'Every breath is like a knife stabbing in me'

By Time of article published Jan 31, 2003

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By Paul Hughes

Esmail Khoshnevisan spluttered like a drowning man, his body shaking violently as he vented his anger against the man who ruined his life.

"Saddam Hussein is a criminal and deserves everything he gets... I want America to start the war against him as soon as possible with UN backing," he wheezed from his narrow hospital bed.

A truck driver for Iran's Revolutionary Guards during the bitter 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war, Khoshnevisan was ferrying wounded soldiers from the frontline in the southwestern Khuzestan province when Iraqi planes attacked with mustard gas.

"It had the smell of chocolate and hay. We didn't have masks. My eyes closed up and started to sting," he rasped as a medic inserted a plastic tube carrying oxygen into his nostrils.

Eighteen years later Khoshnevisan, now 65, has chronic breathing problems and can barely speak two words at a time. His gums have disintegrated, leaving him toothless.

He has been in and out of hospital for the last decade as his symptoms steadily worsened. Doctors said practically all his lung tissue has been eaten away by the poisonous gas.

Khoshnevisan is one of Iran's "living martyrs" - victims of Saddam's chemical weapons assault on Iranian troops during the battle between the two oil powers.

About one-million people were killed in one of the most brutal conflicts of the 20th century.

Iran estimates that around 100 000 people were affected by nerve and mustard gases used by the Iraqis during the conflict and that around one in 10 died before receiving any treatment.

About five to six thousand are still under medical surveillance, of whom around a thousand are moderately to critically ill.

More than 14 years after the end of the war, world attention is firmly focussed on Saddam's alleged chemical, biological and nuclear weapons arsenal - an irony not lost on Iran.

"When all this was happening to us, no one took notice. We took patients to Germany, to Britain, to France, but no one tried to stop Saddam from using these terrible weapons," said Dr Hamid Sohrabpour, a pulmonary specialist who led Iran's chemical treatment programme for more than a decade.

"The US could have finished off Saddam when they had the chance in 1991," said Sohrabpour.

"So we don't take them very seriously when they say they want to take away Saddam's chemical and biological weapons. We think it's a political game. We think the Americans don't care about anything but themselves."

Iranian ire is exacerbated by the conviction that Saddam acquired the technology and some materials to develop chemical weapons from the West.

"I have more hatred for those who gave even a little chemical gas to Saddam, than for Saddam himself," said Dr Hamid Jamali, who also specialises in looking after chemical war veterans.

"These men went to the front line. They did a lot for their country and they've ended up in this state," he said.

Fatality rates were initially higher among those exposed to nerve gases such as sarin and tabun, which paralyse the muscles and cause convulsions and vomiting before death.

But the effects of mustard gas were much longer lasting.

"In the case of mustard gas, even if you treat it quickly, if the exposure is heavy, there will be long-term problems," Sohrabpour said.

"There's no specific treatment for it, so all we can do is treat the symptoms."

With time, most mustard gas victims develop chronic bronchitis. Many suffer from blistering of the skin and some lose their sight or become impotent.

"The first symptoms appeared after I was released from hospital," said Mohammad Reza Bajelan (39), who inhaled mustard gas when the valve on his gas mask jammed during an Iraqi attack in 1985.

"For the first four or five years I experienced a shortening of breath and after that, I started to cough up blood. Now every breath is like a knife stabbing into me.

Both Khoshnevisan and Bajelan are among several dozen chemically wounded veterans under treatment at the Sassan Hospital in central Tehran, one of two hospitals specialising in these kind of injuries in the capital.

They shuffle disconsolately around the ward in their pale green hospital gowns, their shallow breathing causing their chests to rise and fall rapidly.

"When you are dealing with a disease that is not treatable, all we can do is keep them alive and try to provide them with a better quality of life," said Sohrabpour.

But many develop psychological problems, suffering from depression, a sense of hopelessness and fear of the future.

"I have been devastated. I could have continued my studies, I could have had a dignified career," said Mohammad Reza Abbasi, who, at just 15, was clearing Iraqi mines as a member of Iran's famed volunteer force - the Basij - when the area was bombarded with mustard gas-filled bombs.

"I lost one of my brothers in the war and another is chemically wounded. I'm now 30, but I had to take Viagra pills to have a child," he said.

"Why did they do this to us? What were we guilty of?" - Reuters

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