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ISKANDARIYAH, Iraq (AP) — Salam Hussein’s father was once his soccer coach. Now he’s his physical therapist, hoping that his son will one day be able to walk again.

Hussein was sprayed with shrapnel when a suicide bomber blew himself up in a stadium south of the Iraqi capital where the 23-year-old had been playing for his local club soccer team, Al-Rafidain. Hussein was wounded in the back of his neck, leaving his left arm and leg paralyzed.

While hundreds of Iraqis are killed every month in bombings — 29 died in the March 25 blast in the stadium in Iskandariyah — Hussein’s plight underscores the problems faced by the thousands who are left wounded in such attacks, many of them with serious injuries. Iraq’s health system is dilapidated, often without facilities for long-term treatment, and there are few services for the disabled, who are often left without freedom of movement and unable to work or attend school.

“I just want to be able to walk again,” Hussein said from his family’s living room sofa where he’s unable to sit up straight without being propped by pillows.

Hussein, the father of a 4-month-old son, made his living as a businessman, playing soccer on the side, but he’s been unable to go back to work. “I know that my dreams of playing soccer have vanished.”

The bomber struck during a post-match awards ceremony while the stadium was still packed in Iskandariyah, 30 miles (48 kilometers) south of Baghdad. More than 60 people were wounded, many of them children. The Islamic State group claimed responsibility for the bombing.

Initially, Hussein spent 20 days in an Iraqi hospital, but the doctors there soon concluded that his injuries were beyond their capabilities. Unable to afford to send Hussein abroad for treatment, his family requested government help, but were turned down. A local businessman instead stepped forward to cover Hussein’s medical bills and sent him to India for a series of surgeries.

Hussein was told by doctors in India that his motor skills will never fully recover from his injuries, but with intense physical therapy he may be able to walk again within a year.

That role is now taken by his father, Ali, who is the coach of Al-Rafidain.

He helps his son in therapy exercises, stretching his arm and leg. Ali Hussein now supports his son’s family as well as his own. He says working and helping with physical therapy has been exhausting, but he’s hopeful his son will heal.

“If he can’t walk again, his future will be difficult, he won’t have a future,” he said.

The stadium where Hussein once played has been transformed into a shrine for those who were killed. Black posters of martyrs and colorful plastic flowers line the pitch, in one corner lies a pile of mostly child-sized sandals abandoned by victims and fans who fled the attack. Abdullah Abdul-Hussein, a local government official, said the central government in Baghdad also needs to assist the attack’s survivors.

“We are asking the government to give aid to treat the injured people of the Iskandariyah blast,” Abdul-Hussein said.

On his cell phone Salam Hussein flips through photos and videos of his life before the March attack: snaps of his chubby, smiling son and a portrait of the soccer team. The next images are of Hussein in a bare hospital room, the walls exposed cinderblock. Hussein is smiling and holding up a peace sign despite his entire left side being in bandages.

“For now all I’m doing is watching soccer matches on TV,” Hussein said. His favorite club, he adds: Barcelona.


Associated Press writers Mohammed Katfan and Ahmed Sami in Baghdad contributed to this report.