Lebanon UXO soccer stars: “Handicap is a state of the soul, not of the body"
One of the many cultural and awareness-raising events that occurred on the sidelines of the Second Meeting of States Parties to the Convention on Cluster Munitions, held in Beirut from 12 to16 September 2011, was a friendly football match setting a team of Lebanese UXO (unexploded ordnance) victims against a scratch side of participants at the meeting.
The home side represented the Lebanese Welfare Association for the Handicapped (LWAH) and included players whose injuries have never succeeded in taking away their courage and love of life.
Nazih Saab, 43, and Hussein Ghandour, 31, are two professional LWAH footballers, whose loss of limbs, from UXO detonations, has brought them together in a fight against helplessness and despair. Nazih and Hussein also share the same life principles: hope, faith and love.
Hussein lost his leg 23 years ago, when he was just a boy, playing in the yard of his home in Tyre, south Lebanon. "I remember picking up something that looked like a bit of an old tennis ball," Hussein recalls, "then there was this huge explosion. I was covered with blood, in pain… at first I didn't know what happened." It was only a few days later that Hussein learned that he had lost an arm and a leg.
"It wasn't easy, I was angry at first, I didn't understand…why me?! My friends from school were asking me weird questions, and I had to face all this by myself. Back then, awareness was poor, if it existed at all. Even parents didn't realize the danger of cluster munitions and other UXOs."
Today, Hussein is married, has a one-year-old daughter and celebrates his 11th year of work with LWAH. He is committed to making other UXO victims feel as good and as confident as he does.
"I feel stronger than ever, I do the same activities any other normal person does, with fewer body parts," Hussein said. "I guess this makes me stronger, no? Injury may take away our limbs, earthly bits of us, but we mustn’t let it take away our essence, our spirit."
For Hussein, football, like sport in general, is more than just a way of keeping healthy. It's another way of confirming to himself and the rest of the world that he is still alive. "This is proof that lacking an leg or an arm should never prevent us from being fully functional human beings."
A giant minefield
His team-mate Nazih Saab lost his right leg when he was a soldier in 1991, when he prevented two children from stepping on a mine. At that time downtown Beirut was a giant minefield, in a country torn by civil war. Today, Nazih's family is his biggest support.
"My injury changed many things in my life," Nazih said. "I learned to appreciate life much more and to enjoy its precious moments, never regretting the hard ones, because it is thanks to these that we become stronger and self-accomplished."
A dedicated football player since early childhood, Nazih has not let his injury keep him from his passion. "Hang on to life," he said, "hope is what makes living worthwhile. Don't let anyone make you feel handicapped, because ‘handicap’ is a state of the soul, not of the body." This is how Nazih comforts friends whose bodies have been mutilated by UXOs.
And he points an accusing finger at those who discriminate against UXO victims. "We have the right to be equally considered for employment just like anyone else," he said. "I walk like you, talk like you, think like you, work like you, but when I apply for a job, no matter how minor, I am immediately rejected. Sometimes no reason is given – but deep down, I know…."
Discharged from the army, Nazih now tends the village graveyard and struggles to support his family. His desperate financial situation has forced him to stop sending his two elder children to school; the two youngest still attend, thanks to a few charitable donations.
Nazih is a respected man, both on and off the pitch. "When I play, I give it all I have, and it pays off," he said. "But real life is different. It is easier to win a football game than to win the game of life, especially when your dignity is the only thing you have left."
- Read more about the LWAH
- More on the Beirut cluster munitions meeting