Clutching flowers, chewing fingernails, and nervously holding their faces in their hands, 31 Iranian families awaited a reunion they thought would never come. They were reuniting with sons who had joined anti-Iran militants, officially tagged "terrorists" by both the US and Iran.
The journey of one of those sons, Hamid Khalkali, is typical: He went to Turkey five years ago for work, but ended up at a military training camp in Saddam Hussein's Iraq. He was recruited by the Mujahideen-e Khalq, the "People's Holy Warriors," or MKO, Iran's largest opposition group, which aims to overthrow the government. It was supported for two decades by Mr. Hussein.
But now Mr. Khalkali is being officially welcomed home. He's one of more than 250 former combatants who have returned home since December - among the first to test Iran's offer of amnesty. Even as hawks in Washington debate tapping the group to help engineer regime change in Iran, a growing disillusionment within the MKO, coupled with a new Shiite- dominated government in Iraq that has little sympathy for it, has thinned the ranks of this once-feared militant group.
Hamid's mother, Mahin Amouie, thought her son was dead. But her grief turned to cautious joy last week when the telephone rang. Giving little information, the caller said: "We want to give you good news - come and get your son."
Until Ms. Amouie arrived at a small amphitheater in Tehran, bearing flowers and talking to other disbelieving families, she says she had no idea that Hamid had joined the MKO. Climbing onto the stage when her name was called, her emotional dam burst when Hamid strode into view. Tears streaming, Amouie collapsed into her son's arms, a scene repeated again and again.
"Oh Lord, I sacrifice myself for you!" Amouie sobbed to Hamid, crushing the armful of flowers as she wrapped herself tight around his neck. "Where have you been? Where have you been?"
While some hawks in Washington wanting to enlist their services, the MKO is designated a "terrorist" group by the US State Department, with some 3,500 members still in Iraq. Hussein used the group as footsoldiers in his war against Iran in the 1980s and later to help put down antiregime uprisings in Iraq. Quoting US government sources, Newsweek last month reported that the Bush administration is "seeking to cull useful [MKO] members as operatives for use against Tehran," to be trained as spies and sent back to Iran to gather intelligence. Currently, remaining members are under what the US calls "protective custody" at Camp Ashraf, north of Baghdad.
Some 232 crossed from Iraq in two groups earlier this month, under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross. "For us, it's a humanitarian file. We do it for the families," says Loukas Petridis, a Red Cross spokesman in Tehran. "The message the Iranian authorities want to pass to Camp Ashraf is that more than 250 people have come back, and are free - and so far, that is how it has been." The Red Cross first received guarantees of safe treatment from Iran before agreeing to help.
With Marxist roots, Mao-style political indoctrination, and self-criticism sessions that prompt former members to brand the MKO a cult, the group's history includes killing several Americans in the 1970s, supporting the 1979 Islamic Revolution, and seizing of the US Embassy. Losing out in the post-revolution power struggle, the MKO turned against the regime and launched a string of bomb attacks that killed hundreds in the early 1980s. Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, survived an MKO attack in 1981 that paralyzed one arm.
For years the MKO leadership has warned members that they faced certain death or imprisonment if they returned to Iran. In its 2005 annual report, New York-based Human Rights Watch said that, despite specific new directives in Iran to stop such practices in 2004, "torture and ill-treatment ... are used routinely to punish [internal] dissidents."
Reporting from inside Camp Ashraf last weekend, The Los Angeles Times said the MKO dismisses the defectors as "quitters," and that those remaining "show no interest" in going back.
Most of those now repatriating to Iran have been with the MKO just a few years, and say they were "deceived" with promises of cash and a job when recruited in Turkey.
"It is 100 percent stress, but after four years I want to see my family," says Binyamin Espandani, a young former militant as he waits to join his family. "I went there for an objective - I wanted my country to stay independent.... But after the US came, the mujahideen were asking Americans for help to topple the government of my country."
A semiofficial agency that helps former militants reintegrate addressed the waiting families. "Maybe you expect your sons to [be unchanged from] five years ago, but it won't be the same - some were told [by the MKO] to cut themselves off from you," said Shahin Rabiee, of Anjoman Nejat, or "Rescue Association."
But there were warnings, too, for families that signed a form stating that they received their son "safe and sound," and were now "responsible for him."
"They are not completely innocent. They could have escaped [from Iraq] easily during the American attack; they had weapons in their hands," psychologist Dr. Sami Ani told them. "So we have to accept that your children were doing something against the security of the country. But they are forgiven.... They ... were brainwashed."
The happiness of homecoming set aside all other concerns. Former militant Hamid Sahapour held his mother's hand and stroked her face while his brother Davoud tearfully leaned on him from the right. "I can't express my joy - there are no words," says Mr. Sahapour. "Before the Americans came, if I said I wanted to leave, they would have sent 20 people to beat me."
This time Hamid's mother, Delaram Vatanha, vows never to let him out of her grasp: "I will not let him go again."