Jahanshah Sadeghi


Jahanshah Sadeghi

“What do I wish for?  I wish for a world without suffering.  I wish that peace in this world would replace my coughing, my wheezing vocal cords.  I wish that I could once again smell the aromas of all the beautiful flowers.  I wish for one night – just one night – when I can get a full night’s sleep.  Just one night of peaceful sleep for my wife and children.”


Jahanshah Sadeghi, a retired army medical corps Colonel, shares his story about the gas attacks during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988) and the responsibility he feels has fallen to him to publicize the horrors of chemical weapons.



Jahanshah Sadeghi

at Tehran Peace Museum

When the war with Iraq broke out in 1980, Jahanshah had just graduated from medical school and was immediately sent to work in military hospitals in Kermanshah Province.Several months later he was sent to the war front, to Field Hospital 528 near Soomar, a small town a few kilometers away from the Iraqi border with Kermanshah.  


From 1980 to 1986, Jahanshah served in front-line field hospitals in Kermanshah Province as well as continuing his education at university in Tehran to become a laboratory and blood bank technician.


“I loved my job,” said Jahanshah, beaming with pride, “I really felt like I was making a difference.  My work and my colleagues were like family to me.  We were all eager to help the wounded soldiers survive.”


Confronted with horrible injuries and coping with life and death on a daily basis, Jahanshah is able to share many anecdotes of bravery.  Remembering a unique medical procedure carried out in the field, Jahanshah spoke with satisfactionabout how one courageous young soldier was kept alive by an ingenious chest specialist called Professor Riahi.  Jahanshah relates that he was part of a medical team on dutythat day.


jahanshah-2“This young soldier’s lungs had been pierced by a piece of shrapnel.” said Jahanshah, “We could hear the air hissing out of his lungs.  He was brought to Professor Riahi who worked on his lungs to seal up the wounds with a plastic freezer bag.  The professorpacked the bag around the soldier’s lungs to stop the air being sucked from the wound.  He closed the chest wound so that the soldier could be evacuated to a hospital in Kermanshah for further surgery.”


Jahanshah was sent to accompany the young man in the helicopter evacuation.  He met the soldier’s family and explained what had happened.


“We were all so happy. “ remembered Jahanshah, “My colleagues and I were so proud of the fact that – despite the odds – we could work together to try anything to keep our men alive.”


A devoted family man, Jahanshah recalls the special day of his marriage to Batoul Tavakoli in 1984.  The following year they were blessed with the birth of their first son, Saman.


“My wife and I felt complete when Saman was born,” said Jahanshah, “there was so much disorder in the country at that time, but when my wife gave birth to our son, we felt that there was at least order in our own lives.”


Jahanshah-3Jahanshah spoke of the strength he drew from Batoul and Saman, who faithfully followed him to stay in the city of Kermanshah, close to the field hospitals.  However, by 1986 the Iraqi War of the Cities campaign of aerial bomb attacks caused Jahanshah to fear for the safety of his young family.  Batoul and Saman returned to their family home in Harsin – further away from the Iraqi border – while the war continued to rage all around Kermanshah.


In preparing for Operation 6th Karbala, Jahanshah joined specialist medical teams in Soomar.  That was in December 1986 and the field hospital was reinforced with medical experts called up from all over the country.

The Soomar field hospital, stocked with specialized medical equipment,was nestled into the foot of a hill, a mere 23km from the front line.


jahanshah 4In normal circumstances, an army field hospital is required to be 60km from the front line.  “But it was decided to move the unit closer,” recalled Jahanshah, “so that we could assist the casualties faster.  We were prepared for any type of medical care from simple first aid to even brain surgery.”


Describing the field hospital, Jahanshah said, “There was no mistaking what we were.  We had an enormous capital H painted in red on the roof of the hospital.  Ambulances were parked across the road.  It was obvious we were a hospital unit”.


Towards the end of December 1986, as the Iranians completed their preparations for Operation 6th Karbala, Iraqi forces began a fierce artillery and aerial bombardment of the Soomar area, resulting in hundreds of soldiersbeing killed and seriously wounded.  Casualties inundated the field hospital.


On December 30th, Jahanshah remembered Iraqi planes flying overhead and dropping strange objects.


jahanshah-5“It looked like balloons and bits of paper, even little smoke bombs,” he said, “and at the time, we had no idea why the Iraqis would drop such unusual things.  Of course, by the next day, we realized they were testing for wind direction.”


The following day, December 31st 1986, the Iraqi air force dropped chemical weapons on soldiers at the front line near Soomar.  They would also target Jahanshah’s hospital unit–hitting it directly with eight chemical bombs.


“The day of the chemical attack is one I will never forget,” said Jahanshah.  “It was 8 am and I heard our anti-aircraft guns start.  I saw six bombers overhead dropping conventional bombs.  There was also heavy shelling.  Our hospital unit had no air defence.  We were overwhelmed with wounded soldiers.  There were hundreds of them coming in to us.”


But, it was not until just after midday that the actual chemical weapons attack with mustard gas took place.  Four Iraqi aircraft dropped the eight bombs on and around the medical unit, instantly killing medical personnel and already wounded soldiers.  The entire medical unit was paralyzed.


Jahanshah’s soft poetic eyes filled with tears as he remembered that terrible day.


“For us, it was a different kind of attack,” he continued, “chemical weapons don’t explode like ordinary bombs because there is no explosive device.  When the bombs fell, something like white powder escaped, and there was smoke and droplets splashed everywhere with a garlic-like smell.  We were all exposed.  All of us.”


“One bomb landed at the entrance to the emergency room.  Everyone inside was trapped.  There were no survivors.  Another bomb hit the operating room where two surgeons were operating on a soldier.  They all died either the same day or later.  We were not prepared for this.  Why would anyone drop bombs on a hospital?”


Jahanshah-6As soon as the attack was over, and completely unaware of the consequences of such heinous weapons, Jahanshah and the surviving medical team surveyed the damage to the hospital.


“None of us were wearing gas masks,” said Jahanshah, “it wasn’t that we didn’t have any.  The masks were stored in our barracks.  It is just that none of us seriously expected a gas attack.  Hindsight tells us we should have gone to higher ground, but the hospital was bunkered under the hill.  We were trapped.  We were all exposed.”


The effects of chemical weapons do not normally start to appear until between one and two hours after the attack.  The first symptoms are usually constant vomiting, breathing difficulties and loss of vision.


“After about an hour,” Jahanshah recalled, “everyone started to vomit.  Violent, projectile vomiting.  I am not exaggerating when I tell you that people vomited so severely that they started to vomit their own faeces.”


Jahanshah’s memories are honest yet painful.


“People started to lose their sight,” he said.  “We all felt like we were suffocating.  At one point, I took a mask off one of the dead soldiers.  I washed it and tried to use it, but it was too late.  The suffering was intolerable and people started to die.  My body was burning and I was coughing so much.  I couldn’t really see, so I didn’t know what was going on.”


As the entire region was a war zone, the bombing had irreparably damaged hospitals in the nearest cities.  With the province in such chaos and with so little medical knowledge about how to treat chemical weapons victims, the casualties were transported by ambulance buses to Tehran.  Many were still wearing the clothes contaminated by the mustard gas.  What followed for Jahanshah was an 11-hour bus ride, covering 600km to the capital.


“It was 11 hours of nothing but suffering and pain,” said Jahanshah.  “On the way we made several stops to use the bathroom.  None of us could see properly, so we had to go to the bathroom and come back to the bus in one long line holding each other’s hands.  Tragically, one of the buses crashed and many died.”


Jahanshah-7On arrival in Tehran, Jahanshah and his comrades were transported to the city’s Azadi Sports Stadium.  The staff was overwhelmed by the number of casualties and, struggling with their limited knowledge of the injuries and chemical burns, often made unintentional mistakes.


“Their job at Azadi,” recalled Jahanshah, “was to change our clothes, gives us showers and send us to hospitals in Tehran.  The people there didn’t understand how to treat our skin burns so they gave us hot showers.  It was probably the worst thing they could have done.  I ran out of the shower, begging them to stop.”


Jahanshah was finally sent to the Khanevade (Family) Hospital, where he remained for 20 days.  “The doctors did their best,” said Jahanshah, “but they had little experience of these chemical injuries and were often unsure what to do.  I suppose no one expected this.”


Within 48 hours, Batoul, pregnant with their second child, arrived at the hospital demanding to see her husband.  The doctors were unwilling to let her near Jahanshah.  There was no certainty at that time that she would be free of contamination. But Batoul was determined.  Lying about her condition, she claimed she had already given birth and was permitted to visit Jahanshah.


With damp eyes, Jahanshah recalls that day, “Batoul was so worried and concerned that she was even prepared to pretend she wasn’t pregnant so that she could see me.  But when she finally did see me, she couldn’t recognize me.  My body was covered in severe burns.  My face was burned and my eyes were swollen.  I thought I was going to die.”


Jahanshah’s condition did not improve.  Almost four weeks after the attack, the High Medical Council assessed his case.  Declaring Jahanshah to be a critical emergency, he was sent overseas to Germany, where he spent one month in the Elizabeth Hospital in Recklinghausen, near to Cologne.jahanshah-8


In Germany, doctors treated Jahanshah’s severe lung injuries and the grave damage to his eyes and skin.  Since then and to this day, Jahanshah has to make use of oxygen machines to stay alive and receives hospital treatment both in his hometown of Kermanshah and in Tehran.


“As a result of the chemical attacks,” said Jahanshah, “doctors have diagnosed that I only have 30% of normal lung capacity.  I am admitted to hospital between 8 and 10 times a year.  I have to use special sprays and inhalers.  I use a drug delivery device called a nebulizer.  It works by administering the medication in the form of a mist inhaled into my lungs.  At night I use a BiPAP machine for ventilation.”


Afflicted with this chronic lung disease, Jahanshah is one of many chemical weapons survivors who suffer from polycythemia, whereby the number or red blood cells rise in the body to compensate for the low level of oxygen in the blood.  The consequence for Jahanshah is fatigue, shortness of breath, difficulty breathing when lying down, blurred vision and joint pain.


“I have many problems with my eyes too,” said Jahanshah, “I will never have perfect vision and I see the world in blurred images.  I have had five operations on my eyes including stem cell and corneal transplants.  I have to use eye drops at least every hour to help me see better because the mustard gas destroyed my tear glands.”


And, although the scars on his skin have healed, Jahanshah has suffered from deeper, more emotional scarring.Jahanshah-9


“I have to admit,” he said quietly, “I have suffered from depression because of my inability to see properly.  I will never return to the healthy man I was before the war.”


Yet, despite the incredibly difficult life that Jahanshah has led since the chemical attacks, he is a deeply reflective man, who now feels it is his responsibility to educate the youth of Iran and others around the world about the value of peace and international cooperation.


“In Iranian culture,” Jahanshah said, “we have a saying:


Digaran kashtand o ma khordim
Ma bekarim o digaran bokhorand


Which means that the previous generations planted for us and we are now eating it.  Now it is our turn to plant for the next generation to eat.”


Humble and gentle are only two words describe the humanitarian outlook of Jahanshah, who has dedicated his life to teaching others about the consequences of chemical weapons.


jahanshah-10“We need to educate our young people about the horrors of chemical weapons,” said Jahanshah, “and at the same time we need to encourage our children to love their neighbours.  Every peace activist in the world, no matter what his or her religion, should work hard to make sure nothing bad happens again in the world.  We should look to our Bibles, our Torah,and our Quran and find the good things written there, and live by those codes.  Then, I believe that the tension between countries and nations will just disappear.  That way people will be happy.  I will be happy.”


Jahanshah’s peace education campaign is driven by the desire that following generations should never suffer like him or his fellow survivors.  His inspiration leads him to volunteer at the Tehran Peace Museum whenever he is in Tehran.  He has travelled to The Hague in the Netherlands, to meet the ambassador and other delegates at the Organization for the Prevention of Chemical Weapons (OPCW).


This year, 2014, Jahanshah visited Hiroshima in Japan on the anniversary of the nuclear attacks during World War II as part of the peace exchange programme between the Tehran Peace Museum and the citizens of Hiroshima.  During the visit, Jahanshah met and shared experiences with survivors of the atomic bomb attacks.


Eliminating chemical weapons from this world is Jahanshah’s ultimate aim, but he also asks his fellow men to carefully considertheir responsibilityto seek the humanity within themselves, to work towards a more caring and loving world, a place where everyone can live in peace.


Jahanshah’s story ends with his recitation of a poem by the famous Persian poet Sa’di:


Of one essence is the human race,
Thusly has Creation put the base.
One limb impacted is sufficient,
For all others to feel the mace.
The unconcern’d with others’ plight,
Are but brutes with human face.


Oral reflection by: Jahanshah Sadeghi
Farsi to English translation by Elaheh Pooyandeh
Written by Elizabeth Lewis

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