Afghan athletes face uphill task in Pakistan marathon competition

Afghanistan’s 175th national holiday celebrated 30 years since the Soviet invasion, but this year was different because of one family’s message from hell: fleeing the Taliban.

“A ragtag group of us pitched up in Pakistan on March 11 and stayed for two months. There was no news of my parents, and I was on the run,” says Mohammad Aziz Shah, who is running for the first time in the games on his native land.

“When we were asked to travel to the capital [Kabul], there was no way we could do it, so we went to Iran and crossed the border into Pakistan. It was the first time I’d ever crossed any border. I was so frightened, I didn’t sleep much. I didn’t know if it was safe to sleep and feared gunmen could attack us at any time.”

But it wasn’t dangerous for his family. It was through the Iranians and Pakistanis that Aziz’s mother and father were saved from the Taliban.

“My father was abducted from [his wife] Hajji Ziba’s brother’s home, where he’d been staying for a month. It wasn’t until the Iranian border guards searched his phone that they found the last text he’d sent. My mother and all four of my brothers and sisters were detained for four months until they were released.

“It made me feel very bad, I couldn’t have imagined the worst could happen, so when I ran away to Pakistan, I was determined to see my family again.”

A 90-day ban on running, in place because of a case of polio, has forced hundreds of Afghanistan’s runners to run on bare feet in the 10km and 5km races in a case of deja vu for the country’s usually slippery terrain.

Pakistan welcomed refugees from Afghanistan in the wake of the 1979 Soviet invasion, and has some 600,000 Afghans living there, the largest such population outside Afghanistan itself. Pakistan hosts 4.5 million refugees from the 1990s conflict and ethnic wars, many of whom are ethnic Pashtuns – a group at the heart of the Taliban.

Despite today’s unique terrain, the athletes have enjoyed a warm welcome in the southern Pakistani city of Karachi.

“The people have been so hospitable, and they are very excited for the sports events,” says Moiz Murad from Nato district, Afghanistan. “Every time we meet them they love us. They’re very supportive and motivating.”

Hundreds of spectators were able to cheer on their favourites as the athletes strode and ran across the dusty track with the occasional crowd barely managing to catch a glimpse.

It was the second time in two years that Afghanistan’s refugees – a handful of whom were working at the box office – have competed in the Pakistan’s national sports event, which this year hosts nearly 900 athletes from 39 countries. The best runners from each country are moved into the international events.

The events conclude on Saturday with the 10km and 5km races, followed by the national celebrations.

“We’re very glad that the games are happening in Pakistan, in Karachi, and with such positive public support,” says Ibrahim Rahim from Kabul. “We want to show the world the real Afghans. You only hear bad news about Afghanistan. Here we have much more people from other cultural backgrounds, from all over, and we celebrate together. It’s a great opportunity to show the world what Afghanistan is about. There’s no divide, everyone is just human.”

Afghan athletes are a hot topic in Pakistan, where debate has been raging about Afghan refugees. The consciences of Pakistanis in the run-up to the independence day celebrations on 1 June have a lot to consider as they grapple with an estimated 3.7 million Afghan refugees who have taken up residence in Pakistan since the Soviet invasion.

The Delhi Games – in India’s capital city of New Delhi – took place in January this year, with some 26,500 Afghans competing across 11 different sports. At the same time, Pakistan’s counter-terrorism minister Faisal Vawda visited Kabul to assure Afghanistan it would be able to host the 2019 Commonwealth Games.

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