IRAN

Where none flew over the cuckoo’s nest

One of our Observers in Iran, Alireza, tells us of his haunting experiences of a sanctuary for veterans and martyrs who fought in the Iran-Iraq war. According to him, the residents are cut from the world, depressed, and intoxicated with medication. Read more and see the photos...

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One of our Observers in Iran, Alireza, tells us of his haunting experiences of a sanctuary for veterans and martyrs who fought in the Iran-Iraq war. According to him, the residents are cut from the world, depressed, and intoxicated with medication.

The north-west Tehran sanctuary, run by the Bonyad e Shalid Foundation for Veterans and Martyrs was set up in 1980 by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini. It was designed to house martyrs who fought against the Shah's regime, and future veterans of the war with Iraq between 1980 and 1988. Mehdi Karoubi, presidential candidate in June's election, ran the foundation from 1980 to 1992. 

All photos are taken by a friend of Alireza, Hojjat Sepahvand.

“Their only therapy: pills and straightjackets”

There are some 60 patients living in the sanctuary, all of them men, aged between 20 and 60. Ninety percent fought in the Iran-Iraq conflict. They include Basij volunteers and pasdarans, or Revolutionary Guards. The remaining 10% are victims of explosions caused by the ocean of mines left behind after the war.

I went to the sanctuary for the first time in 2006, as part of an assignment for the daily paper of opposition party Etemad Melli [the newspaper, headed by reformist Mehdi Karoubi, was closed down by the authorities in August 2009]. Even then, the situation was already sickening.

On my second visit, in November of this year, I saw that nothing had changed. The patients have bipolar disorder, they suffer from post-traumatic stress, panic attacks, paranoia... All problems that could be treated with therapies like re-education, healing through art, physical activity, psychological training.

Instead, all they get is medication. In the morning, between 8 and 9 am, they're given two or three pills, depending on the severity of their disorder. Other medicines are administered in the evening, after visitors have left. Many patients don't want to take the pills, but they don't have any choice.  

I don't know exactly what drugs they're being given; no box was left in sight in the clinic. Looking at the effects on the patients however, it must be something strong. After taking the pills, they can't walk or talk normally. They spend hours staring at a wall. A lot of them have problems with their teeth too.

If a patient is stubborn, staff put him in a straitjacket. Two patients told me that they had gone through that experience. They can also be put in a security cell for several hours.

With no therapy and full of drugs, the only thing the patients can do, is smoke cigarettes, watch TV, listen to the radio - state stations obviously - and receive visitors. They're cut from the world and their families don't really know what goes on in the clinic.

This is the sad story of Iran's ‘martyrs' of the 80s, hidden by the authorities and abandoned by doctors."