Father who lost daughter, wife on Flight PS752 documents quest for justice in '752 Is Not a Number'

·4 min read

On Jan. 8, 2020, Hamed Esmaeilion's wife and young daughter were among the 176 people who were killed when Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corp shot down Ukraine International Airlines Flight 752. In a documentary, 752 Is Not a Number, which premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival (TIFF), filmmaker Babak Payami tracks Esmaeilion's pursuit of justice for the families who lost their loved ones.

"We had two major challenges that, maybe subconsciously, we were preoccupied with. One of them was the abhorrent politicization of an issue that we believe is not about real politics, it's about justice and the humanity and the danger of the story being hijacked by people for specific political purposes," Payami told Yahoo Canada. "The second thing was, Hamed and I were talking about, well the Iranian community could understand, but the larger community internationally, we have to find ways of connecting with them to make sure that they understand the substance of this call for justice."

For Esmaeilion, the purpose of this kind of documentation of his efforts comes down to making sure the tragedy is never forgotten.

"We have to do it. You have to document every moment of this journey because people usually don't remember, people usually don't see what we're going through," Esmaeilion said. "There were dark moments that I asked Babak to leave, honestly, to pack and leave and go away because I was worried for him.

"He was so close to his subject, I think that I was worried for his health. I was crying, there were dark moments that you can't even imagine. Some of them are in the film and some are not, but documenting this journey was a big, big mission for Babak. I wrote a piece of narration that I ended up omitting in the film, I said, 'I was like a fly on the wall of the smouldering oven, and eventually it became so hot that I fell into it.'

"That was one of the things that was a surprise to me, and I hadn't thought about that before. How do I take that person who was behind the camera and trying to observe as a fly on the wall, and slowly demonstrate that he steps forward and becomes involved in the story? And why does he get involved in the story?"

(Courtesy of TIFF)
(Courtesy of TIFF)

'This government didn't move it an inch'

Just this week, lawyers representing the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims put forward a submission for a war crimes investigation. Previously, the associated had put together a report on the downing of the flight, which includes claims the Iranian government deliberately did not close the airspace to civilian flights, using passenger flights to "shield against possible American attacks."

"This is unique because this is the first time in the history of aviation the families of the victims have to write a report because none of the governments or international bodies, or even the transportation safety organizations, tried to put this together," Hamed Esmaeilion said. "I'm telling the family members all the time that with all these efforts and energy that we put together, we could have moved Mount Everest for 10 kilometres, but this government didn't move it an inch, and this is very, very disappointing for us.

“What you see in that report, actually, is not the families' opinion because we are not experts. We are ordinary people. We just asked lawyers and aviation and military experts to help us and put everything together, and some of some parts of this report are shocking, the way they treated the bodies ... the way they treated the cell phones. ... Unfortunately, the government didn't acknowledge this report the way they should. The only reaction that we heard was from Minister [Omar] Alghabra, the transportation minister. He said this is a different interpretation of the same conclusion that [the government] got it, but it was not, it was a completely different conclusion."

Hamed Esmaeilion shared that in a meeting with Prime Minister Justin Trudeau's parliamentary secretary, he delivered a very direct message.

"I said, 'What kind of justice do you want to bring to me? What is justice to you?" Esmaeilion revealed. "I said, 'Can you imagine hot shrapnel coming to your daughter, to your wife? Can you imagine that?

"I said, 'The Prime Minister and the legal team, and you and everyone in this room, doesn't understand this, so whatever you bring to me doesn't take those moments away from me, doesn't take that three minutes and 42 seconds away from me, that's why I don't believe in justice.' ... If, for example, this governments are thinking about an apology, as I say in the film, or a compensation, ... I won't sign anything. I will walk away from you because what is important here is the truth, every detail of the truth, and in my opinion, you can only see justice when the truth is out."