"They did not even let our family identify my sister's dead body. My mother used to say that they handed a big thing, somehow a maquette, to us. My sister was smallish, petite, and slim. No one believes that my sister is sleeping down there. We never visited her grave because we do not believe that what is resting there, and the name cut on the tombstone belongs to my sister. Nothing proceeded as we wished."
This is how Azamat Ajdari, sister of Ghanimat, one of the victims of the UIA's doomed flight 757, expands on the tragedy.
On January 8, 2020, the UIA's three-year-old Boeing, destined for Kyiv, took off Tehran's Imam Khomeini International Airport. Minutes later, the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps' anti-air missiles hit the passenger plane, killing 176 on board.
Hours earlier, the IRGC had fired missiles at two American bases in Iraq and was on alert for possible retaliation. However, mysteriously, the government kept the airspace open, and the military allowed the Ukrainian airliner to take off.
The Islamic Republic authorities pressured the victims' families to declare their children martyrs, and in many cases, it was the intelligence and security forces who buried the victims' bodies. Ghanimat Ajdari, an environmental activist and doctoral student, was one of the victims who was officially declared a martyr.
The day we found out that the IRGC was responsible for downing Flight 757, we somehow confronted its commanders. "
Speaking to Radio Farda, Ghanimat's sister, Azamat, says that her sister was not and is not a martyr, "A martyr is a person who goes to war by his own will, by his own decision. Martyrs fight and sacrifice their lives in combat with the enemy. But was my sister, or someone else's child, brother, husband, and wife [who lost their lives in the crash] soldiers? Had they gone to war? Or they were merely returning home or going away to study. How can such persons be martyrs? They had boarded a plane to pursue their dreams and their lives. No, they were not martyrs. Indeed, they weren't."
The security forces and commanders of the IRGC attended Ghanimat Ajdari's funeral and buried her. Their presence at Ghanimat's funeral was overwhelming.
"The day we found out that the IRGC was responsible for downing Flight 757, we somehow confronted its commanders. They were no longer our compatriots. They were not our friends. They were our enemies because they killed our loved ones," Azamat says.
"In those circumstances, my family or other victims' families were probably not in a mental condition to resist. But, the other side, the side confronting us, the IRGC, and the military knew very well what was going on. We were not paying enough attention to the upheaval, but they had focused their minds. They attended the ceremony we held to commemorate my sister. They were either dressed in civil suits or military uniforms. They had an overshadowing presence in the Shiraz 'Dar al-Rahma' and, in a way, the whole procedure was under their control."
For three days, the Islamic Republic's officials blamed a technical failure for the deadly crash. Ultimately, under international pressure, the IRGC Aerospace Force Chief Commander said that his forces "inadvertently" targeted the UIA's three-year-old Boeing, and the IRGC's air defense had mistaken it with a US Cruise missile.
Ghanimat Ajdari's sister remembers the moment the authorities officially announced that the IRGC's missiles had downed the doomed passenger plane. The victims' families felt a wave of deep anger and hatred that persists a year later.
"We were so devastated that we could not digest the barrage of different issues. We had failed to follow-up on some news related to the tragedy. The authorities had merely blamed a technical failure for the crash, which was extremely hard to believe. They took three long days to admit the truth finally. Once again, after their admission, our grief flared up. Our grief was probably much more profound than before since we were not facing an accident. We were confronting a crime. It was a tragedy to find out that they could hit us in our own homeland. It was shocking to find out that those responsible for our life, safety, and security could kill us.”
"After my sister's burial, I still cannot believe it at all. It's been a year now, but it is still hard to believe. I still weep, I'm sad, I'm full of anger and hatred, but I do not want to believe what happened. I want to live in disbelief for the rest of my life."
It is not possible to wash away people's blood with money. At least it is not possible here. "
Even after confiscating the victims' bodies and calling them '"martyrs," the pressure on the families did not mitigate, Azamat remembered, adding, "Repeatedly, they called us. They wanted to meet us in person, but not only mine but all other families resisted and rejected the request. Why and what for they wanted to see us? What did they have to say? If they had something to say, they should say it publicly. They should say it on the news programs. 'There is no need for private talks,' we argued.'
"Now the authorities' pressure is intensified. They want to comfort us. How, suddenly, and on the tragedy's anniversary and under increased international pressure, they have decided to comfort us? We do not want consolation; we want the truth to be clarified. Litigation and justice are our first demand. Then, we demand punishment for all involved in the carnage. They should be punished from top to bottom."
On the eve of the first anniversary of the downing of UIA's Flight 757, the Iranianr government announced that it would compensate the survivors of each casualty with $150,000.
"My family has never been after receiving compensation. This is not only my family's word, and I think all [bereaved] families agree. We are willing to give our whole life and property and live in poverty for the rest of our lives if the authorities bring back our loved ones. Bring back our loved ones just for a few years. Can they do that? Is it possible to pay such compensation? Sadly, it is not.”
"It is not possible to wash away people's blood with money. At least it is not possible here. We will not let this happen, even if offered billions of dollars. The authorities only want to instigate our sympathizers and the people standing by our side and tell them, 'If they lost their loved ones, we are also making up for it.' They think the sum of compensation will tempt the victims' families. But, even if they offer us a thousand times more, we will not be tempted. We are going to seek justice to the end. Even if they should pay compensation, it is not the right time for it. First, we need a thorough investigation. It should be decided that what exactly happened, why it happened, who ordered it, who planned it, and who carried it out."
A cell phone, a camera, and a laptop were Ghanimat Ajdari's three personal effects that are very dear and valuable to her family. Nevertheless, none were handed over to them. These things were repleted with Ghanimat's memories and could have soothed her family, but the authorities withheld them.
Ghanimat Ajdari's sister speaks about the moments on January 8 when she waited for her sister to arrive at her destination and their last conversation, which ended with a vow for a later comprehensive talk. The promise never materialized.
"At four o'clock in the morning, my other sister, who was on a night shift, called me and said, 'Azamat, the Ukrainian plane has crashed, I think it was Ghanimat's plane.' I quickly jumped up. I did not know if I was asleep or awake. It was so scary. It is still horrifying every time I remember those moments; it is as if I am experiencing them again. I did not want to believe it at all.”
"I told her to find out how many Ukrainian planes were there. She said, how many planes do you think fly from Tehran's Imam Khomeini Airport? Especially when we heard in the news that Iran had attacked the US' Ain al-Assad base in Iraq, and given the critical situation, it was not far from the mind to imagine such a tragedy. I quickly googled the crash of a Ukrainian plane. My hands were trembling. It was terrible. Yet, I was still hopeful.”
"I started calling Iran. I did not want to directly call my family and make them worried, as well. I called a friend of mine in Iran. She said, let me turn on the TV to see what's going on, and then she said that all channels were showing Qassem Soleimani."
Azamat Ajdari failed to contact Tehran Airport. “I could not reach the airport. I did a Google search and found that all aboard the Ukrainian plane perished in the crash. Just imagine how I felt at that moment. I could not believe it at all. My sister died, as simple as that? I wondered. Does it mean that up to that moment, I had a sister but could not have her anymore? No, it was impossible, I said to myself.”
"Our friend, who had gone to Shahedshahr and did not answer my calls, picked up the phone finally and said, 'Azamat, the situation here is very terrible. I cannot tell how terrible the situation is here.' I could only shout, scream, cry. What else could I have done in exile, so far from home?”
"Our lives have changed since then. We have changed. The world has changed. How can such a crime occur, and, after a year, everything remains the same? How come there has been no punishment? How come nobody has resigned for being responsible? How come they have charged nobody with the crime? Why should it be like this?" Azamat Ajdari is still wondering.