“Don’t look at President Clinton.”
Those were the instructions given to Raed Ahmed before the opening ceremony of the 1996 Olympic Games in Atlanta.
The plump Iraqi weightlifter was told that Clinton and the United States wanted to destroy his country and they shouldn’t be shown any respect. The message came from officials of the Iraqi Olympic Committee who were under orders from Uday, the eldest son of Saddam Hussein.
“They said don’t look left or right because the president will be there, don’t look at him,” Raed says.
“I said no problem.”
Raed smiled as he ran into the stadium proudly holding his national flag. Then he was 29 years old, and he was chosen for this honor before two others.
Although the eyes of the Iraqi officials were fixed on him, he looked to his right.
“I couldn’t believe it,” he says. “Clinton looked at us. I saw that he was very happy when he saw us. He stood and applauded.”
It was a moment that changed Raed’s life forever.
Born to a Shiite family in the Iraqi city of Basra in 1967, he was the father of a leading bodybuilding coach. He started making his name in weightlifting in the early 1980s. In 1984 he was crowned a national champion in the 99 kg category.
But his sporting success was taking off against the backdrop of unrest in his homeland.
In 1991, there was a rebellion by the Shiite Arabs in southern Iraq and the Kurds in the north.
The revolutions began in the immediate aftermath of the first Gulf War when a multinational coalition led by the United States defeated the Iraqi forces that had invaded Kuwait the previous year.
In mid-February 1991, days before the coalition ground offensive began, US President George HW Bush broadcast a message telling the Iraqis there was a way to avoid bloodshed.
“This is something in which the Iraqi army and the Iraqi people take the lead to force Saddam Hussein, the dictator, to step down,” he said in a speech.
Shiites and Kurds believed that this would mean that the United States would support the uprisings against Saddam, and in March they erupted.
In Basra and other cities, hundreds of unarmed civilians took to the streets and took over government buildings, freed prisoners from prisons and seized small arms caches. At its height, control of 14 of the country’s 18 provinces was wrested from Saddam’s forces and there was fighting miles away from the capital, Baghdad.
But as the uprising spread across the country, US officials insisted that it was not their policy to interfere in Iraq’s internal affairs or remove Saddam from power.
With the Gulf War over and the rebels lacking American support, Saddam unleashed one of the most brutal crackdowns on Shiites and Kurds, killing tens of thousands in just a matter of months.
Raed remembers seeing Saddam’s cousin Ali Hassan al-Majid, also known as Chemical Ali, who was tasked with putting down the rebellions, lining up and shooting university students in Basra.
The economic sanctions imposed by the United Nations on Iraq are beginning to affect ordinary people severely. Raed says people have been struggling to buy the simplest staples like bread and rice.
He was already starting to think about how to get out.
Unlike most Iraqis, Raed had the opportunity to travel abroad to participate in competitions.
But being an elite athlete in Iraq means facing Uday Hussein, the notoriously brutal son of Saddam, who was the head of the Iraqi Olympic Committee and the Iraqi Football Association.
Uday’s punishments for offenses such as missing a sentence, receiving a red card, or underachievement included torture with electric cables, forcing people to bathe in sewage, and even execution.
“He did whatever he wanted, he was Saddam’s son,” Raed says.
In an effort to protect himself, Raed will do his best to lower Uday’s expectations ahead of the international tournaments.
“I used to see people when they came out of prison,” he says. “Football or basketball players would tell us, ‘Be careful when you go to competitions.’” They killed a lot of people.”
“When he asked if I could bring a gold medal home, I would say no. To get a gold medal you have to train for at least four years and it was very difficult to do it in Basra – little food and water. To lift weights you need a lot. of food and physical therapy.”
Raed increasingly saw international competition as the best way out of Iraq for good. He’s been training more than ever, undergoing two grueling sessions a day, five days a week, in order to get the degree.
In 1995, he traveled to China to participate in the World Weightlifting Championships, but felt that the likelihood that Chinese officials would extradite him again was too great for him to try to escape. He performed well enough to secure a place on the Olympic team. He will go to Atlanta.
He knew that the 1996 Olympics in the United States would provide a better opportunity.
Before traveling for the Olympics, Raed contacted a friend in the United States. He started assessing the risks. What if they brought him back to Iraq? What will happen to his family? How to escape from the watchful eyes of Iraqi officials? Raed wasn’t sure if the escape was realistic when he boarded the plane for America.
Arriving at the Olympic Village, Raid settled his surroundings and tried not to arouse any suspicion. After all, he had the responsibility to carry his national flag at the largest parade on earth.
Before the opening ceremony, he was repeatedly asked not to look at President Clinton by Saddam Hussein’s ex-interpreter, Anmar Mahmoud, who traveled with the Olympic team.
“They wanted to show that the Iraqis don’t like the United States, they don’t like the president,” Raed says.
Mahmoud was standing right behind Raed as they walked around the Olympic track on July 19, 1996.
He says Mahmoud noticed he was looking at Clinton, but didn’t say anything. Iraqi officials also seemed really surprised by the president’s applause, he said.
Any remaining doubt in his mind is now gone – he will not return to Iraq. But now the problem of how to stay in the United States has arisen.
Raed called another friend in the United States, Mohsen Fradi, and told him of his plan. Then came to visit her an engineering graduate from the University of Georgia by the name of Intifada Qambar, who had access to the Olympic Village.
Raed asked for help getting him out. The couple met secretly, but his guards became suspicious.
“The Iraqi Olympic officials started to doubt that I wanted to stay and told me that I was not allowed to stay and that I would be imprisoned if I did,” he says.
Raed was not deterred. The plan was made, but above all he still needed to compete. Unable to prepare for the levels of his competitors, he finished third in his weight class, lifting a total of 665.5 pounds in two separate lifts.
With the competition out of the way, it’s time for his run.
On the morning of July 28, 1996, the Iraqi Olympic team was preparing to visit a nearby zoo. When the team went down to breakfast, Raed pretended to have forgotten something in his room.
He quickly packed his bags and rushed to the front of the Olympic Village. Cumber and Faraday were waiting for him in the car. Raed jumped up and walked away.
“My thoughts were with my family the whole time,” he recalls. “I was worried about them and what would happen to them after the Iraqi officials found out that I was a fugitive. I wasn’t afraid for myself because I knew I was in good hands…and I wasn’t in any danger here. The only thing was fear and anxiety for my family.”
Raed – who left without a passport as Iraqi officials kept all of his documents – went to meet with an Iraqi-American lawyer who had traveled from New York and to an immigration agency to explain Raed’s desire to remain in the United States.
Then a press conference was arranged and he faced the world media.
“Everyone in our group looked away from President Clinton. They weren’t men,” Raed was quoted as saying by The New York Times. I love my country. I just don’t like the system.
After the press conference, Raed says Uday Hussain’s office called CNN and told them to convey the message that he needed to return because his entire family was being held hostage.
His family members were eventually released after Raed refused to return to Iraq, but he could not speak to them for more than a year.
“Things were very difficult for them, and people didn’t want to talk to them. My mother was a principal at a school and they kicked her out,” he says.
When Raed was granted asylum, he said he was working seven days a week so he could pay for his wife’s fake Iraqi passport. In 1998, she managed to get to Jordan, where they sought the help of United Nations officials before being transferred to the United States.
Raed and his wife settled in Dearborn, Michigan, where they live to this day and raised five children. Dearborn has a large Arab community, and since 2003 when the Iraq war began, thousands of Iraqi refugees have settled in the area.
Raed laughs: “Dearborn is like Baghdad.”
He set up a used car dealership and continued training in weightlifting. He also coached the Iraqi football and basketball teams.
Then in 2004, after the fall of Saddam Hussein, he returned to Iraq for the first time.
“All my family was waiting for me and wanted to see me because I hadn’t seen them since 1996. They were only crying when they saw me, they couldn’t believe they would see me again,” he recalls.
Raed’s parents still live in Basra, but they used to visit the United States every year before the pandemic.
Looking into the future, Raed thinks he’ll likely stay in Michigan, though moving somewhere with the temperatures back home has always been tempting.
“I want to move to Florida because the weather is the same as in Iraq,” he laughs. “Here, especially from December to February, it is very difficult to live – there is a lot of snow and very cold. I’ve never seen snow before. I thought, How do people get out in three or four inches of snow?”
He says he will watch the Olympics opening ceremony in Tokyo in July, as he always does.
“It’s a huge nostalgia for me and reminds me of how far I’ve come. Every time I watch, I hope to come and get involved in some way,” Raed says.
“Watching me is really going to set me back 25 years and I’m sure I’ll get my experience back.”