The Dagger and the Poppy – Reza Borji
An Account of the Bosnian War and the Difficulties He and his Team Had to Face to Finish their Documentary. As Told By Iranian Filmmaker Reza Borji.
November 22nd, 2016
Reza Borji holds the world record for traveling to zones of conflict and war. He was a reporter, photographer, filmmaker, and documentary filmmaker who took part in fourteen contemporary wars such as the Iran-Iraq war, the wars in Afghanistan, Karabakh, Kashmir, Chechnya, Bosnia and Herzegovina, the U.S.-Iraq war, Kosovo, Lebanon, Sudan, Somalia, etc. Moreover, he is the author of several memoirs and articles. Borji has also held several solo and joint photography exhibitions in various countries.
Reza Borji was one of the artists of the Islamic Revolution before he became a war photographer and documentary filmmaker. He was able to portray some aspects of the effects of the Islamic Revolution in different areas of the globe, through his presence in the most important contemporary wars. According to Borji, he has witnessed about two thousand days of war so far. On one of his journeys, he cooperated with Nader Taleb Zadeh and Mohammad Sadri in the making of documentary film “The Dagger and the Poppy”. In an interview with Borji, we tackle his memories from that journey and the aftermath of the making of “The Dagger and the Poppy”.
Yazid’s Invitation to Visit Imam Hussein – Peace be upon Him
In the beginning of the Bosnian war, Homayounfar and Shahid Avini were in Howze Honar’s [Art Center] TV Unit . They decided that Mohammad Sadri, Nader Taleb Zadeh and I should work together in Bosnia. At first, it was decided that we were to have three video cameras, but then they said that we need to take photos too.
I was the only professional photographer among them. Up to this day, I have taken photographs for two documentary movies, including “The Dagger and the Poppy”. At first, there was no particular distribution [of work] between Mohammad and Nader, as both were filming. However, because we had a rare Steadicam available, it was used as the primary camera. Nader was responsible for the montage. and was considered the movie’s director.
Another project with Sadri and Taleb Zadeh was when we went to Iraq to cover the Yes/No elections in 1992. As the guys say, we went with Yazid’s invitation to visit Imam Hussein – peace be upon him.
At that time, I did not own a professional camera. I took two cameras from the center, but both were damaged after two to three days. Their shutter button malfunctioned. Afterwards, for each one of the thousand shots I had to take, I had to hold the camera on my knee, charge it and take the picture; and repeat the same procedure for the next picture. There are lots of stories I could tell you about my right leg. It was broken at six locations once, and at two locations at another time; it was hit with a bullet once, and a blast another time; once, I stepped on a mine without knowing and kept walking; however, the mine remained dormant, and after ten seconds, it exploded!
Red Crescent Staff
Previously, Nader, Sadri, and I did not have much experience in collaborative work. We agreed that since there was a war on, we should go there and see what we can come up with. Ayatollah Jannati was appointed as the representative of the Supreme Leader in Bosnia, and it was decided that he will go there. They told us that our primary objective from our trip there is to provide video coverage for this journey. We were told to accompany Ayatollah Jannati, coordinate with Mr. Zam to receive the funding from Mr. Jannati there, and after the return of the committee, we would continue our journey and our work. By then, two months and a half months of the four-and-a-half-year Bosnian war had passed. Some of the other people who accompanied us were Haj Saeed Qasemi, Haj Ahmad Kouchaki, Wahid Qods, and Haj Hamid Mirzaee, all acting on behalf of the Red Crescent. We took some negatives and went to the Pavilion in the morning. A private plane was waiting for us there. It had two chairs facing one another and a table in the middle, and some additional furniture.
Opportunity for Acquaintance
At the airport, I patted Ayatollah Jannati on the back and said: “I am at your service, sir!” The Ayatollah and two of his bodyguards frowned. That’s when I said to myself: “I better move on or it’ll be the end of me!” A few minutes later, I patted Ayatollah and said: “I really am at your service!” Ayatollah Jannati looked at me, smiled and gently said: “I am also at your service”. That’s when the guards frowned again. On the third time, I poured some tea, went toward the Ayatollah, and said: “Maybe I have to pour tea for you so you’d believe that I truly am at your service!” Suddenly, Ayatollah Jannati laughed and said: “Oh my dear!” and all of a sudden he got up, hugged and kissed me. Then he started laughing, and so did the guards. We laughed and joked with the Ayatollah throughout the entire journey. He is well-mannered, sociable and a good companion to have. For instance, sometimes he would call me and say: “Reza… Come sit beside me, if you sit with them you’ll make too much noise”. At that same trip, Ayatollah Jannati told me: “If you want to get married, I, myself, want to preside over the ceremony”. On the day of my marriage ceremony, I [jokingly] whispered to him, “Hajji, don’t you have a gift for my wife? Don’t you want to give her something? That would be very bad!” So he told the man next to him: “Get one…” I said: ” No Hajji! I didn’t…” He [again] said: “Get two…” I said: “No, No, No Hajji… Don’t trouble yourself!” He whispered back at me: “Then what? Do you want me to give her your whole dowry?!” I replied: “No, Thank you”. He told the man: “Get three then. The guy said: “I don’t think we’d have more than three anyway”, so he went and brought us three gold coins.
Weapons Instead of Food
We went to Istanbul, and stayed there for two hours for refuel. One of the Iranian consuls in Istanbul came and welcomed us. He insisted that we stay there for half-a-day, but Ayatollah Jannati refused. We immediately flew to Zagreb without a visa. The former Socialist Federal Republic of Yugoslavia, as well as its republics after its dissolution, had canceled visas with the Islamic Republic of Iran for several years. They took us to a place that looked like a palace for lunch. There, we had lunch with the mayor of Zagreb, and afterwards, we went to the Continental Hotel, which was very luxurious and was far too expensive for us to stay there under normal circumstances. It was in this period of our journey that we met with the Prime Minister and the President. On the wall of the Presidential Palace, there was a hanged painting that depicts how a thousand years ago, Croats emigrated from Iran and established Croatia, so they considered themselves to be of Iranian origin. We also met the Archbishop. At that time, one-third of the Croatian territory was occupied by the Serbian Krajina. Once, we visited the war-torn city and the Muslim Mosque of Zagreb, and found lots of refugees there, at the Mosque. They came and told us what they needed. Their first question was: “Did you bring weapons? We don’t want food. Bring us weapons”. These refugees who were in a safe place, and should be demanding food, asked for weapons for their combatants before anything else. Most of this part of the journey was not captured on film, and it was decided that it would not be. We prepared the report and sent it to Ayatollah’s Jannati’s office.
Three days later, we went to the Split port, in Croatia, and then traveled toward Mostar by minibus. On the way, our Bosnian companion thought that some of the war’s active diplomats did not see this part [of the war]. He pointed out that the glass had been broken by a bullet, and we all responded with a: “Tsk… tsk…” The sound of seven-eight people echoed within the minibus. He went on saying: “Look at that wall, it’s also bullet-ridden.” We continued clucking at the scene. However, the man wasn’t looking around him as he was saying that, and didn’t notice that for instance, half of Hajj Saeed’s throat was damaged from shrapnel injuries!! Gradually, the situation became more intense. He stopped the minibus, went down and took out a piece of shrapnel. We passed the shrapnel between us and clucked even louder. He emotionally and strongly explained: “Once hit by shrapnel, the bomb … explodes, becomes fragmented, and this is how it turns out”. He did not know that all of the crew had been already hit by shrapnel at various locations of their body. In the middle of these tsks, Ayatollah Jannati said: “Lower your voices… What are you clucking at? Let me listen to what he’s saying”. At the end of the road, in Mostar, it was as if one of the Bosnians has explained to the man what we’d been doing, because he started to glare; I told Hajj Saeed: “I think he understood that we were pulling his leg”.
Let’s have some coffee…
In Mostar, they said that we can get a good view of the city from the old bridge. We were being accompanied by about ten people from the Foreign Ministry. Near the bridge, the sound of a siren went off. So we asked and it turned out that the Serbs were behind the mountain, and we were underneath them, and since they didn’t have a visual they were shooting blindly. There was no possibility that they would shoot at us here. That’s when I winked at Saeed, and said loudly: “They have these coordinates fixed; in two minutes’ time, everything here will be leveled. We’re not important. One of you must save Ayatollah Jannati’s life.” The diplomats were scared. Suddenly, the sound of another cannon was heard, indicating that the other side of the town was hit. So I said: “The second one is due any second now”. Suddenly, one of the diplomats shouted at the translator: “Hey… we can’t see the old bridge! Take us to a safe place… Everything’s gone to hell here”. That’s when I was forced to explain to the man that I was joking. Then I told him: “Even if the shells reach us here, the café near the river isn’t open”. When one of them heard this, he said: “Then, this here would be the safer option, let’s have some coffee!”
The First Slogan of Islam
In Mostar, one of the Bosnian soldiers said: “Here, write ‘God is Great’ on my clothes here”. So I did When the others saw this they came by, one by one, holding markers. So I started writing. ‘God is Great, There is no God but Allah, Mohammad is the messenger of Allah’, the First slogan of Islam [the Shahada]. They really had no knowledge of Islam. At one place, we laid a tissue on the ground for us to pray, and we saw that they did the same, so we asked them: “Are you Sunni or Shia?” They replied: “Whatever you say,” so I responded: “No… You are Sunnis. We laid tissues down on the ground for you sake; otherwise, I have a small Turbah that I brought along with me”. I pulled a small clay Turbah out of my pocket.
One of them saw it and said: “Give us one of those!” I said: “I don’t have anymore”. So he said: “Then we’ll lay tissues on the floor, too”. We performed ablution and they were watching us, so we asked: “Do you know how to perform ablution?” They said: “No”. So we asked “What is your sect?” They replied: “We are Muslims,” but we asked them again: “No, your Sect?” to which they asked: “What does that mean?”
To make a long story short, they started performing ablution and prayer in the same way we did. Of course, afterwards, Wahhabism came and started to branch out there. Nowadays, they have a huge mosque, with a swimming pool and a sport hall in its lower floor. [Sarcastically] Fortunately, we do not have a mosque in Bosnia! It might cost about two billion Tomans [close to $600,000 in 2016]. In the best part of the city, they offer lands for free for the building of a mosque that would turn into a headquarters. Ten years ago one Shia student left for Bosnia and is now working there. Previously, he was the only Shia in Bosnia. However, today, there are about fifty Shia families there. Moreover, they perform their Jihad-related activities in one Hussainiyyah there. Indonesians, Malaysians, Arabs, and many other nationalities have mosques there; but, we do not.
Imam Khomeini Stickers
Seven months after the war, I met several Turkish Muslims in Mostar. They asked: “Are you Iranian?” I replied: “Yes.” We wanted to give them a picture of Imam, but it’s good that we did not. They said: “Do you know what is the thing that we do in our initial communication with people?” He pulled out of his pocket a bunch of high quality sticking photos of the Imam, and said: “This”.
You’re no journalist!
We were sitting in one of the headquarters with a number of Bosnian fighters along with their commanding officer, a general. They spread the region’s map, and Nader started introducing everyone. Only Mohammad and I were using our real names. For example, he said: “Saeed Qasemi, Journalist. Mohamad Kouchaki, Journalist.” He introduced everyone, one by one, as journalists. They had their own English translator. Nader translated from English to Persian, whilst he translated from English to Bosnian. Hajj Saeed said: Hajj Nader ask them where the forces are deployed? They answered. He [Hajj Saeed] said: Ask them if these are bridges? They said yes. He said: You are here? They said yes, and then he asked a couple of questions in quick succession. Hajj Saeed then said: Dear Nader please tell them that they have to demolish these three bridges. Then he pointed to three points on the map. Nader and the English translator, translated what Hajj Saeed said. Once the Bosnian General heard what Hajj Saeed said, he looked at him and said: “No…. journalist, you Brigade General.” We all laughed. The Bosnian General then said: “we have been fighting intensively for almost three months, after extensive observation and incurring large loses, we figured out that we have to demolish these bridges; however, you figured it out within five minutes after studying the map. Now tell us what’s your real job?” Briefly, Nader was forced to introduce everyone and said: He is…, and he is… and the guys are Red Crescent staff..
Rosary on the Epaulette
The former Bosnian generation had witnessed how they were slaughtered in WWI and WWII for no fault other than belonging to a certain religion. In the third war, they were slaughtered for the same reason, not for being Bosnian. I heard that in one place they rounded up Muslims and slaughtered them. That’s why after the war began, interest in Islam spiked in a strange way, and people would ask you for anything that carried religious connotations. Imam Khomeini’s picture, rings, rosary… they would hang the rosary on the epaulettes of their military uniform, and because rosaries were scarce, it was the first thing they would ask you for. On my next trip, I brought along two hundred rosaries.
This generation was undergoing a gradual revival. When we arrived there, the mosques were filled up to a quarter of their capacity and veiled women were a rare sighting. However, six months later during my second trip, I noticed that the mosques were completely filled and that the number of veiled women had increased. People had reached a point where they completely believed in Islam, and had seen with their own eyes that the Iranians were working wholeheartedly, without any expectations. Of course, the Islamic products that the guys brought with them were completely effective and helped familiarize people with Islam.
The Red Crescent Headquarters
Ayatollah Jannati left us in Mostar, and we entered Bosnia. We first stopped in a village where the Croats would later on commit a massacre. From there we went to a town called Visoko, a small town thirty kilometers away from Sarajevo. In order to make it to Sarajevo, we had to take an eight-hour long route, and the highway was also under the Serbs’ direct line of fire. In Visoko we were provided with a house which acted as a command center. Little by little it became crowded to the point where about 26 people slept there at night.
Mehdi Nasiri once came with a photographer from the Keyhan daily to prepare reports. Next to the house, there was a corn field. We asked for permission to harvest corn, and we used to cook the corn in the afternoons and took it to the balcony and enjoyed our time. Every one of the guys was busy doing his own job. We visited a couple of locations to take pictures, while others handled their “Red Crescent” related jobs.
A Morale Bomb
In Visoko’s main square we met a family who invited us for a cup of coffee. We had a chat, I took a photo of them and gave it to them on my next trip, it was then that they told me that their son was martyred. Next to their place there was a location about which people warned: “if you pass from there, the Serbs will shoot you”. I said: “they will shoot?” They said: “Yeah sure”. So I said I wasn’t about to sit still here anymore. That’s when I ran until I reached the opposite side, took a couple of pictures and then came back, and told the people not to worry.
The city must have been revived by that stunt, because it was then that the coffee shop owner said: “Starting tomorrow I’ll open my coffee shop again.” Later on we taught them how to run that distance to avoid getting shot, and that it was important that they not be scared.
Taking Bearings While Driving in Reverse
From that command center, I traveled to a different city along with Nader, Hajj Saeed and Ahmad Kouchaki. On the way, the driver kept singing “We are going to kill the Serbs.. we will destroy them.. we will eradicate them” We reached a location close to the city, and the road had a steep slope. At certain locations where roadside vegetation had been destroyed, cars were targeted with artillery. At the beginning of the slope the driver stopped and said: “this is the end, we should move when it turns dark” we asked: Why. He said: “We will be caught in the crossfire”. We said: “Let’s go man, we’re here to videotape the Serbian crossfire”. No matter how much we insisted, he wouldn’t not change his mind. In the end, he got out of the car, handed us the keys and said: “the car is yours, I’m not in.” Saeed got behind the steering wheel and stepped on the gas pedal. The Serbs started shooting at us until we reached the end of the slope. We had just caught our breath when Ahmad said: “Well we’re here now, let’s jot down the coordinates of the Serb artillery, so that they’d [the Bosnians] able to target it. We stepped out of the car, and decided that Hajj Saeed would turn back to the site where the vegetation was destroyed and whenever the Serbians started shelling artillery rounds Ahmad would write down the coordinates. Hajj Saeed did not turn back and drive straight, but instead drove in reverse until he reached the location. Amazingly, they didn’t notice that Saeed was driving in reverse. In the end, Hajj Ahmad wrote down the coordinates and Saeed came back.
Direct Targeting Missiles
When we got to the city we were sitting with a group of Bosnian fighters in an apartment. The apartment was in the middle of a large residential block. Suddenly we heard the sound of a Malyutka missile. We knew that the Malyutka was a direct targeting missile, so when we heard its sound, the Bosnians laid on the ground, whilst we were just sitting and watching. They thought we were dumb and that we did not realize it was a missile, and so they began explaining that whenever we hear a missile we have to lie down. However, we very calmly told them that it is a direct targeting missile and that it cannot pass through the apartments around us and reach us here. They were surprised, however, that night they were able to sleep without fear.
The events in the last part of the movie take place in Gorazde. I was not with Nader and Mohammad, and as per the distribution of tasks I was traveling with Hajj Hussein Allah Karam to Tuzla so that we can inspect the fronts. We introduced Hajj Hussein as an army officer. The good thing about the Bosnians was that they were obedient. For example, when Hajj Hussein suggested an idea they implemented it, and if it paid off, you would have gained their confidence and they would listen to your every word.
At the end of our trip, we went to Zagreb Airport in order to travel to Sarajevo with the United Nation’s Italian mission’s plane. They said that we should have Press cards. We obtained the cards, however, when we wanted to get on the plane they said that they can’t take us with them because we didn’t have our own bulletproof vests and helmets. No matter how much we insisted they wouldn’t yield, so on the same day we applied for a Georgia visa and travelled to Georgia. On that night, we heard in the Iranian embassy that Serb forces targeted the Italian plane.
Though Far Away…The Imam Was Close
During my last trip to Bosnia (I traveled four times after the war ended), I met a few people who are now clergymen and Quran reciters. They all, without exception, used to say that they have seen Imam Khomeini in their dreams. Mohammad, who memorized the whole of the Quran and suffered a spinal cord injury in the war, once said: “I saw the Imam in my dreams and I started reciting the Quran, this happened before the collapse of Yugoslavia.” Another one said: “I saw the Imam in my dreams and he was looking at me in a bad way. That was when I turned to religion.”
A Good Documentary Filmmaker
It was during the shooting of that film that I met Nader and we became intimate friends. He’s very proficient in his job and knows what he wants. For someone coming into contact with war for the first time, he handled it very well. In my opinion his biggest mistake was that he decided to specialize in cinema. Nader is one of Iran’s greatest documentary filmmakers, so I don’t know why he switched to non-documentary movies.
The Dagger and the Poppy
When we got back to Tehran, Nader started doing the montage along with Mohammad Ali Farsi, while Hussein Behzad gathered the necessary information and arranged them to give them to Morteza who wrote down the narration. Meanwhile I was working on establishing an exhibition, and working on the posters, designed by Hajj Hameed Sharifi. Morteza was the one who chose the movie’s name. Sometimes he also came by the montage room, and gave his opinion on some of the parts. That’s how we worked until it was showtime…
The War was Intensifying
Morteza and Mohammad Hashemi had been at odds since the [Iran-Iraq] war, as Morteza was unsatisfied with the work of our TV stations in terms of the approach and the [low] quantity of work. In terms of War Propaganda, our television’s output was one twentieth of the enemy’s. They also hampered the work we did. Once when I came off a train, my camera battery fell to the bottom of the valley, so I had to go from office to office at the TV trying to secure another. They kept telling me to bring the battery’s pieces back, and I used to say: ”We could not bring back the martyrs’ corpses, how do you expect me to get you the battery’s pieces??” These disputes led to the banning of Morteza’s voice from being broadcast from TV.
It was a Wednesday when we handed the broadcasting unit “The Dagger and the Anemone”. On that night, they aired the movie without Morteza’s voice, and they credited it to the IRIB’s expedition to Bosnia. Thursday and Friday was the weekend. All three episodes were aired, and we could do nothing. Both video and audio were cut simultaneously, only 15 minutes of a 35 minute movie were left.
The movie belonged to Howze Honar, and the IRIB had nothing to do with it. On Friday, Nader called me and said that he has talked with Mahdi Nasiri and said that we’re supposed to write a letter. Morteza read the letter. We too added a few points… and all complaints related to “The Dagger and the Anemone” were mentioned.
The letter was published. They sent their reply to “Keyhan” Daily. Mehdi Nasiri showed us their reply, for which we also wrote a reply and both were again published. They got upset and wrote a reply again. This created a split in the press. Both “Resalat” and “Keyhan” newspapers were on our side, while “Jomhoory Islami”, “Etela’at” and “Soroosh” magazine were on the IRIB side. It was then that Morteza’s “good friends” published an article that Morteza perfumes himself with Perestroika and Glasnost and… then I wrote a letter and published it in “Resalat”, and Hussein Behzad got it published in “Keyhan”. The letter was titled “Love uprooted the Column, but Farhad was known for that”.
After that I wrote a second letter and published it in “Resalat”, where I wrote: Mr. Mohammad Hashemi, you are like a rotten swamp in the IRIB and you must go. At the same time, we showed the original copy of the movie to fifty members of parliament. The parliament agreed on conducting an investigation into the IRIB, which later on resulted in the dismissal of Mohammad Hashemi. While these events were taking place, some people in the IRIB came to us and said that they were worried [for their jobs]. We explained that we don’t mean to target them in any way, just the management and the bureaucracy. “You’re waiting for something to make you take a stand, while a year has passed since the war in Bosnia, the war in Kosovo has ended, Iraq has fallen and you…” To make a long story short, after a while they agreed and they aired the movie after twenty days with minor formal censorships.
You are Sick!
We recorded a video in Kosovo, in which a girl was crying, saying that all of her family was massacred. During the shoot a bus passed behind the girl. During the editing of the movie, one of the IRIB guys said in objection: Look into that bus, a woman is wearing short sleeves. So I said: Believe me you are sick, you should pay attention to the little girl’s cries, not that one second scene. This scene passed in front of me and the editor close to 500 times, but we did not notice it. How did you see it? No one saw it, how did you see it? In that same movie the girl says that what is left from her father are this teeth and patella.”
Another time one of them also said: “That woman is wearing short sleeves!!”
In “The Dagger and the Anemone” they said “This Reza Borji is a Hezbollahi? Why is he wearing short sleeves and a vest in the movie?” So I said: “Didn’t you notice that he was shooting with his camera while artillery fire is going off all around him? It is hot there. A photographer should be free while taking pictures, or else he’s going to sweat and it’ll confine him!”
A Crutch that’s Public Property
I have witnessed fourteen wars around the world. All of our trips were in toil and travail, because we did not receive any facilities and salaries in U.S. dollars. Om our second trip to Bosnia, we had to sell our camera so that we could travel back. When we wanted to travel to Afghanistan, I went with one hundred thousand tomans that I had borrowed, whilst Jaafarian borrowed fifty thousand from Morteza.
Hussein Jaafarian and I were injured there. Iran’s mediating team was traveling back to Iran with an empty plane that could hold 40 people. But they wouldn’t take us back with them, saying: it would reduce our prestige. They travelled to Dubai, and from there they went back to Iran so that it wouldn’t be known they came back from Afghanistan. Thirty five days later we arrived to Iran, and Jaafarian was in a bad way. At the airport they took the embassy’s crutches from me, because it was public property, and they gave us the crutches of a paralyzed Afghani girl. So because it was so short I had to hold it with my hands instead of placing it under my arms. When I arrived in Mash’had, I fell down because of that crutch and broke my head in addition to the six fractures I had in my leg. It was then that I broke my camera too. One official wrote me in a letter: “Pray God that He send you money, or that He send us money so that we can send you money”.