Mahmood Abdelsalam Abu Shkewa is a sportsman, a boxer, a champion. He was born in Libya and represented his county in various title matches. “In 1969, before Gaddafi’s coup, a coach named Ramadan Aswad took an interest in me. He was a legend in boxing. I started training daily. I won my first fight in 1971.”
A light heavyweight boxer, Abu Shkewa won the gold in his weight category in Libya in 1972 and started competing abroad. “I visited Algeria, Italy, Yugoslavia, Cuba, and so many places.” In June 1979, he won a silver medal in Italy and in July, when the African championships were held in Benghazi, Abu Shkewa won gold.
“One day, soon after my win, a group of us were sitting in the garden opposite the sports hall waiting for our coach Ramadan, when a large sand truck approached with cement bricks and Egyptian workers. It was accompanied by a military car with four men armed with Kalashnikovs.”
The men had come on orders from “the leadership” to close down the sports hall. “I tried to discuss the decision, first with the workers who approached me, and then with the military men who told me these were Gaddafi’s orders and it was final.” Abu Shkewa took his belongings and left.
“I was shocked. Sport is love, and socialising, and friendship and championships and ethics. It’s a beautiful thing that enabled me to create friendships in different countries. There are no impurities to sport, so I was shocked and scared.”
As he watched the men build a cement wall around the entrance to the sports hall, he grew fearful that they might harm him too. “Gaddafi had described boxing in his Green Book as barbaric and brutal and had decided to ban it completely. Other sports were also banned.”
That was the last time Abu Shkewa saw a boxing bag until 2011, when he and his friends and fellow sportsmen took over Saadi Gaddafi’s old gym and brought back the sport of boxing to Libya. “I am so proud of my trainees. This year, in the 2012 championships, they won six gold medal and six silver medals.”
His pride is sincere, but Abu Shkewa is sad not to be able to box himself. His fingers are distorted. “They destroyed my hands, the hands that won the African championship,” he says with tears in his eyes. Abu Shkewa is talking about the guards who assaulted him during his 47-day imprisonment in Abu Salim prison in 2004.
“I was imprisoned because I called myself the champion of Africa. Gaddafi was meant to be the star, the superman, no one else.”
Abu Shkewa was in a café one evening and spoke of himself as the boxing champion of Africa. Someone in the café asked: “and Gaddafi?” Abu Shkewa said that Gaddafi had never boxed or competed before and could therefore not be the champ. Silence fell across the café and three days later Abu Shkewa was brought in for questioning.
He was released, but another three days later, he was taken by surprise while driving with a friend. They were stopped by a military car and taken to Abu Salim. They were questioned and released. “I think they were waiting to get me alone so no one could know where I was and ask about me. Two days later I was stopped again, while driving alone, and again taken to Abu Salim. I was alone in a small cell with an Arabic toilet.”
Three days into his imprisonment, a guard came into the cell and insisted Abu Shkewa sleep with his head to the toilet bowl. Abu Shkewa lost his temper and hit the guard, causing him to fall. “The guard left and returned a few days later with four masked men. Each grabbed one of my limbs and forced me to the ground. The guard, who wasn’t wearing a mask, took his revenge and hit my fingers one by one.”
They left Abu Shkewa in pain and screaming. He squeezed the lemons they brought with lunch onto his hands as an antiseptic to avoid infection.
“Instead of honoring me, they imprisoned me and destroyed my hands. I was the first Libyan put forward to the world championships and they prevented me from going.”
Abu Shkewa had been invited to compete at the world championships in Carolina in 1980. The Libyan regime, having banned boxing, then prevented him from travelling and confiscated his passport.