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Faride Shafa’i


Faride Shafa’i

 June 28th, 1987 – an ordinary summer day in the northwestern Iranian town of Sardasht.  The Iran-Iraq War – started seven years earlier – was still raging along Iran’s border.  But for residents, the summer was here.  Schools were out.  It was holiday time.  Despite the war, things were ok – good, even.

That was until 4:30 pm when Iraqi fighter jets flew overhead and dropped chemical bombs.  Life, for the town and its people, was never the same again.

The world has heard of the Iraqi town of Halabja – just over 100 km away – which was bombed by Saddam Hussein in March 1988.  Few have heard of the same horrors, which befell the Iranian citizens of Sardasht, all victims of the same weapons.

On the 27th anniversary of the gas attacks at Sardasht, Faride Shafa’i, a survivor, shares her experiences from a woman’s perspective.

FSH1Faride had lived in Sardasht all her life.  A mother of three girls, she was a schoolteacher in her home town.  She was 27.  On that day the sun was starting to set in the western sky.  

With her daughters Shabnam (7 years), Shahla (3) and Nahid (2), Faride was celebrating the end of term over tea at her sister’s house.  Her husband, Mohammad Rasoul, also a teacher, had gone off for a walk in the hills with his friends.  Life couldn’t have been better.

The people of Sardasht had been accustomed to the sounds of conventional warfare.  The sound of artillery and shelling from the war front, fewer than 10 kilometres away, was a constant reminder of the long-imposed war with Iraq.   

“There were rumours that Saddam was planning to use chemical weapons,” said Faride, “but no one took them seriously.  Why would he want to gas innocent people?  It didn’t make any sense.”

Then the bombs fell.  And the memories have never left her.

“There was so much panic when the bombs fell,” Faride said.  Accustomed to conventional bombing, the residents of Sardasht were not expecting a chemical weapons attack.  Instinct drove people to take cover and hide in their usual safe places, including basements.

“Government pamphlets had told us to seek high ground in a gas attack,” said Faride, “but we were paralyzed with fear.  We ran to what we thought was safety in the basement.”

It was exactly the wrong thing to do.  Mustard gas clings to the ground.  And it followed them into the basement.  Enveloped by a wall of garlic-smelling mustard gas, Faride and her children began to cough, their skin started to burn, their eyes became blurry.  Faride’s maternal instinct kicked in, and the survival of her children was her priority.  Struggling to find water, she wiped her daughters’ faces but it was too late, the damage had already been done.

Mohammad Rasoul rushed back to take his wife and children to the safety of their own home but their conditions grew worse by the minute.  The effects of the mustard gas usually take around two hours to develop when serious symptoms start to appear and gradually worsen.

FSH2“I couldn’t open my eyes,” remembered Faride, “it was as if they were burning from the inside.  The girls were in such pain and crying.  Little Nahid was the worst.  She was too little to understand what was going on.  She just kept crying and crying.  It broke my heart to hear them.”

They felt as if their skin was on fire.  Soon suppurating, painful blisters appeared on their bodies.  Breathing was difficult and then the uncontrollable vomiting started.  

After an initial visit to a local doctor provided no relief, Faride’s husband took her and the children to Tabriz, where their condition was considered too severe for the facilities there.  
On that afternoon, Sardasht – a city of 12,000 people – experienced the trauma of chemical attacks in two bombing runs.  Four chemical bombs, each containing 250 kg of sulfur mustard, hit the densely populated town centre.  Three more bombs detonated in gardens around the town.

More than 8,000 people were immediately exposed to mustard gas.  Within the first hours of the attack, 20 people died.  In the coming days over a hundred more fatalities were recorded.  Of the 4,500 victims requiring medical attention, 600 were evacuated by air to Tehran.  Faride and her children were amongst them.


 Not expecting civilians to be attacked by chemical weapons, the Iranian hospitals were simply not prepared for the onslaught of casualties with such horrific injuries.  On FSH3arrival in Tehran, the Shafa’i family was taken to the airport’s triage post where their injuries were assessed and hospitals were assigned according to the needs of each victim.  Faride and her two older daughters were taken to the city’s Baghiatallah Hospital.  However, Nahid’s condition was considered to be the most critical.  And so, accompanied by her father, she went to the Imam Khomeini Hospital.  

In constant, searing pain, Faride and her two older daughters underwent skin treatment for the burns and blisters.

“I can’t describe the sounds of Shahla’s screaming as the doctors treated her burns,” said Faride, “I lay in the bed next to her, unable to see, and listened to her scream in pain.  I felt useless.  I couldn’t do anything to help.  Can you imagine what that is like for a mother?”

The following days were to bring more suffering to this small, humble woman.  Four days after they arrived in Tehran, Mohammad Rasoul arrived at the Baghiatallah Hospital to help his wife and daughters.  Faride was surprised to see her husband at the hospital and repeatedly asked him what had happened to Nahid.  Mohammad Rasoul evaded all his wife’s questions.

Stress levels increased even more for Faride when she was told that Shahla needed to be moved immediately to another hospital with more appropriate equipment for her needs.  Faride initially refused to have another daughter taken from her and strongly objected to Shahla’s transfer from Baghiatallah.  Mohammad Rasoul stepped in and persuaded Faride that moving Shahla was the best thing and she must cooperate to save her daughter’s life.  Faride relented and Shahla was taken to the city’s Mofid Hospital.

After Saddam Hussein’s attacks at Sardasht, many of Iran’s friends rallied to help them in their hour of need.  Doctors from a number of countries offered help and many victims were evacuated to European countries including Germany, the Netherlands, Belgium and Spain.  Faride was told that she and her daughters were to be evacuated to Spain for medical treatment.  

“I told the doctors I was not getting on any plane to go anywhere without all my daughters,” said Faride.  Although reassured by medical staff that Shahla would meet Faride and Shabnam at Mehrabad Airport, Faride was still suspicious and upset.

“I was very adamant,” she said, “if Shahla was not there at the airport to meet us, then I was not boarding that plane.”  Fortunately, Shahla did meet her mother and sister and together they left for Spain.

With still no word about Nahid, Faride asked if she was coming to Spain too.

FSH4“My husband told me that Nahid was in a very bad condition and the doctors could not take her off the life-support machines,” said Faride.  “I was very suspicious.  I had had some disturbing dreams about Nahid, but I was still hopeful for her recovery.”

Now in a different country, Faride says she remembers the looks of shock and horror when she and her family arrived at Spain’s military hospital, Gomez Ulla.  The medical staff was expecting wounded soldiers from the front, not women and children.  Overcoming their horror, the Spanish doctors and nurses got to work and began a remarkable recovery process, treating their patients with respect and kindness.

“It was so much easier for us women and children in Spain,” said Faride, “the nurses were so caring and affectionate to the children.  They would play with them, sing to them and some would even buy toys with their own money to make them feel happy.  I cannot thank them enough.”  

After two months of intense but effective treatment, Faride and her daughters returned to Iran to finish their recovery in Tehran.  

Arriving at Iran’s Mehrabad Airport, Faride and her daughters were met by her aunt and uncle, who took them to their home to rest.  That same night, Faride’s uncle asked to have a word with her in private.

“He told me that I should be grateful and thank God that Shabnam, Shahla and myself were fine,” remembered Faride.  “I asked my uncle about Nahid and he told me that she was dead and it would be better for me now to forget her.”

Revealing her broken spirit, Faride lowered her head and wept silent tears.  She took a long time to suppress the emotional pain.  She then wiped her eyes and continued with her heartbreaking story.

Four months after the attack Faride had her first cornea transplant on her left eye.  Several months later, a second transplant on her right eye was less successful, causing permanent impaired vision.  It was three years after this second cornea transplant, when Faride was scheduled to undergo another eye operation, that she discovered that she was pregnant.

“The doctors were very worried about my pregnancy,” said Faride, “they tried to persuade me to abort the baby.  They said that all the medication and the anesthesia would not be good for the baby.  I refused to lose another child and said no.”

After months of close medical supervision, Faride gave birth to a daughter, Parisa.  The cornea transplant operation was more successful and everyone seemed happy.  

Two years after the gas attacks, German lung specialist, Professor Lutz Freitag, carried out a laser surgery operation to remove a blockage in Faride’s lungs, a consequence of the gas attack.

“When I was told that this famous professor was coming to do this operation on a number of chemical weapons victims, “ smiled Faride, “I thought he must have been a really old man.  But he was so young!  However, the operation did help.”

The procedure succeeded in easing her breathing difficulties, but Faride has had to grow accustomed to a life of constant coughing and dependence on nebulizers and oxygen machines.  

FSH5But Faride’s medical problems never seemed to end.  Recently, diagnosed with breast cancer, Faride had a mastectomy on her left breast a year ago and has just completed chemotherapy.

“Strong women like me don’t like to be sick,” said Faride, “we would give anything to be well again.  However, the hardest thing for women like me to bear is not just the injuries, but the stigma.”

Constant coughing and skin discoloration from the burns have brought about soul destroying social stigma.  Unable to attend social gatherings because of the persistent coughing, Faride slumped in her chair as she described how she, formerly a very socially active woman, was forced to become a near recluse.

“The worst thing for me,” she said, “was the lack of support from my own family.  They would look at me sometimes as if I were contagious.  They didn’t want me to come to their parties because the coughing up of phlegm disgusted them.  I understand it made them feel uncomfortable but it made life so depressing for me and for my own family.  We couldn’t go out anywhere.  I was always very lonely.”

Faride sat pensively for a few moments, then continued, “It is not easy for women gas victims here.  For men, it is different.  They chose to go to war, so they knew the risks.  We didn’t ask for this.”

The cultural expectations for married women in Iran made recovery even more difficult for female survivors.  Faride says that the network for male victims and war veterans is vast and supportive, but very few support outlets exist for women.  Tradition expects women in Iran to have the important role of keeping the family together, educating the children, cooking, shopping and cleaning.  As a gas attack victim, these were things she often did not have the strength to do.  

“When I am at home,” said Faride, “it seems that I have to do everything a healthy wife does.  But I believe if a man is injured, the family don’t expect of him the same responsibilities they expect of a healthy man.”

But the social expectations were there.  As a result there was little sympathy for women – they were simply expected to get on with their duties and not complain.  

FSH6“Even my husband,” Faride said quietly, “had very little sympathy for my illness and hospitalization.  It has been very difficult.”

After the long process of treatment and recovery, Faride and her family chose not to return to Sardasht to live, but to the nearby city of Orumieh.  She tried to resume her teaching career, but was given very little consideration or sympathy for her injuries.

“The district authority wanted to send me to some very remote city in Anzal,” she said bitterly.  “I had to ask them if they cared about my problems or not.”  After months of negotiation, the district authorities accepted her doctor’s recommendation to stay in Urumieh.  

“It was so difficult, but my teaching colleagues at least were supportive,” she said.  “They would help me with the paperwork and allow me to work as a substitute teacher.”  With the support of her colleagues she continued teaching until the statutory retirement age.

Faride’s voice speaks for the many silent women, who suffer from the consequences of chemical attacks and who feel ignored by society.

“Women need more support than men,” she said, “especially psychological support.”  Explaining that women are vulnerable to oppression and strict social expectations, Faride suggested that authorities need to find a way for such women to live comfortable and independent lives.

“Maybe the government can made some centres or facilities so that these women can live together in peace,” Faride explained.  “I’m not talking about a fancy, equipped centre.  Just somewhere safe.  Somewhere that is happy.”

Despite suffering from depression, Faride speaks out on her experiences in the hope that future generations will learn from the suffering of war and chemical weapons.

“I want to tell the people in government and politics to think about the consequences of their actions,” she said, “we need to live in a peaceful world.”

Today Faride continues to raise awareness about the atrocities of chemical weapons attacks.  And the strength of this diminutive woman – and the power of her voice – speaks out to us from her heart for a world free from chemical weapons.


Oral reflection by: Faride Shafa’i
Farsi to English translation by Elaheh Pooyandeh
Written by Elizabeth Lewis


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