The power of sport in Afghanistan as al-Qaeda, Taliban militants terrorize the country

Afghanisain Akbulat, 35, might be walking home to her family’s village when a group of insurgents accuse her of being a spy, warning her to “go back home.” The militants kidnap her four-year-old son and prevent the rest of her family from leaving the house.

Afghanistan has not seen significant political stability for many years. Al-Qaeda and Taliban militants are still threatening the country’s government. Afghanistan was the venue for a major terrorist attack earlier this year in Kabul, during which 85 people were killed and hundreds injured.

However, for 83 days this summer, Afghanisain was a part of an international effort to bring together 131 people from the tiny mountain village of Ghazni, where she is a member of the local council. She and other members of her family were all helping in a campaign by the Women’s National Gymnastics Association (WNGA) to host the Asia-Pacific Championships for rhythmic gymnastics. For Afghanisain, who trains for the sport in a small room near her home, the Olympics held appeal beyond sport, but also an opportunity to unite a fractured Afghanistan.

“This was an opportunity for us, the Ghazniis, as a people, to share a small peace and show everyone what people of Ghazni can do as a family,” she told the Associated Press on Saturday, speaking to the sister of the U.S. Army sergeant who was killed in Ghazni during the fighting earlier this year. “There is no chaos here. We work together. We live together. We put in all the effort to bring children to the competition,” she said.

More than 100,000 people had to evacuate their homes in the area surrounding the capital Ghazni in mid-August, as clashes raged between Afghan and Taliban militants and NATO and Afghan security forces. Even as the refugees fled, however, Ghazni was hosting four teams for the competitions, including The Japanese Rangers team, who were preparing for the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. And the Asian Gymnastics Association’s general secretary, Shigeru Ogawa, was there, assessing the performance of each of the participating countries.

The performers, who had run around wearing just their tights, said they had no idea they would be treated so well. “I have never seen so many people gathering for a gymnast in my life,” a Japanese player said, telling the news agency AFP how people had traveled hundreds of miles to see the sport he loved.

The Ghazni Games were only one of several successful pushes by aid agencies to draw attention to the gender gap in Afghan sport. An estimated 97 percent of the country’s female population is confined to arranged marriage, according to data released by UNICEF in April. But another study conducted by the U.S. Institute of Peace found that one in three girls were playing in schools or community facilities at the age of 10, and approximately half played at that age.

Both the government and aid groups must increase their efforts, Afghanistan deputy sports minister Fatima Yekini said in a written statement. “We need to bring female footballers in private sector, we need to bring female baton twirlers, we need to bring female volleyball players,” she said.

Afghanistan’s hopes for a return to prestige in world sport hang in the balance. But as one of the participants told the Guardian, the games proved that sports are one of the best tools that the country has to fight against its division.

“We have lots of art in Afghanistan but no music, and lots of music but no art,” Afghanisain’s coach, Kholood Nomanov told the Guardian. “We need both for peace to come back to Afghanistan.”

Read the full story at the Guardian.


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