Alireza Yazdanpanah

 

ALI REZA

 

Ali Reza Yazdanpanah was 15 years old when he volunteered to join the front.  The year was 1987 and Iraq was at war with Iran.  But that single act of patriotism would change his life forever.

Ali Reza would serve at the front for only a few months and would witness bitter fighting at Khoramshahr and at Shalamcheh.  In Shalamcheh he would be gassed in a chemical weapons attack.  The effects of the mustard gas would forever shape his life.  

Now a volunteer at the Tehran Peace Museum, aged 42, Ali Reza invites visitors to look back on his war experiences.

YP1Many young men throughout history have answered the call to serve their country during times of conflict.  And like many others, Ali Reza was under-age when he served towards the end of the Iran-Iraq War, which lasted a full eight years.  It was through sheer grit and determination that he succeeded in joining up to defend his country.

“I was only seven when the Iranian Revolution occurred in 1979,” said Ali Reza.  “The war started one year later in 1980 when Saddam’s army invaded Iran, and so, by 1987, we thought the war might be coming to an end.  I was worried that I would never get a chance to serve my country.”

The war with Iraq had been raging for seven years, and Ali Reza had watched friends and family members leave home to defend Iran.  It tore at the young man’s heart that he would miss the opportunity to fulfill what he considered his duty.  So he set out to join the volunteer soldier unit – the Basij.  But his father found out and – unexpectedly for Ali Reza – turned up at the training camp where Ali Reza had enrolled. The camp commander was informed that Ali Reza was far too young to fight and ought to be completing his school.  Ali Reza was asked to return home.  His first attempt to enlist was foiled.

Undeterred by this initial setback, Ali Reza then used more creative means of subterfuge to achieve his goal.  

“Anyone can forge an ID card,” smiled Ali Reza.  “Of course, the authorities can spot a fake easily, so I decided to present the correct papers.  My dad was a Gendarme who patrolled outlying areas.  I waited until he had gone off on duty, rushed up to my mum and breathlessly told her she had to sign some papers for school right away or I would get into serious trouble.  She signed the papers and I faked my dad’s signature.  It was as simple as that.  I was 15 years old.  I hadn’t even started to grow a beard!”

Coping with his family’s reaction proved much more difficult.  Although Ali Reza’s family was proud of their son, the fear of losing him drove his mother, he said, “to inconsolable tears”.  Ali Reza found it painful to watch the visible distress his mother felt at the possibility of losing her first-born son.  But it was his father’s angry words about his deception that swirled in his mind.  Refusing to say goodbye to his son as he marched off to war, Mr. Yazdanpanah said, “If anything happens to you, I won’t come for you.”

AYP2fter two months of basic training, the young Ali Reza found himself carrying wounded soldiers as a stretcher-bearer in the 90-man-strong 21st Corps of Imam Reza.  At the beginning of April 1987, his unit was involved in Operation 8th Karbala at Shalamcheh, which turned out to be one of the bloodiest battles of the war.  The intense fighting at Shallamcheh was exhausting and, around April 6th, the entire unit was sent to the port town of Khorramshahr to rest.  By a twist of fate, the gas attacks came down – shortly after lunch on April 10th – exactly on top of Khorramshahr.

It was a day, said Ali Reza, which he will never forget.

“All of a sudden, we heard the unmistakable sound of jet engines.  Some of us younger men ran outside and looked up to the sky.  There were more than ten Iraqi fighter jets circling up above us,” Ali Reza remembered.

In the confusion that followed this reconnaissance flight, some of the older veterans chastised the “young pups” for exposing themselves and giving away their location.  

Sure enough, within five minutes, five Iraqi jets returned and circled overhead.  Two flew off, and the three remaining jets flew low over the encampment.

“There was a deafening roar,” said Ali Reza, “and the ground began to shake.  The planes were flying so low over us that we could read all the markings on them.  We were unprepared for any attack, let alone a gas attack.  We were scared.”

Minutes later, the jets each dropped a bomb on what appeared to be random, non-strategic locations.  The bombs all landed with a dull thud.  There was none of the usual explosion with conventional bombs.  Hindsight would reveal to Ali Reza that chemical weapons do not contain an ordinary explosive detonator.  The gas simply leaks out and then comes a strange smell of garlic in the air.  There did not seem to be any massive damage to their surroundings.  This left the men of Imam Reza Corps confused and even more frightened.

“You know,” said Ali Reza, “we were all a little scared and shocked.  We really didn’t know what had just happened.  Some of us even made jokes about the pilots.  I mean what kind of idiot drops bombs without choosing a proper target?”

YP3Unaware of the extreme danger they were in, the men returned to work.  The communication lines had been damaged and wires were cut.  The repairs and the cleaning up process were a priority for the unit, and they went back to work completely unaware of how their lives were about to change – irreparably – and forever.

Within two hours, a medical team from Khorramshahr, aware of the chemical attack, arrived at the camp to evacuate the men to the nearest hospitals.  “We had no idea we were injured,” said Ali Reza unaware that he had been exposed to mustard gas.  “We were starting to feel strange.  Our skin and our eyes started to itch and burn.  We were coughing a little.  We figured we would just go along with these guys to the hospital, get some pills and all would be fine.”

Nothing could have been further from the truth.

As Ali Reza was moved from the military field hospital to the city hospital in Ahvaz, the effects of the mustard gas intensified.  The sensation of severe burning, the inability to breathe properly, burning eyes and vomiting took over.  

“It was when I was transferred to hospital, two hours after the attack that the effects of the chemical bomb started to show on my body,” recollected Ali Reza.  “My whole body was burning.  My face, my eyes all felt like they were on fire and even my voice had changed to a rough, rasping sound.  My throat and mouth were burning.  When I got to the hospital, the medics took off my clothes and burned them.  My body was washed with soap and water and I was taken to a hospital ward.”

The Iranian military had not expected such large-scale gas attacks and found themselves in an impossible situation.  Without the necessary medical support and infrastructure, the army and civilian doctors improvised to cope with this emergency.

Buses, with the seats removed, were used as large ambulances ferrying wounded soldiers to any available hospital.  Men were packed into military cargo planes and taken to Tehran.  In a mass humanitarian rallying of support for the gas victims, military personnel, civilian doctors, volunteers of the Iranian Red Crescent and ordinary people cooperated to help the sick and wounded.

“It was on the flight to Mehrabad in Tehran, “ said Ali Reza “that I just couldn’t stop vomiting.  The vomit was green and smelled of the fish I had eaten for lunch.  I was taken to a hospital in Tehran, but I don’t remember much.  I got off the bus at the hospital and fell to the ground.”

Ali Reza was admitted to the Intensive Care Unit in the Loghmaniddoleh hospital.  He was to spend three months in this hospital, where he was treated for skin burns, incapacitated lungs and loss of vision.  During his stay here, Ali Reza was visited by a United Nations team of experts lead by Dr. Manuel Dominguez, involved in an investigation into Iraq’s then-alleged use of chemical weapons against Iran.  Part of the UN team’s mandate was to interview victims in order to ultimately prove the use of chemical weapons in the conflict.  Ali Reza is mentioned in the final report.

Before the attack, Ali Reza was an athletic young man, a keen football player and weighed a muscular 60 kilograms.  Within days of being gassed, the young soldier was reduced to 43 kilograms, struggling with a voice that had changed completely as he gasped for breath.  His skin, darkened by the gas, was covered in excruciatingly painful burns.  His vision had gone.

Taking pity on the young man, one of the nurses spoke to him about his family.  The nurse wanted his family to know what had happened to him and to come and see him.

Ali Reza remembered with a deep sense of gratitude this angel of mercy who helped reach out to his family.  “Nurse Maryam was very kind to me,” he said, “she asked for my parents’ telephone number.  I had to tell her that in my village there were no telephones.  She used her own money to send a telegraph to one of my relatives to tell them I had been injured in a chemical weapons attack and to please come and see me.”

Two days later, Ali Reza’s father and his uncle arrived in Tehran.  His father had no knowledge of chemical weapons and didn’t know what to expect.  Nurse Maryam led him into the Intensive Care Unit, where Ali Reza was lying covered in an oxygen tent, a burnt shadow of his former self.

“This is your son,” said the nurse.

Mr. Yazdanpanah took one look at Ali Reza and said, “That’s impossible.  This is not my son.”

“I heard my father’s voice,” Ali Reza said, “then I called his name.  I heard him fall to the floor and start to cry.”

YP4There followed months of hospitalization and treatment, which continues even to this day.  Ali Reza has endured four cornea transplants and is on the waiting list for a lung transplant.  Every day is a struggle with breathing.  Between the time of the attack and today, Ali Reza has spent twelve years living near the Caspian Sea where the climate was considered better for his health.  But this no longer helps him and he has to live somewhere with easier access to a well-equipped hospital in case of emergency.  So he has returned full time to Tehran.

Life for Ali Reza is centred around daily medication intake and reliance on oxygen concentrator machines.  He carries a portable oxygen maker and at night uses a BiPAP machine to prevent his lungs from collapsing while he sleeps.  For Ali Reza, there is never such a thing as a good night’s sleep.  

Although the scars from the burns have healed, Ali Reza has had to come to terms with deeper, emotional pain.  “At first, I thought I would return to my old self,” he said.  “But the days of being a strong young man disappeared the day of the gas attack.  Those days will never return and I have accepted that now.”

Life was, indeed, never the same.  Chronic illness and repeated hospitalization have prevented Ali Reza from being able to hold down a permanent job.  Because of the embarrassment of continuous coughing in classes, he was unable to take advantage of the educational opportunities offered to war veterans.

“I admit I was a bit of a lazy student,” he said, “but I really liked going to school.  The problem was that I was always coughing in class.  I couldn’t help it, and each coughing bout went on for a long time.  It disturbed the other students and they didn’t like it.  Once I was coughing so badly, I was sent away from school in an ambulance.”

YP5Without a job, Ali Reza sank into depression and loneliness.  His condition meant that he had to rely on family members to help him complete basic every day tasks.  “The pressures of being an invalid in the family made life difficult and distressing for everyone,” he recalled.  

“For a long time,” he said, “my mother had to wash me.  I felt so ashamed.”

Now, Ali Reza is a new man, full of confidence, restored dignity and with a purpose to live.  At the Tehran Peace Museum, he has found support for chemical weapons victims and made new friends.  He has travelled to Japan and visited Hiroshima and shared his story with others who have had similar experiences.

“My medical condition is a part of me now,” he explained, “it has shaped me to become who I am.  I am a poster for my country.  I want to show myself to the world, to show the effects of these horrible weapons.  It is my wish that this will stop people from fighting, stop people’s first instinct to reach for weapons.  It is my mission, until my last breath, to share my story and hope people will understand it is important to live a life of peace.”

Ali Reza is a man on a mission.  His mission is to contribute in some way to achieving peace in this world.

 

Oral reflection by: Alireza Yazdanpanah
Farsi to English translation by Elaheh Pooyandeh
Written by Elizabeth Lewis

 

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