They have led lives of quiet desperation on the margins of society as victims of never-ending wars and prejudice but Afghanistan’s wheelchair basketball team was in celebratory mood as it made its international debut in Italy.
In between a punishing round of matches against Italian teams, members of the national team found time to fool around on the beach after seeing the sea for the first time, splashing around in the water with childish glee.
One of the stars, 31-year-old Mirwais Rahimi, said playing basketball had changed his own life and altered the attitudes of those around him who thought that he could never do sports because he was stuck in a wheelchair.
“In the past I was so depressed. I thought a disabled person cannot do anything else,” said Rahimi, a paraplegic since he was injured by shrapnel 20 years ago in fighting between the Mujahideen while he was working in a shop.
“After I started wheelchair basketball my mind changed, my spirit changed… I have a lot of friends, we talk together, we talk about our problems. Now we are so happy, we don’t think we are disabled,” he said.
Others “look differently at us, they respect us,” he said.
The project is the brainchild of Alberto Cairo, an Italian physiotherapist who has worked in Kabul for the International Committee of the Red Cross ever since the Soviets pulled out of Afghanistan in 1989.
The 62-year-old’s work on physical rehabilitation in Kabul earned him a Nobel Peace Prize nomination in the past and the basketball league he helped create has brought together 250 men and women from six Afghan provinces.
“Physical rehabilitation is often seen as something sad and painful but with basketball it can be done with joy,” Cairo said as he watched his proteges dancing around the field.
Ravaged by 30 years of war, Afghanistan has up to two million people living with some form of disability out of a population of 29 million people.
Many have been hit by landmines, grenades and bullets but many are also victims of poverty in a country where polio has still not been eradicated.
– ‘Very marginalised’ –
“A disabled person in Afghanistan for the most part, through no malice, is very marginalised,” said the team’s US coach, Jess Markt, who has himself been in a wheelchair ever since an accident in childhood.
“They are normally expected to stay at home, food is brought to them, nothing is expected of them.
“Since we started this programme, many of these guys have gone out and gotten jobs, started small businesses of their own… Every player to a man or a woman is a completely different person in terms of their confidence,” he said.
“For me that’s been the most enriching part of this whole thing is just to see them evolve as people,” he said.
“It feels like they are members of my family.”
Markt said the biggest challenges for him when he started working in Afghanistan in 2009 were the language barrier and coaching people who have never played sports before.
“They all grew up in a country where as disabled people sports were not an option. Participatory sports are not very big in Afghanistan anyway,” Markt said.
The 15 players in the Afghanistan team have so far won only one out of several games played in Italy but Markt said the experience had been invaluable for them and had already led to major progress in their tactics.
“It’s a huge burst of confidence for the team,” Cairo said.
And Markt added he was hopeful about a possible participation at the Paralympic Games in Rio in 2016.
“I would love to take them to Rio,” he said.
“Having seen how well they’ve performed over the last couple of years and out here in their first international competition, I would never count them out.”