Raed Ahmed carrying the Iraq flag at the opening ceremony for Atlanta 1996
Raed’s thoughts was racing as he carried his nation’s flag on that fateful day

“Don’t have a look at President Clinton.”

These have been the directions Raed Ahmed was given earlier than the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Video games in Atlanta.

The stocky Iraqi weightlifter was instructed that Clinton and the US needed to destroy his nation and needs to be proven no respect. The message had come from Iraqi Olympic Committee officers, who have been beneath the orders of Saddam Hussein’s eldest son, Uday.

“They stated do not look left or proper as a result of the president goes to be there, do not have a look at him,” Raed says.

“I stated no drawback.”

Raed beamed as he jogged into the stadium, proudly holding his nationwide flag. Then aged 29, he had been chosen for the honour earlier than two others.

Regardless of having the eyes of Iraqi officers fastened on him, he glanced to his proper.

“I could not consider it,” he says. “Clinton checked out us. I noticed he was very joyful when he noticed us. He stood up and was clapping.”

It was a second that modified Raed’s life perpetually.

Short presentational grey line

Born right into a Shia Muslim household within the Iraqi metropolis of Basra in 1967, Raed’s father was a bodybuilding coach. He began making his personal identify in weightlifting within the early Eighties; in 1984 he was topped nationwide champion within the 99-kilogram class.

However his sporting success was taking off towards a backdrop of turmoil in his homeland.

In 1991, there have been rebellions by Shia Arabs in Iraq’s south and Kurds within the north.

The rebellions started within the speedy aftermath of the primary Gulf Struggle when Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait the earlier yr have been routed by a US-led multinational coalition.

In mid-February 1991, days earlier than the beginning of the coalition floor assault, then US President George H W Bush broadcast a message telling Iraqis that there was a technique to keep away from bloodshed.

“That’s for the Iraqi army and the Iraqi individuals to take issues into their very own fingers, to drive Saddam Hussein the dictator to step apart,” he stated in a speech.

The Shia and Kurds believed this might imply the US would again uprisings towards Saddam, and in March they erupted.

In Basra and different cities, a whole bunch of unarmed civilians spilled out onto the streets and took management of presidency buildings, liberating prisoners from jails and seizing caches of small arms. At its peak, management of 14 of the nation’s 18 provinces had been wrestled from Saddam’s forces and there was preventing inside miles of the capital, Baghdad.

However because the rebellion unfold all through the nation, US officers insisted it was by no means their coverage to intervene in Iraq’s inner affairs nor to take away Saddam from energy.

With the Gulf Struggle over and the rebels missing US help, Saddam unleashed considered one of his most brutal acts of repression towards the Shia and Kurds, killing tens of hundreds in simply months.

Raed recollects witnessing Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, often known as Chemical Ali, who was tasked with placing down the rebellions, lining up college students from the college in Basra and taking pictures them.

UN financial sanctions on Iraq additionally began to hit extraordinary individuals exhausting. Raed says individuals have been struggling to afford probably the most fundamental meals like bread and rice.

He had already began to consider get out.

Saddam Hussein mural
Saddam Hussein was executed in Baghdad in December 2006

Not like most Iraqis, Raed had the chance to journey overseas for competitions.

However being an elite sportsman in Iraq meant coming face-to-face with Uday Hussein, Saddam’s notoriously brutal son, who was president of the Iraqi Olympic Committee and Iraq Soccer Affiliation.

Uday’s punishments for infractions comparable to lacking a penalty, receiving a purple card, or underachieving included torture with electrical cables, forcing individuals to wash in uncooked sewage and even execution.

“He’d do no matter he needed, he was Saddam’s son,” Raed says.

In an effort to guard himself, Raed would do his utmost to decrease Uday’s expectations forward of worldwide tournaments.

“I’d see individuals after they bought out of jail. Soccer or basketball gamers would inform us: ‘Watch out whenever you go to competitions’. They killed many individuals,” he says.

“When he requested if I may carry dwelling a gold medal I would say no. For a gold medal you need to work out for not less than 4 years and it was too exhausting to do this in Basra – little meals and water. To weightlift you want a variety of meals and bodily remedy.”

Raed was more and more seeing worldwide competitions as one of the simplest ways to get out of Iraq for good. He was coaching more durable than ever, placing himself by way of two gruelling periods a day, 5 days every week, with a purpose to make the grade.

In 1995, he travelled to China for the World Weightlifting Championships, however felt the probability of Chinese language officers handing him again over was too excessive to make an try at escape. His efficiency was ok to safe a spot on the Olympic crew, although. He’d be going to Atlanta.

And he knew that the 1996 Video games within the US would supply a greater alternative.

President Clinton gives a speech at the Olympic village in Atlanta, in 1996
President Clinton offers a speech on the Olympic village in Atlanta, in 1996

Earlier than travelling to the Olympics, Raed contacted a good friend within the US. He began weighing up the dangers. What in the event that they despatched him again to Iraq? What would occur to his household? How would he escape from the ever watchful eyes of the Iraqi officers? Raed wasn’t certain whether or not an escape was real looking when he boarded the airplane for America.

Upon arriving on the Olympic Village, Raed settled into his environment and tried to not elevate any suspicion. In any case, he had the accountability of carrying his nationwide flag on the largest present on earth.

Earlier than the opening ceremony, he was instructed repeatedly to not have a look at President Clinton by Saddam’s former translator, Anmar Mahmoud, who had travelled with the Olympic crew.

“They needed to indicate that Iraqis don’t like the US, they don’t just like the president,” Raed says.

Mahmoud was standing immediately behind Raed as they paced across the Olympic observe on 19 July 1996.

He says Mahmoud seen that he was taking a look at Clinton, however he did not say something. The Iraqi officers additionally appeared genuinely stunned that the president was clapping them, he says.

Any remaining doubt in his thoughts was now gone – he wasn’t going again to Iraq. However now got here the issue of keep within the US.

Raed contacted one other good friend within the US referred to as Mohsen Fradi and instructed him of his plan. Then, an engineering graduate from Georgia College by the identify of Intifadh Qambar, who had entry to the Olympic Village, came around.

Raed requested for assist in getting him out. The pair met in secret, however his minders have been changing into suspicious.

“The Iraqi Olympic officers began to suspect that I needed to remain and so they instructed me that I used to be not allowed to remain and that I’d be jailed if I did,” he says.

Raed was undeterred. The plan was set, however to begin with he nonetheless wanted to compete. Unable to organize to the degrees of his rivals, he completed third backside of his weight class, lifting a complete of 665.5 kilos in two separate lifts.

With the competitors out of the best way, it was time for his escape.

Raed Ahmed
Raed pictured on the press convention held following his defection

On the morning of 28 July, 1996, the Iraqi Olympic crew have been making ready to go to a close-by zoo. Because the crew went all the way down to have breakfast, Raed pretended he had forgotten one thing in his room.

He rapidly packed his luggage and rushed to the entrance of the Olympic Village. Ready for him in a automobile have been Qambar and Fradi. Raed hopped in and so they drove away.

“My ideas have been with my household your complete time,” he recollects. “I used to be anxious about them and what would occur to them after the Iraqi officers discovered I used to be escaping. I wasn’t fearful for myself as a result of I knew I used to be in good fingers… and I wasn’t in any hazard right here. The one worry and fear I had was for my household.”

Raed – who left with no passport because the Iraqi officers stored maintain of all of their documentation – went to fulfill an Iraqi-American lawyer who had travelled from New York and so they went to an immigration company to clarify Raed’s want to remain within the US.

Then a press convention was organized and he confronted the world’s media.

“All people else in our group appeared away from President Clinton. They weren’t males,” The New York Occasions quoted Raed as saying. “I like my nation. I simply do not just like the regime.”

After the press convention, Raed says Uday Hussein’s workplace rang CNN and instructed them to go on the message that he wanted to return again as a result of his total household have been being held hostage.

His members of the family have been ultimately launched after Raed refused to return to Iraq, however he couldn’t communicate to them for greater than a yr.

“Issues have been very troublesome for them, individuals did not wish to discuss to them. My mum was a director at a college and so they kicked her out,” he says.

As soon as Raed was granted asylum he says he labored seven days every week so he may afford to pay for a faux Iraqi passport for his spouse. In 1998, she managed to make it to Jordan, the place they sought the assistance of United Nations officers earlier than making it over to the US.

Raed Ahmed and his children pictured in 2019
Raed and his youngsters, pictured in 2019

Raed and his spouse settled in Dearborn, Michigan, the place they stay to this present day and have raised 5 youngsters. Dearborn has a big Arab group, and since 2003 when the Iraq Struggle started, hundreds of Iraqi refugees have settled within the space.

“Dearborn is like Baghdad,” Raed laughs.

He arrange a used automobile dealership and continued coaching as a weightlifter. He additionally coached native Iraqi soccer and basketball groups.

Then in 2004, after the autumn of Saddam Hussein, he returned to Iraq for the primary time.

“All my household have been ready for me and so they needed to see me as a result of I hadn’t seen them since 1996. They have been simply crying after they noticed me, they did not consider they’d ever see me once more,” he recollects.

Raed’s mother and father nonetheless stay in Basra, however they’d go to the US yearly earlier than the pandemic hit.

Seeking to the long run, Raed thinks he’ll most likely keep in Michigan, though transferring someplace with the temperatures of his homeland has all the time been alluring.

“I wish to transfer to Florida as a result of it’s the similar climate as Iraq,” he laughs. “Right here, particularly in December to February it is very exhausting to stay – there’s a variety of snow and it is too chilly. I had by no means seen snow earlier than. I believed, how are individuals going exterior in three or 4 inches of snow?'”

He says he might be tuning into the Olympic opening ceremony in Tokyo this July, as he all the time does.

“It’s totally nostalgic for me and jogs my memory of how far I’ve come. Each time I watch, I want I used to be attending and collaborating ultimately,” Raed says.

“Watching it should really take me again 25 years and I am certain I will be reliving my expertise.”