Disabled runner inspires cluster-bomb victims (Lebanon)

Whitehead: 'barriers can be broken'


NABATIEH: Until the day that Hussein Zreik's right foot was blown off by a cluster bomb left over from the summer 2006 war with Israel, the 13-year-old had dreamed of becoming a professional soccer player. A slight, shy boy, Hussein hadn't wanted to get involved when his cousins found the sub-munition in a field near his house in April. He told them to leave it alone. But his warning came too late. It exploded, shattering the bones beneath his knee and with them, his sporting hopes.

So when disabled marathon runner Richard Whitehead, who was born without legs, visited the Nabatieh Rehabilitation center where children who have been maimed by cluster bombs are treated, he hoped to be an inspiration to them.

Whitehead is tall and looks extremely fit. He wears shorts over his high-tech replacement limbs, showing anyone who asks how they work and explaining the technology they use. He appears totally comfortable with his disability.

He traveled to Lebanon from Britain to take part in Sunday's Beirut Marathon and took time out of his pre-race schedule to visit the center at the request of Norwegian People's Aid (NPA), an NGO dedicated to clearing cluster bombs and helping their victims - people like Hussein.

Khaled Yammout, NPA's Mine Action program coordinator said that sports-mad Hussein had struggled to come to terms with his injury when it first occurred. "When I met him in June, he wasn't that enthusiastic about life," he said. "When he spoke about what had happened, he started tearing up."

But Whitehead firmly rejected the idea that disability represents an insurmountable barrier in sport. "You have to stay positive. Barriers placed in front of you can be broken down, whether it's in life or sport," he told the children being treated at the center on Thursday.

He should know. Despite being born without legs, he has run six marathons this year alone. His personal best time of three hours and 17 minutes would put many able-bodied runners to shame. "It just shows everything is possible," Whitehead said.

Even before he had the specialist equipment that helped him to achieve his goals, he was determined that his disability would not get in the way of his ambitions. "I trained on my stumps, on my knees, until I got the prosthetics," he said.

Whitehead's trip to Lebanon was partly financed by the British Embassy, who believe that his participation in the marathon will send a positive message to disabled cluster bomb victims in the country.

British Ambassador Frances Guy told The Daily Star that Whitehead could help to combat the "total despair" that many victims feel. "Someone like Richard, who has a disability, shows them that there are things they can achieve. It's about giving them hope," she said.

She said the timing of the marathon, coming just days before delegations from more than 100 countries will meet in Oslo to sign a treaty preventing the use of cluster bombs is "helpful." Part of the treaty governs the support offered to the victims of cluster bombs and NPA's Yammout said that this is an important area. Injuries caused by cluster bombs can cause victims to be robbed of their confidence as well as their limbs, and Yamoud says that the problem is emphasized because of the rural nature of South Lebanese society.

"Men take pride in their ability to be breadwinners, and find it particularly difficult to accept their disability," he said.

But Whitehead said that a positive attitude can make all the difference. "I came here to try and inspire them to stay positive about their future. They can still achieve their dreams and aspirations whether they have a disability or not." When he was finally introduced to Hussein, Whitehead was told of his ambitions to play soccer. "He still can be a footballer - he can do whatever he wants," he said. His message of hope appeared to have the desired effect on Hussein, who Yammout said seems "much happier" than the last time he saw him.

"I'm pleased to see that he could accomplish something, even with a disability," Hussein said of Whitehead.

Whitehead's confidence with his disability, it seems, has already rubbed off on the quiet 13-year-old, whose hopes and dreams of sporting success were stolen by a cluster bomb on a spring day in Southern Lebanon.

Von: 28.11.2008, by Andrew Wander, www.dailystar.com.lb

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