Article by Antoinette de Jong/ Caritas International
(Caritas International is a partner organization of AABRAR and has been supporting our programs through member organizations Trocaire and Caritas Germany).

Disabled Afghan athletes ready for Paralympics 2004
“Go Marina! Go!” A hundred meters down the running track, trainer Sultan Mahmood brings down his arm to give the starting signal to his young pupil. The 13-year old girl takes off, wearing a training suit over her traditional shalwar kamiz in the suffocating heat of the dust bowl that is Kabul’s Olympic Stadium.
Fourteen seconds later Marina crosses the finishing line and together with her trainer, wanders across the field to a water hose. “Here, have some water, but don’t drink too much. Just a little”, says Sultan. He holds the water hose while Marina Karim splashes the water in her face and takes small sips carefully. Then she gets ready for another attempt at improving her 100 meters.

The stadium is the same where the Taliban used to held their public amputations and executions. Gruesome images of the execution of a woman in burqa, shot through the head by a Talib-soldier with a Kalashnikov gun were broadcasted around the world.
Now, two young athletes are training here every other day to prepare for the 2004 Paralympics in Athens which will start in September after the other Olympic Games.

Qaher Hazrat is cycling on the same track, carefully avoiding Marina as he races by.

He lost both his lower legs in 1996 as he stepped on a land mine put there by the then government to stop the Taliban in their advance on Kabul, but the city, of course, fell anyway. Marina’s disability was not caused by war. As a baby she was left too close and too long next to a sandali, an Afghan stove with a thick blanket thrown over it where the whole family huddles under during the harsh winters. Sustaining severe burns, both Marina’s feet had to be partly amputated.

Selected by the International Paralympics Committee, Marina and Qaher are the first Afghans to take part in the Paralympic Games. Resources of the Afghan Paralympics Federation are extremely limited. Outside the stadium are three exercising benches exposed to the elements. Inside, there is only a small dark room with one rack storing the other assets of the Federation: 15 basketballs, 10 volleyballs, a few bags with sports clothes and some weights. On the floor are two pairs of sneakers.

Marina does not have real running shoes. Her very basic sports shoes don’t support her feet properly. To make them fit her amputated feet, Marina stuffs them with cotton. Trainer Sultan Mahmood who took part in the Moscow Olympics of 1980 as a wrestler, says his athletes lack almost everything, including proper food. “Look at Marina”, he says. “Today she has no energy. She has only eaten beans. She does not have the money for milk or fruit”.

In the south-west part of Kabul, the most destroyed part of the city, Marina’s parents explain they have fled from one place to the next during the war. “Our own house was destroyed when the Russian bombed it”, says Marina’s father, Syed Karim. Now the big extended family lives in a derelict house for which they pay no rent. It’s partly collapsed and pockmarked by bullet holes and shrapnel. Syed Karim: “I don not have a job, but some of the boys go out to sell water and cigarettes”. Nobody in the family had ever heard of the Paralympic Games, but says Marina’s mother Shireen Jan: “We wish all things good for her and for her brothers and sisters. We hope she becomes a famous athlete”.

Both Marina and Qaher take part in programs supported by Caritas Internationalis through its member organizations Trocaire and Caritas Germany. The programs aim for rehabilitation and improving of employment opportunities for disabled Afghans.

Qaher learned to cycle through a program that set up a courier service where all messengers are disabled men delivering letters, parcels and even pizzas throughout the capital. For girls and women cycling is taboo in conservative Afghanistan, but Marina and other young girls and women are taking sewing classes to be able to take on tailoring work and thus gain some measure of economic independence. It gives them the possibility to provide for their families.

Dr. Baseer, director of Caritas partner-organization AABRAR, that runs the messenger service and the tailoring classes for women, says economic independence is very important: “For women, the problems that come with disability are twice as big as for men. Some are rejected by their husbands and they lose their children. When disabled women start earning money, their position within the family improves as they get economic power”. He is thrilled about Marina and Qaher going to the Paralympics: “They are champions among the disabled. For Afghanistan’s disabled this is very imported. For the last few decades we have been completely isolated and we were left out the international family. Now our disabled will meet disabled from other countries and see what they can achieve”.

Qaher Hazrat confirms this. He was already cycling in Germany, taking part in a “Cycling for Peace” race. “Our people have to learn to deal with disabilities. When I was in Germany, I found people considerate. Cars stopped for disabled people to give way. Here in Kabul, when they see me on the road, they turn the car towards me!”

Veteran aid worker Alberto Cairo is responsible for the ICRC workshop, known to many Afghans with a disability. Cairo’s patients come in with war injuries as there are still a thousand mine accidents every year, “but there are also many patients with diseases that have virtually disappeared in other countries”, says Cairo. “We still see polio and tuberculosis is an enormous problem here. Affected bones can just collapse, but tuberculosis can also kill when it is untreated”. Remarkable in the workshop is that all employees have disabilities too, making them uniquely qualified to work with the patients who have very often been lacking understanding from their employers or even their relatives. Here patients make remarkable progress, often managing to walk again within weeks after losing a limb. Cairo: “Afghanistan is not Europe where you have social workers, welfare and insurances. Here you have to cope with it! Disabled people here are not rejected as such, but often they are forced to depend on charity and not given a possibility to rebuild their own lives”

With war in Afghanistan the reality for more than two decades, the country has a Ministry of Martyrs and Disabled. Minister Abdullah Wardak: “We have no funding to develop programs to allow our disabled to live with dignity. My ministry only has a working force of 1,400. I do not have jobs for a million people”. The Ministry of Martyrs and Disabled only gives out small pensions of 300 Afghanis (6 dollars) a month to some veteran fighters. Wardak: “Of course this is not enough and I am ashamed of it, but slowly, slowly things are improving here. We are building roads and sending our children to school. It’s not just disabled people who need to have an education and develop skills. All Afghans have to do this and build our capacity”.

Raising awareness about disabilities is a task Wardak sees for his ministry. Marina and Qaher participating in the Paralympic Games is a big step forward says the Minister: “By the grace of God, this is a good possibility. I am proud of them. When people are hearing about Qaher and Marina taking part in the Olympics they will understand that disabled people have many capacities. I am proud of them they should try their best to win medals for Afghanistan. I am sure they will do well”.

Copyright © 2004 Afghan Amputee Bicyclists for Rehabilitation and Recreation (AABRAR)