SARDASHT, Iran (AFP) -- Thirty-three years have passed, but the survivors of an Iraqi poison gas attack on the Iranian town of Sardasht still suffer -- and fight for international recognition of the horrific massacre.
"If someone lost a leg or an arm in the war, you can put a prosthesis on him," said Saleh Azizpour, who heads an association for victims of the attack. "But when our lungs are burned, who will breathe for us?" he asked.
Tehran on Monday commemorates 40 years since Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein attacked Iran, launching a war that raged for eight years.
Iraq's June 28, 1987, gas attack on Sardasht, a Kurdish town in northwestern Iran, is considered to be the first time chemical weapons deliberately targeted civilians in an urban area.
"The dead and wounded range from a three-month-old to a 70-year-old man," Azizpour said. "All were civilians."
The official toll is 119 dead and 1,518 wounded. But, according to Azizpour, who was 25 in 1987, many more were affected.
Some 8,000 people were exposed to what experts say was mustard gas and many who survived are struggling with long-term health complications.
"Even today, there is sometimes so much pressure on my lungs... that I really cannot sleep," said Mahmoud Assadpour, a 50-year-old teacher.
The impact of the novel coronavirus, which has hit Iran hard, is a threat to survivors, said Rojane Qaderi, a doctor who heads Sardasht's public health network.
"As their immune system is weak... their chances of survival are low," Qaderi said.
Survivors of the attack are asked to stay in their homes for protection against the virus.
'As If in a Cage'
"We are at home, we do not go out, it is as if we are in a cage," said Muhammad Zamani, 59, who remembers hearing "muffled bangs" as the gas canisters dropped.
His wife, Leila Marouf Zadeh, was a volunteer nurse.
She recalls cries of the wounded at the field hospital begging for help, many people that she knew.
The skin of some victims turned red from burns from the incapacitating gas. "Some had crimson breasts, others, their whole bodies," she said.
But after a few hours helping the survivors, she too felt the stinging impact. The gas had blinded her temporarily.
Rassoul Malahi, a retired farmer who uses an artificial respirator to breathe, tells a similar story. He was left "totally blind" for 18 days.
"The consequences of mustard gas are permanent," said Qaderi. "It affects or destroys the lungs. You have to learn to live with it."
The list of symptoms include sore and swollen eyes, red and itching skin, as well as a shortness of breath, difficulty in moving and exhaustion, she said.
Now there is an extra problem.
Since the United States reimposed crippling sanctions against Iran in 2018, it has been hard to find the drugs needed for survivors.