Baghdad, Iraq – Ammar Ali never dreamt of becoming a professional athlete, let alone Iraq’s first wheelchair fencing Paralympic medalist. Like most of his fellow countrymen, the 35-year-old thought watching football games with friends was the extent of his sporting aspirations – until an attack upended his life.
Thirteen years ago this month, Ali became one of the hundreds of thousands of casualties of Iraq‘s civil war when a bomb ripped through his Baghdad neighbourhood as he made his way to work.
Four years earlier, the United States toppling of dictator Saddam Hussein plunged the country into chaos, turning residential areas such as Ali’s into battlefields as warring factions fought each other with little regard for civilian life.
The lives of countless Iraqis were cut short in the fraction of a second it took for a bomb blast to tear through human flesh.
Ali, who was just 23 at the time, sustained a spinal cord injury that left him paralysed from the waist down and changed his life forever.
“I went into surgery, then [they told me] I was paralysed in both legs,” recounted Ali against the backdrop of a multiuse sporting facility inside Baghdad’s Ministry of Youth and Sports.
Today, Ali is one of about 400 disabled athletes who perform at a competitive level. According to the National Paralympic Committee of Iraq, most were wounded in the violence that followed the US-led invasion of the country in 2003.
Since its 1992 debut in the Paralympic Games, the Iraqi team has won 13 medals, including in athletics and powerlifting. But it wasn’t until the Rio de Janeiro 2016 Summer Paralympic Games that Ali won silver, giving the country its first-ever fencing medal.
Sporting a green and red zip-up sweater embroidered with the Iraqi flag, Ali spoke against the backdrop of wheelchair basketball and boccia training sessions. Beside him, four fencing teammates kitted in white filled the air with the sharp noise of striking blades.
“When I started training, I forgot about physiotherapy because training was better than therapy,” said Ali, his mellow voice drowned out by the echoing cheers of the athletes.
During his two years in physiotherapy, Ali was approached by members of the National Paralympic Committee of Iraq and introduced to the world of competitive sport. He began with table tennis, but quickly switched to fencing, where he would soon make a name for himself.
“I didn’t expect there to be this kind of sport… This opened a new phase of my life,” said Ali, using his hands to adjust his slender legs. “But I still remember what it was like when I could walk.”
The Vice President of the National Paralympic Committee of Iraq, Khalid al-Kaebi, said Ali is one of Iraq’s top five para-athletes. Like the young fencer, 62-year-old al-Kaebi became involved in the world of professional sport after losing motor function in both his legs.
“It was terrible, it was an electric shock that changed my life,” said al-Kaebi of the tragic accident that left him paraplegic.
Just 21 years old and recently enrolled in the Iraqi air force, al-Kaebi was resting on the ground when a fellow soldier inadvertently crushed him with an off-road vehicle. “The injury happened at 4pm – I could never forget,” he said.
“I suffered a lot in my social life, I felt I was a stranger among people,” al-Kaebi said, sitting at his desk in one of the few buildings in Iraq dedicated to disabled sporting.
Following months of physiotherapy in London, al-Kaebi was introduced to swimming, table tennis and darts. But it was basketball that stole his heart, and to which he would dedicate his entire life, becoming the president of the Arab Basketball Federation on Wheelchairs.
“I love basketball because it’s a game that requires teammates,” he explained. Behind him, newspaper clippings of his past victories hang proudly on the wall.
On the ground floor of the building, al-Kaebi leads the way into a newly unveiled training centre for Paralympic sports. Equipped with a cooling and heating system, a commentary studio and gym facilities, the centre opened in January in a bid to keep athletes from having to travel abroad for training.
Iraqi officials say the new training grounds are a reflection of the government’s commitment to supporting sport and athletes at all levels, but not everyone agrees.
The government prioritises football, said Ammar Ali. “Even though we can bring first prizes in other sports.”
In September last year, Iraq’s Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities concluded that the government had taken real steps towards the integration of people with disabilities into society.
“The social integration of persons with disabilities and their access to basic services was a priority for the government of Iraq,” one Iraqi official said in a statement.
But in a country with one of the world’s largest populations of people with disabilities, disabled citizens continue to be marginalised and treated as second-class citizens, Muwafaq al-Khafaji of the nongovernmental Iraqi Alliance for Disabilities Organisation (IADO) told Al Jazeera.
Government statistics suggest that in a country of almost 40 million, more than 1.3 million people are disabled, including 35,000 soldiers who sustained life-altering injuries between 2003 and 2016. IADO puts the total figure of disabled Iraqis at approximately four million.
More than 3,000 have suffered life-altering injuries over the past five months alone, according to the Iraqi High Commission for Human Rights, as anti-government demonstrators demanding an end to corruption, foreign interference and a lack of basic facilities have been violently targeted by security forces.
According to local media, in December parliament’s human rights committee said that the use of excessive force by security forces has caused one-sided or total paralysis in a large number of demonstrators. But this has not deterred thousands of Iraqis, as they continue to take to the streets.
As protesters battle for an end to the country’s political impasse, Ammar Ali and his fellow colleagues engage in a fight of their own as the countdown to the Tokyo summer games begins.
Following his gold medal at the Wheelchair Fencing World Cup in Georgia, Ali once again qualified for the Paralympic games, where he hopes to bring home Iraq’s first-ever gold medal in wheelchair fencing.