It was an incident they were told never to talk about and for several years they heeded that warning. A group of 21 Iranian poets, writers and journalists believed they were heading to a literary conference in neighbouring Armenia in August 1996. But what should have been a routine trip turned into one of the most terrifying experiences of their lives.
They had hired a bus to drive them high up into the mountains through the mist-covered Heyran Pass, a steep and winding road that links two northern provinces in Iran. The 18-hour journey was beginning to take its toll and one-by-one the passengers drifted off to sleep. In the early hours of the morning, their slumber was abruptly interrupted with the sharp jolt of the bus accelerating hard.
The woken passengers watched on as the bus hurtled towards the edge of a cliff. Luckily for them, a well-placed boulder stood in the vehicle’s path and prevented it from plunging to the depths below.
Among the passengers was Faraj Sarkohi, a 49-year-old journalist and then editor of the progressive cultural magazine Adineh. “After the bus stopped, we got out one by one in a state of confusion. The bus driver approached us and apologised for falling asleep,” he recalls. Once they had recovered from the initial shock, the passengers and driver agreed to continue on the road.
But the perilous journey was not to end there. A few minutes later, the driver again turned the bus in the direction of the cliff, diving out of the vehicle as it approached the 1000-ft drop.
The bus was only stopped from careering over the edge again by an alert passenger who leapt into the driver’s seat and pulled up the handbrake, bringing it skidding to a halt as it headed towards the precipice. The lives of all 21 on board were saved for a second time.
The writers filed off the bus, stranded and bewildered by the turn of events. From the ground, they could see the vehicle’s nose teetering over the top of the cliff, with its front wheels in the air. Somehow, the driver had managed to escape and was nowhere in sight.
This time, Faraj knew it was a deliberate attempt to drive the bus off the cliff.
He saw a group of plainclothes security officials sitting in a car on the mountainous road, which would normally be virtually deserted at that time of night. These agents, he says, drove the literary group to their local office in a nearby town where they were detained for a day.
“They forced us to write a letter agreeing to not speak about the incident to anybody. After this, we understood that they wanted to kill us all.”
“We were shocked. We couldn’t understand this deep hate and brutality. We were so shocked that we couldn’t even talk to each other.” Details of the dramatic episode were kept behind closed doors for several years, and were only brought to light after a chain of events that unfolded in 1998.
The politically active husband and wife
On a Sunday in November that year, Parastou Forouhar was sitting at home in Germany waiting for her parents to call, as they did every week, to hear updates on family members thousands of miles away in her native Iran. She was waiting in vain.
The 36-year-old had grown increasingly anxious when she received a phone call from a BBC journalist inquiring about her parents.
“The reporter said she had seen on the telex news that they had been attacked but she could not tell me the whole truth,” she recollects.
“Afterwards I called a close friend of my parents who was living in Paris in exile and he told me that they had been killed.”
Dariush and Parvaneh Forouhar were brutally murdered in their family home in southern Tehran on 22 November 1998. Dariush, 70, was stabbed 11 times. His wife, who was 12 years his junior, had been stabbed 24 times.
Both had become outspoken critics of the authorities in Iran’s Islamic republic, and they ran a small secular opposition party which had, until now, been mainly tolerated.
The savage killing of the elderly couple shocked the nation and marked the beginning of what would soon become known as Iran’s Chain Murders.
The writer and the translator
Nearly two weeks after Parastou heard the devastating news, Mohammad Mokhtari said goodbye to his 12-year-old son as he stepped outside of his house in Tehran to run some chores.
“The last memory I have of him was the moment he left our home. I asked him to buy some milk as he was standing in front of the door. But he was a little bit different, as though he felt something wasn’t quite right,” his son Sohrab, now an adult living in Germany, recalls.
Mohammad, 56, was a writer, poet and outspoken critic of press censorship in Iran. He never came home.
Sohrab’s older brother spent the next seven days searching hospitals and police stations across Tehran for his missing father. What he didn’t know was a body had already turned up at a cement factory on the outskirts of the city, a day after Mohammad’s disappearance on 3 December.
The family were not informed until a week later.
“My brother got a call from the medical authorities to come and identify his body. We were told he had no documentation or ID in his pocket, which was why they did not call sooner,” Sohrab says. According to the authorities, all that was found on Mohammad Mokhtari’s body was a piece of paper and pen. He had been strangled to death, and his body reportedly bore bruising around the neck.
On the same day the Mokhtari brothers discovered their father’s fate, a family friend and fellow writer also disappeared.
Mohammad Jafar Pouyandeh, 44, was a translator who was established in the literary world but still relatively unknown in the public eye. He was abducted outside his office in downtown Tehran in the middle of the day on 9 December.
Three days later, his body was discovered and, much like his friend, there were signs he had been strangled.