Frankly, I was suspicious when I was told that our delegation's first official meetings were going to be with two centers devoted to wounded veterans of Iran's 9-year war with Iraq. I imagined that there were folks in Iran who had suffered horribly, and that I would be touched and moved by what I'd see, but I was afraid that I was going to received a prepared, sobering, but one-sided shpiel, making the case for Iran-as-victim.
I knew that Saddam's Iraq had engaged ruthless brutality during the Iran-Iraq war. But I didn't yet see the diplomatic purpose. After all, I had traveled to Iran to make a constructive difference for the future, not to rehash the past. And I was also wary; I didn't want to be a tool for the Iranian government's propaganda, and I didn't want to spend my time there being propagandized, either.
But I let go and flowed, and as I met the wounded veterans themselves, I began to feel grateful for the contact these meetings gave me with so many Iranians' vulnerability and dignity. When I was able to feel the depth of the soul journeys of these people, I was given a profound intimate gift.
The doctor who heads up Tehran's center for the victims of chemical weapons engaged me in a probing conversation about US-Iran relations. I discovered myself in dialog with a deep, thoughtful, and open human being.
My heart was touched when my eyes were met at the very bottom by the soulful eyes of a veteran who had lost his hands to chemical poisoning, after he had publicly lit the peace candle at the ceremony.
The next day I met a paraplegic war veteran who had gone on to complete an advanced university degree in Persian literature. He was a Molavi scholar (one of my favorite poets, better known to most of us as Mawlānā Jalāl-ad-Dīn Muhammad Rūmī, or simply Rumi) and, with the help of a translator, we discussed Persian poetry, and the way that God, as Life, so often must devastate us, just to find the opening that allows Him to reach our heart of hearts. What a beautiful man - a soul brother, really - even across so many linguistic, political and cultural divides...
And the stories I heard offered a few details I didn't already know:
- After Iraq invated Iran, Saddam soon began using mustard and nerve gas on Iranian soldiers and civilians. His use began in 1981 and continued until
- The effects were devasting. Tens of thousands died. Iran claims over a million people were exposed, and 100,000 received serious chemical injuries.
- Whole villages were exterminated; large stretches of land remain toxic and environmentally dead.
- Saddam purchased the chemicals primarily from German firms, using chemical weapons know-how he got from the United States.
- Iran's complaints over Saddam's use of chemical weapons in the UN got no support until they were finally officially confirmed--after the end of the war.
- Iran received no international support or efforts to sanction Iraq. In fact, Iraq received support from the US
- International neglect of Iran's desire Even when Saddam was put on trial, he was never charged with any of his regime's crimes against Iranians.
- Caring for wounded war veterans continues to cost Iran US$37 million annually.
Why do Iranians make such a big deal about this? (Because they like to feel like innocent victims? Please, spare them the unbridled cynicism!) It's primarily because so many of them have been personally affected. In addition to tens of thousands of casualties, including thousands of civilians who were totally unprotected and unprepared for a chemical attack, the severely wounded endured long periods of painful treatment with burnt skin and eyes. Many of them are still suffering from serious long term progressive health effects, including the psychosocial (and sometimes even physical) damage to them, their families, and their offspring.
During my two weeks in Iran I kept meeting wounded war veterans, again and again They're everywhere! A couple of vignettes:
- In the Shiraz airport, I hung out with a sports team made up entirely of blind war veterans (Saddam's chemical weapons again) who play a game involving a ball with a tinkling bell inside. An interesting sport: auditory acuity + attention + athleticism = victory. These were the national champions; heroes to a man.
- At Persepolis (the ancient capital of the Persian Empire, built by Darius, Xerxes, & company, and burned by Alexander the Great) a group of badly wounded war veteransnoticed our peace buttons. They were delighted to encounter Americans on a peace mission to Iran, and began to tell us their stories. One was missing a leg. Another had been burned and maimed by exposure to chemical weapons.
One of them, an Iranian Turkish poet with a maimed left arm and leg, was so moved by a brief exchange we had (about the necessity of bringing the heart back into Iran-US relations) that he kissed me Iranian style (put your cheek against that of your friend and make two quick kisses by his ear, then switch sides, and then go back again) not just once, but again and again--and then gave me a series of big passionate hugs! My heart was touched, and of course I kissed him back.
We sat down together in the shade, touching each other in friendship, and leaned against one of the great ancient stones of Persepolis, itself a battlefield in which many were maimed and killed. A whole group of people gathered around us while he recited one of his poems in the resonant, musical Persian language. A friend graciously translated. I offered a few lines of poetry too. And something incomprehensibly ancient was suddenly potently immediate.
500,000 to 1,000,000 Iranians died during the Iran-Iraq war. Bombs fell in Tehran and other major cities, many on schoolhouses. Every family remembers someone who died and most have friends still living with horrible wounds. You can't understand Iran today without feeling how all this continues to resonate in the psychology of Iranian people.