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
“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
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
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”.