Pasdars (revolutionary guard) who came for repairs or members of their family during visiting time.

Sahar 1 who never left the cell-block even for visits gathered all her knowledge in the confines of the cell block. She quickly learnt the names of all the prisoners and the new arrivals and would introduce some of them to me. She knew of cars, minibuses, animals, parks, ice cream, and sandwich through the television. Sometimes this had hilarious consequences. In the cell was an empty bucket, with a picture of a calf on it, in which we kept the cheese. The prisoners used to refer to this bucket as “calf” and often used it as a stool. There was a larger bucket which we called “cow” and the small children also knew these as calf and cow. One day Sahar saw a cow on the children’s programme on the television and, as washer custom, asked “what is this”. “A cow” said one the friends. Sahar burst out laughing and ran to fetch the bucket. “This is a cow” she said firmly and despite the general laughter stuck to her belief for a long time.

The children’s progamme was for one hour a day which the children watched. They quicky tired of watching anything else and started to make a lot of noise. It was very difficult  for the mothers, who had so many problems of their own to deal with, to keep them amused. Often they found it difficult to behave in a suitable manner with them.

Mahmud was the two year old som of Ghamar, a fellow prisoner. He was nervous and obstinate. His obstinacy used to anger his mother and Ghamar often flew into a rage and would badly beat Mahmud. Mother and child would then both burst into tears. This upset everone. She had no family outside to look after Mahmud and this made her even more irritable.

I had a special love for little children. I often gathered them togther and played with them. In the summer, during the visit to the prison yard, it was usually playing with water. Sometimes with the help of a few mothers we used the large wash tubs to take them to the funfare. They would sit in the tub one at a time and we would pull them by the handel. Sometimes in a straight line sometimes in sharp turns. Sometimes we would line them up and play trains. Their laughter was a sign of life.

When there was no visit to the courtyard they skipped in the corridor. They quarelled, got into fights and quickly made up. Sometimes I would sit them down and  play atal matal 2 with them or sang children’s songs or recited poems. Sometimes I would be so immersed into the game. I felt I was back in the kindergarden and basked in the pleasure.

One day I was singing the children’s song: good evening star; Spring begins with Eid. 3 They all shouted back. Eid! Star! I explained that stars are in the sky and became silent. One evening the courtyard was accidentally opened. When the children saw stars they ran towards me and shouted star, star, good evening star. And I sang with them “good evening star; Spring begins with Eid”.

One of the children’s games was to pretend to be a pasdar (engineers and ordinary). They often used this to play a practical joke on the whole cell block. One day one of the smaller children shouted out “all sisters pull on the hejab,4 brother mechanics are coming in for repairs.” There was a farantic rush to wrench chadors from bags and put them on. A few minutes later little Yavar arrived holding a small tin can with all the other children trailing behind. We all had such a laugh.

One of their sadest games was bandaging legs. They would put ointment on each other’s legs and then wrap it in bandage. They would then nurse each other. They had learnt these from the grown ups. There were many feet and leg wounds (from flogging). They would all run up to a newcomer to the cell block and their first question would be “are you feet wounded”. They thought that any new arrival must have wounded feet. Once a new prisoners arrived nursing very bad leg wound. One of the children handed her his milk bottle and insisted that she drinks it to heal up her feet quicker!

Sahar was a very lively and active child. She had lots of energy, despite the serious illnes she had had. As she got older she felt the enclosed environment more and more. Some days she got so fed up that it went beyond may capacity to cope. One afternoon she woke crying. “Where is my flower?” she ket crying.  She had dreamt of flowers. I could not calm her down and she cried for an hour. Completely out on my wits I  shouted at her. She stopped crying but her look left a deep pain in my very being.

Sahar did not take the prison food well and was more dependent on breast feeding. She needed to be breastfed once during the nighty. I had taught her to wake me up quietly so that I could feed her. Every night she would wake up quietly and all she had to whisper was “maman” and I would wake up quickly and give her my breast. Once I was taken to the interrogation centre and did not return till very late. Sahar was asleep. I had been to interrogation several days running. Exhausted, I fell asleep almost immediately. Suddenly I felt someone slapping me hard on the face and then the sound of a wheepy voice screaming “I want milk”. I opened my eyes with difficulty. It was Sahar. Crying she asked why I did not give her any milk. I realised I had been too weary to wake up and Sahar who had become angrier as the day went by could not take it any longer. I took her in my arms and tried to comfort her without success. I gave her some milk but she vomited it back. I took her to the corridor and tried to get her to sleep on my shoulders. She calmed down a bit. Them she looked up at me and said “you aren’t going to interrogation tomorrow, are you?”


The main reason children stayed in prison was on the insistence of the prison authorities and in particular Lajevardi.5 His excuse was that according to Islam children should be with their mothers for two years. Behind this explanation was a pollicy of adding to the pressure on women prisoners in order to get them to surrender. There were, of course examples where the women had no choice but to look after their children as they hd no one outside to take on this task. The problem was made more painfull by the lack of facilities for mothers in the cell block.

Illness threatened children all the time. Any epidemic affected them first. Lack of sunlight and damp cells was a real threat for the newborn and the growing toddlers. Skin complaints, rickets, 6 and respiratory illnesses was rife. Even 2-3 year old girls suffered from female illnesses such as vaginal thrush and urinary tract infections. Their illness meant loss of sleep and constant pressure on the imprisoned mothers.

Children were allowed to accompany their mothers, when they left the cell block - except when it was explicitly banned by the interrogators. They could go to the Hosseinieh 7 and the dispensary.

In the month of February, in cellebration of the anniversary of the revolution (Dahe Fajr 6 ....) there was a programme of festivities and speaches in the Hosseinieh. One night when we were called for the Hosseinieh, some of the imprisoned mothers went there with their children. As Sahar was sleeping I stayed behind in the block. The celebrations involved invitation to foreign journalists to visit the prison on the occasion of the Dah-e Fajr. Those who attended later told me that foreign visitors weer surprised at the persence of children inside the prison and kept filming them. They questioned Lajevardi why children were in prison. Lajevardi attributed it to “Islamic compassion” that children should not be separated from their mothers for two years. When journalists asked him about special facilities for keeping children Lajevardi had fudged the issue.

After that episode children were forbidden to leave the cell block except for visiting time. In Khordad 1363 it was suddenly announced that children must leave prison and mothers were asked to fill special forms. They told us that if someone does not have a family member to take care of it, the child will be sent to an orphanage. This sudden change of heart came as a surprise. Later we discoverd that the decicion was made because of the extensive coverage of the presence of children by the journalists.

Fariba Azad

Fariba Azad was a left activist and spent seven years in prison in Teheran and Shiraz in the Islamic Republic. She was released in 1990. The article is a transalation of a chapter in her book “Memories of Prison” - published abroad in Farsi.

1 The author’s daughter. Azadi had no visitors in Evin as her family were ina remote provincial town.

2 A children’s game with outstreched legs which were withdrawn when a ditty fell on it. The last to stay was the winner.

3 Iranian new year 21st March.

4 Islamic clothes for women: the chador, a single cloth covering women head to toe

5 Evin prison’s chief prosecutor

6 lack of vitamin D in the absence of sunlight cause the boned to become britttle

7 prison mosque

6 Ten Victory Days - spanning the arrival of Khomeini on ... to the victory of the revolution on ..... 1979.

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