We’re all familiar, mostly from horror movies, with the legend of zombies, the ‘living dead’, corpses said to be revived by witchcraft. For zombies, frozen in a mindless catatonic state neither dead nor alive, all that remains of the life force is the ability to move their limbs. In this article, I want to tell the stories of real-life zombies, people reduced to a state of living death whose unimaginable existence I have witnessed first-hand from being among them.
On August 12, 2009, at age 34, I was moved after months of terrible torture from one of the Iranian regime infamous secret detention sites run by the intelligence service, which are widely known as ‘death prisons’, to Block 6 in the no less notorious Karun Prison.
I’ve attempted to create a map of the prison and to describe its staff and inmates ever since the regime’s ‘Revolutionary Court’ ruled that I should be imprisoned there for 10 years for the ‘crime’ of campaigning for Ahwazi’ human rights.
Days after my arrival there, I was walking down the central corridor running through the prison when I first saw some fellow inmates whose appearance shocked me; hunched, skeletal and haggard, their sinews, veins and arteries, particularly on their heads, could be seen clearly through skin pallid from years of being without sunlight, pulled tautly over bones. I was fearful of glancing at their faces, with their sunken eyes reddened, their few remaining teeth blackened rotten stumps.
These poor souls’ hands were twitching and shivering, their minds long gone. These horrifying creatures were my Ahwazi brothers, very deliberately reduced to a state of bestial half-life in the Iranian regime’s prisons.
These scenes of Ahwazi suffering and the regime’s deliberate reduction of humans to pitiful wretches who could have been inmates of any Nazi death camp have never left my mind. These prisoners, who made me think of bodies exhumed from their graves days or weeks after their burial, were clearly distinguished from the other inmates.
On first seeing these poor souls, my mind was full of questions, and I set out to find out more about their circumstances. Other prisoners told me they were inmates in the ‘Fifth Block’, known to other prisoners as ‘Methadone’.
Before being sent to Karun Prison, I hadn’t heard of methadone, despite living in a neighbourhood where drug-dealing was rampant.
Subsequently, I discovered that methadone, best known as a heroin substitute, was a drug discovered in Nazi Germany in 1937, whose origin is shown in its commercial name, Dolophine, derived from Adolf Hitler. Those who know Iran’s regime will appreciate the bleak aptness of its reliance on a drug developed by its Nazi predecessors whose barbarism seem to inspire many of its policies.
The drug was once widely used as a painkiller, as well as being prescribed to relieve the withdrawal symptoms in those recovering from addiction to heroin and other opiates. In recent years, however, it’s been shown that the harm done by methadone greatly outweighs its benefits, with the drug itself being addictive and causing severe contractions to users’ respiratory systems and damage to the liver and heart, as well as severely impairing users’ vision.
A study conducted in Sweden, meanwhile, suggested that far from the drug helping to avoid the pitfalls of opiate addiction, methadone addicts actually die at higher rates than other drug addicts, with an average of 190 people dying there annually as a result of using methadone compared to compared to 150 per year as a result of heroin use.
These terrible physical effects are accompanied by equally devastating mental effects, with methadone causing psychological damage such as mental disorders, loss of memory and lack of self-confidence.
Based on my own observations of the methadone zombies in Karun Prison, I can attest that this drug has a horrendously destructive effect on both body and mind simultaneously.
During this period, I discovered that a neighbour from my hometown was an inmate in Block 5, the ‘Methadone’ department. I set out to find him, wanting to find out what the regime was doing to these prisoners; I hadn’t known him or even met him before I took it upon myself to find him at Karun Prison, and we’d ended up living in different towns, but our background in being from the same town meant we had something in common. Also, I figured that a chance to make his acquaintance would give me an opportunity to keep a close eye, if only at second hand, on the ‘Methadone’ department in Block 5.
Ultimately, I discovered that this wouldn’t be necessary when I encountered an old friend who I discovered was working as a guard on that block by chance one day while walking down the main passage running through the prison. Unlike most of the prison staff who seemed to single out political prisoners for the worst abuse, this officer always treated political prisoners with respect. I got talking with him and asked him to allow me to observe the ‘Methadone’ department, as well as requesting to be allowed to meet with one of my family members, a request I had previously been denied. Luckily, he acceded to both requests.
The ‘Methadone’ department was the only block in Karun Prison spread across two floors, comprising a total of 13 massively overcrowded dormitory cells. According to prison records, during my time there, more than 830 people were jammed into these bleak cells without even space to lie down; in order to sleep, prisoners had to lie on their sides pressed together like sardines while others remained standing. I have experienced similar grotesque overcrowding when I was imprisoned in Adel Abad prison in the province of Shiraz, again for the ‘crime’ of activism.
All of the prisoners on Block 5 were forced to take methadone, with their names registered as recipients. The number of methadone addicts in Karun Prison is believed to exceed 1,000 or around one-fifth of the prison’s total population.
The drug is administered in a way that livestock farmers would reject as inhumane and demeaning, and in such a way as to make the spread of disease almost inevitable. Prison staff first mix the methadone with water in a large vat. Once this substance has been prepared, warders decant it into a bucket. Prisoners then line up in front of a small hatch from which the liquid is dispensed twice a day, with the staff using and refilling the same syringes over and over to empty one dose of methadone into the mouths of every prisoner and periodically refilling the bucket as required.
I still remember watching this gruesome scene, seeing hundreds of silent hunched skeletal zombie prisoners lined up one after another shuffling slowly forward to receive their dose of poison. They seemed more like nightmarish baby birds, tilting their heads and opening their mouths for the methadone to be squirted down their throats. This is not the end of the indignity, with some of these prisoners pouching the methadone dose in their cheek until they can secretively spit or simply force themselves to vomit it into a small plastic bag saved and repeatedly used for this purpose – these bags of regurgitated methadone are then sold to other addicts in the prison.
Unsurprisingly, these practices and the unspeakable conditions have led to the spread of disease epidemics in the prison.
These prisoners’ families are often fortunately ignorant of their fathers’, sons’ or brothers’ desperate conditions. The anguish of the already desperately worried children, wives and mothers of these poor souls when they do see their loved ones reduced to zombie-like husks is heartbreaking. The reactions I saw from women and children visiting the prison on seeing these poor wretches were fear and pain. How can family members have any hope for their recovery when they see the last vestiges of humanity and dignity have been very deliberately stolen from them?
There is no doubt that the regime calculatingly uses methadone as it uses torture, as one more means of controlling and subjugating those whose humanity it denies. This is another tool in the regime’s genocidal armoury used cold-bloodedly to crush.
Ahwazi political prisoner Ghazi Heideri