Marzieh Tahmasebi 2

Surviving Chemical Weapons: A Partner’s Story

Part Two


“For a while we enjoyed the sweet life in Mazanderan. But, it wasn’t to last.”


Marzieh and Ahmad moved from Kerman to Mazanderan in 1999 to help Ahmad – a survivor of chemical weapons – lead a healthier life. The transition from a dry to a more humid climate worked. But, only for a short time. By 2008, Ahmad’s condition deteriorated in such a way that they had no option but to return to Tehran.


Ahmad and his father on their wedding day, April 1991

“We did benefit from living near the Caspian,” said Marzieh, “but there were always problems for Ahmad’s eyes and his breathing.”


Many chemical weapons survivors suffer from burnt corneas leading not only to partial eyesight but an increased sensitivity to light. Photophobia is a common complaint and survivors find it painful to be exposed to light. Wearing dark glasses inside and out is often very necessary.


“The front of our house faced the sea,” Marzieh said, “and when I opened the curtains, the reflection of the sun on the water would hurt Ahmad’s eyes. So, Ahmad had to stay at the back of the house which faced the forest.”


And, despite the cleaner and more humid atmosphere of the Caspian region, Ahmad still had severe problems breathing and his lungs were affected by the most ordinary of every day aromas.


“Cooking smells, perfumes, the smoke from a bar-b-q, the harvesting of fruit and rice, even the fibres from my carpet weaving and embroidery – this was all too much for Ahmad to bear,” remembered Marzieh. “He would not be able to breathe and so we couldn’t even go out for picnics or even visit friends any more. And, we became more and more isolated.”


As time passed, the need for Ahmad to have access to more specialized medical attention became more and more necessary. The two doctors who treated him in Tonekabon – Dr. Yousefi-Zade and Dr. Ramezanifar – were excellent doctors and attended to Ahmad diligently but neither were lung specialists and both felt that if Ahmad had any chance of survival, he and Marzieh would need to relocate to Tehran.


By this time, Marzieh and Ahmad’s son, Hesam, was in high school. For the son of a chemical weapons survivor, Hesam’s youth was somewhat different from that of most young people. Independence and caring for others were skills Hesam picked up from an early age.


“Hesam couldn’t expect what normal parents do for their kids,” Marzieh said as she reflected somewhat painfully on her son’s formative years. “He was always cautious around his father so as not to hurt him. He had to take care of himself a lot more than other children. By the time he was in the 5th grade, he had learned how to cook.”


Hesam – at the age of 16 - was religiously obliged to start fasting during the holy month of Ramazan. Traditionally, mothers are expected to prepare special meals before sunrise and for Iftar (the evening meal to break the fast). It was a custom that Marzieh sadly had to forego. Marzieh was spending more and more time nursing Ahmad and tending to his needs and so Hesam had to fend for himself.


It was around this time that Ahmad went into another coma-like state and experienced great difficulties breathing and would often fall into an anxious state experiencing drowning sensations. Ahmad’s weight increased with the medication he was obliged to take and he became increasingly dependent upon oxygen machines. In mid-2008, Ahmad was rushed to hospital and doctors gave him a less than 5% chance of survival. With Marzieh’s constant care and attention Ahmad survived but they could no longer deny the fact that they would have to go to Tehran to seek more specialized care and have access to essential medical facilities.


And so, late in 2008, Ahmad and Marzieh moved to Tehran. It would only be for a few months, they believed, and soon they would return home.


Sadly, this was not to be.


Once the decision to relocate had been made, the most difficult part was for these loving parents to leave their son behind with his grandmother.


“Hesam needed to finish high school,” Marzieh said, “and we didn’t think we would be in Tehran for very long so we left him in Tonekabon under the care of my mother-in-law.”


Hesam did finish his schooling in Tonekabon and as his grandmother could not stay permanently, the young man was often left alone. In 2010, Hesam graduated from high school and was accepted on an electronics course at university in Yaft Abad in Tehran. However, after his two years of independence, Hesam preferred to stay in university residence than with his parents.


Life in Tehran meant constant and lengthy visits to hospitals, particularly to treat the deteriorating condition of Ahmad’s lungs. The price to pay for the proximity of specialized healthcare was the distance from family and friends.


“It bothered us that we did not see our families much,” Marzieh said, “as we could only see our parents and family once maybe twice a year.”



Ahmad during the war, 1985

But, despite this initial isolation, Marzieh and Ahmad soon found friends in their neighbourhood and at the Tehran Peace Museum.


As Marzieh was adjusting to her new life in Tehran and keen to restart her craftwork, she left their apartment one morning and as she was walking along the street saw a billboard advertising art classes to be held in the local religious cultural centre. It was here that Marzieh was to make friends with another war veteran’s wife, Mrs. Darabadi. And new friendships began.


“I explained to Mrs. Darabadi,” said Marzieh, “that I may miss some classes because my husband was a chemical weapons survivor and needed help. Mrs. Darabadi came to visit us with her husband, who lost a leg in the war, and she introduced us to other veterans and their families.”


“Meeting these families,” Marzieh continued, “helped me to feel less lonely with my son and family so far away. Ahmad too was happy that we could make friends again in such a big city like Tehran.”


It was around this time too that Ahmad was introduced to the Tehran Peace Museum and breathed a new type of fresh air – comradeship and peace.


“Going to the peace museum gave Ahmad a new lease on life,” Marzieh said with a smile. “He became much more active and became a tour guide at the museum, talking about the war and about peace.”


As Ahmad became a part of the Tehran Peace Museum family, he shared his story on film for the Channel 1 network. He and other chemical weapons survivors who had undergone cornea replacement eye surgery - with the help of Dr. Mohammad Ali Javadi – spoke about their experiences and treatment for public television.


Ahmad was also able to make a trip to the former war zone location in Khuzestan with his comrades from the museum. Although the trip brought back painful memories, it helped Ahmad to come to terms with his past and to speak out about the need for the abolition of chemical weapons.


“After this trip to Khuzestan,” remembered Marzieh, “Ahmad felt so much more confident.”


This confidence lead Ahmad to accept an invitation to attend theThird Review Conference of the Chemical Weapons Convention at the headquarters for the Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons (OPCW) in The Hague in December 2014. While he was in The Hague, Ahmad was honoured to be able to share his experiences with both the Secretary General to the United Nations, Mr. Ban Ki Moon, and the OPCW’s Director General, Mr. Ahmed Üzümcü.


Ahmad meeting the UNSG, December 2014


Ahmad’s trip to The Hague was a great highlight for him and on return, talked of little else for many weeks. It was not only the excitement of the conference but Ahmad also enjoyed the fresh and clean air of The Netherlands. Returning to the pollution in Tehran was particularly difficult for him.


Marzieh, remembering Ahmad’s words, recalled this: “He said that when he returned to Tehran it was like moving from an oxygen tent into a smoke filled room.”


After his trip to The Hague, Ahmad’s health began to fail – at first slowly but then the decline became rapid. Within two years of his visit, he could not leave their home and often refused to go out.


Worried about Ahmad’s failing health, Marzieh felt it was time for Hesam to get married so that Ahmad could see his son happily married. After a brief engagement, Hesam married Nahid Tavakoli in the spring of 2014.


“It is normal in Iranian tradition to have a series of ceremonies for the engagement and then marriage,” said Marzieh, “but because of Ahmad’s condition, Nahid’s family very kindly agreed to keep it short and speed the process up so that Ahmad could see his son happily married.”


Within only a few months of Hesam and Nahid’s wedding, Ahmad’s health took a turn for the worse. Ahmad could not leave their home and suffered from a lung infection that had to be diagnosed over the telephone. In early November 2014, Ahmad was hospitalized for a brief time with inflammation on the heart, but the worsening lung infection was not picked up by doctors at the time.


After a week in hospital, Ahmad returned home. His condition grew worse and he grew quiet – praying constantly and listening to Marzieh recite verses from the religious text, Mafatih-al-Hayat.


Ahmad’s end came suddenly and distressingly. On the morning of November 14th, Hesam went to his father to say goodbye before going to work and noticed that his father was too quiet. He called an ambulance and Ahmad was taken to hospital. Ahmad was rushed to CPR and Marzieh and Hesam were asked to wait outside.


Marzieh’s memories at home, May 2015

“I did not want to leave him alone,” Marzieh said, eyes brimming with tears, “so I sat on the floor outside the CPR room until the doctor finally came out.”


“All he could say to me was: ‘I am very sorry.’”


As Marzieh collects her thoughts and wipes away her tears, she said she had a message to share.


“The best thing in life is love,” she said. “The love and friendship between a husband and wife is eternal and helps you to experience too the divine love of God.”


And Marzieh also has one burning question.


“I have one question in my mind for which I cannot find an answer. Why were such cruel and unfair weapons used against people who were just defending their country?”


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


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