Marzieh Tahmasebi

Surviving Chemical Weapons: A Partner’s Story

Part One


“I was 22 years old, determined to educate myself and marriage was the last thing on my mind. Then I met Ahmad Zangiabadi and my whole life changed.”


Marzieh Tahmasebi met and married Ahmad Zangiabadi in 1991 – six years after he had been exposed to chemical weapons during the war. As she tells it, the match was made in heaven. But it was a life together that ended too soon with Ahmad’s death on 18 November 2014. From respiratory failure.


Marzieh Tahmasebi in June 2015

Ahmad was a survivor of chemical weapons used during the Iran-Iraq War from 1980-1988 and his increasingly debilitated condition shaped the course of their married life.


“When I was 21, I was still a bit reluctant to get married,” said Marzieh. “I had two sisters who went to university but didn’t complete their studies. They left to get married. My father wanted me to do the same, but I wasn’t having any of that. I wanted to get out and work. I wanted to study.”


So, while Marzieh’s family invited – and entertained – a large number of suitors for her to consider, the determined young woman rejected them all. She continued her work and accountancy studies in her hometown of Kerman.


In traditional and religious Iranian families, it is the family’s responsibility to arrange a marriage and match couples. For young women especially, there are certain cities where it was (and remains) difficult to go out in public alone and parents of daughters are anxious to see their girls married off to suitable young men.


Pressure also comes from siblings. “My older brother was very anxious that I get married,” Marzieh recalled, “and I really wasn’t interested. Actually, we once had quite a big argument about it.”


But, when the arguing was over, Marzieh realized that her brother only had her welfare at heart, and so she reluctantly agreed – to his face – to let him find a suitable husband for her.


“Of course,” Marzieh added with a smile, “I didn’t tell him that I planned to reject every man he brought to the house.”


Ms-.zangi-abadi 1
  Ahmad as a volunteer soldier, 1984

The matchmaking went on at a feverish pace with all the customary drama and intrigue. Eventually, a certain Ahmad Zangiabadi entered her life. Ahmad was considered to be an eligible match and was invited, along with his family, to Marzieh’s home. On the day of the visit, with the guests seated in the front room of the house, Marzieh’s younger brother decided to make some fun and pulled the curtain back dividing the front room and the kitchen, where Marzieh was busily making the tea.


“I was so annoyed with him,” Marzieh said, “it was an impolite thing to do and the visitors would think I was some bold young woman with no manners desperate to see the young man.”


But, as the fuss died down and Marzieh pulled the curtain back, she caught her first glimpse of her future husband and life started to take on a different perspective for this determined young woman.


“Ahmad was sitting with his back to me,” Marzieh remembered, “and all I saw were these strong, firm, proud hands.”


“My heart skipped a beat.”


And so it was, that much to her family’s surprise, Marzieh – who had rejected one suitor after another – told her father that this was the man she wanted to marry.


“I don’t know what it was,” she said, “I couldn’t even look at him but my heart was racing. I knew it was just meant to be.”


The engagement was announced, the wedding plans started to unfold. This is when discussions also started about Ahmad’s war wounds. Ahmad had been a young volunteer soldier during the Iran-Iraq War. In fact, he was only 19 years old when Iraqi forces dropped a sulphur mustard gas bomb near his brigade in the Tala’ie area of the Majnoon Islands on 12 April 1985. Ahmad suffered severe skin burns, as well as permanent damage to his lungs and his corneas. He had recovered from the initial injuries but the medical consequences of chemical weapons were still largely unknown at that time.


Ms-.zangi-abadi 2
 Marzieh and Ahmad on their honeymoon in  Mashhad, April 1991


Ahmad’s parents were honest with Marzieh’s family about their son’s injuries and met with the family to discuss what had happened and what kind of future might lie in store for the young couple.


“Ahmad’s father said to us,” recalled Marzieh, “that his son had been exposed to chemical weapons and that none of us really knew what this was or what might happen in the future but that Ahmad was in good health at that time.”


Marzieh’s father also had a heart-to-heart talk with his daughter, asking her if she was really sure that she wanted to marry a man who had been so damaged by chemical weapons.


“My father knew that I really wanted to marry Ahmad,” Marzieh said, “but he wanted me to think about what might happen because of Ahmad’s exposure to mustard gas. He was worried that we might not be able to have children or if we did have children that they might develop problems. He told me to think about what it might be like if Ahmad’s first symptoms returned.


And, Marzieh did think about it. She thought long and hard about what the future might hold and gave her father her answer.


“You can decide my future,” Marzieh told her father, “and I will accept it. But I will not say no to this man. If you want to say no, then you have to do it – not me.”


Ahmad and Marzieh were married on 18 April 1991 and moved into their own apartment in Kerman to begin their future together.


However, from the first days of their married life, the consequences of the chemical weapons began to slowly reveal themselves. En route to their honeymoon in the holy city of Mashhad, the couple had to stop off to visit Ahmad’s doctor in Tehran.


Ahmad constantly had problems with coughing and shortness of breath. Attributing this to seasonal colds and infections, the newlyweds didn’t think much of it at the time and waited for the symptoms to go away.


But the coughing didn’t go away.


“We had only been married for seven months,” Marzieh said, “when our landlord, who lived in the apartment beneath us, came to ask me one day why Ahmad was always coughing and what was wrong with him.”


Marzieh explained that her husband had been exposed to chemical weapons during the war and the coughing was a result of the damage to his lungs.


“You may want to sacrifice your lives,” the landlord said, “but I don’t want my family to get sick, so you will need to pack up and leave.”


Marzieh and Ahmad had no choice but to move in with Ahmad’s family and, in the dry dusty air of Kerman, Ahmad’s condition deteriorated even further.


Ms-.zangi-abadi 3

 Hesam at about 8 months old

The following year after their marriage, Marzieh gave birth to a healthy boy, Hesam. Sadly for Ahmad, his health prevented him from doing things that fathers normally do with their children.


“Ahmad couldn’t carry Hesam for very long,” Marzieh said, “and when Hesam started to walk and run, his father couldn’t run with him. He couldn’t even toss him up in the air and catch him.”


By the time their son was six years old, Ahmad’s condition was in such a dreadful state that the family feared that he would not live long. Ahmad’s lungs deteriorated and he struggled to breathe and started to cough up blood. The old sores on his skin began to reappear and his eyesight was appallingly poor.


“Around that time,” Marzieh said, “our doctor in Kerman said that there was nothing much he could do to save Ahmad’s eyesight and the doctor suggested surgically removing his eyes.”


Pinning his hopes on new scientific discoveries that he had been hearing about, Ahmad flatly refused to do this and his eyesight improved for a short time after a conjunctiva transplant donated by his own brother.


“Ahmad’s brother’s eyes were healthy,” said Marzieh, “so donating his conjunctiva was a very simple procedure and his brother’s conjunctiva grew back very quickly.”


By 1998, Ahmad’s health went very rapidly from bad to worse. He developed osteoporosis and his lung condition worsened so much that he needed

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 Ahmad in hospital after chemical    weapons attack, 1985

to continually use oxygen tanks to help him breathe. Many chemical weapons victims have to use cortisone medication and this caused Ahmad to gain weight and his body started to bloat. Consequently, as his body began to swell, his heart could not pump enough oxygen to the rest of his body and he began to have severe problems with his heart.


“The doctor in Kerman told me that we had to leave if Ahmad was to survive,” Marzieh said. “We didn’t want to leave our families but we had no choice, so in 1999, we moved to Tonekabon City in Mazandaran Province in northern Iran.”


Northern Iran was the destination for many chemical-weapons victims forced to leave their homes for a more humid climate and less polluted air that would help them to breathe more easily.


“When we reached Mazandaran,” Marzieh recalled, “Ahmad felt like a bird released from a cage. New life slowly crept into him and he could breathe again.”


This initial freedom was short lived however, when shortly after their arrival Ahmad drove their car to the market to do some shopping. His war wounds had caused his reflexes to slow down and he got into a car accident on the way to the shops which sent him into a coma for two months.


It was at this point that their local doctor in Tonekabon insisted that Marzieh learn some basic first-aid and nursing skills if she was to help her husband to survive.


“I borrowed nursing books from the Tonekabon University,” said Marzieh, “and I also went for two weeks’ training at the local medical centre, where they taught me how to give injections, take blood pressure and monitor heart rate. I was really nervous at first, but with all this help, I soon became more confident in nursing.”


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Marzieh's carpet weaving she started with Ahmad in 2014

In time, Ahmad recovered and after overcoming the culture shock of living in a strange place with new people, Ahmad, Marzieh and Hesam began to enjoy a more normal life. They made friends with other chemical weapons survivors and other more open-minded people in their community. Ahmad and other veterans started their own taxi company and Marzieh began to work on her carpet weaving and embroidery, teaching the craft as well as practicing it.


“During this period,” said Marzieh, “we tasted the sweet life. We built a family atmosphere around ourselves with our friends. We were accepted into our local community and were not lonely anymore.”


But, sadly, this sweet life didn’t last long and, by 2008, Ahmad’s condition had become once again so bad that, in order to be closer to bigger and better hospitals, the couple were forced to move to Tehran.


To be continued…


Based on interviews with Marzieh Tahmasebi (May to June 2015)
Written by Elizabeth Lewis
Persian Translation by Elaheh Pooyandeh



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