Disabled man has saved more than 60 lives in 22 years

CHINA - He injured himself rescuing lives from fire when young, lost his love but never his heart and desire to help those in need, and found his true love and an eventual award for his "one man's marathon".

The phrase became trendy online as many Chinese netizens used it to describe the life journey of 39-year-old Abliz Mamatniyaz - a disabled Uygur man who has saved more than 60 lives in the past 22 years - after Xinhua News Agency named him one of the top 10 ordinary citizens who inspired the nation in 2013.

The first time he rushed into a fire in 1991 on National Highway 315 in Moyu county, Mamatniyaz was 17. After he rescued 11 people from a burning minivan, the young man paid a steep price - two arms maimed and almost amputated, a mouthful of teeth gone, and burns over 80 per cent of his body. He was in a coma for three days.

"Lying on my sickbed, I told myself repeatedly: 'The moment I can move, I'll go to the rooftop and jump off,'" Mamatniyaz recalled, coughing from a heavy cold in his rented apartment in the city of Hotan in southern Xinjiang Uygur autonomous region. "I could not tolerate the pain."

At that time, Mamatniyaz had a beautiful girlfriend whom he wanted to spend his life with. But she never visited him during his nearly half-year stay in the hospital.

"The first day I walked out of the hospital, I saw her wedding with another man," he said bitterly. "She must have thought I was the most stupid guy on Earth because I was burned and became disabled while saving others."

Back home, he felt his burnt skin and broken heart. For the next nine years he refused to date. Sadly, he could hardly raise his hands."Your life is done," he was told.

Then came his father, his first and only hero. "Papa told me, 'No storm can fold a real eagle's wings,'" said Mamatniyaz. "I believed him."

For years, he kept trying to turn a steering wheel like before, though no employers dared to hire him to drive. One day, when he was leaning forward and struggling with the wheel using his body weight as usual, he suddenly heard a crack in his arms, and saw his dormant muscles alive again. In 1996, he went back to his most familiar profession, as a driver.

"I have died once in 1991, in that fire. Now I'm living my second life," said Mamatniyaz. "I must do good things to pay it back."

He saved dozens of people in the years to come, including local drivers, passengers of different ethnic groups, Kazakh passers-by, and US tourists. Most were in deadly car accidents on desert highways, according to media reports.

"My papa told me, 'Uygur people, Han people, Kazakh people, outsiders, foreigners, no difference. We are all human.' I'd help whoever is in need," said Mamatniyaz, who holds his father's last words as his life guidance: "Do the good, not the bad," and "Help others, and others will help back."

His father, Mamat Niyaz, a coal miner, was a local hero himself before an accidental death in 2004. In 1971, before Mamatniyaz came to the world, his father dashed into a collapsing coal mine in Urumqi to save several trapped men. A heavy machine dropped down on his right hand, which almost smashed off three fingers. Niyaz could not bend those fingers for the rest of his life.

After Niyaz rushed underground to save colleagues during another coal mine collapse in Hotan in 1978, the doctors wanted to amputate his gangrenous left leg, which got stuck during the rescue, to save him. But Niyaz firmly rejected that. Courage and luck brought him back to life, but he lost the ability to move even slightly fast forever. And all his life, Niyaz helped about 80 lives escape death from various accidents deep under the ground.

"Papa saved more people than I did," said Mamatniyaz, surnamed after his father's full name. "As his son, I must carry on his spirit."

On July 30, 2009, Mamatniyaz broke the window of a burning car on a collision site on a highway 6 km from Hotan, pulled an unconscious man out, drove him to the hospital, and carried him all the way to the emergency room, using his disabled arms that normally could not lift weight more than a dozen kilograms.

"When I'm saving people, I get unlimited strength," says Mamatniyaz, "but once they are safe, I even find it hard to move my fingers. I don't know why."

The saved knew the difference, according to Tianshan Net (www.ts.cn), a news website in Xinjiang. "Big brother," cries Lei Ming to Mamatniyaz in hospital after waking up. "Without you, there would be no me."

True love comes late

In the many public appearances he has made after his story became widely known, Mamatniyaz tearfully thanked his late father, and credited his own achievement to his childhood hero. But he never mentioned his mother, who is still alive.

Mamatniyaz said his mother left the family when he was 7 because she could not stand seeing her husband always spending their limited income on kids who had lost their fathers in coal-mine accidents, and risking his life time after time to save his colleagues.

Fortunately, Mamatniyaz found a wife who understands and supports him.

In 2000, Mamatniyaz finally was persuaded to meet Buzaynap Xirip, a primary school teacher. With no will and no time to prepare, Mamatniyaz came directly from a coal mine, face dirty and black, jacket worn and cheap. But she fell in love with him within 10 minutes.

"I didn't even notice he was disabled until the next day," Xirip, 36, said. "And he said to me, 'I got injured because I saved people's lives. This is who I am. I do whatever I can to save and help people. Are you OK with that? You go back and ask your father. Call my pager if the answer is yes.' Can you believe he said that on our second date?" She laughed out loud.

The next morning, the lucky man's pager rang. Fifty-two days after their first encounter, they got married.

Fourteen years into their marriage, they have a daughter and three sons. Two of the boys are adopted.

The family of six had been living in a rented apartment that had barely enough space, Xirip said. She is happy to see local governments are now helping the family with two low-rent apartments.

Mamatniyaz owns a car-repair company that hires about 60 disabled workers. But Xirip usually rides an electric bike even during the cold winter to send her kids to school.

The business is bringing money in, but Mamatniyaz has given much of his income to orphanages, nursing homes and the army.

"I could have sat in my own car once, but my husband took the money and bought hundreds of tables and chairs for the army. I was really mad, and I ran back to my parents," Xirip said. "But he said to me, 'The money could only make you comfortable, but now it makes hundreds of people happy. Isn't that better?' So what could I say? I came back to him." She said with a laugh.

Now her husband is considering adopting another orphan, who was abandoned because of his disabled legs. "If my wife doesn't agree with me," Mamatniyaz said, "I'll spend all I have to cure his legs. You have my word."

Later in Urumqi, where she was on vacation with their children, Xirip gave a firm reply to her husband's concern. "I love my husband. My husband loves me. That makes our big family good. A couple of more kids? No problem. My mom raised 10. Disabled or not, I don't mind," she said, and took a breath.

"My husband is a really nice man. I love him."