Hamid Salehi

 

Hamid Salehi: A Journey from War to Peace

 

Hamid Salehi 1

Dr. Hamid Salehi at the

Tehran Peace Museum, May 2015 

“My friends who died in the war, they went on an express train with no return ticket. I was on an ordinary train, and I came home.” Dr. Hamid Salehi, Iranian veteran and chemical weapons survivor of the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), spoke these words as he reflected on how his war experiences have transformed him.

 

Once a starry-eyed teenager, he is now wizened by life’s trials. An academic, he has risen to become a respected international relations professor and board member of the Tehran Peace Museum.

 

“I don’t really know why I wanted to join the army,” Hamid said, “but I decided to defend my country. I wanted to go to the front and fight.”

 

In the winter of 1982, Hamid was barely 15 years old with a heart pumped full of patriotism and passion to defend his country – already two years into a long and bloody war with its neighbour. Knowing full well that he was underage, he needed to find a way to get himself to the front.

 

“I used my older brother’s birth certificate,” Hamid confessed, “and the Basij (volunteer soldiers) recruitment officers didn’t really take notice. When I turned up for my training, I just told them they had made a mistake with the name. They changed it and my dream came true.”

 

From that day on until the end of the war in August 1988, Hamid served in the army. Undeterred by bullet and shrapnel wounds, he found himself, time after time, back at the front in the southern sector of the war around the disputed waters of the Shatt-al Arab – or Arvand Rud as it is known in Iran.

 

“I didn’t finish my schooling before going to war,” Hamid said, “but in war no-one tells you that you are a child anymore. I had no idea how to manage at that young age, but I had chosen this path and I learned quickly how to become a soldier.”

 

By the winter of 1986, young Hamid had grown up fast. His school was the battleground and his teachers were his officers. At this time, Hamid was playing his part in the preparations for the major military operation, known as Valfajr 8.

 

Hamid Salehi 2

Hamid stationed in southern sector of the war, near

Talaie, Majnoon Islands, December 1984 

“Valfajr 8 began on 9 February 1986,” Hamid said, “and at that time we were billeted in a disused school building in a town called Arvand Kenar. We were almost directly opposite the Iraqi port of Al Faw and our mission was to cut off Iraq from its access to the Persian Gulf and international waterways.”

 

Hamid’s job was to operate the heavy anti-tank artillery. In the morning, he would move his rocket firing machinery to the front line. Then, in the evening, he would bring it to the rear in preparation for the following day’s offensive. “The heavy artillery was of no use to anyone after dark,” Hamid said, “so we had to transport it to the back line every night.”

 

Hamid and his comrades had just returned to their billet on the fifth day of the offensive. It was around 5 o’clock in the afternoon on 15 February. “I was sweeping our room in the old schoolhouse,” Hamid said, “when we heard Iraqi jets flying overhead. We always went out to watch when the planes came, so I dropped what I was doing and ran outside.”

 

With about 20 of his fellow soldiers, Hamid watched as three Iraqi jets thundered overhead. The men watched in awe as one jet started to nosedive. “We thought it was about to crash. We started to cheer and clap,” recalled Hamid, “as we were convinced this plane was heading straight for the ground.”

 

But the jet didn’t crash. With a dramatic turn to pull out of the dive the jet released a number of bombs – including a combination of both conventional and chemical bombs - and then flew off, leaving chaos, carnage and insufferable bloodshed.

 

Chemical bombs are not like conventional bombs. Conventional bombs require an explosive device to detonate their particular brand of horror. Chemical bombs do not need an explosive device. When the bomb hits the ground it breaks open and releases its contents slowly and insidiously.

 

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Hamid with his commanding officer in the southern

sector of the war, Autumn 1984 

While  Hamid and his friends were struggling to cope with the mayhem brought about by the conventional bombs, they were oblivious to the chemical bomb that had been simultaneously dropped behind the school building – adding an unseen layer of evil to this devastating scene.

 

“It was a horrific scene.” Hamid paused as he recollected the memory of that bloody afternoon. “There were dead bodies all over the place. Some of my friends had died. One of my friends had his body severed in two.”

 

Shortly after the attack, specialist units dealing with chemical and biological weapons appeared and found the chemical bomb at the back of the bombed out school – seeping a dark liquid into the air.

 

“The specialists told us that there was a chemical bomb here,” recalled Hamid, “and they told us that we were all exposed to chemical weapons and we had to go immediately for treatment at the special hospital units.”

“I was terrified.”

 

Hamid and his comrades were immediately taken to a temporary medical unit, dug into the ground, where chemical weapons victims were given first aid treatment before being sent to the main cities for the necessary medical care.

 

“We had to take off all our clothes,” Hamid remembered, “and then the medics injected a serum into us to force us to vomit.”

 

The usual symptoms that follow exposure to sulphur mustard gas – burning skin, eyes and lungs – do not show immediately. It is only slowly that they begin to reveal their sinister and permanent nature.

 

“The first sign that I had been exposed to chemicals,” Hamid said, “was about three or four hours after the attack when I couldn’t open my eyes without prizing them open with my fingers.”

 

After a long and traumatizing train ride to Tehran, Hamid was eventually taken to Tehran’s Labbafinejad Hospital, which had become one of the main medical hubs for treating chemical weapons victims during the war.

 

Due to the severity of his injuries and a dangerously low white blood cell count, Hamid was immediately put into an isolation ward, where he was to spend most of the following four months.

 

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Hamid receiving visitors while in Labbafinejad Hospital,

May 1986 

“Some of my friends died in the hospital,” Hamid remembered, “but I was determined to survive and I remained positive that I would live through this.”

 

Hamid’s resolve succeeded and once his blistered skin had healed, he made his way back to the battlefield.

 

“I just had to get back to the front,” Hamid said, “I didn’t realize that I only had about 50% lung capacity but it didn’t stop me so I just took medication for the coughing. Both corneas were burnt, but I just wore special dark glasses to protect my eyes.”

 

By the time the war had ended in a bitter stalemate in August 1988, Hamid had risen to the rank of Farmandeh in the volunteer army, commanding an anti-armour batallion of around 200 to 300 men. At this crucial time in his life, Hamid set himself three goals: to complete his education, to find a wife and start a family and to seek medical treatment for his chemical weapons injuries.

 

The medical treatment – in retrospect - was the easiest part. Yet, even that continues to be constant and painful. There is no cure for anyone who is exposed to sulphur mustard gas. The consequences live with the survivors forever.

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Hamid's damaged cornea, June 2010

 

Hamid’s scars have healed, but his lungs and eyes are constantly treated but never cured. Hamid spent the early years of his married life in Arak, one of Iran’s most polluted cities. The damage to his lungs was such that, despite four months of treatment in hospitals in London in the 1990s, he was forced to move to Tehran, where there is marginally less pollution but immediate access to specialized hospitals and doctors. His most recent hospitalization for lung disease was in March of this year.

 

Mustard gas burns the corneas and there is no possibility for repair. Hamid has had several cornea transplants and continues to suffer from poor eyesight.

 

And yet, as if Hamid’s medical problems were not stressful enough, he still had more challenges to overcome. Completing his education and settling back into society were to prove much more difficult than Hamid had ever imagined.

 

Hamid took advantage of the post-war educational facilities offered to veteran soldiers. With a fixed purpose to succeed and get into university, he completed his high school education and eventually passed the entrance exams to gain entry to the prestigious University of Tehran.

 

Reflecting on his past struggles, Hamid said, “It was not easy to complete my education after so many years away fighting in the war. I prayed to God to help me to please be a useful man and He has helped me in this.”

 

“There was a lot of discrimination against veterans like me,” Hamid continued. “The other students at university who hadn’t gone to war did not consider me to be anything like a war hero. Some said that without the government privileges someone like me from my humble background would never have made it into the University of Tehran.”

 

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Hamid attending a conference at

OPCW in The Hague, December 2013  

“That hurt me,” Hamid said.

 

This overt discrimination did not deter Hamid from pursuing his dreams. Rather, he was determined more than ever to prove himself to be a useful and worthy man. Hamid completed his doctorate in international relations, and now holds the position of assistant professor in the Faculty of Law and Political Science in Tehran University of Allameh Tabatabaei.

 

But Hamid’s learning journey was not yet over. He was to face even more stigma in trying to reintegrate himself back into ordinary society. His exposure to chemical weapons had created a poisonous atmosphere in his own village, where he struggled to be accepted.

 

“After the war, when I was about 21,” Hamid recalled, “I really wanted to get married but it became such a problem for me.”

 

In recounting this part of his story for the interview, telling of the negativity coming from his own neighbours, he lowered his head and said, “Everyone knew that I had been caught in a chemical attack. None of the families wanted me to marry their daughters. They thought I might die soon or that if we had children, they would also have medical problems.”

 

Hamid did eventually propose to a local girl. But the love story was short lived and his heart was cruelly broken.

 

“I had gone to propose to this girl,” Hamid said with a faint smile, “and I had offered her a ring and given pastries to the family. But after I left, someone from the village went to the family and told them that I was very sick from the chemical attack and that I would die soon.”

 

“The next day,” Hamid said with a sigh, “the family returned the ring to me and broke off the engagement.”

 

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Hamid (4th from right standing) joins Tehran Peace Museum

delegation at Hiroshima Peace Memorial Ceremony, August 2014 

Unable to settle back into life in his own village, Hamid was forced to move on. With the help of a friend, he met and married a young lady from another town and after their marriage in 1989, they settled down in Arak. Happily married and now living in Tehran, Hamid and his wife have a loving family of three healthy and exuberant children.

 

As Hamid reflected on how his life’s journey had brought him to where he is now, he stated that he would not change the path that he had chosen. Hamid continues to deal with stigma and discrimination, even from his own university students, intolerant of his constant coughing.

 

“My job now,” Hamid concluded, “is not only to teach young people about politics. The war has made me what I am now. And I bring my students to the Tehran Peace Museum to get a different type of education. They learn, I hope, from the experiences of people like me, to be more tolerant, more understanding and to learn about peace.”

 

 

Interview with Dr. Hamid Salehi, 15 May 2015
Written by Elizabeth Lewis
Persian interpretation by Golmehr Kazari

 

 

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