Zahed Haftlang was 13 when he joined the Iranian army, after fleeing Tehran, only to find himself forced onto the frontlines, facing orders to kill a stranger.
He refused and saved the man instead.
That choice saved his own life 20 years later in a strange twist that unfolded when he met a stranger in an Vancouver trauma survivor help centre — the very man he'd let live.
The two soldiers have penned a memoir about their experiences I, Who Did Not Die and met with CBC's host of The Early Edition Rick Cluff to talk about the recently published book.
As a teenager Haftlang ended up on the frontlines of war, with little option.
He was in charge of clearing bodies from bunkers during the battle of Khorramshahr, a bloody month-long battle with one of the highest death counts.
He was ordered to kill any survivors he found.
An act of mercy
On the other side of the lines was another man.
Najah Aboud, a reluctant recruit to war, was 28-years-old when he was called away from his young family and restaurant business in Basra to fight for the Iraqi side.
Shortly after joining the battle to capture Khorramshahr, Aboud was severely injured when his tank battalion was attacked.
He crawled, bleeding, into a nearby bunker.
"I was expecting death," Aboud said, through a translator.
"I was injured and I was bleeding and I was on top of, or among, dead bodies. I was expecting that they would take me out of the trench and shoot me."
The enemy of my enemy
That day it was a 13-year-old's grisly job to deal with bodies.
Haftlang was searching through the bunkers when he heard moaning and came across the injured Aboud.
He knew his orders.
But he'd never killed before.
At that moment, Haftlang said, he thought of lessons his teachers offered in school.
"You have to be a good human, you have to do your best when someone needs help," Haftlang said.
He looked down at the stranger, who was holding something.
An empty grave
The blood-soaked Aboud had pulled out a picture of his wife and child.
"It's a beautiful family, a beautiful picture," Haftlang said.
"That picture is touching my heart and I changed my position in my mind with him."
He decided in that moment to save Aboud.
Risking his own life, Haftlang cared for the man and took him to a field hospital.
The two men went their separate ways.
After being treated at the hospital, Aboud was sent to a prisoner-war-camp where he suffered brutal conditions and torture for 17 years.
Haftlang went back to battle for the next six years before being captured himself, one hour before a truce between the two countries was called.
He spent more than two years as a prisoner-of-war, his own family digging a grave for him in Iran, before they eventually learned he'd survived.
20 years later they meet
All that behind him, he moved to Vancouver, and ended up in a downtown torture survivor support centre decades later.
There he met a stranger.
The two men chat. They share stories, fascinated to learn they share a language.
As details emerge the impossible coincidence is revealed.
"Thank god that our introduction happened relatively gradually," Aboud said.
"If he had surprised me with everything in one time, I would have probably fallen on the ground or passed out."
This time, it was Aboud who saved Haftlang.
After coming to Canada, Haftlang suffered from depression and tried to take his own life.
Meeting Aboud again, he said, was a rebirth for him.
"Mother Nature gave me one more chance to be alive," Haftlang said.
"I was jumping and laughing and talking with myself. I was so happy that I did not die."
Haftlang and Aboud said they hope their book will share the message of never losing hope in humanity.
They will be at Indigo on Granville Street the evening of April 7 to sign copies of their book.
With files from The Early Edition.
To hear the full interview, click on the audio link Part 1: Twist of fate brings two soldiers from the Iran-Iraq war together and Part 2: Twist of fate brings two soldiers from the Iran-Iraq war together.