A Toronto memorial filled with grief, rage and thoughts Iran’s next ‘human error’ could be nuclear

Glimpses of lives lost and tears of endless sorrow.

Rage, too, which fills the hollowness in the heart, for now. The inchoate impotence of a diaspora community — and the broader world — in the stunned aftermath of a bungled missile strike all but written off as “unintentional.”

As long as such weapons of destruction are manufactured, they will be used. Somebody will flip a switch — perhaps a jittery young man with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, on anti-aircraft missile battery detail — and an instrument of death streaks into the sky, locked on to a doomed civilian aircraft. A catastrophe arising from mere seconds to decide. No fail-safe.

Hence the existential terror of a nuclear-armed Iran in the tinderbox of the Middle East. A control and command structure of precarious fallibility.

Beneath the deceit and obfuscation that finally gave way to admission of guilt couched in profound regret — I don’t doubt the sincerity — is the frailty of human error. But also the volatility of a renegade regime.

“Now that Iran has admitted responsibility, we must ensure that the regime is held to account for what they have done,” Michael Parsa, Conservative MPP and former director of the Iranian Canadian Congress, told a memorial service on Sunday for victims of Flight 752. That brought the entire capacity audience at University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall to its roused feet.

“We will not rest until justice is served.”

Out of anger comes purpose, he said, quoting the great Persian philosopher Rumi. “Don’t run away from grief, o’ soul. Look for the remedy inside the pain. Because the rose came from the thorn and the ruby from a stone.”

But there’s so much pain, immeasurable, cascading from the Wednesday shootdown of that Ukrainian passenger jet less than two minutes after takeoff at Tehran Imam Khomeini International Airport, just as the plane’s fiery remains cascaded over the landscape. Debris bulldozed by Iranian crash crews, possibly destroying evidence before international investigators could analyze the remnants.

That was certainly not attributable to human error. That was deliberate, even as suspicions mounted that the 737 had not plummeted because of mechanical failure.

Banafsheh Taherian, left, and Kyan Nademi read the names of the Canadians who died in the Ukranian Airlines crash last week in Iran during a memorial service at the University of Toronto on Sunday.

Fury on the streets of Iran has turned against their repressive theocratic government, from the little that can be ascertained as state-censored domestic media reports filter out — only a handful of foreign journalists on the ground. Since massive unrest and public protests in November against rising gasoline prices in November, the country had been under a near total internet blackout, social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook shut down.

The tap was turned back on following the U.S. targeted killing of terrorist mastermind Maj. Gen. Qassem Soleimani near the Baghdad airport on Jan. 3 — to show the outpouring of anguish and outrage over the killing. It already seems like a lifetime ago given the subsequent events of a tumultuous week that saw Iran and America on the precipice of war.

But that patriotism — and thirst for revenge — has been subsumed by even fiercer vehemence over the death of 167 passengers and nine crew, including 57 Canadians and dual Iranian-Canadian citizens — the academic, scientific and entrepreneurial flower of a brilliant generation. “Death to liars!” and “Death to the dictator!” Iranians massing in the capital’s squares shouted on Saturday. “You have no shame!’’ Some even pulled down posters of the general, according to reports.

How brave of them in a nation that turns its soldiers on its own citizenry — up to 1,500 estimated killed in the demonstrations late last year.

On Sunday, the front page of the Iranian government’s official newspaper depicted the tail of a plane composed of all the names of the dead and one word in large Persian print: Unforgivable.

That exact same image was the backdrop to a Convocation Hall stage amassed with white roses, lilies and baby’s breath. White the colour of innocence. “CANADA MOURNS’’ and “In Memory of Iran Crash Victims.”

Outside, a long queue of those who couldn’t get into the jammed building, lit votive candles and laid flowers.

The university has suffered a profound loss, six of the victims associated with the institution: Mojtaba Abbasnezhad, PhD student in the faculty of applied science and engineering; Mohammad Salehe and Mohammad Amin Beiruti, both PhDs in computer science; siblings Mohammad Asadi Lari and Zeynab Asadi Lari, MD/PhD in medicine and undergraduate science student respectively; Mohammad Amin Jebelli, doing his master’s degree in health sciences in transitional medicine.

As a musician played a mournful xylophone, a video montage displayed photos of all the other victims who lived in, were returning to, or had set out for Canada for the first time, boarded that fateful flight. Families with young children. Teenagers. Grandparents. Just-married couples, such as Arash Pourzarabi and Pouneh Gorji, headed for Edmonton one day after their wedding.

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On Twitter could be found a video of another couple, engineer Siavash Ghafouri-Azar and his new wife, Sara Mamani, a life-sized portrait from their wedding day placed at the mourning wake inside the same banquet hall where they’d celebrated their marriage a week ago. The newlyweds had just bought their first home together in Montreal.

Every picture triggered a fresh round of sobbing, hands reaching out for boxes of tissue placed atop the hall’s railings.

The video showed stricken faces at the Tehran airport where families had gathered. And the terrible smouldering moonscape on the ground where Flight 752 crashed.

Mourners filled Convocation Hall. "This is Toronto's loss, this is Ontario's loss and this is Canada's loss," Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland told the vigil. "Nothing will ever replace these brilliant lives that have been cut short. We will always ... bear these scars."

Blood and treasure, which usually refers to soldier casualties. Except these were ordinary people, albeit many quite extraordinary, gone “home” to visit family and friends. They composed no country’s army.

“Each of us left our own home country for our different personal reasons,” said legend flashed on the screen. “We all find ourselves sharing the same nostalgia, the same troubles, the same pains. We are not exhausted with rage, filled with remorse for young lives that were lost.’’

Hopes and dreams extinguished.

“I would like to extend my condolences to the families, friends and colleagues of all those who perished last Wednesday in one of the worst air disasters in living memory,” said Mehrdad Ariannejad, co-founder of Tirgan, the charitable organization of Iranian-Canadians that promotes cross-cultural dialogue and which organized Sunday’s event.

“The same goes for all Canadians who have come together as a caring and sympathetic national community in this time of great sadness.

“Special thanks are due to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, for standing firm in the wake of this tragedy in his demand for answers and justice.

“Shock has given way to grief and increasingly to anger as we seek to cope and come to terms with this tragedy. We must demand justice from the Islamic Republic authorities. And demand answers and compensation for the negligence and lack of regard for human life that has led to this tragedy. We must hold to account a culture which values death over life and sadness and tears over joy.”

Trudeau has spent the past few days meeting with and consoling families of the victims, as has Deputy Prime Minister Chrystia Freeland, who spoke to the Convocation Hall audience. She had met one of the victims on this campus only a few months ago.

“We have lost such incredible people. This is the university’s loss, this is Toronto’s loss, this is Ontario’s loss, and it is Canada’s loss. Nothing will ever replace these brilliant lives that have been cut short. We will always wear these scars.

“We mourn together. And we will seek answers together. We will seek accountability together and we will get justice together.

“We saw on Jan. 8 that the world can be a hateful place. Let us show in the days to come that the world can also be a place of compassion, a place of hope, a place of justice.”

Rosie DiManno

Rosie DiManno is a columnist based in Toronto covering sports and current affairs. Follow her on Twitter: @rdimanno

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