Hassan Hassan Tabar

 

Hassan Hassan Tabar

 

Burnt, blistered skin.  Blindness.  Chronic lung disease.  Depression.  These are but a few of the effects on Iranian survivors of the chemical weapons attacks during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988).

 

Hassan Hassan Tabar, an army commander, shares his experiences of the chemical attacks in Khorramshahr in 1986 and how he has found the strength to survive.  

 

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  Hassan Hassan Tabar, April 2014 at

  the Tehran Peace Museum

Hassan Hassan Tabar was born in Babol, near the Caspian Sea, in November 1965.  He was a high school student majoring in economics in 1980, when Iraq invaded Iran over a territorial dispute.  This series of events caused Hassan to make a choice that would change the course of his own life forever.

 

“The year was 1980,” says Hassan, “and I enlisted as a volunteer soldier.  I didn’t have my parent’s permission of course.  But I was big for my age and I was quite fit, so no one suspected that I was not really 18 years old.”

 

Hassan then embarked upon a military career that saw him serve three years as a volunteer soldier until 1983 before he joined the regular army.  In 1985 he returned to Babol to his young wife and family but only stayed a brief six months before returning to the front.

 

“I wanted to get back to the front,” Hassan says, “I even asked the army to send me back.  In fact, I was sent back to the front with two of my brothers-in-law.  We were stationed in Ahvaz.  I was one of five commanding officers in our corps.”

 

On the 9th of February 1986, Hassan was involved in the operation known as the 8th Valfajr, when the Iranian army succeeded in capturing the strategic port of Faw from Iraq.  After the successful operation had been completed, Hassan crossed back over to the Iranian side of the Arvand River separating Iran from Iraq, and went to visit his brother-in-law, Mohammad-Ali.

 

On arrival at the military base, Hassan remembered hearing the sound of Iraqi fighter planes overhead.  Spotting close to 20 airplanes, Hassan, his brother-in-law and five other comrades, took cover near some sandbags as Iraqi aircraft began aerial bombing.  Iraqi ground forces also started pounding the Iranians with artillery from across the river.

 

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  Hassan (left) with fellow volunteers, November 1980

“We were being hit from across and from above,” recalls Hassan, “so my comrades and I took cover near a wall of sandbags.  One of the airplanes dropped a bomb about six metres away from us.  We heard the bomb sort-of explode.  But it was not like a normal explosion.  The bomb just opened up.  So we hid under cover of the sandbags.  Of course, we now realize that was the worst thing we could’ve possibly done.”

 

Within 15 minutes, the entire area was permeated with a strange garlic-smelling gas.  Hassan and his colleagues ran to put on their gas masks.

 

But, it was too late.

 

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Map of Attacks, courtesy of the Centre for Iran-Iraq War Studies    

Half an hour later, the effects of the mustard gas began – weeping, burning eyes followed by itching and burning skin. Fortunately, the men had access to a military vehicle and all seven drove as fast as they possibly could to the medical emergency unit, where doctors sent them to the already overcrowded field hospital at Al-Zahra.

 

After initial treatment of cool showers and the removal of their contaminated clothes, Hassan and his brother-in-law were sent by ambulance bus to Ahvaz.  Their symptoms worsened and were compounded by violent vomiting.

 

“At the beginning of the journey,” says Hassan, “Mohammad-Ali didn’t appear to have symptoms like me.  He sat next to me, stroking my arm and saying comforting words.  But in no time at all, Mohammad-Ali began to vomit until all he was throwing up was blood.”

 

Hassan’s memories of his hospital treatment in Ahvaz tell of a time of confusion and pain. The mustard gas had caused the blood to stop circulating regularly, and after receiving an injection of some medicine from a doctor, he soon lost consciousness.

 

“I don’t remember anything after that,” says Hassan, “I really don’t.  About 20 days later, I regained consciousness.  I was in a dark room in some hospital.  I couldn’t even pick out images one metre from my face.  When I came round, there was a nurse sitting near me.  She was wearing a strange uniform, different from anything I had ever seen in Iran.  When I regained consciousness, she shouted to a doctor in a language I didn’t understand.”

 

Hassan had been evacuated to Belgium and was being treated in the University Hospital of Ghent under the supervision of Professor Aubin Heyndrickx, the renowned toxicology expert.  Professor Heyndrickx and his team of colleagues were responsible for the treatment and recovery of many Iranians who fell victim to the most severe effects of chemical weapons during the Iran-Iraq War.

 

Suffering from terrible lung injuries, Hassan was placed in the Intensive Care Unit (ICU) of the hospital for more than three weeks.

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Hassan (left) as a young volunteer soldier in March 1980

 He was only able to breathe by means of a ventilator.  The doctors kept him under permanent sedation during this period to alleviate the excruciating pain.  The medical staff took extreme precautions to protect the blisters on his skin to prevent scarring.  His eyes, also severely damaged, were treated daily and covered with bandages.  Hassan could see little or nothing.

 

“I have no idea how long I stayed like this,” says Hassan, “after a while my condition began to improve and the doctors removed the ventilator tubes.  I was able to breathe using an oxygen mask and was sent to another room where the treatment for my burned skin started.”

 

As Hassan describes the painful skin treatment, the memories are clearly reflected in his weary eyes.

 

“I couldn’t wear any clothes or even a hospital gown,” remembers Hassan.  “I had to be naked and doctors spread the ointment on bandages.  Then they draped the bandages carefully over my body.  The ointment was so cold that, even though the room was warm, I would shake uncontrollably for about 10 minutes.  I was in so much pain all the time.  I couldn’t think about anything, not even my family.”

 

During this period, Hassan’s pain and suffering absorbed his whole attention and he spoke regretfully that neither his wife nor family entered his thoughts.  Far away from home in an unfamiliar country, Hassan found, however, that he was not alone.  Staff from the Iranian Embassy in Belgium, including the chargé d’affaires, came to visit Hassan and other survivors being cared for at the university hospital.

 

Iranian students living in Belgium volunteered to come to the hospital and, operating in a roster of three shifts, they acted as interpreters for the patients and the medical staff.

 

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   Hassan (left) in Kurdistan Province, July 1982

It was, in fact, through the intervention of the Iranian chargé d’affaires in Belgium that Hassan’s family finally found out where he was and that he was still alive and recovering.  About two weeks before his return to Iran, the chargé d’affaires arranged for Hassan’s family to speak to him by telephone.

 

“My family knew I had been sent to Belgium,” Hassan says, “but my wife didn’t know if I was dead or still alive.”

 

At the same time, the chargé d’affaires arranged for Hassan to speak to his brother-in-law, Mohammad-Ali, who had been sent to a hospital in The Netherlands.

 

“It was the last time I spoke to him,” says Hassan sadly.  “Mohammad-Ali never returned to Iran.  He died seven months later.  He was only 18.”

 

During his time in hospital in Belgium, Hassan, through the help of one of the Iranian volunteer students, began to listen to the inspirational tapes of one of Iran’s renowned clerics, Haji-Kafi.  Hassan’s faith began to give him the strength to recover quickly in order to return home to Iran and his family.

 

“I was determined to go home,” reflects Hassan with pride, “but the doctors said that I must stay in Belgium as I was not ready.  I told them that I would take full responsibility for my decision.  I didn’t mind what the consequences were.  I just wanted to go home.”

 

When Hassan returned to Iran, however, his appearance had changed so drastically that his own father couldn’t recognize him.  An athletic young man weighing 73kgs before the attacks, he returned to Iran as a 40kg invalid with burned and discolored skin.

 

“I was standing one metre in front of my father,” says Hassan, “but he couldn’t pick me out from the crowd.  When he saw it was really me, my father broke down and cried.”

 

Although Hassan was expected to go immediately to hospital in Tehran to continue his treatment, his father insisted that he return home to Babol first and see his wife and family.  Hassan’s father secured medication and sedatives from doctors at the airport and then took his son home by private car on the long and winding road through the Alborz Mountains to Babol.

 

“I arrived after sunset,” Hassan remembers, “and when my family saw me they all started to cry.  My older son ran away from me.  He couldn’t recognize me as my skin was so very dark.”

 

Unable to tolerate light and the touch of his wife and relatives, his homecoming was a sad affair.

 

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   Hassan (left) with comrade near Ahvaz, February 1983

“I had been wounded before,” says Hassan, “but it was not the same as this.  My family looked at me differently.  They couldn’t believe what they saw and they all found it very difficult to take it in.  But they were happy I was home.”

 

Afterwards, Hassan embarked on a long treatment process for his eye and lung injuries.  One of the consequences of a mustard gas attack on the eyes is permanent damage to the tear ducts, which naturally lubricate the eyes.  In one operation, surgeons stitched Hassan’s eyelids together at the corners to keep the eyes moist and protect the cornea.

 

“If you look closely at my eyes,” says Hassan, “you can see where they are still stitched at the corner edge.  I still can’t open my eyes completely.  I have had so many operations.  In fact, in 1989 I went completely blind.”

 

Hassan’s chronic lung problems have resulted in low functioning lung capacity.  After an angiography sealed a leak in one of his veins, Hassan’s breathing difficulties have improved although he still coughs up blood clots and a common cold can cause severe breathing difficulties.

 

But, perhaps, the most difficult wounds to heal were the unseen ones.  

 

“There was a heavy toll too on my psychological state of mind,” says Hassan.  “I would get very sad and depressed and of course that just worsened my physical condition.”

 

One unfortunate consequence of mustard gas exposure in men is sexual dysfunction and the loss of libido.  The sense of impotence has adverse psychological effects on survivors, particularly those like Hassan who have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.  Often, during sexual activity, these men suffer panic attacks from shortness of breath and indigestion resulting in periods of self-doubt about their manhood.

 

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   Hassan near Faw in December 1985

“I usually don’t say this because I am ashamed,” Hassan says, “but shortly after I returned to Iran I felt that I wasn’t a real man.  I felt emasculated.  I would tell my doctors that I had this problem that I couldn’t make love with my wife, but they said this was the effect of the gas and it would go after a while.”

 

After months in hospital, when Hassan returned to his hometown, he was also faced with cruel social stigma, resulting from ignorance over the cause of his coughing and his awkward bumping into things caused by his blindness.  It brought more depression and seclusion from friends and society.

 

“The social stigma was – and still is – hurtful,” says Hassan, “and has made life difficult for me and my immediate family members.  I was blind and clumsy.  My coughing would irritate people at parties.  There was very little sympathy or understanding for my condition.  So I stopped attending social events.  Can you imagine how difficult this was for my wife and children?”

 

But, in 1999, Hassan was given an opportunity that would start turning his life around.  Hassan met Dr. Khosro Jadidi, an ophthalmologist who has specialized in restorative surgery for chemical weapons survivors.  During their consultation, Dr. Jadidi explained to Hassan that he could help to restore his sight with a relatively new surgery involving stem cell transplants.  Dr. Jadidi explained that if Hassan agreed, it would be the first time such a procedure would take place in Iran.

 

“Dr. Jadidi sounded very positive,” says Hassan, “and explained how simple the operation was.  I needed a family member between the ages of 18 to 40 to volunteer to have some healthy tissue removed from their eye and transplanted on to mine.”

 

For Hassan, however, the possibility of a successful operation to regain his sight was coupled with the dilemma of asking someone in his family to volunteer.

 

“I had learned to live with my blindness,” explains Hassan, “but I didn’t want to put any of my family members at risk to save my eyesight.”

 

Sensing his son’s distress, Hassan’s father asked what was wrong and when he discovered there was a possibility for Hassan to see again, he called a family meeting to discuss the matter.  Hassan’s younger brother volunteered and the two brothers left for Tehran to the Baghiatallah Hospital.

 

Hassan’s brother donated the tissue and was well enough to leave the hospital the following day.  For Hassan, however, it was much more difficult.

 

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  Hassan (right) with oxygen machine and sunglasses to

  protect his eyes from light photophobia, a complication

  related to mustard gas exposure.  Hassan is being interviewed

  by a local television station (Mazandaran Channel) in 1999.

Due to the chronic state of Hassan’s lungs, the operation proved to be rather complicated.  After seven hours, and using special instruments to help Hassan breathe, Dr. Jadidi completed this groundbreaking procedure on Hassan’s eyes.  After six months of recovery with weekly visits to Tehran to have the dressings changed and his eyes checked, Hassan went for one last visit to have the final dressings removed.

 

“I was quite nervous,” remembers Hassan, “but as soon as the bandages were removed, I felt the light and I realized the operation had been successful.  I could finally see the difference between day and night and slowly, slowly, I could see first one metre then two metres in front of me.”

 

The success of the stem cell transplant meant that Hassan was now a candidate for a corneal transplant.  One year later a successful cornea transplant brought positive changes to his life and started to lift his depression.

 

“It was a blessing,” he said, “to see the faces of my wife and children after almost eight years of blindness.  I could help my wife again.  I could do things for myself and start to exercise.  I could even begin to drive during the day.  Every man likes to do things for himself.  It was an amazing feeling.”

 

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  Hassan (centre) with his son, Mahmoud (left), and nephew

  Ali (right), December 1998

With renewed sight and energy, Hassan resumed a regular exercise programme and immediately began to see an improvement in his mental health.  Discussing the importance for him of a healthy mind in a healthy body, Hassan felt that his renewed ability to get involved in sport gave him the strength and motivation to live a happy and full life.  A keen football fan, Hassan now coaches a local second league team as well as coaching rifle shooting.

 

This was not so, unfortunately, for many of his comrades.

 

“I tried not to think of myself as an invalid,” he says.  “All my other friends who were exposed to chemical weapons in the same operation – they are all dead now.  They saw themselves as really sick people.  I kept pleading with them to get outside and do something, to be more active.  But my friends never left their homes, staying close to their oxygen, and the psychological pressures of their illnesses overwhelmed them.  I am sad about that.”

 

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Hassan (left) at the Hiroshima Nuclear Bomb Memorial,

August 2014

Hassan’s positive energy along with the devotion of his wife and family has helped to give him an optimistic outlook on life despite his difficulties.  He is now a peace activist with a powerful message.

 

“As a victim of chemical weapons myself,” he concluded, I want to share this message that we need to eliminate all wars.  We must open the doors of dialogue and negotiation.  We must abolish chemical weapons.”

 

 

Oral reflection by: Hassan Hassan Tabar
Farsi to English translation by Elaheh Pooyandeh
Written by Elizabeth Lewis

 

All Rights Reserved

 

 

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