Noel Martin's Final Struggle: Neo-Nazi Victim Battling to the Death

By Roman Heflik in Birmingham

Noel Martin plans to take his own life in less than a year. Just over 10 years ago, a neo-Nazi attack left him paralyzed from the neck down. He plans to fight right-wing extremists to the very end.

Noel Martin has only 297 days left. But time, he says, is also limited for the neo-Nazis who ruined his life.
Roman Heflik

Noel Martin has only 297 days left. But time, he says, is also limited for the neo-Nazis who ruined his life.

Noel Martin has already chosen July 23, 2007 to be the day he dies. On that evening, his pulse will gradually slow down until it stops completely. He has decided to die as a result of a lethal blend of drugs -- administered in Switzerland by Dignitas, an organization that offers its clients medically assisted suicide.

Martin publicly announced his decision in June, 10 years after the attack that left him paralyzed and destroyed his will to live. He plans to celebrate his last birthday -- he'll be 48 - and then drink the cocktail that will put him out of his misery.

He has 297 days left.

The attack occurred on June 16, 1996 in Mahlow, a town in the former East German state of Brandenburg where the dark-skinned, Jamaican-born Briton was employed as a construction worker. A stone crashed through the windshield of his car and Martin's car veered off the road. He remembers seeing a tree careening towards him and jerking the steering wheel.

And then, a thud. Darkness.

When Martin woke up, he was lying on his back. He heard a voice. "Can you feel my hand on your leg?" it asked him. "But you're not touching my leg," Martin replied.

"I am not a part of life. I just exist"

Two young Germans, Sandro R. and Mario P., had thrown a lump of concrete at Martin's car. They were 17 and 24 years old at the time and their motive was "explicit xenophobia," as a court later determined. They were sentenced to five and eight years in prison. Noel Martin never got an apology, but by now he doesn't care any more. "It would be a waste of time. God will take care of them," he says, "life will take care of them." Both of his attackers are now free. But Martin is still imprisoned - in his own body.

The attack left Noel Martin paralyzed from the neck down. "I am not a part of life," he says, 10 years and three months later, "I just exist." At home in Birmingham, he leans his heavy head against the headrest of his giant wheelchair. He fixes his weary eyes on his interviewer. "Everything has to be figured out by your head. It's torture, mental torture," he sighs. Martin will never be able to move his arms or legs again and he'll never be able to feel what his fingertips touch. He'll never have sex again, never go to the toilet by himself. Nor will he ever feel his own heartbeat.

Martin feels comparatively happy this afternoon. He was up at 8:00 and it only took until noon for him to be washed, massaged, and dressed.

Mornings aren't always this easy. Sometimes his ulcers bleed and bleed, until his dark face goes ashen and his eyes fall shut from sheer exhaustion. Sometimes his nurses slap his face to wake him up again. They have to slap his face - that's the only part of his body that Noel Martin can still feel.

Losing control of your body hurts

On this particular afternoon, the idea of death seems absurd. Warm rays of sun shine through the garden window, casting patterns of light on the living room carpet. He looks around at the gilt moulding between the high ceiling and the green walls, at the heavy wooden furniture, the red leather couch and his television. There's a little fire place built into one wall. His huge old desk is covered with photo albums and sheets of paper. Dozens of birthday cards line the cornice along the wall. The room is full of life. This is Martin's kingdom. This is where he spends almost every day.

His wheelchair is in the middle of the room. His nurses have dressed him in black trousers and a casual black sweater. His roundish paunch protrudes underneath the sweater. "I used to be fit," Martin says. "I used to run in the mornings. Then I would do sit-ups. I did kung-fu and boxing too." Today he's plagued by chills and hot flashes. His broad shoulders have gone slack. He still has some control over his right shoulder - which allows him to operate his wheelchair with a joystick and use his phone. Apart from that, Martin needs the assistance of his eight nurses for everything else.

They keep an eye on him 24 hours a day. Even now, a small woman with a blonde ponytail is standing in the doorway. "Cath, give me some wine please," Martin says. The nurse reaches him a glass of chilled white wine. He drinks it through a straw. "Good. Give me a cigarette please," he says. Cathy puts one in his mouth and lights it. Martin takes a drag. Then Cathy removes the cigarette from his mouth - until he wants to take another drag.

This constant dependence on other people is agony for Martin. "I can never be alone." The self-confident man suffers from his loss of control. Suddenly he twists his face into a grimace - he can't stand it anymore. "Cath, scratch please." The nurse wipes his face with a towel. This will happen about 10 times before the afternoon is over.

"You can't suffer every day of your life"

Jacqueline, his strong-willed wife, used to take care of him. She died of cancer six years ago. Two days before she passed away, they married at Jacqueline's sickbed -- after having lived together for 18 years. Martin says he spent 36 hours with her after their marriage before she fell into a coma. "I miss her every day," he says. His voice, which normally sounds so resolute, cracks. He can see her grave outside in the garden.

After the attack, he promised Jacqueline to try and hold on for eight years. On the evening of July 23, 2007, 11 years will have passed since the event that changed his life forever.

Martin's announcement that he plans to commit suicide has caused an uproar. The phone rang constantly for days. "The only one who didn't call was God," he jokes. Countless journalists asked him for an interview and outraged Christians urged him not to commit such a sin. But Martin says he doesn't need their advice. "Cath, cigarette please." He takes a deep drag and says that "99 percent of them" would already have "ended it all" years ago, in his situation. What does he think about other handicapped people who want to "end it all"? "Suffering is individual," he replies. "And you can't suffer every day." No, he says, he's not afraid to die. "No one escapes death anyway." He seems relaxed now - almost cheerful. These are thoughts he has often thought.

Neo-Nazis are already celebrating the imminent death of the man they despise in their Internet forums. After all, the attack gave rise to an unprecedented campaign against xenophobia. Citizens in Mahlow spontaneously started up a local project called "Tolerant Mahlow." Martin returned to the city in 2001 and he called on its citizens to continue to stand up for the rights of others. He also established a charitable foundation against xenophobia.

Right-wing extremists, for their part, see it as a provocation that he is still alive. One of their Internet forums features a post by a neo-Nazi urging Martin to burn himself alive on a market square, noting that this would save money. The author of the post adds that he would be "happy to donate the gasoline." What does Martin think about the neo-Nazis? "Foolish people who know nothing about life. They love white skin, but they lie down in the sun to get a tan." He says to let them talk - after all, there is such a thing as freedom of speech. "I wasn't afraid of them then, and I'm not afraid of them now," he says.

Noel Martin hasn't yet turned his back on life

Black people still aren't safe in Brandenburg today, 10 years after the attack on Noel Martin. "The government should make sure everyone can go wherever they want and be safe," he says. Martin knows how far-reaching the problem is. The first time he heard the word "nigger" was decades ago, back home, in the British industrial town of Birmingham.

And so Martin wants to make the most of the time that's left before the evening of July 23, 2007. His nurses, Cathy and Charity, spread out sheets of paper on the carpet. Martin discusses his appointments with the two nurses and makes a few phone calls. He hasn't turned his back on life yet. He's working on his book and in October he has a meeting with Brandenburg's governor, Matthias Platzeck in London. Later, he wants to return to Mahlow another time.

"I want to tell people they should stop apologizing for their past. They should just teach their children the value of life," he says. He's sure to receive public attention now - and Martin is using it to support his foundation and other projects.

The right-wing extremists may well celebrate his death as a late triumph, but Noel Martin takes a very different view. "I have some bad news for those people," Martin says. He raises his head and his voice as if he were preparing to give a speech: "Of the 6 billion people in the world, 5 billion are people of color. Sooner or later they'll all mix." He grins. "Who knows? Maybe the children of these Nazis will marry a black man or a black woman one day?"

He likes the idea. The Nazis are running out of time - with or without Noel Martin.

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