Afghan wrestling coach re-opens gym despite losing arm in Isis attack | World news


To perform the “saltur”, an Afghan wrestling term, a fighter spins behind their opponent, then lifts them a few inches off the floor and slams the victim backwards overhead and into a pin. It is a technique that coach Ghulam Abbas has taught students for more than 30 years, and one he dearly loves to see.

“I forget my troubles when a student takes the opportunity,” says the 57-year-old coach of the Maiwand wrestling club in west Kabul. But he can no longer demonstrate the move. As he strolls among his 40 teenage students, grappling and grunting, his left sleeve hangs conspicuously loose over where his arm should be.

Two months ago, Isis suicide bombers attacked the wrestling club. At around 6pm on 5 September, Abbas heard gunfire and a cry of “suicider!”. He charged to the door, slamming it shut onto the foot of the attacker, who promptly detonated a bomb held in a sports-bag. Another detonated a car-bomb just outside as help was arriving.

It was only when Abbas regained consciousness in hospital that he realised his left arm had been severed in the explosion. In total, 30 people were killed and a further 50 wounded.

“Before, I was very good at showing students the throws, but now I have to tell them to practise with other boys,” says Abbas. “That has been very hard for me.”

The club’s coach, 52 year-old Ghulam Abbas.



The Maiwand wrestling club’s coach, 52-year-old Maalim teacher Ghulam Abbas, lost his left arm at the shoulder but has returned to coaching. Photograph: Andrew Quilty

At home, too, he has had to adapt. His wife helps him put on his left sock in the morning. “When she was washing the carpet, I used to like to wash it with her,” he says, “but now I cannot.”

But Abbas never doubted he would return to the Maiwand wrestling club. While in hospital, hundreds of visitors showed up by his bedside, thanking the man who put their children on the right path – or, in the attack itself, saved their lives.

Abbas paid for the repairs to the club building himself. A black scar still rings the wall where the entrance was. A patch of lighter paint marks the hole blown through it while yellow foam pokes through a patched up roof.

He also kept fit waiting to come back: running, unsteadily at first, around the hospital grounds. Ten times in the morning, and ten at night, as soon as the wound stopped bleeding.

His tenacity is paying off. Around half the usual 100 or so students are attending a free-practice session this Thursday, the beginning of the Afghan weekend, but the number, says Abbas, is growing.

As students trickle in, a security guard frisks them lengthily at the gate of a newly-constructed entrance tunnel shielded by concrete bollards topped with barbed wire. One 23-year-old admits he was scared to return. But wrestling itself is a form of resistance. “The enemy wants us not to play,” says a defence ministry official, “but we are showing that we can come back and make things better.”

Pausing from a batch of rapid squats, 16-year-old Sajid Omid says that on the day of the attack, a piece of shrapnel hit him in the chest and his wrestling partner was killed. “I am scared to come but my love of wrestling means I cannot not come,” he says quietly. He hopes to become the latest in a long line of champions trained by Abbas, but security concerns means nobody knows when the next match can be organised.

“Those who lost limbs and can’t come back here are in an even worse situation,” says Bashir Ahmad Faizi, “I hear they want to die.”

The attack on the Maiwand club was Isis’s fifth strike this year in the same area of west Kabul, a poor Hazara neighbourhood of low brick houses. Hazara pride is wrapped up in Afghanistan’s wrestling scene; champions in four weight-categories were killed in the assault.

By targeting the 6-million strong, mainly Shia Muslim, minority Isis hopes to breed sectarian strife between it and the Sunni Pashtun majority. Fears of a collapse into the kind of blood-letting seen in Iraq have so far proven exaggerated, but Hazara resentment of the government is growing.

Abbas founded this branch of the Maiwand wrestling club in 1980. Like so many Afghans, he has already recovered from more than most will suffer in a lifetime. During the 1990s civil war, a rocket killed his first wife. The small shop he owned was burned down, too.

Outside the gym, he walks past a rolled-up wrestling mat that rests by a chain-link fence. He paid $700 for the mat – the finest available in Afghanistan. One day he will open it and see if it, too, can be re-used. For now he cannot bear to look. It is “full of blood and body parts”, he says.

Inside the gym, the end of the session nears. Someone lets down a knotted rope, and one young man pulls himself up, legs swinging in the air.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.