Najla Imad Lafta survived a bomb placed under her father’s car but was missing three limbs and saw little point in life. Then she discovered a sport in which she excels.
By Alissa J. Rubin
July 26, 2019
BAQUBA, Iraq — The Iraqi teenager does not look like a traditional athlete: Her right leg is amputated at the thigh, her left at the knee, and her right arm ends at the biceps.
But when Najla Imad Lafta, 14, plays table tennis, her torso turns as smoothly as a dancer’s to meet the ball and she returns it so fast her opponents are hard put to send it back.
She just brought home her fourth silver and her fourth bronze medal from an international sporting tournament for the disabled in Egypt in June.
“In fourth grade, I realized I was different from the other girls,” said Najla as she sat in a narrow wheelchair in her family’s home on the outskirts of Baquba, a provincial capital in Iraq. She lives on an unpaved street where no one has indoor plumbing and the electricity is erratic.
“I saw my friends were running at school, walking and playing, and they were thinking about what they would do in the future,” she said. “And all I could do was sit in my wheelchair and think that I wanted to run like them.”
Najla was 3 when a bomb magnetically attached beneath her father’s car went off. The sabotage was likely the work of Al Qaeda in Iraq, which targeted her father because he worked at the local military base with American soldiers.
In a matter of seconds she became one of the hundreds of thousands of Iraqis seriously wounded in the civil war that followed the American invasion in 2003. Civilians young and old were caught in the crossfire, crippling them physically and psychologically.
Not all became amputees. Many have less visible scars: back injuries that make it impossible to walk and carry anything; hearing loss; or a missing eye from flying shrapnel. Some families, with their top wage earners unable to work, ended up homeless and many more now live diminished lives.
Each struggles to find a way to cope, and Najla is one of a growing number of Iraqi athletes who are competing in sports at a high level after losing one or more limbs.
Since 2003, there has been an approximately 70 percent increase in the number of Iraqis participating in the Paralympic Games whose injuries are terrorism related, according to Mohammed Abbas al-Salami, the deputy head of the Iraqi Paralympic Committee.
Players injured in the war are extraordinarily driven and talented, said Mr. al-Salami. But they struggle more emotionally because they remember the time before their injuries.
That emotional struggle is part of Najla’s story, too.
One of eight children born to a close-knit family, Najla was an active child and every day would run to meet her father’s car as he returned from his work at a joint Iraqi-American army base.
“It was April 19, 2008, and as I drove up to the house, Najla ran towards me, holding out her arms and smiling,” recalled her father, Imad Lafta, 56, who worked at the time on communications technology for the Iraqi Army.
“I got out of the car to help her get into the passenger seat, but as she pulled open the door, the sticky bomb exploded,” he said, looking away from his daughter as he recalled the moment.
“You know, I was so careful. I never parked in the base because I was afraid of my car being seen coming and going and being targeted, but someone must have seen me.”
When the bomb exploded, Najla said she felt “a huge blow; it was like a fire was in my body and I saw my arm fly into the air to near to our neighbor’s house.”
She could not feel her legs.
Her father rushed her to the hospital, but she was losing so much blood the doctors were not sure they could save her.
“I was at the hospital three months and once I realized I had lost my legs and arms I cried and cried and became angry because I knew I had lost everything,” she said.
It was this depression, in part, that brought Najla to table tennis.
Five years ago, sad that she could not run like her classmates, she bought a table tennis paddle to give herself something to do when she finished her homework. But it quickly proved frustrating.
She had begun life as a right-handed person but with that hand gone and no prostheses, she struggled to learn to use her left, hitting the ball over and over against the wall of her family house.
She kept thinking that if she could just have legs, she could run to the ball instead of having to reach and hope it would not fly too high or too low.
Her father went to a hospital in Baghdad and implored the staff members to give prostheses to his daughter.
Eventually they did, but they were poorly made and hurt so much she could not walk in them. Then her father heard that there might be better prostheses in another province. After scrimping together the cash to pay for them, he brought the new ones home, only to find that these too were a poor fit. A third and fourth attempt also failed to get her prostheses that did not hurt.
“The quality matters,” he said. “The best are from England.”
But a prosthetic leg from Britain can cost $15,000 and one fitted for an athlete costs much more. Najla needed three limbs and with her father’s retirement income of $400 a month, even one prosthetic limb was beyond the family’s reach.
Dejected over his inability to help his daughter, Mr. Lafta asked a friend who coached table tennis and scouted for Iraq’s Paralympic team to stop by and give her some lessons.
Najla remembers the day Hossam Hussein al-Bayat came to the family’s house — a traditional Iraqi compound with individual rooms built around a common courtyard with an outdoor toilet and water from a communal well down the street.
“He said to me, ‘I want you to take that paddle and start training daily,’” she recalled.
She took him at his word and began to work one to two hours a day on her strokes.
After watching her and seeing her improvement in a short time, his assessment was that because of her drive, “she has the potential to be very good,” Mr. al-Bayat said.
Once a week he would bring her to his house to practice, coaching her until she was ready to compete against disabled players from other provinces.
She was only 12 when she won a place on the country’s Paralympic team. The key for her success, she said, was not to look at the other players — table tennis is a game where players routinely use psychological tricks to disarm their opponents.
“I was a little scared,” she recalled. “I was talking to myself, saying ‘just focus on the ball, just focus on myself, if I focus on her, I will be afraid,’” she said referring to her opponent.
When Najla plays, her eye is always on the ball — it is her friend and her enemy; its speed, spin and arc are her sole concern.
“What amazed me in Najla is that she is from a very poor family and lives in a neighborhood where squatters live and she has only one arm and she is the champion of Iraq and took the golden medal in the Iraqi championship and took the silver medal in Asia,” said Aqil Hameed, the head of Iraq’s Paralympic Committee.
“Really I consider this a miracle and the persistence and the effort and the hope that Najla has must be a big lesson for us and for all of the Iraqis,” Mr. Hameed added.
Najla practices two or three hours a day at home — her family bought a playing table that takes up almost all the space in one of the compound’s rooms — barely leaving enough space for her to practice with her sisters.
She is closest with an older sister, Zainab Emad Lafta, 17. “I am with her in everything,” said Zainab. “We go to school together and we read together and go out together and we go to the markets together to buy clothes.”
Once a week Najla travels to Baghdad to practice at the Paralympic team’s training center with Jamal Jalal Hussein, a former member of Iraq’s national table tennis team and the coach of the country’s Paralympic team.
The atmosphere at the center lifts her spirits, Najla said, as she trains with other disabled athletes of all ages.
The Paralympics committee recently bought prostheses for Najla, and these are far better than the ones she had before but they are still not the kind made for athletes.
“To be honest, nothing compares to having legs and arms,” Najla said with a wistful look on her face. “But at least I am happy with what I have done.”
Falih Hassan contributed reporting.
Alissa Johannsen Rubin is the Baghdad Bureau chief for The New York Times. @Alissanyt