Hamed Esmaeilion remembers a normal life before the missile hit — getting up in the morning, taking his daughter to the school bus and playing games at night.
Then on Jan. 8, 2020, three minutes and forty-two seconds after Ukraine International Flight PS752 lifted off from Tehran International Airport, an Iranian Revolutionary Guard anti-aircraft missile system shot it out of the sky, instantly killing the Aurora, Ont., man’s wife and daughter.
“That three minutes and forty-two seconds doesn't leave us,” said Esmaeilion a year later. “We are haunted by this. We are all haunted by this. This destroyed us.”
Of the 176 passengers on board the passenger jet who died in the crash, 138 had ties to Canada, including Port Coquitlam’s Niloofar Razzaghi, her husband Ardalan Ebnoddin-Hamidi and their 15-year-old son, Kamyar Ebnoddin-Hamidi.
In the 12 months since, families have endured unbearable grief, many shut off from family members for weeks and months at a time because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It's mostly rage — rage and anger,” said Esmaeilion. “We didn't have time to mourn. We didn't have time to cry. We have to work on this case day and night.”
‘THEY ARE THE MURDERERS’
Esmaeilion remembers the early days of the pandemic as a turning point. At home, with nothing but a computer, cell phone and a picture on the wall, he and over 100 other victims’ families found each other, eventually forming the Association of Families of Flight PS752 Victims.
They attended socially-distanced rallies, wrote letters and launched petitions while reaching out to politicians, prosecutors, and military and aviation experts — anyone who could shed some meaning on what happened.
Despite its persistence, the group has been frustrated by the lack of accountability by the Iranian government.
In December, special advisor to the prime minister Ralph Goodale released a report questioning Iran’s investigation into the incident.
Six Iranian individuals have been charged with offences related to the missile strike, but no information about their identity, the evidence used against them or the substance of their defence has been made available, notes the Goodale report.
"The party responsible for the situation is investigating itself, largely in secret. That does not inspire confidence or trust," said the report.
Or as Esmaeilion put it, “Why is Iran leading this investigation? They are the murderers.”
The report also raised concerns around a six-month delay in downloading the black box recordings, as well as instances of intimidation and harassment leading to everything from death threats to family members like Esmaeilion in Canada to interventions at funerals, the withholding of personal effects, disturbing communications, stalking, detentions and interrogations.
Both the Canadian government and the victims’ families are now anxiously awaiting the results of a safety investigation led by Iran’s Aircraft Accident Investigation Board, though the Goodale report notes four interim reports from the organization have cited little evidence to back their conclusions that “a lengthy chain of human errors” is to blame.
Where Esmaeilion has moved to connect families in their push for justice, others have turned inward, fearing retribution on family members back home.
The Port Coquitlam Hamidi and Razzaghi families did not respond to requests for interviews from the Tri-City News, and Esmaeilion said they’re one of a handful of victims’ families across the country that has kept to themselves over the last several months.
A source close to the family told the Tri-City News they are holding a private remembrance to acknowledge the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 8 aircraft shooting and don’t want to hold public events because they still have family in Iran.
But that quiet grieving has come at a cost.
In an earlier interview with the Tri-City News, Niloofar Razzaghi’s brother, Babak (Bobby) Razzaghi, said he spent much of the early part of the pandemic in a three-person bubble with his parents.
During the height of COVID-19 cases in B.C., they would go together on drives for a change of scenery. But everywhere he looked was a painful reminder the “beautiful memories” Razzaghi had with them.
When reports of the investigation would come over the TV or pop up into a news feed, Razza’s mother would break down again.
“There’s no point. Another day, something about a black box and we’re all crying. I banned everything at home. I wanted to protect everything, care about every detail that I could,” he said.
SEEKING A CRIMINAL TRIAL
On Dec. 30, 2020, Iranian media reports indicated the government would be offering victims’ families $150,000 as compensation for their losses, something Esmaeilion described as "a slap in the face" rejected by all of the 138 families he works with.
In July, Babak Razzaghi, the brother of the Port Coquitlam mother aboard the downed Ukrainian aircraft, also rejected participating in a class-action lawsuit against the government of Iran, saying it would only serve to put their family members still in Iran at risk of reprisals.
And besides, questioned Razzaghi at the time, what good would it do?
“All of those people on the plane. They are gone. All that money? Nothing can help us forget this thing,” he told the Tri-City News at the time.
Only a few desperate families back in Iran have accepted the money, according to Coquitlam restaurateur Fred Soofi, who as an active member of the Persian community in the Tri-Cities has added his voice to the call for justice.
Soofi said he has been helping victims’ families raise money to hire a team of international lawyers so that when Iran’s final safety report is released in March, they can pursue the case in the courts.
“This is a crime against humanity. It has to be tried in the International Court of Justice in The Hague,” he said.
By Jan. 6, the campaign had raised nearly $130,000.
Soofi said he’d be adding $5,000 to a cause and urged others to do the same for what’s expected to be a lengthy and expensive legal battle.
“Money is not what gives them comfort. It’s justice,” he said.
• Light a virtual candle in a national ceremony remembering the victims of Flight PS752 at ps752anniversary.com
— With files from the Canadian Press