After seeing what happened in the deadly hostage siege that transpired in Algeria over the weekend, you appreciate all the more the way a similar situation some 22 years ago in Iraq — thanks to Muhammad Ali and a man from Dayton — turned out so very differently.
It is one of the most monumental — and least known — accomplishments in Ali’s storied life.
On August 2, 1990, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait and eventually thousands of foreign nationals — including Vernon Nored, a former U.S. Marine who had worked a decade and a half at Wright Patterson AFB and then was on temporary assignment with the Army Corps of Engineers in Kuwait — were brought to Iraq under the guise that they would then be allowed to leave through Jordan.
Instead, they ended up confined to Baghdad as “guests” of Saddam’s regime.
A better word would have been prisoners. While many were simply detained in the city, there were hundreds of others who were turned into human shields as they were confined and sometimes chained to factories, oil refineries and military installations that Saddam feared would end up the targets in air strikes.
Nored — just as he had done for a couple of clandestine weeks in Kuwait before his vehicle was commandeered and he was roughed up by Iraq troops and sent on to Baghdad — set out to covertly gather intelligence and send it to government officials back home.
In Iraq, Nored was no longer on the receiving end of punches. Instead he ended up helping the world’s most famous puncher.
The story — captured in a just-released offering of ESPN Film’s 30 for 30 Shorts series — is called “Ali: The Mission.”
Narrated by John Legend, the nine-time Grammy winning musician from Springfield, the film tells about Ali’s brave and defiant trip to Iraq — an effort initially criticized by President George H. Bush’s White House and many in the media — and its wondrous outcome.
The film resonates with the heartfelt comments of those — including Nored — who were there and becomes especially moving when you hear the former hostages talk about their frightening months of captivity and their everlasting appreciation to Ali for saving them.
The film came be seen via the Internet at Grantland.com .
For an even more personal account you could talk to the 67-year-old Nored, who now lives in Harrison Township with Toni, his wife of 31 years, and their daughter Victoria. Two older sons live in the area, too.
The story is especially thought-provoking now following the bloody four-day siege of that remote oil refinery in Tiguetourine, Algeria by Islamic militants linked to al-Qaida.
Algerian special forces stormed the natural gas complex on three occasions, the final time Saturday. Initial government reports said 32 militants and 23 hostages from several nations — including at least one American — were dead. Officials said those numbers will rise as they scour the massive site.
Escapees told reporters that some hostages had been forced to wear explosives, others had been executed and some had been killed in the initial rescue attempt last Wednesday.
Sunday afternoon, Nored admitted the hostage situation in Iraq could very well have ended up deadly, as well.
Saddam had defied both President Bush and the United Nations — both who demanded he get out of Kuwait. Fearing military reprisal, Saddam took many of the American detainees without special governmental connections and used them as human bargaining chips.
In part because he had a diplomatic passport, Nored had been told to stay in the U.S. embassy. But as he said, “This was not my first rodeo, not my first crisis overseas” — and he promptly began to slip out into the city.
He formed a bond with a small band of Marines and among other things they rescued some hostages, a few, he said, who were “chained to equipment.”
As the months went by, the situation got more dire. Some hostages were in poor health and 15 remained as shields. About that time a peace group headed by former U.S. Attorney General Ramsey Clark contacted Ali to see if he could help try to avert war and save the detainees.
Nored had grown up in Cincinnati and boxed in AAU and Boys Club tournaments. Though a few years younger than Ali — back then known as Cassius Clay — he said they had been in the same tournaments a couple of times.
“He had always been a hero of mine and when word got out that he was coming to Iraq, I was going to do what I could to help him,” he said. “The first night he got there I ended up having dinner with him.”
Nored was told to keep a low profile and not scuttle Ali’s efforts, but he did what he could to help the former three-time heavyweight champ in his early days in Baghdad.
Since Saddam hadn’t agreed to a meeting, Ali spent his time talking to Iraqi people on the street, praying at a mosque and visiting schools.
“He was the most recognizable man in the world then — same as I think he is today,” said Nored. “Everybody knows him wherever he goes — including Iraq back then — and he reacts to that positively.
“He showed himself to be one of the most patient and cooperative individuals of celebrity I’ve ever seen in my life. Hoards of people followed him everywhere there seeking autographs. People wanted to talk to him all day long.
“He’d step out of his hotel room and people would be in the hallway and the hotel lobby and up and down the street. They would forcibly stop his car to talk. And every time he would get out shake their hands, tell stories and do magic tricks.
“He’d be eating and have to have his meal warmed three and four times over because another 50 people would come through the door to talk and he’d oblige.”
But a week into this hectic schedule he ran out of his medicine for Parkinson’s disease and his health began to deteriorate. Soon he could not get out of bed and barely was able to speak.
“His aides ran around like a bunch of dingbats,” Nored said. “They didn’t know their (rear ends) from a hole in the ground.”
No one knew where to get any medicine and finally Nored went out and secretly found Irish doctors in a Baghdad hospital who could help. In return, all they wanted was a photo with Ali.
Ali’s tireless campaign and the way he was beloved by the Iraq people eventually held sway with Saddam. The two met and by the time their session had ended, Ali had secured the release of the 15 hostages and soon all the detainees — including Nored — were on a Freedom Flight back home. Six weeks later Operation Desert Storm’s bombing of Baghdad began.
The ESPN film has footage of various hostages thanking Ali afterward. But to an aide, he’s heard whispering: “They don’t owe me nuthin.”
That is followed with something he said earlier in his career: “I don’t need publicity for helping people. Then it’s no longer sincere.”
And yet hostage George Charchalis just shook his head at such thought and then spoke to Ali for everyone: “You literally saved my life.”
Too bad there was no Muhammad Ali this past weekend.