After 18 days of Iraqi seige, Khoramshahr, the Iranian port just a mortar's trajectory from this tiny and abandoned island in the Shatt-al-Arab, is a city of the dead and dying. Viewed from a screen of palm fronds along the gray, muddy banks of the river, the huge Iranian dockyard a mere 200 yards across the water from here looks like a nightmare scene out of Dante's Inferno.
With the afternoon sky an eerie ocher from a sandstorm blown out of Arabia, the whole wide length of the Iranian dockyards is a surreal picture of darting flames, low-lying black smoke and the charred and twisted wreckage of freight containers, cranes, railroad cars, warehouses and barges.
Behind the haze and fire and smoke of the shattered dockyards, past a wall of shell-smashed palm trees,the city proper is just barely discernible as a maze of low concrete buildings, some whole, others in rubble, quaking under the detonations of high explosives being hurled in by Iraqi seige guns.
"There cannot be many people alive in there," said Iraqi 1st Lt. Mowfak Khodeir, surveying the dockyards through the binoculars while crouched behind a palm protected mud wall. "Those that are not dead yet will be soon."
The spine-jarring reports of nearby Iraqi artillery firing from just behind the island here, the odd whisper of rockets arching overhead toward the city, the continuing deep rumble of explosions in the distant streets and the continuing staccato crackle of automatic rifle and machine-gun fire around the dockyards, were proof that there was still life in the Iranian defense of their port city today.
Khodeir, whose unit is dug into an underground sandbagged bunker complex in the lee side of a mud and wattled village on the water's edge, admitted that for all the artillery fire poured into Khorramshahr, the Iranians were still able to reply to the Iraqi fire from their own artillery positions behind the city. They were also resisting Iraqi efforts to advance up the length of the smoldering dockyards.
Khodeir said that the Iranian defenders of the port were using self-propelled grenades against the Iraqi tanks entrenched behind the cargo crates on the upriver northwest corner of the docks. They were also using mortars, machine guns and snipers against Iraqi troops trying to advance. He said that Iranian tanks had also been seen on the downriver, southeast part of the port still firmly in Iranian hands.
The shell-smashed devastation of Khorramshahr across the waterway from here stands in sharp contrast to the other-worldly desolation of this island, whose Arabic name aptly translates as "mother of bullets," a name given it after a nasty and long-forgotten battle between the British and Ottoman Turks over the island during World War I.
Aside from Khodeir and his band of soldiers entrenched behind this village of mud walls and woven palm roofs that stretches along the waterfront of the Shatt, the two-mile-long island has been abandoned by its population of date palm and vegetable growers.
So fast was the exodus of several thousand islanders here when the war began that they left the doors of their modest homes gaping open, sandals and shoes and cooking utensils in place, and their cows lowing their sheds and ducks quacking in the ponds of water that dot the island.
In the yellow haze left by the storm wind, the sun overhead was just a thinly etched disc of white, sending a strange diffused light sifting through the palms and head-tall water reeds that cover the island.
In between the regular salvos of Iraqi guns that barked and rumbled and caused the air -- even at this distance -- to compress, there were moments of unnatural silence where the warble of birds could be heard from the palm trees intermingling with the barnyard sounds of the village's deserted animals.
The only civilians on the island seem to be Jassem Abdullah, and his black-shawled wife, who materialized from behind the hazy palms on their way to check out their home on the banks of the Shatt. They had left, with their six children, two weeks before.
Abdullah, the village's 25-year-old electrician, scampered up onto the flat roof of his house to crouch behind a brick latticework balcony and cautiously peer out over the smoky river at the violent chaos of Khorramshahr.
Just off the island, two smoking, burned-up freighters were beached a few hundred feet from shore. The two ships,the Romania Olanesti and the Yugoslav United Ljanik, were set ablaze by Iranian shellfire, Tuesday when they sought to move off their anchorages in the middle of the channel to get out from under a murderous crossfire between Iranian and Iraqi forces on either side of the river.
The sailors from the ships, like those from a Chinese, Dubai and two Indian ships before them, were forced to jump overboard and swim for their lives while Iranian machine gunners stitched the waters with gunfire in an effort to halt their escape. Miraculously the Romanians and the Yugoslavs escaped unharmed, though five Indian sailors are missing and presumed dead from an earlier swim.
Abdullah did not stay long to survey the war across the river. He gathered up some belongings, threw some seeds into a cage full of unusually quiet parakeets, fed his cow, and, with his wife following closely, scurried back to the reeds and palms toward the pontoon bridge that connects the lee side of the island with Iraqi mainland.