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The Chemical Victims of Iran: the forgotten casualties of the Iran-Iraq war
Editor's note: Kamin Mohammadi presented this article in the joint Action Iran and CASMII meeting "Don't Attack Iran" in London on September 19, 2006. An abridged version of this piece appeared in the Mail on Sunday Live magazine 26th November.
Parvin Vahedi, a voluptuous young woman of 19 with olive skin and sweeping eyelashes, was showering when the bombers came. It was late afternoon, but she was the only one up. She was enjoying the quiet before her family rose from their siestas.
This particular afternoon was beautiful. The air was still and the intensity of the sun was starting to fade, leaving a soft glowing light that bounced off the buildings. Like many houses in Sardasht, on Iran’s border with Iraq, the Vahedi home was set behind walls with the rooms arranged around a central courtyard where trees laden with fruit overhung a small shallow pool. Everything was still. Even the washing pegged on the line stretching across the yard hung motionless.
As she rinsed the soap out of her eyes Parvin was surprised to hear her mother calling at the door: ‘Come out, there are war planes overhead.’ Parvin remembers the moment well. Her mother was calm. It was 1987 and the Iran-Iraq war was in full swing. Fighters often flew over the town before heading back to Iraq. Parvin had come to Sardasht, a remote settlement in the mountainous region of Iranian Kurdistan, a few days earlier. She had made the 12-hour trip north-west from Tehran to join many other members of her family to celebrate the birth of her brother’s new baby girl.
But as Parvin stepped out of the bathroom, the stillness was abruptly broken by a series of violent explosions that rocked the ground and blew out the glass in the windows. She panicked and rushed out into the yard, naked and wet. She remembers her brother running out, too, and grabbing some clothes from the line to cover her naked body. ‘I wasn’t thinking,’ she says. ‘My only instinct was to save my family.’
A wail from beyond the house’s walls went up. ‘We opened our gates. There were more than 100 people outside, all shouting and screaming.’ Then suddenly, above the chaos and confusion, a siren sounded, momentarily silencing the panic. ‘It signalled a chemical attack. But I didn’t know what it meant. None of us did. We had never experienced chemical bombs.’
In fact, until that point, no civilian in the world ever had. The mustard-gas bombs dropped on Sardasht on that afternoon were the first time a chemical weapon was used on a civilian town. In the following months, Saddam Hussein’s troops would drop these deadly bombs on several other villages in Iran as well as on Kurdish settlements in Iraq itself, including the infamous bombing of Halabja.
As Saddam’s inhumane campaign progressed, the consequences of a chemical attack quickly became known. But on this June afternoon, the people of Sardasht were bewildered by what was happening.
‘People started shouting to put cloths over our noses and mouths, so I flung all the clothes from the line into the pool and placed them on my family, our children, as many people as I could reach. The air tasted sweet, like sugar, and there was a smell like garlic. I had no thought for myself, I just wanted to save my family.’
In fact, it was the worst thing Parvin could have done. Mustard gas, the principal agent in the four bombs that were dropped on Sardasht that afternoon, is heavier than air. It sinks and permeates water, and the fibres of cloth. By soaking the clothes in the toxic water, Parvin delivered the chemicals more efficiently.
It wasn’t long before the effects started to kick in. Mustard gas’s chief assault on the body is grave chemical burns. It affects the respiratory organs, eyes and skin within hours. Parvin’s skin started to burn. As she looked at her arms and legs, blisters began emerging. Her family were being sick and rubbing their burning eyes. Their skin, too, was erupting with nasty, inflamed red blisters.
Parvin and her family climbed into three cars. The local hospital was overflowing – there was nobody who could help. Everyone was told to go to larger towns, so they were flocking into the streets, carrying the injured. They were all vomiting uncontrollably.
In a quest for medical help, Parvin and her family drove 50 miles along tortuous mountain roads to the town of Mahabad. ‘While one person was sick, someone else would drive,’ she says. ‘We would pass streams and get out and lie in the water, the burning was so bad.’ Outside Mahabad they came to a bunker with ambulances parked in the yard. ‘We asked for an ambulance but the medics just gave us an injection and sent us on our way.’
It was 10.30pm when they arrived at the hospital in Mahabad. Parvin was taken to a shower room. It is the last thing she remembers. More than three weeks later she woke up in a hospital in Brussels. She had spent 18 days in a coma in Tehran, 85 per cent of her skin burnt raw. She spent another month in Brussels.
‘They sent only 22 people from Sardasht abroad, all of them very late, after three weeks or so, and only on the insistence of family members. My father told me that he got me ready to be sent to Brussels six times before I actually went. And each time they would say, “No, this one is going to die, let’s send someone else.”’ Even when she returned from Belgium, Parvin still needed to spend several months in hospital.
Eleven members of Parvin’s family died as a result of the chemical attack, including her mother and father, two brothers, a nephew just seven years old and two nieces, one ten, another 12. Death did not come immediately. Parvin had to watch her loved ones endure terrible suffering for months and, in some cases, years before their bodies finally gave up. The last person to die was her elder brother, the father of the baby in whose honour the family had gathered. He died ten years after the bombings, having spent the intervening years in an oxygen tent.
Parvin has endured excruciating pain every day since the bombs were dropped. Blisters still regularly appear on her skin. In Brussels, a surgeon removed one of her lungs, leaving her with severe respiratory problems. But more worrying is the fact that every major organ in her body is slowly failing. ‘The gas circulated throughout the body,’ she says. ‘So far it has disabled most of my organs. The doctors don’t know why I am still alive.’
As she now knows, Parvin and her family were guinea pigs in the world’s most brutal chemical experiment, one that has affected a quarter of the town’s 20,000 population. The mustard-gas bombs dropped on Sardasht on Saddam Hussein’s orders on June 28, 1987 were special – they were engineered to ensure far greater suffering than the ones dropped on soldiers in Ypres in World War I. Mustard gas works by burning any body tissue it comes into contact with. Its effects are not apparent for several hours after exposure, after which it causes blistering, blindness and lung damage.
Under the direction of Saddam’s cousin – Ali Hassan al-Majid (known as Chemical Ali) – the Iraqi dictator developed ‘dusty mustard’, a substance made up of much smaller particles than those that choked troops on the French battlefields. The tiny particles in Saddam’s bombs enabled the chemicals to penetrate faster and deeper into victims’ air passages – right into the alveoli of the lungs. To increase the toxicity of his bombs, other chemicals were added. Moisture in the body caused the gas particles to break down into multiple deadly compounds that blistered surrounding cells and attacked white blood cells and bone marrow.
The bombing of Sardasht was at the start of a devastating campaign during the Iraq-Iran war. Saddam’s bombs claimed more than 100,000 Iranian civilian casualties. The gas agents had been developed to wipe out more people over a wider range than their predecessors. A by-product of this approach was that the noxious, insidious nature of the chemicals used ensured many of his victims died a very slow, very painful death. Thus, those who have survived still live under the cloud of the bombs. The gas effected their DNA, caused long-term respiratory problems, eye and skin problems as well as immune system disorders, psychological disorders, genetic disorders, and probably cancers. There is also anecdotal evidence that some of the problems can be passed on to children.
But few people in the West, indeed even in Iran, are aware of the horrific atrocities inflicted upon the remote Kurdish villages. It was Saddam’s attack on his own people, the bombing of the Iraqi village of Halabja nine months later, that caught worldwide attention, opening our eyes to the horrors of his chemical warfare.
For three days in March 1988, Saddam’s troops dropped bombs on Halabja filled with nerve agents in combination with mustard gas. Haunting images of corpses piled on top of each other and children lying dead in front of their homes were broadcast around the world, becoming a symbol of Saddam’s brutality.
Regardless of personal opinion about the invasion of Iraq and the trial of Saddam and his Ba’ath party officials, the scenes at Halabja have always provided their own damning condemnation of the Iraqi dictator.
With Saddam and his cohorts now awaiting the death penalty, the survivors of Halabja are at least about to get justice. But there is none for Parvin and the other victims of the attacks on Sardasht, just a couple of hundred miles away from Halabja. Saddam has not been tried for his Iranian bombings. And in a further twist, these victims also have no recognition of their suffering from the international community. They are the unknown victims, silenced by the stand-off between Iran and America.
Since Saddam Hussein was in direct violation of The Geneva Protocol of 1925, Iran complained bitterly to the international community, and though several UN missions were dispatched to Iran, only two UN resolutions addressed the chemical attacks, both weakly worded and failing to make explicit Iraq’s violation of the protocol. One of the resolutions didn’t even name Iraq as the originator of the attacks on Iran and another was not issued until after the ceasefire in the autumn of 1988.
It is this failure by the international community to support Iran against these illegal attacks that is in part responsible for Iran’s current defiance on the nuclear issue. According to Joost Hiltermann of the International Crisis Group, The Islamic Republic learnt from this ‘to avoid at all costs any vulnerable position and never to trust international conventions and treaties when faced with the global superpower.’ As Iran’s then president of parliament Rafsanjani stated two months after the ceasefire: ‘The war taught us that international laws are nothing but ink on paper.’
Although, in the standoff between Iran and the US that is currently taking place over the nuclear issue, Iran is seen as the potential aggressor, in reality, Iran’s experiences in the war have hardened its position. But far away from these high-octane political wranglings, the people of Iran continue to try to live their lives within the uncertainty and psychological warfare employed by both sides, including those still physically devastated by the effects of the war and the unprovoked chemical attacks on innocent Iranian civilians. And what strikes them as ironic is that they are the only people in recent history to have directly suffered the effects of Weapons of Mass Destruction, and now they are painted as part of a country that is the West’s greatest enemy.
I myself am an Iranian Kurd. Though I grew up mostly in England, I have vivid memories of my homeland. My family were directly affected by the Iran-Iraq war, yet despite this I was not aware Saddam’s chemical bombs had fallen on Iran. It took a meeting in London with Dr Shahriar Khateri, the director of Iran’s Chemical Warfare Victims Research Unit, to make me aware of the existence of Iranian chemical victims.
I returned to Iran to travel with Doctor Khateri and a foreign NGO delegation to some of the villages that had been bombed around Marivan, a region that was heavily targeted by Saddam. We travelled first to Marivan, a Kurdish city set on the edge of a beautiful lake only 20 kilometers from the border with Iraq. Our first stop was the small village of Ghale-ji. In one day alone, 11 bombs were dropped on this tiny settlement. As the bus drove into the village, people flocked around it, making it almost impossible to get off – they were so thrilled to be getting some official – and international – attention.
An old lady approached one of the officials accompanying us around the village. ‘Sir, I am a chemical victim and I have no recompense. Please do something for me. I come to visit your office in town and nothing happens. Please help me.’ She was holding out a letter stating her case, signed by her doctor, as well as photos of her injuries. The official promised to do what he could and decided to get his foreign guests back on the bus a little quicker than planned.
But it was too late. Villagers crowded around us, showing their scars, holding letters and photos, and thrusting children forward. They took hold of my wrist, detailing tales of horrific burns and multiple deaths. A young man identified himself as Farzad Mirani, a teacher. ‘I am 28 now so I was a child when the bombings happened,’ he said. He told me there had been an army base nearby in the mountains but they had masks and protection. The villagers didn’t have these masks.
He remembered the chaos after the bombing. ‘There was no help. Every family buried several relatives and the river turned white with dead fish.’ As we walked through the village he pointed out houses detailing the effect of the bombs on each household. ‘Nine people died in that house. They lost 14 loved ones. I helped wash the corpses with my own hands.’
We were finally hustled back on the bus shaken and disturbed. I asked Dr Khateri why so many people have been left without help. There are many problems he explained. There is a huge problem diagnosing the symptoms of chemical victims. ‘There is no definitive test. Instead, there are a range of suggestive tests such as CT scan and pulmonary function test that are carried out and put together with personal and medical history to decide if someone is a chemical victim. Another problem is that people at the time went wherever they could to get help, many stayed in villages and tried to treat themselves, there are very few satisfactory medical records.’ Even more difficult was the fact the mustard gas and nerve agents used by Saddam Hussein differed greatly from those last seen during World War I and their long-term effects were known only as they unfolded.
But the lack of understanding and awareness makes life even harder for the victims. Parvin tells me of a recent visit to the dentist where her sinus problems led to an altercation in which the dentist refused to believe she was a chemical victim and refused to treat her. ‘Don’t be silly,’ the dentist said. ‘In Iran we have no female chemical victims.’ Even in Iran most people think it was only the army that was attacked with chemical weapons.
Shahlah Shafei, a 22-year-old also from Sardasht, was three years old at the time of the bombardment. Her 18-month-old sister died and in a desperate attempt to move on, her family left Sardasht. But this left Shahlah living in a community that did not understand her pain and suffering. ‘I have to constantly explain why I can’t keep up with my friends physically, why I am always getting colds, why my skin itches so much, why I have three inhalers on me at once. Even my doctors don’t really understand how bad it is. It makes me feel isolated, especially from people my age.’ She pauses to cough and take a hit of her inhaler, apologising to me. ‘Can you hear how husky my voice is?’ I heard so many similar stories. In the village of Alout near Baneh, Khalil Saeedpour was tending his land when the bombs fell. ‘I could smell something strange and there was white smoke. It seemed different to normal bombs.’ He rushed home to where his wife and two daughters, as well as other members of his family, were sheltering. ‘We stayed in our houses and then in bunkers, we didn’t know that was the worst place to be.’
Within two hours the horrific effects of mustard gas were apparent in his wife and two daughters, one of whom, Chiman, was only 6 months old. Within 20 days, his wife and his 4-year-old daughter were dead. Chiman was kept in hospital for a month where she was fed through a tube; the family has the dubious distinction of appearing in one of the UN inspector’s reports: ‘We saw the effects of mustard gas on a peasant family, particularly a mother and her two small daughters… we had the distressing experience of witnessing the suffering of the four year old child less than two hours before her death…’
Chiman is now 19. To get to the top-floor apartment where she lives she has to pause several times to catch her breath. Problems with her eyes meant she had to leave school at 11, and scars from chemical burns on her skin means she suffers daily. Coughing and respiratory problems stop her from sleeping.
Along with her father, Chiman was one of the victims who attended the 2005 trial in The Hague of Dutchman Frans van Anraat, a businessman who was convicted of war crimes for selling chemical weapons to Saddam. But she remains angry with the David and Goliath-like struggle in the fight for justice and international recognition and support. Chiman and Parvin at least have been assessed by Iranian government doctors and given a ‘percentage’ – an official measure of the level of injuries sustained. This assessment determines the level of help they receive. They are 70 per cent victims – the highest grade available – meaning that they and their families receive the maximum aid from the government, with positive discrimination for jobs and university placements, and much-needed help with housing, transport and medical costs. As Parvin says: ‘I spend one month at home and then two months in hospital. This is my life. My children have had to live with my long absences.’
However, for those who have not been graded – and there are very many – there is no official help. In Sardasht, an organisation set up by Hussein Mohammadian four years ago attempts to help victims get official diagnoses. According to him, of the 5,000 people identified by the UN as suffering from the gas attacks on Sardasht, only a few hundred had been officially recognised until his group started working on their behalf. Now some 1,700 have been given a grading, but, as he said, there are still many left with no support.
He said that simple things such as blankets would really help. ‘The chemicals lower your immunity so we are always getting ill, and the winters are hard here. People can’t withstand the cold and they die.’ He also points out that, despite the recent arrival of a psychologist at the local health centre, Sardasht desperately needs some doctors who specialise in the treatment of ailments associated with long term mustard gas poisoning. ‘People go to the GP with their problems and the GP doesn’t know what to do,’ he tells me. ‘We need some specialists and though Iran leads the world now in this field, we don’t have any specialists here.’
Later Hussein drove me around Sardasht, pointing out where the four bombs landed. As we passed Sarcheshme Square, at the centre of the town, he showed me where one of the bombs was dropped, right outside Parvin’s house.
In the square, a Tree of Martyrs had been constructed – instead of leaves, the pictures and names of those who were killed hung on the white branches. Perched above the town is the cemetery. Iran has made a cult of the ‘martyrdom’ of its young men, appointing special martyrs’ sections in all cemeteries for those killed in the war and glorifying many ordinary instances of battlefield deaths into stories of heroism. To be related to a martyr gives a family special status. So, it is another bitter irony for the victims of Sardasht that, because they died from the effects of mustard gas rather than on the battlefield, they have been given no special status.
As well as the 52,000 chemical victims – both civilian and army – who are suffering severe long-term effects from the chemicals, there are another 40,000 with low-level exposure who will probably develop complications in coming years. These forgotten victims, the innocent civilians in Saddam’s greatest chemical experiment, have been ignored by his trial. For them, his death cannot come soon enough. ‘I do my best to stay cheerful,’ says Parvin. ‘My son said to me the other day, “Mummy, I wish I could see you laugh just once from your belly. Not the fake laughs you come out with.” It’s too late for us but we want to ensure we don’t have to watch any more of our children slowly die in front of our eyes.
If you wish to help either of the NGOs mentioned in this piece: • Society for Chemical Victims Support (SCWVS): www.scwvs.org
• Organization for Defending the Victims of Chemical Weapons in Sardasht: phone +98 0444 3225914, email: email@example.com