Hassan Hassani Sa’di


Hassan Hassani Sa’di


It was cold that morning in February.  Hassan Hassani Sa’di was 20 years old.  A volunteer soldier defending Iran in its war with Iraq, he could gaze westwards across the Arvand River and see the Iraqi defences on the other side of the water.  He was a mere 600 metres from the Iraqi port of Faw on the opposite river bank.  The year was 1986.
It was this morning that Iraq chose to launch a surprise chemical weapons attack.  The consequences of the attack would shape the rest of Hassan’s life.  


Saadi-11These days, almost 30 years later, Hassan reflects long and hard on all that has happened since then.  The patriotic fervour which moved him then and moves him still.  The damage to his body.  The years of endless medical treatment.  And his mission to rid the world of chemical weapons.


The Iran-Iraq War lasted from 1980 to 1988.  Most observers conclude that it was a conflict imposed on Iran by an aggressive neighbour seeking opportunistic territorial expansion.  But the war would mould the Iranian psyche – especially of the generation that fought it.  A generation that includes Hassan.  It created a rallying cry among young Iranian men to join up and defend their country.


Hassan Hassani Sa’di, was almost 18 when he joined up in 1984.  He became a volunteer soldier in the 416 Battalion of the Kerman Province Corps.


“When the war started,” said Hassan, “we felt it was our duty to defend our country, because we were the ones who were young and powerful.  I come from a farming village in Kerman Province and many men had joined the war.  When they returned and told us what was happening, young men like me felt this burning desire to go and defend our country.”


With his older brother, Mohammad, already serving in the regular army, Hassan joined up as a volunteer soldier.  He would serve for three years – from the beginning of 1984 to the end of 1986.


“After I joined the army and went to the front,” recollected Hassan, “I knew I couldn’t come back home.  I didn’t want to come back.  I wanted to be there.”


And so Hassan spent his military service moving around the whole of the southern front, serving as an infantryman, an assistant machine gunner and a scuba diver.  Seriously wounded by shrapnel in Operation Badr in 1985, Hassan later returned to the front to assist in the capture of the Iraqi port of Faw, which is where he was that cold February morning.


The night before, Hassan had been on reconnaissance duty on the Iraqi side of the river.  Now he was back on the eastern side of the river and was bunkered down with his comrades in a house evacuated by local people who had fled the war zone.  The men were preparing to return to the military base at Ahwaz – 100 kilometres to the northeast, well inside Iran.


But life took a different turn.


“It was the 13th of February,” said Hassan, “it was eight o’clock in the morning and we were eating breakfast inside when we heard our anti-aircraft guns firing.  We realized we were under an aerial attack.  I came out of the house and looked up at the sky and watched as the airplane launched the bomb.”


Saadi2In fact, several bombs were dropped around Hassan’s military base.  One of them landed directly on the roof of the house where Hassan and his comrades were occupying.


“A wall of sandbags fell on top of me,” said Hassan, “I was in shock for a while but when I got up I could hear my comrades screaming for help inside.  The roof had fallen in on them.  There was so much smoke and a dark fluid spilled form the bomb and was splashing everywhere.”


Realizing that they had been victims of a chemical weapon attack, the men put on their gas masks and set about freeing their friends from the rubble with their masks on.


Unlike injuries inflicted by conventional weapons, the effects of a chemical attack can take some considerable time to show up on (or in) the body.  As much as two hours can pass before the physical effects begin to reveal themselves.


Believing that they were unhurt, Hassan and his colleagues returned to work, but within an hour of the attack they started to experience the telltale signs of a mustard gas attack – nausea, coughing, burning eyes and blistered skin.


“We were close to a field medical unit and things were getting progressively worse,” remembered Hassan,  “so we walked over there to get help.  We had to take off our uniforms and have cold showers.  Then we were loaded on to pickup trucks and driven to the nearest hospital.”


Unable to open his eyes and with his skin on fire, Hassan was taken to a field hospital.  Prizing his eyes open with his fingers he saw long queues of men with their hands on the shoulders of the man in front of them, waiting patiently for whatever help would come.Saadi3


“There is a picture here in the Tehran Peace Museum,” Hassan said,  “it is from the gas attacks at Ypres in First World War.  It is called Gassed.  Whenever I look at it, I am reminded of that day.”


After a harrowing journey by bus-ambulance to Ahwaz, Hassan, along with many other wounded soldiers, were loaded onto C-130 Hercules military aircraft and medevac’d to hospitals in Tehran.  There, after many days of confusion, unconsciousness and pain, Hassan finally became aware of his surroundings.


“I think it was almost two weeks after the bombing,” said Hassan, “that I remember regaining consciousness.  My body was covered in blisters.  My hands, my back, my neck, even my feet were full of blisters.  I had a terrible fever and chills.  My lungs were in a bad way.”


None of us in Iran had anticipated that the Iraqi military would use chemical weapons, at least not on such a large scale. saadi4Consequently, the country’s medical infrastructure was unprepared for such a massive inundation of soldiers seriously wounded by the mustard gas attacks.

Yet, in these times of extreme hardship and stress, the professional and ordinary citizens of Iran rose to the challenge to help their fellow countrymen.


“One time,” said Hassan, “I heard the doctors talking about how very sad they felt.  There were too many casualties and not enough doctors.  One doctor said he felt there was no hope.  But there was hope.  And it came from the lady volunteer nurses from the Iranian Red Crescent Society.  Without these ladies, we wouldn’t have survived.”


Three months of hospitalization in Tehran involved critical but excruciatingly painful treatment for Hassan’s injuries.  Hassan’s older brother arrived to assist in the recovery process but the suffering continued.


“Where we were being treated, well, we called it Room Hell,” said Hassan, a dark shadow passing across his face as he recollected the pain of the recovery process.  “Because it was hell.  We were taken there to have our blisters treated and our dressings changed.  When the nurse called our name, we would cry like little kids.”


In a process, described in medical terms as debridement, Hassan was taken each day to Room Hell to have his skin washed and the tops of each blister cut off followed by silver sulfadiazine antibacterial ointment spread on the underlying wound.  Unable to wear any clothes during this process, Hassan’s body was covered with a simple white sheet, which would stick to his suppurating flesh and would need to be removed by a nurse every morning.


“Removing the sheet from my back was like torture,” sighed Hassan.  “Worse, it was a dreadful feeling to be helpless like this.  I couldn’t even control my bladder.  It was so embarrassing.”


Hassan endured the hell and within one month began to see gradual improvements in his skin.


saadi5“As my skin started to feel better,” said Hassan, “it became so itchy and I wanted to just scratch my body all the time.  My brother was a great help to me.  He even tied my hands to the bed so that I wouldn’t scratch my skin.”


But the blistered skin was not the only physical consequence Hassan had to bear.  His lungs were severely damaged and his larynx was so badly affected that he couldn’t speak properly and was unable to communicate effectively with his family.  Nightmares and delusions added mental stress to his physical pain.


“My mother came to see me six weeks after the attack,” said Hassan.  “My brother begged me to try to ‘look well’ for her.”


As Hassan sat quietly reflecting on this time, struggling to hold back his own tears, he added, “I didn’t do a very good job.  I feel so emotional when I remember how my mother looked at my burnt, weak body.”


And of course, severe damage had been inflicted on Hassan’s eyes.  With burned corneas, Hassan suffered from photophobia, a painful sensitivity to strong light.


“We all suffered from this,” said Hassan, “and all the hospital windows were covered to keep the place dark.  For two months I couldn’t make out people’s faces.  I just saw shapes moving in front of me.”


Three months after the attack, Hassan returned to his village, Saadi, near Kerman.  However, although his diminished sight made life difficult for him, he was about to embark on an ingenious homeopathic, traditional treatment plan designed by his own grandmother.


“My grandmother was instrumental in my recovery,” smiled a proud Hassan.  “She was very knowledgeable about herbal and traditional medicines.  When I told her that I was injured with a toxin, she set to work.”


saadi6Living on a farm was the ideal location for Hassan’s continued recovery.  Every day, after the cows were milked, Hassan’s grandmother prepared a warm milk bath for him.


“The milk bath would leave a fatty film on my body, which I would wash off in the afternoon with water,” said Hassan.  “Then, every night my grandmother gave me the cream off the top of the milk and I rubbed it all over my body.  My skin became really soft and started to heal in no time.  Thanks to my grandmother I have fewer scars than many of my comrades who were also gassed.”


Hassan’s grandmother also prepared beds of willow tree leaves, which would absorb the poisons from his body.  She prepared him a variety of herbal drinks and despite continued vision problems, within six months Hassan was well enough to be sent back to the battlefield.


This was an unwise decision.  Hassan experienced recurring illnesses and hospitalization.  Eventually he had to give up and was medically discharged from the army one year later.


“You see,” he reflected, “at the time the military doctors really did not know what were the effects of these chemical weapons.  They didn’t tell us what to do or what treatment to take, but I believe they just didn’t know.”


After his discharge from the military, Hassan returned to his village and started up his own series of small business such as pesticide and fertilizer distribution and pistachio farming.  Unfortunately, problems continued to arise, which were always related to his health.


“When I was in the fertilizer business,” Hassan said, “every winter I developed serious lung problems and would be sent to hospital.  Then when I went into pistachio farming, I had more lung problems and my eyes became so bad that I could no longer see to drive.”


The doctors in Kerman made no connections between Hassan’s deteriorating health and the consequences of the gas attack during his military service.  Their diagnosis was that the dry, dusty air of Kerman was the cause of Hassan’s problems.


In 1992, two major events occurred in Hassan’s life.  Hassan married Zahra, the sister of one of his army comrades.  And he met a scholarly ophthalmologist called Dr. Mohammad Ali Javadi.


Dr. Javadi was one of the first Iranian physicians to understand the nature of damage to the eyes caused by exposure to chemical weapons.  Upon examining Hassan, Dr. Javadi recommended that he leave the dry Kerman climate and move to the more humid, northern part of the country, next to the Caspian Sea.  Hassan and Zahra took his advice and relocated to Salmanshahr.


Although life for Hassan and Zahra improved and they were able to start their own cut flower business, Hassan continued to suffer difficulties with his sight.saadi7

“Every morning I would get up around 9 or 10 o’clock,” said Hassan, “and it was just so difficult to open my eyes.  I felt burning and pain in my eyes.  My head would hurt so much I thought someone was banging on my skull.”


Although two successive corneal transplants in 1995 and the following year did somewhat ease Hassan’s vision difficulties, he continued to be highly sensitive to light.  The result was hazy vision.  Frequent road trips to Tehran for a further six eye surgeries and treatment also made life difficult and uncomfortable.


Unfortunately, the consequences of the chemical attacks extended to Zahra.  The couple struggled to conceive a child and two miscarriages revealed congenital malformations in each fetus, most likely resulting from the chemical toxins in Hassan’s body.  After the successful birth of their daughter, Fatimeh, in 1998 and their son, Ali, in 2000, Hassan and Zahra decided not to have any more children because of the risk.


“I owe a lot to my wife,” Hassan said quite emphatically, “she has had a very painful life because of my health situation. saadi8 It isn’t easy for her, and she has had to go through so much stress because of me.  I appreciate everything she has done for me.”


In 2005, Hassan and his young family moved to Tehran, where he could have easier access to specialized doctors and hospitals.  And it was here in Tehran, where Hassan met and made friends with members of the Society for Chemical Weapons Victims Support (SCWVS) and the Tehran Peace Museum.


Finding support and friendship, Hassan’s medical and psychological condition improved dramatically.  Through his socialization with the SCWVS and the Tehran Peace Museum, Hassan’s knowledge and understanding of the nature of chemical weapons increased to such a high level that he soon became a volunteer and guide at the museum.


“When the war was over,” said Hassan, “I felt that I had done my duty and that I had served my country well.  I felt that my responsibilities to my country were over.  I had done my bit.  But when I started volunteering at the Tehran Peace Museum, I realized how wrong I was.  I have a huge responsibility now to share my experiences and let others know about the consequences of chemical weapons.  It is my duty to raise awareness against chemical weapons and to spread the word that war is not the answer.”saadi9


Hassan has been a volunteer now for seven years.  He says that his journey has only just begun.  His aim is to speak out about the horrors of chemical weapons.  It is his belief and his mission that sharing his own experiences and engaging in open dialogue are essential to creating a peaceful world - a world without war.  A world without chemical weapons.


This story is one part of his life’s work.


Oral reflection by: Hassan Hassani Sa’di
Farsi to English translation by Elaheh Pooyandeh
Written by Elizabeth Lewis

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