EL CAJON — Issam Thamer Aldiwan is no longer young. He lives in exile. Pain in his back and knees makes even walking difficult.
But this former player and coach for the Iraqi national volleyball team believes his athletic dreams grow closer every day. When he's not ferrying his children around suburban San Diego, Aldiwan spends hours with his younger brother and other former athletes, dreaming of a bright future for Iraq's sports programs.
"Everybody in Iraq likes sports," Aldiwan said. "Sports means freedom, democracy, health."
Rebuilding athletic programs, he said, will help restore the spirit of the Iraqi people. That has been his obsession since he fled the country in 1991. His body was scarred, he said, by wounds inflicted on the orders of Iraq's National Olympic Committee, his spirit burdened by what he described as the torture of athletes whose only crime was losing.
As he sat in his brother's El Cajon living room wearing a Chicago Bulls polo shirt, his 4-year-old daughter Rashid climbing on his knee and the television flashing in the background, Aldiwan appeared the epitome of suburban fatherhood. Perched nearby, his brother Hussain and a friend, former Iraqi wrestler Najem Alekabi, seemed like typical aging athletes, waxing nostalgic over photos of their glory days.
But the trio's smiles at past triumphs soon turned wistful, and the talk turned to fear and pain. Under the leadership of Saddam Hussein's son Uday, who headed the country's Olympic program, players and coaches were subjected to a regimen of terror, Aldiwan and the others said.
Players who lost games or matches were humiliated, jailed and sometimes tortured, Aldiwan said, and many were pressured to participate in criminal acts such as looting of sports equipment in Kuwait in 1990, after that country was invaded by Iraq.
Aldiwan, 45, said he spent three agonizing days hanging by his arms in an Iraqi prison, his ankles shackled to the wall, after refusing to join that looting expedition. He knows such charges sound incredible. But other athletes and human rights organizations echo them.
Officials at Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International said they have heard reports that athletes were tortured in Iraq. Neither organization has formally investigated such allegations; it was nearly impossible to get into Iraq until recently. But Hanny Megally, executive director of the Middle East and North Africa Division of Human Rights Watch, said such stories fit a pattern that the organization has heard about over the years.
In December, INDICT, a London human rights group founded in 1996 and now funded primarily by the U.S. government, filed a complaint with the International Olympic Committee's Ethics Commission. It charged that Iraq had carried out "beatings, torture and harassment" of athletes. The complaint also said that Iraq's national Olympic Committee maintained a prison and violated U.N. sanctions by smuggling contraband goods into the country.
The IOC has begun an investigation and hopes to have a report by next month, a spokeswoman said. The group has sent a team to London to interview former Iraqi athletes who fled there.
Aldiwan was not named in the complaint filed with the IOC. Charles Forrest, executive director of INDICT, said his organization felt it was important to have testimony from an athlete who competed in the Olympics, something Aldiwan never did.
But Forrest said Aldiwan has given him a list of 52 athletes he said were executed because they opposed the regime. And Aldiwan has played an important role in publicizing such abuses, he said.
Aldiwan was born and raised in the southern city of Nasiriyah, where he dreamed of becoming an actor. But after he moved to Baghdad in 1974 to study theater, the 6-foot-6-inch thespian was spotted by a teacher who was a volleyball coach and who recruited him for the national volleyball program. He advanced to the national team within a few years and became a coach in the 1980s.
Each afternoon, Aldiwan and his players met on the concrete volleyball court that baked in the sun on the bank of the Tigris River. For a long time, the love of the game and his bond with the players were a balm for the reports of athletes being imprisoned or humiliated for losing. But fear was in the air.
"When we played in Iraq, we are training, not because we want to achieve our goals, but because we want to save our lives," said Aldiwan, who is still perfecting his English.
In 1990, Aldiwan said, he was asked to go to Kuwait on a bus, followed by an empty semi truck, to get "anything connected to sports
But "we are athletes, not thieves," Aldiwan said. "I can't do it. I refused. I gave an excuse.... I said I have injury."
The excuse did not save him, he said, and he was jailed for three months -- though not in the Iraqi National Olympic Committee headquarters in Baghdad, said to be a torture site. Aldiwan fears that evidence of abuses was destroyed when that building was bombed by coalition forces Mar. 31.