Only A Game? - The Afghan boxer who took on the Taliban

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Murder, drug addiction, female inequality and corruption are commonplace in modern day Afghanistan but scratch the surface of this wondrous country and it soon becomes clear that sport is doing more than its fair share to help Afghans towards a more peaceful and tolerant future.

Hardly a week passes by without us hearing the news that civilians, insurgents or members of the coalition forces have lost their lives in Afghanistan.

Pakistani Taliban group commander Mullah Dadullah (R), who is holding 23 teenagers hostage, speaks to the media in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area of Kunar and Bajaur tribal region in this September 6, 2011 file photo. A NATO air strike in eastern Afghanistan has killed a commander of the Pakistani Taliban, both NATO and the Taliban said on August 25, 2012. Both sides identified the dead commander as Mullah Dadullah and said several of his comrades were also killed in the attack on Friday. REUTERS/Stringer/Files (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY POLITICS MILITARY OBITUARY PROFILE)

Pakistani Taliban group commander Mullah Dadullah (R), who is holding 23 teenagers hostage, speaks to the media in the Afghanistan-Pakistan border area of Kunar and Bajaur tribal region in this September 6, 2011 file photo. A NATO air strike in eastern Afghanistan has killed a commander of the Pakistani Taliban, both NATO and the Taliban said on August 25, 2012. Both sides identified the dead commander as Mullah Dadullah and said several of his comrades were also killed in the attack on Friday. REUTERS/Stringer/Files (AFGHANISTAN - Tags: CIVIL UNREST TPX IMAGES OF THE DAY POLITICS MILITARY OBITUARY PROFILE)

The country has long had an association with violence and war and since the 2001 American-led invasion almost 15,000 innocent civilians have been killed as a direct result of the conflict - that’s over eight times the number of civilians killed during the 30 years of the Troubles.

Afghanistan is a country with an abundance of problems and has very little in the way of answers but there are those who refuse to take no for an answer.

In July of this year, the Guardian obtained footage which clearly shows a member of the Taliban using a machine gun at point blank range to execute a woman accused of adultery. The killing took place in a village in the Parwan province near Kabul and afterwards a crowd of 150 men clapped and cheered.

Will Afghanistan ever know peace? I don’t think there’s anyone who can accurately answer that question but one thing is for sure, there are people who are willing to try.

Afghanistan's Rohullah Nikpai attends a press conference with his bronze medal awarded n the men's taekwondo -58 kg class at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Afghanistan's Rohullah Nikpai attends a press conference with his bronze medal awarded n the men's taekwondo -58 kg class at the Beijing 2008 Olympics in Beijing, Wednesday, Aug. 20, 2008. (AP Photo/Matt Dunham)

Last week, in a building designed for meetings of tribal elders in Kabul, an Afghan-born German boxer, by the name of Hamid Rahimi, competed in the country’s first ever professional boxing match.

The fight, billed ‘the fight for peace’, saw Rahimi take on and defeat Tanzanian Said Mbelwa to become World Boxing Union middleweight champion.

Rahimi was odds on favourite to beat Mbelwa but the way in which his country men celebrated the victory was as if he had slain the great Mohammad Ali or the terrifying Mike Tyson.

Rahimi’s victory could not have been further removed from the glitz and glamour more commonly witnessed in places like the Odyssey Arena in Belfast or MEN Arena in Manchester. As each round came and went, there was not a scantily clad woman in sight, nor could alcohol be purchased - people had literally come from all over Afghanistan to witness Rahimi fight - nothing more, nothing less.

Some claimed that they had risked the wrath of the Taliban attending the fight whilst others said they had to sell their mobile phones in order to gather the money needed to buy the $60 to $150 seats.

More than 1,000 people from different ethnic backgrounds were inside the hall to watch the fight. Diplomats, politicians, including the country’s intelligence chief, watched on too.

The Rahimi fight was more than just a boxing match; it was a statement of intent by a country determined to win what was has become an almost constant war of attrition. The power of sport to say what 1,000 words could never achieve was at its purest.

When Mbelwa admitted defeat in the seventh round, riot police moved towards the ring but even they could not hide their emotion as some of them were so overcome with delight that they went inside to congratulate their fellow country man.

The Taliban, who were ousted when the coalition forces invaded after 9/11, banned boxing towards the end of their rule. The support shown for Rahimi before, during and after the fight conveyed a sense of national togetherness that could only ever be achieved through the vehicle of sport.

Boxing is not the only sport striving towards peace in Afghanistan.

Last month, a soccer team representing the western region of Afghanistan, Toofan Harirod, beat north-western team Simorgh Alborz 2-1 in a final held near the notorious Ghazi stadium, where the Taliban held public executions during their 1996-2001 reign.

Each of Afghanistan’s 34 provinces were represented in the competition and Afghan Taekwondo Olympian, Rohullah Nikpai, who won bronze medals in Beijing and London was the first on to the pitch to congratulate the winning team.

To most people from the west, Afghanistan is harsh and conservative but the country is making progress through sport.

On the same night that Toofan Harirod lifted the premier league trophy, two Kabul-based women’s football teams played in front of the largest ever crowd for a women’s match on Afghan soil.

Sport will always play second fiddle when it comes to hard breaking news - it’s the nature of the beast but never underestimate its ability to unify and heal. It’s escapism with a twist of national pride at its finest. It’s naive to even entertain the idea that a single professional boxing match or a game of football could remedy the problems of a war-torn tribal nation such as Afghanistan but as Rahimi said after his victory over Mbelwa, “it’s a start”.