The medical team treating Iranian chemical war-injured veterans in Vienna had no choice but to admit that the soldiers were burnt by chemical weapons and mustard gas.
TIME CODE: 00:00_05:00
Narration:When walking on Vienna Streets you must be ready for two things: rain and the inrush of cold air. Walking on Vienna streets gives you a sense of serenity and tranquility. This is what has not changed since 32 years ago when I came to Vienna for the first time. For some, Vienna is a city of grand buildings, two-horse carriages and red color trams. But for me, the city was of a place where nothing would happen in. It seemed that behind each door, monotony and the tedium of everyday life were lying warm and snug.
TIME CODE: 05:00_10:00
Narration: The first time I came to Vienna, I was just eighteen years old. At that time I couldn’t speak a word in German. I felt I was separated from other people by a glass wall. I could see them but I had no understanding of them. I had the feeling of a cripple who had to limp all his way from home to work. Learning a few German words I felt myself alive again. I switched to filmmaking and made some movies and documentaries. With the help of my imagination, I had to infiltrate into the minds of the people who I was totally unfamiliar with. But my project was nipped in the bud as the war broke out between Iran and Iraq. Again, I found myself surrounded by the glass wall. I was completely nonplussed. I couldn’t imagine my country at war. For me, war and the memories I had of my country were just a bizarre juxtaposition. Years later, two pilots who had seen the outbreak of the war in person put me in the picture.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Mohammad Gholam Hosseini, Pilot and an Injured Veteran: “It was September 22, 1980 at 2:00 pm. We were here in the base.
Where? This base?
Yes. We were here at Mehrabad. They carried out an air raid by dropping some bombs over there, where the shelters are, but the bombs didn’t detonated.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Abbas Ali Abdollahifar, Pilot: “I was at the airport that day by chance. It was the first day of the war. They intended to bombard the airport but they couldn’t. They dropped some bombs in the north of the airport. The event didn’t come as shock to the people at all. They scarcely bombard the north of the airport inflicting no casualties.”
Narration: The scene changes. Two years after the outbreak of the war, I’m standing at the window that has a view of a park. It’s raining. An old woman and a little child are sitting on a bench in the park. The phone’s ringing. It’s Mohsen Maghavi. He says that a number of chemically injured veterans are coming to Vienna tonight. He wants me to go to the airport for help. I put down the receiver and come back to the window. The old lady and child have gone. The silence of the park is on my nerve. I’m sure that tonight I’ll be at the airport with my camera. I was a bit anxious. War was an issue I’d seen only in movies. I didn’t know what I was going to see.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Mohammad Kiarashi, Chargé D'affaires to Vienna: “When the first group of chemically injured veterans came to Vienna, I’m not sure if you were at the airport …
Yes I was.”
Narration: There was a demonstration at the airport. Some policemen were there to keep the situation in check. I could see some victims of chemical weapons among the crowd. Mohsen Maghavi was also there. It was a mute demonstration. No one was chanting slogans. At the airport there was an Austrian woman who I got aquatinted with later.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Zahra Richard, An Austrian Muslim: “Everything happened before you knew it. I was informed that a group of chemical injured veterans were coming. We wrote placards and got ready to go to the airport. At the airport we were all silent holding the placards.”
TIME CODE: 10:00_15:00
Narration:At the airport special place, Professor Freilinger and Roland Schmidle were talking to each other. Professor Freilinger was a distinguished war surgeon and Roland Schmidel a correspondent for ORF Channel. Mehdi Zakeri and Mohammad Kiarashi, from the Iranian Embassy, were sitting beside Professor Freilinger’s wife.
SOUNDBITE [German], Professor Freilinger, War Surgeon in Vienna: “We were sitting at the airport special place waiting for the plane to land. The plane landed. We were all there; the Iranian officials, the ambassador, the embassy staffs etc. All of us were anxious that what was going to happen.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Mohammad Kiarashi, Chargé D'affaires to Vienna: “It was 2:30 am the flight landed. There were Professor Freilinger, Mr. Schmidle, you and I and many others. At the airport, when the plane landed Professor Freilinger, Mr. Schmidle and I got on the plane.”
Narration: Going towards the plane I was wondering if the demonstrators were still holding their placards in silence.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Dr. Hessam Nahavani, Dermatologist at Vienna: “That night we were all in the rain at the airport. We were stopped at some point. We all remained there but Mr. Kiarashi and Hossein Zand got on the plane.”
Narration: The Austrians climbed the stairs. I was trying to connect between what was written on the placards and what I was going to see soon. Now what I can remember of that cargo plane is like a movie theatre, with two rows of lights that are to be turned off just before the start of the movie. I can remember a man who was as if in a spiritual trance, travelling in a world of invisible images.
SOUNDBITE [German], Professor Freilinger, War Surgeon in Vienna: “There were some injured veterans burnt awfully. What had happened was horrific. There was a disturbing global issue we had to deal with for the first time. The situation was totally new. It was about chemical weapons. The injured on the plane were suffocating on stretchers.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Abbas Ali Abdollahifar, Pilot: “The only thing you could hear was the injured shouting and crying. That’s the only thing I can remember.”
SOUNDBITE [German], Professor Freilinger, War Surgeon in Vienna: “Tears were streaming down their faces. When I saw the burns I realized that those were not what I was told about. It was something else.”
TIME CODE: 15:00_20:00
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Mohammad Kiarashi, Chargé D'affaires to Vienna: “Shooting the scene, Mr. Schmidle did an interview with Professor Freilinger on the plane asking, “What kind of patients are they?” "What’s their problem?” The Professor said, “What I’m sure about is that they’re chemically injured patients. But I cannot tell you what kind of chemical bombs they have been exposed to.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Dr. Mohammad Mohsen Moghari,Volunteer Surgeon for the Injured in Vienna: “The medical team was reluctant to say that the patients were chemically injured, maybe for political reasons or for what they had been told. But among the team, Professor Frielinger, a well-known figure, said that the patients were chemically injured.”
SOUNDBITE [German], Professor Freilinger, War Surgeon in Vienna: “I’m sure that it’s for mustard gas. But I don’t know the details.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Lotfollah Zakeri, Iranian Attaché to Vienna: “At that time Tehran was the target of air raids and no pilot was eager to transfer the patients abroad.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Abbas Ali Abdollahifar, Pilot: “I’m Abdollahi. There are many threats and if we take them seriously the country will get paralyzed. From here we’re going to Frankfort and then to London. For me the flight was just as usual.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Abbas Ali Abdollahifar, Pilot: “That day we were in great trouble. Later on, when I watched the footage I was wondering if I was the same person. We were overwhelmed emotionally that time. It was an awful time.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Hossein Asheq, Volunteer Physician for the Injured in Vienna: “The scene was horrific. You couldn’t imagine how a person with a blister so large filled with yellow fluid could lie down on the plane all the way from Tehran to Vienna.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Mohammad Kiarashi, Chargé D'affaires to Vienna: “Their bodies had been burned and chemical substances were still vaporizing from their bodies.”
Still. You see what I mean? But no one knew what it was.”
SOUNDBITE [German], Professor Freilinger, War Surgeon in Vienna: “They couldn’t breathe. Some of them were dying. And I wanted to treat those in the worst condition. They needed special attention and treatment. We could give them intensive care in our clinic. In fact, we took those injured in critical condition to intensive care. There was not enough room for all the injured.”
TIME CODE: 20:00_27:00
SOUNDBITE [German], Professor Freilinger, War Surgeon in Vienna: “Along with other doctors, we transferred the patients quickly. Unfortunately, a number of them died after a few days. Yes, I can remember.”
Narration: What happened that night changed my view about Vienna. Now Vienna could be a place for many events and adventures despite its calm appearance. Four years passed by. During those years, other groups of chemically injured came to Vienna but just the memories of those from Halabja have been etched in my mind. For us, who have got accustomed to see the chemically injured, the flight could be like other ones. But the first moments we were going up the stairs we had a hunch that we would deal with a completely new case. The boy and girl were siblings who had lost their family in a bombardment. The girl was groaning. But the boy was not able to speak.
SOUNDBITE [German], Professor Freilinger, War Surgeon in Vienna: “One of them has a totally burnt skin with the lung damaged. It seems that the same gas has been used again. They’re now on the way to hospital. One of them is just a kid. I’m sure it has been mustard gas. I’m sure that it hasn’t been a nerve agent. Burnt skin, infectious eyes and pulmonary edema etc. etc. indicate that they have been exposed to suffocating, sulfurous gases.”
SOUNDBITE [German], Professor Freilinger, War Surgeon in Vienna: “It was shocking news and drew public attention. It was the first time after WWI mustard gas was used. Even Hitler didn’t used mustard gas because his soldiers had been exposed to it and he knew how horrible the result could be. In WWII the gas was never used.”
Narration: The next time, I saw children who were sleeping. Maybe they were dreaming about their villages.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Mohammad Kiarashi, Chargé D'affaires to Vienna: “No one knew what to do with them because such an event was totally unusual. No one had used chemical bomb since WWI to that time. Actually, the US had used chemical bombs in the Vietnam War. But in Europe, it was almost unheard of.”
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Lotfollah Zakeri, Iranian Attaché to Vienna: “It has never happened before. They couldn’t believe that a person could do such a heinous crime, to use chemical bombs in a war, till they saw the scene. Even then, they couldn’t believe it till Austrian professors confirmed the use of chemical bombs in the war. Several layers of the patients’ skins were completely burnt, when the use of chemical bombs was confirmed people began condemning the act.”
SOUNDBITE [German], News Reader: “The gas used by Iraq is called mustard gas. The gas burns skin and damages the lung. Viennese physicians must study more on the information they’ve gained from the Iranian injured to uncover the destructive impacts of this poisonous gas and find a practical treatment for it.”
SOUNDBITE [German], Professor Freilinger, War Surgeon in Vienna: “The events drew public and press attention. All the Austrian officials also followed the news. You can ask my wife. All of them called me to know what had happened. They would ask, “Is it true that Iraq has used mustard gas in the war against Iran?” And I would say, “yes, sure.””
Narration: Whenever I left the plane carrying the chemically injured, my whole body would go numb. I couldn’t hear for a while. They only thing I could hear was the scream of the injured intensifying as the plane was ascending.
SOUNDBITE [Persian], Abbas Ali Abdollahifar, Pilot: “I couldn’t bear that emotional pressure. I would like but I couldn’t. It was impossible.”
Narration: Since then, Vienna changed completely in my eyes. That numbness morphed into a chronic pain, intensified by the city’s silence and serenity. No one had seen those scenes and I was determined to tell them what I saw on the plane; but I didn’t know how.