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THE WORLD : DISPATCH FROM BAGHDAD

Runner is haunted by tragedy

After Sunni insurgents killed 27 members of his family, including his parents, the athlete finds solace in his sport.

August 18, 2008|Raheem Salman and Tina Susman | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — As athletes in Beijing vie for medals, fame and fortune, Iraqi distance runner Mahmoud Kamil Ahmed competes thousands of miles away for a different reason: to forget.

A year ago, while Ahmed trained in Cairo, Sunni Muslim insurgents surrounded his family's homestead in Diyala province, machine guns and rockets blazing. All 27 of his relatives inside were killed, including his mother, father and two brothers.

Now, the 27-year-old lives in a Baghdad University dorm, still running, still winning some races, still struggling with the despair that haunts every turn around the searing track where he trains. The track, the other athletes and even his tracksuit have become replacements for the family he lost.

"I am still feeling that it is a dream. It is too difficult to understand and digest such a horrible thing," Ahmed said last month, shortly after visiting his family's grave site for the first time. Until then, security problems in the area, a stronghold of Al Qaeda in Iraq, had kept him from visiting the lonely field where his relatives were hastily buried.

Although security has improved, insurgents remain active in the area, and people like Ahmed, who is Iraq's half-marathon and 5,000-meter champion, are targets in their quest to wipe out those they consider un-Islamic or supportive of the U.S.-backed government. His family's slaughter underscored the brutality of their methods and highlighted the threats long faced by athletes.

Under dictator Saddam Hussein, sports figures who failed to win medals faced beatings and torture at the hands of Hussein's son Uday, who was president of the Iraqi National Olympic Committee.

After the fall of Hussein, athletes became prey of kidnapping gangs looking for ransoms or insurgents who consider them apostates. In the most notorious case, 15 members of a taekwondo team, many of whom had hoped to compete in the Olympics, were abducted in May 2006. The remains of 13 were discovered a year later.

Ahmed says his relatives were targeted because one of his brothers was a judge and because Ahmed had represented Iraq in international competitions. "They considered us apostates from Islam," he said of the gunmen who crept up on the family compound the afternoon of July 27, 2007.

It took Ahmed several days to learn what had happened. He had become worried when he phoned from Cairo and nobody in the village of Mahbobiya, about 60 miles north of Baghdad, answered.

"My village was controlled by Qaeda gunmen," Ahmed said. "My worry began to increase when I was trying to reach others in the village who I know, but I couldn't get them."

He returned to Iraq on July 30 and kept trying to call home from Baghdad, to no avail. Finally, Ahmed contacted someone in a nearby village who knew his family.

"This man gave me the horrible details," Ahmed said.

The killers struck about 3 p.m., when people were inside escaping the summer heat. When the attack was over, the family compound was destroyed. The fertile fields surrounding it were torched. And everyone was dead.

That evening at sunset, a local sheik led a secret mission to retrieve the dead from the shattered homes and bury them on their land. A few days later, gunmen attacked the sheik's home, prompting a battle that ended when the sheik, his family and the entire village of about 500 fled, Ahmed said.

Today, the once-flourishing farmland is like a desert, its homes destroyed and the orchards burned. Temporary graves have become permanent resting places, because nobody dares to dig up the corpses and give them a proper burial.

Ahmed's life has become one of struggling to survive without family, money or a place to call home, and maintaining the spirit to keep running. It's a spirit that his friend Ahmed Hakim, another distance runner, says was instilled by his father.

"He still remembers his father's advice to him to continue playing this game. He wants himself to be the winner always," Hakim said of his friend. "He has big ambitions."

Ahmed didn't begin competitive distance running until 2002, when he was doing his mandatory military service. His athletic talents attracted his commanders' notice, and they sent him for training. "I started to love this sport," said Ahmed, adding that even when he was a child growing up in Diyala province, his ability to run long distances attracted notice.

Now, it is love of the sport and of his fellow runners that keeps Ahmed going.

"My friends are standing with me. They encourage me. They are my family now," said Ahmed, who recently was told that he would receive a monthly government stipend of 600,000 Iraqi dinars, or about $510. He dreams of finding a permanent place to live and starting a family.

Friends say Ahmed's determination has helped them through their own tragedies. Abdul Khaliq Dawood, who has lost six brothers to violence, stopped running for nearly a year. He began again after Ahmed pushed him to resume his life.

Ahmed's coach, Sadoon Nasser, expects Ahmed to begin winning again.

So does Ahmed, who came in third in the Amman, Jordan, marathon in 2005. When he watched the Olympic opening ceremony on TV on Aug. 8, he felt sadness because he wasn't there, but also hope.

"Watching it gave me the determination that I will participate in the next Olympics in 2012," he said. "I will keep on training until that day."

--

tina.susman@latimes.com

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