Yadi Sharifirad – from Iranian Air Force to Refugee

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The Globe and Mail:

From stunt pilot to bomber to diplomat to accused spy to refugee, Yadi Sharifirad has endured changes of forune that would destroy a lesser man.

When he was 22 and soon after, in the early 1970s, the last years before the Iranian revolution and Ayatollah Khomeini’s theocracy, Mr. Sharifirad was dispatched to the United States, to be trained as a fighter pilot. Stationed at bases in Texas and Arizona, he learned to speak English and fly an F-5A jet.

Before he fought in the long war against Iraq, the 5-foot-5 Mr. Sharifirad – not quite the Top Gun prototype – was an ace stunt pilot in the Imperial Iranian Air Force’s Golden Crown, an acrobat unit akin to Canada’s Snowbirds. He flew in the No. 2 position, executing the trickiest turns, the ones often skirting the ground.

Ayatollah Khomeini’s return from exile in February, 1979, didn’t trouble the pilot at first. However, a group of other pilots were executed after a failed coup, and dozens more were killed in the following year: The Ayatollah didn’t trust the elite U.S.-trained air force squad, allies of the deposed Shah.

Mr. Sharifirad, a colonel promoted to squadron commander, was more worried that he would die from suicide missions against Iraq. On one sortie, he recounts in the interview, he was sent to bomb a bridge, but when he saw passenger vehicles crossing it, he abandoned his assignment. However, his plane’s nose was half blown off by anti-aircraft fire and he limped home.

In another mission, he writes, after he attacked a power plant, he was harried by three Iraqi jets, one of which he shot down. Chasing another, Mr. Sharifirad himself was shot down from behind by the third. He ejected, his plane barely off the ground. Kurdish rebels cared for him; he convalesced and eventually was spirited back to Iran, where he arrived to a hero’s welcome, a fighter resurrected, already dead and buried in the minds of his family and friends.

He became so celebrated that the book he wrote of his adventures, Crash on the 40th Mission, was made into a film in Farsi, titled Eagles. Mr. Sharifirad was suddenly a national icon and spent three luxurious years as a diplomat in Pakistan. “I had everything,” he recalls. “A driver, a cook, a gardener, even one person standing at the door, opening it, closing it.”

After this period of relative calm, his fortunes turned. His lack of outward piety – he didn’t wear a beard, for one thing – and his association with foreigners attracted suspicion when he returned to Iran. The hero pilot had made powerful enemies: At the end of 1987, he was arrested, jailed and tortured, accused of spying for the United States.
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He awoke, his feet grotesquely swollen and severely blistered, covered in plastic bags, after another beating at the hands of the henchmen of Ayatollah Khomeini in a Tehran prison.

This is where Yadi Sharifirad gave up on god and contemplated death in 1988. Lying on the ground in a concrete cell two by two metres, he was ready for the end.

“It was better for me to commit suicide than be tortured and then executed,” Mr. Sharifirad writes in his memoir, The Flight of the Patriot. “Nothing in my cell could serve as a weapon, with the exception of my own teeth. I thought of biting the veins in my wrist and bleeding to death.”

Mr. Sharifirad exudes warmth, a man unbroken. Now 64, he spoke in a long interview this week in Vancouver, his home since 1994.

He works in the produce department of a local grocery store, dressed in a green smock and black polo shirt. He has an easy smile, his black hair mostly grey now. He is alive. He is free. But his voice does change pitch in anger when talking about his torturers, and his country kidnapped by theocrats.

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“I don’t feel sorry for myself. I don’t even feel pity, when I compare the life that I had,” he says. “When I remember those days, when I was in the hands of those gangs, the members of the Islamic revolution. They looked like humans, but they were hungry wolves, vultures on dead bodies.”

The Flight of the Patriot arose from the worst moment of Mr. Sharifirad’s imprisonment, when he spent a night expecting execution by firing squad in the morning. He resolved to tell his story, he says, “not for my friends, not for Iran, for the whole world, what is going on in Iran.”

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