Chemical Weapons Eyewitness Accounts (2)

 Eyewitness Accounts

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War Veterans

 

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Professionals Youth

Ali Asgaari

 

Ali Asgaari

 

“In war, if a bullet hits you, it will either kill you or wound you.  The physical effects normally don’t last forever.  But the effects of chemical weapons cause problems for generations.  The world needs to know more about these weapons.”

 

Wounded in a chemical weapons attack in 1988 on Iran’s western front during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Ali Asgaari talks about his injuries, his medical treatment and the social stigma incurred by his wounds.

 

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  Ali Asgaari at the Tehran Peace Museum,

  April 2014

Driven by pride in his country and a sense of responsibility to his fellow Iranians, Ali Asgaari joined up as a volunteer soldier to fight in the Iran-Iraq War.  The year was 1983.  He was 17 years old.  After five years of loyal service, during which he received some brutal injuries, Ali had recovered and found himself in the mountainous region of Suleymania Province, south of Halabja, on Iran’s western border.

 

It was shortly after the Iranian New Year festival of Now Ruz, early in the morning on the 25th of March 1988.  It was the day Iraqi fighter jets dropped a mustard gas bomb within 10 metres of the position where he and his comrades were huddled.  It was a day Ali Asgaari will never forget.  

 

In less than two hours after the attack, Ali had been rushed to the decontamination zone at the Rajensi medical post.  With the exception of some slight burning on his skin, Ali was at this point still unaffected by the mustard gas.  When he saw the medical staff dressed in specialized suits and gas masks, he was amused by what he thought were strange and unnecessary outfits.

 

“We laughed at all those people,” Ali says, “to us they just looked crazy.  We shouted at them, ‘Look at us.  We just came from a chemical war zone.  We are all ok – see how we are dressed!’  We had no idea what had happened to us.”

 

It didn’t take long for the effects of the chemical weapons to start.  Severe vomiting, burning skin and blurred vision afflicted Ali, and he soon lost consciousness.  Suffering from third degree burns, Ali was again evacuated by air to the Feiz Hospital in Esfahan.

 

Ali Asgari 2
   Ali as young volunteer soldier

“The treatment at Feiz was crude and painful,” Ali remembers.  “The doctors gave us baths and scrubbed us with rough exfoliating gloves.  Then they cut off our blisters with a surgical knife.  It was absolute torture.  It has left me with terrible scars on my body.”

 

At this point, Ali’s family in Tehran took matters into their own hands.  Ali’s brother hired a private ambulance and drove to Esfahan to collect Ali and bring him back to Tehran.

 

“My brother had no clear plan,” Ali says, “we arrived at Tehran’sLabbafiNejad hospital in the early hours of the morning without any referral papers… nothing.  But my brother begged the doctors to admit me and they did.”

 

In Tehran, Ali underwent two months of concentrated treatment for his burns.  Daily baths in sterilized water and antiseptic followed by careful application of silver sulfadiazine burn-ointment soon helped Ali’s skin to improve.  To maintain privacy, female nurses were not permitted to assist the soldiers in this process and Ali’s his childhood friends came from his village to help him.

 

One later bout of septicemia resulted in him being placed in an isolation room.  Even as he describes the torturous treatment, Ali manages to maintain his insuppressiblesense of humour.

 

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   Ali (bottom row, second from left) with comrades

“I was in the isolation room covered in a plastic tent,” Ali laughs, “when my family came to see me they had to look at me through a window.  I felt like a fish in an aquarium!”

 

Ali’s hands were severely burned and the debridement – the surgical removal of dead or damaged skin – and initial treatment was excruciatingly painful for him.

 

“My hands were in a really bad state,” he recalls with what seems like a misplaced grin, “and the treatment was excruciating.  There was this big, tough nurse helping me and I begged her to stop.  I am ashamed to say I even cursed in front of her.  She told me that if she stopped the doctors would have to amputate my hands.  I told her to cut off my hands.  You know what she did?  She got the doctors to send for my father to lay down the law!”

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Map of Suleymania Province, courtesy of Google Maps.  The red dot marks where the chemical

bomb was dropped near Ali.

There followed two years of complex skin-grafting procedures and plastic surgery to heal Ali’s hands.

 

“The doctors grafted skin from my leg,” says Ali, “and stitched this skin onto the wounds on my hands, covering them with layers of dressings.  It was complicated and very painful.  I couldn’t bend or stretch my hands or fingers.  For a long time, my hands were in splints.  My hands felt like large pieces of leather.”

 

Describing the discomfort of his wounds Ali tells us how difficult life was for the first few years after the chemical attack.

 

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   Ali (right) with comrades in Suleymania Province

“I hardly ever left the house,” Ali recalls, “and sat in front of the air conditioner in nothing but my underwear.  Clothes would cause my skin to itch and I would scratch and cause more scarring.  For the first six months of being at home, I couldn’t use my hands for risk of infection.  I had to get help to go to the bathroom.  It was so embarrassing.  No grown man should have to do that.”

 

In the immediate aftermath of the chemical attacks, doctors focused almost exclusively on Ali’s burns and the damage to his lungs and eyes were left largely ignored.

 

Ali has severe breathing problems and any kind of physical exertion is difficult.  A walk of more than 100 metres exhausts him and he has a constant heavy cough.

 

“I cough all the time,” Ali says, “and I have trouble with a lot of phlegm.  I have to cough it up all the time.  It is most unpleasant, especially for people around me.  But my eyes have given me more trouble than my lungs.”

 

Ali suffered from typical temporary blindness after the attacks, but it was only after he was discharged from hospital after his skin treatment that Ali and the doctors noticed that the sclera – the white part of the eye – began to change colour to yellow and grey.  His eyes were red and inflamed and he began to feel pain and burning.

 

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  Ali being treated for chemical weapons burns, 1988

Ali visited a number of ophthalmologists in the years following the gas attacks, but none of them made any connections between his eye problems and the mustard gas.  It was not, in fact, until 1992, when Ali enrolled in the ShahidBeheshti University in Tehran to study economics that his eye problems worsened considerably and he was introduced to a doctor who understood the consequences of chemical weapons on the eye.

 

“I finally found the doctor I really needed in Professor Mohammad Ali Javadi,” Ali says with a great sense of pride.  “Professor Javadi treated me for two years and operated on my eyes to cauterize the tear ducts to keep the water inside my eyes. It helped a little, but I still had problems.”

 

Professor Javadifinally recommended Alito go and see Dr. KhosroJadidi, the pioneering eye surgeon who had already carried out stem cell transplants on many chemical weapons survivors.  In the year 2000, Ali underwent stem cell surgery to improve his vision.

 

“Dr. Jadidi took some healthy conjunctiva tissue from my brother’s eye,” Ali says, “and transplanted it into my eyes.  For gas attack victims, stem cells do not function properly and so they cannot regenerate.  For my brother, it was no problem at all.”

 

The success of the stem cell surgery meant that Ali could become a candidate for corneal transplants.  He has already had one successful cornea transplant on his left eye and is on the waiting list for a cornea transplant to his right eye.

 

While Ali continues to struggle with lung and eye problems, he relates that one of the most difficult challenges for recovering chemical weapons victims is the social stigma brought about by public ignorance of their injuries.

 

“Not everyone looks at you and sees a war hero,” says Ali.

 

With shoulders drooped and a sense of despondency, Ali continues to relate the perspectives of soldiers wounded on active duty by mustard gas.

 

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  Ali being treated with silver sulfadiazine burn ointment,
  April 1988

“I cough a lot because of my lung injures,” says Ali, “and so it is really difficult to be in public places like cinemas or theatres or at speeches.  Once I start to cough, it is difficult to stop and people in public have no patience for it.  People are disgusted by my need to spit up phlegm and ask me to leave.  It is embarrassing for me, and of course for my wife and family.”

 

Ali’s constant train-like coughing was one of the reasons he dropped out of university.  

 

“The other students in the classhad no patience with my coughing,” Ali recalls.  “It was especially difficult in the wintertime.  My chest would hurt and I would need to cough.  Usually, I had to get up and leave the class.”

 

So, reluctantly, Ali left university.  He then found a job at the Ministry of Economy, but the daily drive to work by motorbike and the city’s pollution caused more problems for his already overstrained eyes.  Pain and headaches would mean that on his return home from work each day, Ali would have to lie down in a dark room for several hours to relieve the stress.

 

Ali’s discoloured and scarred skin has also caused him much public humiliation.

 

“I have friends,” he says, “and members of my own family who won’t even shake my hand.  They are repulsed by my injuries.  People don’t understand what I’ve been through.  I once drank from a public water fountain.  I washed the cup and put it back, but the person next to me looked disgusted and refused to drink from the same glass.”

 

Ali explains that the public does not know what has happened to chemical weapons survivors, which results in little or no sympathy and disappointing prejudice.

 

“I have had to learn to cope with my appearance,” Ali says, “but the problem is how do I communicate with people about the way I look.  When I was going through my skin-grafting treatment my hands were in splints.  I got into a taxi and the woman next to me asked what had happened to my hands.  I told her a dog bit me!  How could I explain to her everything that had happened to me?”

 

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  Ali shows the burns to his skin, April 1988

The holy month of Ramazan is a particularly difficult time for all chemical weapons victims.  Unable to fast due to their physical condition and the need to take constant medication, many survivors facethe unkind judgmental behavior of others, causing severe embarrassment and a loss of self-respect.

 

“Once, during Ramazan,” remembers Ali, “I was visiting a graveyard and began to feel ill.  I needed to drink some water, so went off somewhere discreet where I thought I wouldn’t be seen.  The mother of one of the soldiers killed in action saw me.  She was very angry and began to curse me for not fasting during Ramazan when all these other men had died for my freedom.  It was a very troubling experience.”

Ali now feels it is his responsibility to raise awareness about the medical treatment for chemical weapons victims.  Having suffered terribly and undergone extensive medical treatment himself, he is passionate about the need to share information about the treatment of gas attack survivors with the medical community at large.

 

“Survivors can’t just see a normal doctor when they get sick,” Ali explains.  “We have to see specialists for our lung, our eyes, and our skin.  If we go to an ordinary doctor when we have a cold or another illness, they do not understand our war injuries.  It is not that they are bad doctors.  Not at all!  Their lack of awareness of the needs of chemical weapons survivors causes them to prescribe the wrong medication and treatment.”

 

Finding the correct medication is a serious problem for chemical weapons survivors in Iran.  The UN Security Council Resolution 1696 has imposed crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy.  For chemical weapons survivors this means the inability to access necessary medication and equipment and when medicine is available, the price is often prohibitive.

 

“Some of our medication is manufactured in Iran,” Ali says, “but a lot of it is imported and because of the sanctions it is difficult to find and, of course, it is expensive.”

 

Ali is also convinced that not enough credence is given to the role of traditional medicine in helping survivors.  He feels that doctors should take herbal medicines into account when treating the whole patient, not just the symptoms of their injuries.

 

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 Ali at Hiroshima Memorial Park in August 2014

“The whole body needs to be treated,” says Ali, “not just one part.  Everyone is unique and needs their particular prescription to suit their specific needs.  Traditional medicine practitioners look at a person’s whole body and treat the problem accordingly.  More people should adopt this approach.”

 

While Ali wishes to share his story with people outside of Iran to aid understanding of the plight of chemical weapons victims, he also stresses the need for Iranians to share their vast medical expertise with others.

 

“I think it is important,” Ali says, “that we in Iran share the medical knowledge and experience we have gained from treating gas attack victims.  We can share our understanding with other countries so that they can help to save the lives of other people too, no matter what country they live in.”

 

Ali ends his interview with a strong message.

 

“I want doctors and the medical community to understand that when you see a chemical weapons victim, you need a holistic approach to solving their medical problems.  It is not enough to just look at one organ in the body.  Doctors must heal the whole body, because after exposure to mustard gas, the whole body is damaged.”

 

Oral reflection by: Ali Asgaari
Farsi to English translation by Elaheh Pooyandeh
Written by Elizabeth Lewis

 

All Rights Reserved

 

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Young Reporters at The Tehran Peace Museum

 

Young Reporters at The Tehran Peace Museum

 

The Tehran Peace Museum’s new Young Reporters project brings the city’s teenagers to ask questions about war and chemical weapons, and also to write about peace.

 

With Iran’s school children getting a full three months for their summer vacation, many parents struggle to find things to keep their young people busy.  Part of the answer may be found in what a group of young teenagers from eight of Tehran’s public schools may have the answer.

 

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  Young Reporters Group at Tehran Peace Museum. Standing

  (from left):Ms. Saidian, Ms. Gilani, Ali, Aryan, Ali Khateri,

  Ms Rashid (Saghar's mother), Ms. Babai.  Kneeling (from left):

  Mohammad Mahdi, Ms Pooyandeh, Saghar, Zahra, Yas

At the beginning of the summer holidays, the Tehran Peace Museum, in association with a number of teachers from local schools, began a pilot project called Young Reporters.

 

The main objective of the project is to encourage Iran’s younger generation to discover their history through interviewing those veterans who served in the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) – some of whom were victims of chemical weapons attacks.

 

Ms. Kuniko Yamamura Babaei, supervisor of the museum’s Iran-Japan Cultural Exchange Project, initiated the idea for the youth programme following a similar example she witnessed at the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.

 

“If it is only the old people who talk about their own stories,” says Ms. Babaei, “this will never be the answer for the younger generation.  They have their own questions to ask.  We can help young people to understand about peace by teaching them about war.”

 

 

  “We can help young


 people to understand


 about peace by teaching  


 them about war.”

As a result of the collaboration, a group of students have become actively involved in in the work of the Tehran Peace Museum and are interacting with the museum’s extended community of friends.

 

Overcoming stereotypical perceptions of how war veterans are perceived was the first step in “humanizing” this brutal and “imposed” war.

 

“Before I came to the museum,” says a young Mohammad Mahdi, “I had always thought that all war veterans were very religious – stern– unhappy people.  I got this image from watching movies and from what adults I know used to tell me.  But when I met the survivors, they were really friendly and laugh and joke just like ordinary people.  I now share their stories with my own family.”

 

The young students spend their time voluntarily at the museum and interview chemical weapons survivors from the war period.  They learn about the medical consequences of the attacks and become much more knowledgeable about the horrors of chemical weapons.  They report on the survivors’ dedication to creating a culture of positive peace.

 

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 Young Reporters inspired by Mahatma Gandhi

“After I visited to the museum and after I met the guides,” says Aryan, “I think I really came to understand what the consequences of chemical weapons were and why these weapons should be forbidden.  I came to feel powerfully that it has to be a crime to use them.”

 

For the chemical weapons survivors it has also been a challenging project, which has brought them into greater contact with the youth of today.

 

 Hassan HassanSa’di, a war veteran who was the victim of a chemical weapons attack near Faw in 1986, is now a volunteer guide at the museum and an eager peace activist.

 

“You know, the young people ask us really difficult questions,” says Hassan, “things we had never really thought about before.  But we respect their perspectives and we have to think about what is important for them to know.”

 

“The young people change a lot after coming to the museum,” continues Hassan, “they are frightened of us at first.  But they soon overcome this and find out that we are friendly, after all.  They also realize we are a first hand source for vital information about chemical weapons.”

 

The students all agree that their perception of war and the veterans has changed entirely though spending time at the museum and their eager faces reflect a determination to share ideas about peace.

 

“After my first day here,” says Yas, “I explained everything to my parents.  We talked about war and how the absence of war is the first step to peace.”

 

As well as learning to become volunteer guides, the students have made video presentations about the museum and plan to write information leaflets specifically targeted towards the younger generation.  Following the Learning-by-Doing method of understanding, the students are implementing quizzes for young visitors to learn about peace.

 

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  Young Reporters and chemical weapons survivors
  at entrance to the Tehran Peace Museum

“When you spend time here at the Tehran Peace Museum,” says 16 year old Ali Khateri, “you start not liking the images of war.  You learn that people here – those who have actually lived through war – are more interested in the concept of peace.”

 

The Young Reporters are an enthusiastic group of young people, keen to get involved and share their ideas about peace with others.  The project, although only in its early days of existence, has proved to be successful in raising awareness against weapons of mass destruction and listening to the young voices of peace.

 

Farsi to English translation by Elaheh Pooyandeh
Written by Elizabeth Lewis

All Rights Reserved

 

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Hassan Hassan Tabar

 

Hassan Hassan Tabar

 

Burnt, blistered skin.  Blindness.  Chronic lung disease.  Depression.  These are but a few of the effects on Iranian survivors of the chemical weapons attacks during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988).

 

Hassan Hassan Tabar, an army commander, shares his experiences of the chemical attacks in Khorramshahr in 1986 and how he has found the strength to survive.  

 

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  Hassan Hassan Tabar, April 2014 at

  the Tehran Peace Museum

Hassan Hassan Tabar was born in Babol, near the Caspian Sea, in November 1965.  He was a high school student majoring in economics in 1980, when Iraq invaded Iran over a territorial dispute.  This series of events caused Hassan to make a choice that would change the course of his own life forever.

 

“The year was 1980,” says Hassan, “and I enlisted as a volunteer soldier.  I didn’t have my parent’s permission of course.  But I was big for my age and I was quite fit, so no one suspected that I was not really 18 years old.”

 

Hassan then embarked upon a military career that saw him serve three years as a volunteer soldier until 1983 before he joined the regular army.  In 1985 he returned to Babol to his young wife and family but only stayed a brief six months before returning to the front.

 

“I wanted to get back to the front,” Hassan says, “I even asked the army to send me back.  In fact, I was sent back to the front with two of my brothers-in-law.  We were stationed in Ahvaz.  I was one of five commanding officers in our corps.”

 

On the 9th of February 1986, Hassan was involved in the operation known as the 8th Valfajr, when the Iranian army succeeded in capturing the strategic port of Faw from Iraq.  After the successful operation had been completed, Hassan crossed back over to the Iranian side of the Arvand River separating Iran from Iraq, and went to visit his brother-in-law, Mohammad-Ali.

 

On arrival at the military base, Hassan remembered hearing the sound of Iraqi fighter planes overhead.  Spotting close to 20 airplanes, Hassan, his brother-in-law and five other comrades, took cover near some sandbags as Iraqi aircraft began aerial bombing.  Iraqi ground forces also started pounding the Iranians with artillery from across the river.

 

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  Hassan (left) with fellow volunteers, November 1980

“We were being hit from across and from above,” recalls Hassan, “so my comrades and I took cover near a wall of sandbags.  One of the airplanes dropped a bomb about six metres away from us.  We heard the bomb sort-of explode.  But it was not like a normal explosion.  The bomb just opened up.  So we hid under cover of the sandbags.  Of course, we now realize that was the worst thing we could’ve possibly done.”

 

Within 15 minutes, the entire area was permeated with a strange garlic-smelling gas.  Hassan and his colleagues ran to put on their gas masks.

 

But, it was too late.

 

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Map of Attacks, courtesy of the Centre for Iran-Iraq War Studies    

Half an hour later, the effects of the mustard gas began – weeping, burning eyes followed by itching and burning skin. Fortunately, the men had access to a military vehicle and all seven drove as fast as they possibly could to the medical emergency unit, where doctors sent them to the already overcrowded field hospital at Al-Zahra.

 

After initial treatment of cool showers and the removal of their contaminated clothes, Hassan and his brother-in-law were sent by ambulance bus to Ahvaz.  Their symptoms worsened and were compounded by violent vomiting.

 

“At the beginning of the journey,” says Hassan, “Mohammad-Ali didn’t appear to have symptoms like me.  He sat next to me, stroking my arm and saying comforting words.  But in no time at all, Mohammad-Ali began to vomit until all he was throwing up was blood.”

 

Hassan’s memories of his hospital treatment in Ahvaz tell of a time of confusion and pain. The mustard gas had caused the blood to stop circulating regularly, and after receiving an injection of some medicine from a doctor, he soon lost consciousness.

 

“I don’t remember anything after that,” says Hassan, “I really don’t.  About 20 days later, I regained consciousness.  I was in a dark room in some hospital.  I couldn’t even pick out images one metre from my face.  When I came round, there was a nurse sitting near me.  She was wearing a strange uniform, different from anything I had ever seen in Iran.  When I regained consciousness, she shouted to a doctor in a language I didn’t understand.”

 

Hassan had been evacuated to Belgium and was being treated in the University Hospital of Ghent under the supervision of Professor Aubin Heyndrickx, the renowned toxicology expert.  Professor Heyndrickx and his team of colleagues were responsible for the treatment and recovery of many Iranians who fell victim to the most severe effects of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War.

 

Suffering from terrible lung injuries, Hassan was placed in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the hospital for more than three weeks.

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Hassan (left) as a young volunteer soldier in March 1980

 He was only able to breathe by means of a ventilator.  The doctors kept him under permanent sedation during this period to alleviate the excruciating pain.  The medical staff took extreme precautions to protect the blisters on his skin to prevent scarring.  His eyes, also severely damaged, were treated daily and covered with bandages.  Hassan could see little or nothing.

 

“I have no idea how long I stayed like this,” says Hassan, “after a while my condition began to improve and the doctors removed the ventilator tubes.  I was able to breathe using an oxygen mask and was sent to another room where the treatment for my burned skin started.”

 

As Hassan describes the painful skin treatment, the memories are clearly reflected in his weary eyes.

 

“I couldn’t wear any clothes or even a hospital gown,” remembers Hassan.  “I had to be naked and doctors spread the ointment on bandages.  Then they draped the bandages carefully over my body.  The ointment was so cold that, even though the room was warm, I would shake uncontrollably for about 10 minutes.  I was in so much pain all the time.  I couldn’t think about anything, not even my family.”

 

During this period, Hassan’s pain and suffering absorbed his whole attention and he spoke regretfully that neither his wife nor family entered his thoughts.  Far away from home in an unfamiliar country, Hassan found, however, that he was not alone.  Staff from the Iranian Embassy in Belgium, including the chargé d’affaires, came to visit Hassan and other survivors being cared for at the university hospital.

 

Iranian students living in Belgium volunteered to come to the hospital and, operating in a roster of three shifts, they acted as interpreters for the patients and the medical staff.

 

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   Hassan (left) in Kurdistan Province, July 1982

It was, in fact, through the intervention of the Iranian chargé d’affaires in Belgium that Hassan’s family finally found out where he was and that he was still alive and recovering.  About two weeks before his return to Iran, the chargé d’affaires arranged for Hassan’s family to speak to him by telephone.

 

“My family knew I had been sent to Belgium,” Hassan says, “but my wife didn’t know if I was dead or still alive.”

 

At the same time, the chargé d’affaires arranged for Hassan to speak to his brother-in-law, Mohammad-Ali, who had been sent to a hospital in The Netherlands.

 

“It was the last time I spoke to him,” says Hassan sadly.  “Mohammad-Ali never returned to Iran.  He died seven months later.  He was only 18.”

 

During his time in hospital in Belgium, Hassan, through the help of one of the Iranian volunteer students, began to listen to the inspirational tapes of one of Iran’s renowned clerics, Haji-Kafi.  Hassan’s faith began to give him the strength to recover quickly in order to return home to Iran and his family.

 

“I was determined to go home,” reflects Hassan with pride, “but the doctors said that I must stay in Belgium as I was not ready.  I told them that I would take full responsibility for my decision.  I didn’t mind what the consequences were.  I just wanted to go home.”

 

When Hassan returned to Iran, however, his appearance had changed so drastically that his own father couldn’t recognize him.  An athletic young man weighing 73kgs before the attacks, he returned to Iran as a 40kg invalid with burned and discolored skin.

 

“I was standing one metre in front of my father,” says Hassan, “but he couldn’t pick me out from the crowd.  When he saw it was really me, my father broke down and cried.”

 

Although Hassan was expected to go immediately to hospital in Tehran to continue his treatment, his father insisted that he return home to Babol first and see his wife and family.  Hassan’s father secured medication and sedatives from doctors at the airport and then took his son home by private car on the long and winding road through the Alborz Mountains to Babol.

 

“I arrived after sunset,” Hassan remembers, “and when my family saw me they all started to cry.  My older son ran away from me.  He couldn’t recognize me as my skin was so very dark.”

 

Unable to tolerate light and the touch of his wife and relatives, his homecoming was a sad affair.

 

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   Hassan (left) with comrade near Ahvaz, February 1983

“I had been wounded before,” says Hassan, “but it was not the same as this.  My family looked at me differently.  They couldn’t believe what they saw and they all found it very difficult to take it in.  But they were happy I was home.”

 

Afterwards, Hassan embarked on a long treatment process for his eye and lung injuries.  One of the consequences of a mustard gas attack on the eyes is permanent damage to the tear ducts, which naturally lubricate the eyes.  In one operation, surgeons stitched Hassan’s eyelids together at the corners to keep the eyes moist and protect the cornea.

 

“If you look closely at my eyes,” says Hassan, “you can see where they are still stitched at the corner edge.  I still can’t open my eyes completely.  I have had so many operations.  In fact, in 1989 I went completely blind.”

 

Hassan’s chronic lung problems have resulted in low functioning lung capacity.  After an angiography sealed a leak in one of his veins, Hassan’s breathing difficulties have improved although he still coughs up blood clots and a common cold can cause severe breathing difficulties.

 

But, perhaps, the most difficult wounds to heal were the unseen ones.  

 

“There was a heavy toll too on my psychological state of mind,” says Hassan.  “I would get very sad and depressed and of course that just worsened my physical condition.”

 

One unfortunate consequence of mustard gas exposure in men is sexual dysfunction and the loss of libido.  The sense of impotence has adverse psychological effects on survivors, particularly those like Hassan who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  Often, during sexual activity, these men suffer panic attacks from shortness of breath and indigestion resulting in periods of self-doubt about their manhood.

 

Hasan tabar 7
   Hassan near Faw in December 1985

“I usually don’t say this because I am ashamed,” Hassan says, “but shortly after I returned to Iran I felt that I wasn’t a real man.  I felt emasculated.  I would tell my doctors that I had this problem that I couldn’t make love with my wife, but they said this was the effect of the gas and it would go after a while.”

 

After months in hospital, when Hassan returned to his hometown, he was also faced with cruel social stigma, resulting from ignorance over the cause of his coughing and his awkward bumping into things caused by his blindness.  It brought more depression and seclusion from friends and society.

 

“The social stigma was – and still is – hurtful,” says Hassan, “and has made life difficult for me and my immediate family members.  I was blind and clumsy.  My coughing would irritate people at parties.  There was very little sympathy or understanding for my condition.  So I stopped attending social events.  Can you imagine how difficult this was for my wife and children?”

 

But, in 1999, Hassan was given an opportunity that would start turning his life around.  Hassan met Dr. Khosro Jadidi, an ophthalmologist who has specialized in restorative surgery for chemical weapons survivors.  During their consultation, Dr. Jadidi explained to Hassan that he could help to restore his sight with a relatively new surgery involving stem cell transplants.  Dr. Jadidi explained that if Hassan agreed, it would be the first time such a procedure would take place in Iran.

 

“Dr. Jadidi sounded very positive,” says Hassan, “and explained how simple the operation was.  I needed a family member between the ages of 18 to 40 to volunteer to have some healthy tissue removed from their eye and transplanted on to mine.”

 

For Hassan, however, the possibility of a successful operation to regain his sight was coupled with the dilemma of asking someone in his family to volunteer.

 

“I had learned to live with my blindness,” explains Hassan, “but I didn’t want to put any of my family members at risk to save my eyesight.”

 

Sensing his son’s distress, Hassan’s father asked what was wrong and when he discovered there was a possibility for Hassan to see again, he called a family meeting to discuss the matter.  Hassan’s younger brother volunteered and the two brothers left for Tehran to the Baghiatallah Hospital.

 

Hassan’s brother donated the tissue and was well enough to leave the hospital the following day.  For Hassan, however, it was much more difficult.

 

hasan tabar 8

  Hassan (right) with oxygen machine and sunglasses to

  protect his eyes from light photophobia, a complication

  related to mustard gas exposure.  Hassan is being interviewed

  by a local television station (Mazandaran Channel) in 1999.

Due to the chronic state of Hassan’s lungs, the operation proved to be rather complicated.  After seven hours, and using special instruments to help Hassan breathe, Dr. Jadidi completed this groundbreaking procedure on Hassan’s eyes.  After six months of recovery with weekly visits to Tehran to have the dressings changed and his eyes checked, Hassan went for one last visit to have the final dressings removed.

 

“I was quite nervous,” remembers Hassan, “but as soon as the bandages were removed, I felt the light and I realized the operation had been successful.  I could finally see the difference between day and night and slowly, slowly, I could see first one metre then two metres in front of me.”

 

The success of the stem cell transplant meant that Hassan was now a candidate for a corneal transplant.  One year later a successful cornea transplant brought positive changes to his life and started to lift his depression.

 

“It was a blessing,” he said, “to see the faces of my wife and children after almost eight years of blindness.  I could help my wife again.  I could do things for myself and start to exercise.  I could even begin to drive during the day.  Every man likes to do things for himself.  It was an amazing feeling.”

 

hasan tabar 9

  Hassan (centre) with his son, Mahmoud (left), and nephew

  Ali (right), December 1998

With renewed sight and energy, Hassan resumed a regular exercise programme and immediately began to see an improvement in his mental health.  Discussing the importance for him of a healthy mind in a healthy body, Hassan felt that his renewed ability to get involved in sport gave him the strength and motivation to live a happy and full life.  A keen football fan, Hassan now coaches a local second league team as well as coaching rifle shooting.

 

This was not so, unfortunately, for many of his comrades.

 

“I tried not to think of myself as an invalid,” he says.  “All my other friends who were exposed to chemical weapons in the same operation – they are all dead now.  They saw themselves as really sick people.  I kept pleading with them to get outside and do something, to be more active.  But my friends never left their homes, staying close to their oxygen, and the psychological pressures of their illnesses overwhelmed them.  I am sad about that.”

 

hasan tabar10

Hassan (left) at the Hiroshima Nuclear Bomb Memorial,

August 2014

Hassan’s positive energy along with the devotion of his wife and family has helped to give him an optimistic outlook on life despite his difficulties.  He is now a peace activist with a powerful message.

 

“As a victim of chemical weapons myself,” he concluded, I want to share this message that we need to eliminate all wars.  We must open the doors of dialogue and negotiation.  We must abolish chemical weapons.”

 

 

Oral reflection by: Hassan Hassan Tabar
Farsi to English translation by Elaheh Pooyandeh
Written by Elizabeth Lewis

 

All Rights Reserved

 

 

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