Ali Asgaari

 

Ali Asgaari

 

“In war, if a bullet hits you, it will either kill you or wound you.  The physical effects normally don’t last forever.  But the effects of chemical weapons cause problems for generations.  The world needs to know more about these weapons.”

 

Wounded in a chemical weapons attack in 1988 on Iran’s western front during the Iran-Iraq War (1980-1988), Ali Asgaari talks about his injuries, his medical treatment and the social stigma incurred by his wounds.

 

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  Ali Asgaari at the Tehran Peace Museum,

  April 2014

Driven by pride in his country and a sense of responsibility to his fellow Iranians, Ali Asgaari joined up as a volunteer soldier to fight in the Iran-Iraq War.  The year was 1983.  He was 17 years old.  After five years of loyal service, during which he received some brutal injuries, Ali had recovered and found himself in the mountainous region of Suleymania Province, south of Halabja, on Iran’s western border.

 

It was shortly after the Iranian New Year festival of Now Ruz, early in the morning on the 25th of March 1988.  It was the day Iraqi fighter jets dropped a mustard gas bomb within 10 metres of the position where he and his comrades were huddled.  It was a day Ali Asgaari will never forget.  

 

In less than two hours after the attack, Ali had been rushed to the decontamination zone at the Rajensi medical post.  With the exception of some slight burning on his skin, Ali was at this point still unaffected by the mustard gas.  When he saw the medical staff dressed in specialized suits and gas masks, he was amused by what he thought were strange and unnecessary outfits.

 

“We laughed at all those people,” Ali says, “to us they just looked crazy.  We shouted at them, ‘Look at us.  We just came from a chemical war zone.  We are all ok – see how we are dressed!’  We had no idea what had happened to us.”

 

It didn’t take long for the effects of the chemical weapons to start.  Severe vomiting, burning skin and blurred vision afflicted Ali, and he soon lost consciousness.  Suffering from third degree burns, Ali was again evacuated by air to the Feiz Hospital in Esfahan.

 

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   Ali as young volunteer soldier

“The treatment at Feiz was crude and painful,” Ali remembers.  “The doctors gave us baths and scrubbed us with rough exfoliating gloves.  Then they cut off our blisters with a surgical knife.  It was absolute torture.  It has left me with terrible scars on my body.”

 

At this point, Ali’s family in Tehran took matters into their own hands.  Ali’s brother hired a private ambulance and drove to Esfahan to collect Ali and bring him back to Tehran.

 

“My brother had no clear plan,” Ali says, “we arrived at Tehran’sLabbafiNejad hospital in the early hours of the morning without any referral papers… nothing.  But my brother begged the doctors to admit me and they did.”

 

In Tehran, Ali underwent two months of concentrated treatment for his burns.  Daily baths in sterilized water and antiseptic followed by careful application of silver sulfadiazine burn-ointment soon helped Ali’s skin to improve.  To maintain privacy, female nurses were not permitted to assist the soldiers in this process and Ali’s his childhood friends came from his village to help him.

 

One later bout of septicemia resulted in him being placed in an isolation room.  Even as he describes the torturous treatment, Ali manages to maintain his insuppressiblesense of humour.

 

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   Ali (bottom row, second from left) with comrades

“I was in the isolation room covered in a plastic tent,” Ali laughs, “when my family came to see me they had to look at me through a window.  I felt like a fish in an aquarium!”

 

Ali’s hands were severely burned and the debridement – the surgical removal of dead or damaged skin – and initial treatment was excruciatingly painful for him.

 

“My hands were in a really bad state,” he recalls with what seems like a misplaced grin, “and the treatment was excruciating.  There was this big, tough nurse helping me and I begged her to stop.  I am ashamed to say I even cursed in front of her.  She told me that if she stopped the doctors would have to amputate my hands.  I told her to cut off my hands.  You know what she did?  She got the doctors to send for my father to lay down the law!”

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Map of Suleymania Province, courtesy of Google Maps.  The red dot marks where the chemical

bomb was dropped near Ali.

There followed two years of complex skin-grafting procedures and plastic surgery to heal Ali’s hands.

 

“The doctors grafted skin from my leg,” says Ali, “and stitched this skin onto the wounds on my hands, covering them with layers of dressings.  It was complicated and very painful.  I couldn’t bend or stretch my hands or fingers.  For a long time, my hands were in splints.  My hands felt like large pieces of leather.”

 

Describing the discomfort of his wounds Ali tells us how difficult life was for the first few years after the chemical attack.

 

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   Ali (right) with comrades in Suleymania Province

“I hardly ever left the house,” Ali recalls, “and sat in front of the air conditioner in nothing but my underwear.  Clothes would cause my skin to itch and I would scratch and cause more scarring.  For the first six months of being at home, I couldn’t use my hands for risk of infection.  I had to get help to go to the bathroom.  It was so embarrassing.  No grown man should have to do that.”

 

In the immediate aftermath of the chemical attacks, doctors focused almost exclusively on Ali’s burns and the damage to his lungs and eyes were left largely ignored.

 

Ali has severe breathing problems and any kind of physical exertion is difficult.  A walk of more than 100 metres exhausts him and he has a constant heavy cough.

 

“I cough all the time,” Ali says, “and I have trouble with a lot of phlegm.  I have to cough it up all the time.  It is most unpleasant, especially for people around me.  But my eyes have given me more trouble than my lungs.”

 

Ali suffered from typical temporary blindness after the attacks, but it was only after he was discharged from hospital after his skin treatment that Ali and the doctors noticed that the sclera – the white part of the eye – began to change colour to yellow and grey.  His eyes were red and inflamed and he began to feel pain and burning.

 

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  Ali being treated for chemical weapons burns, 1988

Ali visited a number of ophthalmologists in the years following the gas attacks, but none of them made any connections between his eye problems and the mustard gas.  It was not, in fact, until 1992, when Ali enrolled in the ShahidBeheshti University in Tehran to study economics that his eye problems worsened considerably and he was introduced to a doctor who understood the consequences of chemical weapons on the eye.

 

“I finally found the doctor I really needed in Professor Mohammad Ali Javadi,” Ali says with a great sense of pride.  “Professor Javadi treated me for two years and operated on my eyes to cauterize the tear ducts to keep the water inside my eyes. It helped a little, but I still had problems.”

 

Professor Javadifinally recommended Alito go and see Dr. KhosroJadidi, the pioneering eye surgeon who had already carried out stem cell transplants on many chemical weapons survivors.  In the year 2000, Ali underwent stem cell surgery to improve his vision.

 

“Dr. Jadidi took some healthy conjunctiva tissue from my brother’s eye,” Ali says, “and transplanted it into my eyes.  For gas attack victims, stem cells do not function properly and so they cannot regenerate.  For my brother, it was no problem at all.”

 

The success of the stem cell surgery meant that Ali could become a candidate for corneal transplants.  He has already had one successful cornea transplant on his left eye and is on the waiting list for a cornea transplant to his right eye.

 

While Ali continues to struggle with lung and eye problems, he relates that one of the most difficult challenges for recovering chemical weapons victims is the social stigma brought about by public ignorance of their injuries.

 

“Not everyone looks at you and sees a war hero,” says Ali.

 

With shoulders drooped and a sense of despondency, Ali continues to relate the perspectives of soldiers wounded on active duty by mustard gas.

 

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  Ali being treated with silver sulfadiazine burn ointment,
  April 1988

“I cough a lot because of my lung injures,” says Ali, “and so it is really difficult to be in public places like cinemas or theatres or at speeches.  Once I start to cough, it is difficult to stop and people in public have no patience for it.  People are disgusted by my need to spit up phlegm and ask me to leave.  It is embarrassing for me, and of course for my wife and family.”

 

Ali’s constant train-like coughing was one of the reasons he dropped out of university.  

 

“The other students in the classhad no patience with my coughing,” Ali recalls.  “It was especially difficult in the wintertime.  My chest would hurt and I would need to cough.  Usually, I had to get up and leave the class.”

 

So, reluctantly, Ali left university.  He then found a job at the Ministry of Economy, but the daily drive to work by motorbike and the city’s pollution caused more problems for his already overstrained eyes.  Pain and headaches would mean that on his return home from work each day, Ali would have to lie down in a dark room for several hours to relieve the stress.

 

Ali’s discoloured and scarred skin has also caused him much public humiliation.

 

“I have friends,” he says, “and members of my own family who won’t even shake my hand.  They are repulsed by my injuries.  People don’t understand what I’ve been through.  I once drank from a public water fountain.  I washed the cup and put it back, but the person next to me looked disgusted and refused to drink from the same glass.”

 

Ali explains that the public does not know what has happened to chemical weapons survivors, which results in little or no sympathy and disappointing prejudice.

 

“I have had to learn to cope with my appearance,” Ali says, “but the problem is how do I communicate with people about the way I look.  When I was going through my skin-grafting treatment my hands were in splints.  I got into a taxi and the woman next to me asked what had happened to my hands.  I told her a dog bit me!  How could I explain to her everything that had happened to me?”

 

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  Ali shows the burns to his skin, April 1988

The holy month of Ramazan is a particularly difficult time for all chemical weapons victims.  Unable to fast due to their physical condition and the need to take constant medication, many survivors facethe unkind judgmental behavior of others, causing severe embarrassment and a loss of self-respect.

 

“Once, during Ramazan,” remembers Ali, “I was visiting a graveyard and began to feel ill.  I needed to drink some water, so went off somewhere discreet where I thought I wouldn’t be seen.  The mother of one of the soldiers killed in action saw me.  She was very angry and began to curse me for not fasting during Ramazan when all these other men had died for my freedom.  It was a very troubling experience.”

Ali now feels it is his responsibility to raise awareness about the medical treatment for chemical weapons victims.  Having suffered terribly and undergone extensive medical treatment himself, he is passionate about the need to share information about the treatment of gas attack survivors with the medical community at large.

 

“Survivors can’t just see a normal doctor when they get sick,” Ali explains.  “We have to see specialists for our lung, our eyes, and our skin.  If we go to an ordinary doctor when we have a cold or another illness, they do not understand our war injuries.  It is not that they are bad doctors.  Not at all!  Their lack of awareness of the needs of chemical weapons survivors causes them to prescribe the wrong medication and treatment.”

 

Finding the correct medication is a serious problem for chemical weapons survivors in Iran.  The UN Security Council Resolution 1696 has imposed crippling sanctions on the Iranian economy.  For chemical weapons survivors this means the inability to access necessary medication and equipment and when medicine is available, the price is often prohibitive.

 

“Some of our medication is manufactured in Iran,” Ali says, “but a lot of it is imported and because of the sanctions it is difficult to find and, of course, it is expensive.”

 

Ali is also convinced that not enough credence is given to the role of traditional medicine in helping survivors.  He feels that doctors should take herbal medicines into account when treating the whole patient, not just the symptoms of their injuries.

 

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 Ali at Hiroshima Memorial Park in August 2014

“The whole body needs to be treated,” says Ali, “not just one part.  Everyone is unique and needs their particular prescription to suit their specific needs.  Traditional medicine practitioners look at a person’s whole body and treat the problem accordingly.  More people should adopt this approach.”

 

While Ali wishes to share his story with people outside of Iran to aid understanding of the plight of chemical weapons victims, he also stresses the need for Iranians to share their vast medical expertise with others.

 

“I think it is important,” Ali says, “that we in Iran share the medical knowledge and experience we have gained from treating gas attack victims.  We can share our understanding with other countries so that they can help to save the lives of other people too, no matter what country they live in.”

 

Ali ends his interview with a strong message.

 

“I want doctors and the medical community to understand that when you see a chemical weapons victim, you need a holistic approach to solving their medical problems.  It is not enough to just look at one organ in the body.  Doctors must heal the whole body, because after exposure to mustard gas, the whole body is damaged.”

 

Oral reflection by: Ali Asgaari
Farsi to English translation by Elaheh Pooyandeh
Written by Elizabeth Lewis

 

All Rights Reserved

 

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