‘A wrestler never dies.’ Afghan bomb victims live on in legend

Storied Kabul wrestling club vows to rebuild after 30 people died in Isis suicide bombing

Afghan wrestlers gather at the site of a suicide attack at the Maiwand Club in Kabul on September 6th, 2018. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Afghan wrestlers gather at the site of a suicide attack at the Maiwand Club in Kabul on September 6th, 2018. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

 

There is a saying here: “A wrestler never dies.” It’s a commentary on how the sport’s champions hold a special place in Afghan hearts, and over the years, no place has produced more winners than the Maiwand Wrestling Club in Kabul.

On September 5th, an Islamic State suicide bomber looking for Shia Muslims to kill burst in and took the lives of as many as 30 people at the club. But as the adage suggests, the wrestlers’ stories will outlive death.

On the club’s CCTV monitors that day, Gula Reza Ahmadi, a 20-year-old wrestler, saw a young man get out of a car, take a last drag on a cigarette and walk up to the gym’s front door. A security guard, Mujtaba Sakhizada (18) asked to see the visitor’s membership card.

The man reached into his gym bag as if to get it and pulled out a pistol instead. Ahmadi immediately shouted an alarm across the crowded gym floor as the attacker shot the guard in the forehead. “Suicider!” he yelled. In Afghanistan, “suicide bomber” now has its own one-word term.

Maalim Abbas sprang to action. An accomplished wrestler in his youth, the 52-year-old Abbas was a coach now; his name means “Teacher Abbas.” He was close to the steel-plated entry door when he heard Ahmadi’s warning shout and the gunshot.

A wrestler at the entrance gate of the wrestling club in Kabul after the suicide bombing. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images
A wrestler at the entrance gate of the wrestling club in Kabul after the suicide bombing. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Abbas charged the door as the bomber pushed his way past the dead guard. Abbas tried to slam it closed, but the attacker had a foot in the door. Abbas’s arm held him back in the half-open doorway. The bomber apparently decided to detonate his gym bag right then, rather than trying to get past the stubborn coach.

“If he got in he would have killed everybody,” said Ahmad Zia (27).

Still, of the 90 inside, only five would emerge unhurt. As the club registrar, Zia had a list of those inside. Though he has positively identified 20 of those who were killed, he believes there are many more. He found 15 others still in serious or critical condition in the hospitals, many missing limbs.

This was not even the deadliest of atrocities to befall Kabul this year, especially in the western reaches of the city, which is a centre for the ethnic Hazara community, a mostly Shia minority that has long been targeted by Sunni extremists.

But for many Hazaras, it was the last straw – or as Afghans would say, “the drop that makes the cup overflow”. The attack and how it was handled left many convinced that they could no longer depend on their government to keep them safe. Targeting wrestlers was particularly upsetting. When a suicide bomber in Helmand province attacked a wrestling match last March, killing 14 wrestlers and spectators, the outrage spawned a cross-country peace march that ended on Monday in the northern province of Balkh.

Shrapnel

The vagaries of the blast in the Maiwand Club this month were unfathomable. Zia was behind his wooden registration table and was unhurt; others shielded by steel doors died. A 14-year-old boy named Yasser Ali Alizada was killed 30 yards away, in the yard outside, by a piece of shrapnel that pierced his heart. A blood-soaked circle in the dirt now marks the spot.

Even a week later, the extent of the devastation was still evident. The bag of explosives had been packed with ball bearings and rivets; where they did not hit bodies, they embedded in concrete and steel all over the hall.

Wounded Afghan wrestler Ali Seena (20) receives treatment at Isteqlal hospital in Kabul after the September 6th attack. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images
Wounded Afghan wrestler Ali Seena (20) receives treatment at Isteqlal hospital in Kabul after the September 6th attack. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

The gym ran three shifts of wrestling a day for its 400 members, and the bomber struck just as the third shift was about to start in the early evening. That ensured that new wrestlers would be arriving along with first responders.

The Maiwand Club’s renowned founder, Pahlawan Ibrahim (85), was the Afghan national champion in the 62kg class for two decades. His adopted name means “Wrestler Ibrahim”. “Why would anyone want to attack this place?” he said. “This gym protects this Afghan younger generation from crime and drug addiction, and makes them healthy and able to stand on their own two feet. They’re poor people, labourers, students, unemployed. What kind of people would do such terrible things to them?”

Olympic wrestling has long been the Hazaras’ chosen sport, and it has given them status among all of Afghanistan’s ethnic groups. At least four of the country’s current national champions in different weight classes are Hazaras, all of them members of the Maiwand Club: Ehsanullah, Ruhullah, Alidad and Alisina Kuchi.

All four of them were killed in the September 5th bombing. High on the wall inside was a framed photograph of another club hero. Untouched by the bombing, a wreath of plastic flowers surrounded the face of Wakil Hussain Allahdad, a retired wrestler famed for carrying victims of suicide bombings to safety, who was then killed in a suicide bombing himself this year.

The wrestlers blame not only the Islamic State for what it has boasted of doing, but also the government. Many are convinced that Afghan police officials had a hand in the attack, or at least turned a blind eye to it. “I want to know why this happened,” said Zia, the club’s registrar. “It has to be the government: How else would the attackers know where to go? There were so many checkpoints and police posts in the area.”

Government officials say they are concerned about such attitudes, because it means the Islamic State is succeeding in its goal of sowing discord between Shia and Sunni communities. “We suffer because of our ethnicity,” said Ghulam Hussain, another of the older trainers at the gym. “Because we’re Hazaras, no attention is being paid; they choose to protect their own ethnicity.”

The car

After the bombing, club members quickly identified the attacker’s car. Officials from the National Directorate for Security, the Afghan intelligence agency, arrived with a jammer and put it on the car’s roof, intending to block any electronic signal used to remotely detonate the car bomb if there was one.

Then the police arrived and took charge of the scene, and at some point in the hour that followed, the jammer somehow disappeared from the roof of the car, according to the wrestlers. By then other wrestlers had arrived, along with emergency workers and journalists. The car suddenly exploded, killing a ToloNews cameraman and reporter while they were recording.

A wrestler walks through Maiwand Wrestling Club after the suicide bombing. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images
A wrestler walks through Maiwand Wrestling Club after the suicide bombing. Photograph: Wakil Kohsar/AFP/Getty Images

Health officials put the final death toll at 30, with 103 wounded. At the Maiwand Club, Zia, the registrar, said he believed 10 more wrestlers who arrived later were killed in the second bombing.

“The police won’t even tell us who died,” Ahmadi said. “We want our CCTV footage back and they won’t give it to us.”

A senior Afghan official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to discuss the case, reviewed that footage and confirmed the club members’ account of what they saw. Spokesmen for the Kabul police and the ministry of interior affairs, which is in charge of the police, did not respond to repeated requests for comment on the wrestlers’ accusations.

For the first day after the bombing, the police kept control of the scene, including all the belongings of the victims. By the second day, the wrestlers were back in charge, and over the next week families came looking for their items: a bicycle, a wallet with family photos, house keys, a voter registration paper. In most cases, the victims’ money and mobile phones were missing, apparently stolen while under police guard, Ahmadi said.

An older man found the gym bag of one of the wrestling champions, Alisina Kuchi, with just some clothing inside. The man cried loudly and uncontrollably, pointed at the bag and said: “Oh, Alisina, what should I tell your mother? How can I show her this bag?”

Teacher Abbas is now in the Emergency Hospital, where he recorded a video message for his son, who is a refugee in Europe. “My dear son,” he said, propped up in his bed, “I’m okay, don’t worry. I am hopeful, God will help me get better. Pray for me.”

The video is framed so that his missing arm is not shown: Abbas lost his left arm in the struggle to keep the bomber out, but the rest of his body was protected from harm behind the door.

Rebuilding

By the end of the week, defiance had set in at the club. More and more armed volunteers were seen in the neighbourhood, stopping and searching strangers. Wrestlers arrived to help clean up and rebuild the gym. “We can’t disappoint the young people, they keep asking us when are we going to reopen,” one of the older wrestlers, Naqibullah Khaliqi (35) said.

“If they target us a thousand times, we will rebuild our club and continue our training.”

Ahmadi and the other survivors borrowed enough money from friends to buy a small load of bricks, dumped in a pile out front. “We are poor people, but nobody else is going to help us rebuild it,” he said. “No one, no one is helping us. We have been forgotten already. Only the families of the dead still care.”

Wrestler Ibrahim said even the National Olympic Committee, which organises many national sports competitions including wrestling, had ignored them. “They haven’t even sent condolences,” he said. – New York Times

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