Blisters and Sanctions

by Shahriar Khateri , Narges Bajoghli | published November 25, 2012 - 1:03pm

Shahriar Khateri is an Iranian veteran of the Iran-Iraq war. Exposed to chemical warfare agents during the fighting, Khateri became a doctor at war’s end, and since 1997 he has been involved in caring for chemical weapons survivors. He now heads the only non-governmental organization in Iran that advocates effectively on behalf of survivors of chemical warfare from Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan. He is also one of the founders of the Tehran Peace Museum. This article is written in his voice.

Narges Bajoghli is a Ph.D. student in anthropology at New York University. She is director of the documentary film, The Skin That Burns (2012), about survivors of chemical warfare in Iran. She has been researching the topic for eight years.

It was February 1987, at the front lines near Khorramshahr, in the south of Iran along the Iraqi border. We had been engaged in heavy battles for over a week. Our troops had penetrated fortified Iraqi positions, and the Iraqis were making us pay: Artillery and mortar shells rained down on us with a vengeance, as did bombs from Iraqi planes.

It was hell. Dead bodies, both Iranian and Iraqi, were scattered across the field. The bodies were strewn like broken dolls over the war-ravaged landscape, resting on their sides, with limbs folded in awkward positions and heads blown off. The faces were frozen in expressions of fear, of pain -- and, at times, of relief. The smell of blood and sweat was overwhelming. It’s a smell that has never left me after all these years…it has permeated me through my pores.

I was scared, but still proud of myself for managing to join the army as a volunteer at the age of 15. I felt brave and strong.

But in the midst of all that death, I thought of my mother, knowing how much she must be worrying. My brother, after recovering from his chemical burns, had returned to the war front, only to be killed months afterward. My mother was never able to bury him and find comfort in mourning at his grave. His body is missing to this day.

She begged me not to go to the front. “It’s enough that I’ve lost one son,” she cried. But I didn’t listen, wanting to follow in the footsteps of my hero brother. On that day in 1987, I was sure she was listening to news of the offensive and crying again, not knowing if her sole remaining son was alive or dead.

“Gas! Gas!” Soldiers began screaming in terror. I saw the ominous cloud drifting toward our trenches and my nostrils immediately caught its strange odor.

Our commanders shouted: “Put on your gas masks. Be quick!” I donned my gas mask that very second and ran with the other soldiers in the opposite direction from the approaching poisonous vapor. It was difficult to breathe while running with the mask on. I felt that I might suffocate, but the other soldiers pushed me along. We were lucky -- the wind changed direction and blew the gas cloud away from us. Looking back on it now, I know what a big miracle that was. We would have lost many more comrades if the wind hadn’t changed direction.

A few in our battalion were positioned exactly in the middle of the gas attack zone. I tried to return to the site to help them, but my commanders would not allow it. I removed my gas mask and felt my eyes burning for the first time. Around me, others were coughing violently and some fainted. I overheard on an officer’s radio that we had sustained heavy casualties: The gas killed many instantaneously. Others had critical injuries.

Well into the night, I received pieces of bad news: Some of my closest buddies had been killed in the attack. I started weeping but had to suppress the tears. My eyes were burning. I tried to scream, but it was too difficult to breathe.

My lungs were on fire from the gas.

***

Starting in 1981, and picking up steam a couple years later, Iraq fired countless chemical warheads at Iranian soldiers and at people in Iraqi Kurdish towns, as part of the eight-year Iran-Iraq war. Today, 24 years on, Iran is home to the world’s largest population of chemical weapons survivors, a significant proportion of whom are chronically ill.

The 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war was the longest conventional war of the twentieth century and one of the bloodiest. For the first time since World War I, armies slugged it out in trenches. There were more than a million casualties, combining those on both sides.

Iraqi troops carried out the first extensive chemical attack on Iran in March 1981, with shells containing tons of sulfur mustard and nerve agents. Later, with the help of West Germany, Iraq began to manufacture mustard gas and nerve agents in large amounts. Following several requests from the Iranian government, the “international community” sent three official investigative teams to Iran starting in March 1984, but only after helicopters built by the Germans, Soviets and French had dumped still more tons of poison on Iranian soil.

In March 1984, the UN secretary-general, Javier Pérez de Cuéllar, ordered an investigation that exposed Iraq as a violator of the 1925 Geneva Protocol outlawing the use of poisonous gas in wars. Member states ignored the finding. Two more official investigations took place: one in February-March 1986 and another in April 1987. Again, the international community disregarded the results.

Companies from Great Britain, France, West Germany, Spain, the United States, India, Egypt and other countries were involved in selling and providing material to Iraq for the chemical weapons. To date, no company has been prosecuted for its involvement in this trade.

Chemical attacks on residential areas occurred more than 30 times in Iran, as well as in the Iraqi Kurdish town of Halabja, where more than 5,000 civilians were killed.

Various chemical agents were used on soldiers and civilians across the span of seven years. Most nerve agents have fatal consequences for human beings and cause damage to the environment as well. Due to the effects of mustard gas on DNA, survivors face long-term afflictions of the respiratory organs, eyes and skin. Chronic lung, eye and skin ailments are common among those exposed. There can also be further complications, such as cancers and immune system, psychological and genetic disorders. The severity of these conditions depends on the route and duration of exposure, as well as the individual’s powers of bodily resistance. Each year, more and more of the chemically wounded die, their lungs finally collapsing after years of excruciating labored breathing and coughing.

To compound this situation, there is very little medical knowledge about how to treat victims of chemical warfare (or, for that matter, of depleted uranium).

***

It is October 2012 at Tehran’s Medical Research Center for Veterans, where I work. There is a light rain. I am in the office working on a report about the health effects of mustard gas, which I am to present at a conference the next week in Europe. My cell phone rings and I see an unfamiliar number on the screen.

A man with a hoarse voice asks for me.

He introduces himself and I am shocked. It is Ali, one of the survivors of the chemical gas attack on that fateful day in 1987. He and I were soldiers in the same platoon. I remember him being badly injured. We had remained in contact for some time, but I had lost touch with him many years ago.

“We need your help, doctor,” he rasps over the phone. “You remember how my eyes were damaged by mustard gas in that attack? I’ve had several surgeries, including a cornea transplant. My doctor has prescribed special medication to prevent rejection of the transplant. But the medicine is no longer available in the drug stores and my doctor says that I’ll go blind unless I can get my hands on that medicine soon. And do you remember our commander, Reza, who was hospitalized for two months after the gas attack?”

“Of course I remember him. I know he suffered from serious lung damage. What’s happened to him?” I ask.

“He has to use oxygen daily and several inhalers to survive, but the main inhaler that helps him breathe is from the same company that makes my medicine. The pharmacies have said that they no longer have these foreign-produced medications, because the sanctions restrict them from being imported to Iran. We thought of you, doctor, and were hoping you could find a way for us to get the medicine we need.”

My heart breaks as he speaks in his tired voice.

“I will do my best, Ali,” I muster. “I promise to find the medications and send them to you. You will get better soon. Say hello to Reza.” I quickly hang up the phone.

I feel ashamed because I know I cannot help them. It is not only Reza and Ali whose lives are in danger because of the shortage of medicine in Iran now; there are many thousands of survivors of chemical weapons, both civilians and veterans, who have the same problems.

And, as a physician, I know that it is not only survivors of chemical warfare in Iran who face these difficulties, but patients suffering from cancer and other terminal diseases as well. Their medicines are no longer available due to the sanctions. The sanctions themselves do not prohibit importation of medicine, but the reality is that Iranian pharmaceutical companies and the Health Ministry cannot purchase it because of strict restrictions on Iran’s Central Bank and the fact that SWIFT, the body that handles global banking transactions, has cut Iranian banks out of its system. Even those Iranian companies that have, so far, managed to circumvent the sanctions by transferring money via a middleman bank are now finding that most of their orders are rejected.

My mind goes to the US presidential debates in the preceding weeks. President Barack Obama and Gov. Mitt Romney were in a race to promise the most “crippling” sanctions on Iran. And all I wish to do is to ask them: Maybe the “international community” has said it is “legal” to cripple a population to this extent. But is it moral? Is it right?