On January 7th, 2020 Parisa Eghbalian called her husband, Hamed Esmaeilion to notify him that she and their nine-year-old daughter, Reera Esmaeilion were heading to the Imam Khomeini International Airport in Tehran —a four-hour drive from where they were staying. It was the last time Hamed Esmaeilion would ever speak to his wife or make his daughter laugh.
“I knew she was at the airport, then one hour later, I heard about Iran attacking U.S. bases in Iraq and I panicked. The last time there was a war between Iran and the U.S., it was 1988 and I was a kid, the U.S. had shot down an airplane into the Persian Gulf,” he said. “My colleagues tried to reassure me, but I was very worried, I felt that somebody's gonna shoot down a plane tonight.”
Esmaeilion’s family had left on Christmas day to go attend his sister-in-law’s wedding. He was in charge of booking their flights, checking them in, printing their boarding passes and ensuring they were well-equipped for their two-week long voyage. Two weeks after sending them off, he was anxiously awaiting their return as the U.S. and Iran had a standoff. On January 8th, Esmaeilion was at his dental office, and he remembers trying to frantically call his wife, but to no avail. He contacted his sister-in-law at the airport, who told him his wife and daughter were checking in and about to board the flight. He felt reassured.
“I just stopped checking thinking I can talk to her in a couple hours, but that never happened. There was a delay of 57 minutes, and nobody knows what the reason for the delay was...and then they shot them down,” said Esmaeilion.
“That was probably the most horrible night I've ever had in my life.”
One year after Flight 752 went down
It’s been 365 days, or one year since Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752 (PS752) from Tehran to Kyiv killing all 176 passengers on board. The minutes keep ticking, but Esmaeilion admits he’s forever stuck in time, as he feels grief day over day.
“I am in a parallel world, this is not what ordinary people experience. I just see people as shadows, I’m just thinking about the past. Everything has stopped from January 8th, time is frozen at that time, it's like an eternal winter,” he said.
That wasn’t always who Esmaeilion was, though, he is an accomplished dentist who owned and operated a dental office with his wife. But, more than anything, he was a family man, someone who was devoted to his wife and daughter, the latter who was the apple of his eye.
“A year ago, I was an ordinary person like everybody else. I used to work in three offices, my wife the same way. We took our daughter to the school bus and picked her up in the afternoon. We watched movies together, cooked together, we were a very tight unit,” he said.
But, now through the sleepless nights as he remains trapped in a Groundhog Day of misery, Esmaeilion knows he’s not the same person, and he doesn’t know if ever can be the happy go-lucky person he once was.
“I'm not the man who used to take his daughter to the school bus, I'm not the man who was waiting for his wife to come home and tell him stories. I'm a completely different person,” he said.
‘It was not an accident, it was a murder’
Tensions between Iran and the U.S. were at peak levels, not seen since 1988 when the U.S. shot down Iran Air Flight 655 killing 290 passengers. On January 3rd, just days before Iran shot down PS752, the United States assassinated Major Gen. Qassem Soleimani, arguably the second most powerful man in Iran, and the leader of it’s military operations. On January 8th, Iran responded by launching missile strikes against U.S. military bases in Iraq, before eventually shooting down the Kyiv-bound flight.
The events of January 8th, and what happened shortly after are easy to recall for Esmaeilion who had to put his entire life on hold. He began searching for and found the next available flight to go to Iran. After 72 hours of hellacious air travel, delays and loneliness, he finally arrived at his wife’s family home.
That morning following his arrival is when he learned that the IRGC had taken responsibility for shooting down the airplane — for killing his loved ones and hundreds of their own people. At that moment, he knew he was going to repatriate his daughter and wife’s bodies, so he could have their funerals in Canada. At the time, Esmaeilion battled with a slew of different emotions towards the Iranian regime ranging from disappointment, shock and rage, but now only the latter consumes his feelings towards Iran.
“It's just mostly rage. Iran has had enough time to come clean. Iran has had enough time to give an explanation to the family, then to the world. Iran has had enough time for negotiation for publishing the final report, but instead of that, they just mocked all the regulations,” he said.
“It was not an accident, it was a murder.”
He recalled the two-week long process, the run-around to be able to get permission to move the bodies back to Canada, the misinformation and lack of accountability afterwards from Iran.
“The way they treated the families was with intimidation, harassment and persecution,” said Esmaeilion.
In the midst of dealing with their profound loss, members of the families of those left behind led by Esmaeilion helped create a group called Justice For PS752 to be able to grieve together while also looking to move forward from the events of Jan 8, 2020.
“The families get together, and there's a campaign going on, but there are lots of family members at the same time that are grieving and they're crying,” he said.
The deaths of their loved ones is not normal, and getting over the initial stages of grief like anger and denial is so tough when there hasn’t been proper closure.
“Most of the time you have the time to say goodbye, but none of the family members had a chance to look at the loved one’s faces one last time. The pain is still there especially when you know that the truth is not found and the justice has not been served,” said Esmaeilion.
The increased advocacy and desire to seek justice has led Esmaeilion to reduce how much work he does as a dentist, shifting more to a part-time role, as he focuses on attaining justice for his family.
“Now, everything is different, I am different. Every morning I get up, I'm just writing letters, emails, having meetings with other family members and or the government or some officials, making videos, doing interviews,” he said.
According to reporting by the Canadian Press, Canada's special adviser on the matter, Ralph Goodale said the Prime Minister has spoken with family members recently, and Jan. 8 will remain a national day of remembrance for the victims of airline disasters. Goodale also mentioned there will be a discussion about building a memorial, but will seek insight from the victims’ families before proceeding.