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Friday, December 16, 2011

Refurbished Kabul stadium retains memories of Taliban abuse

Thousands were forced to watch Taliban justice in Ghazi Stadium (Source: Rawa.org)


By James M. Dorsey

For years, even the night watchmen didn’t dare enter Kabul’s Ghazi Stadium afraid that the dead would haunt them. Many Afghans were convinced that grass didn’t grow in the sports complex because its pitch had been soaked in blood. Afghan filmmaker Sedigh Barmak remembers not only those that were executed, stoned or mutilated by the Taliban but also the 2,500 films they burnt in the stadium. A match played in 2001 after the overthrow of the Taliban between US-led international forces and an Afghan team did little to push those memories into the distant past.

Afghan leaders together with US ambassador Ryan Crocker and the US commander in Afghanistan, Gen. John Allen, hope that this week’s festive opening of the completely refurbished 25,000 seat stadium will do what past efforts have failed to achieve. The refurbished stadium is intended to symbolize progress as NATO forces increasingly withdraw from a country that has known little else than war for more than 30 years and faces a Taliban-led insurgency.

Some 5,000 spectators watched male and female parade on a resurfaced track that surrounds a bright green artificial grass pitch funded by the US that was inaugurated with a soccer match. Many of the spectators saw their sport careers destroyed during the Taliban’s rule; others still have vivid memories of the terror that haunted the stadium.

Despite women’s participation in the parade that contrasted starkly with the Taliban’s concerted effort to restrict women to their homes, women sports remain controversial in Afghanistan. The 24 members of the women’s national soccer team largely try to keep their passion discreet, according to team captain Zahran Mahmoodi.

One of the team’s defenders says that she tells family and friends that she is going shopping whenever she heads for the pitch. Some families only agreed to let their daughters play once they had been convinced that there were no men present during matches and training sessions and that the girls would play with their heads and bodies covered.

As a result, it is unlikely that the women’s team will play any time soon on the stadium’s new pitch that is expected to be certified by soccer world governing body FIFA so that it can host international games. Afghan National Olympic Committee president and a former military goalkeeper Lieutenant General Mohammad Zaher Aghbar told Reuters he hoped that the stadium would host its first (male) international match in early 2012.

"Men and women, girls and boys, can (now) watch a peaceful match together," said Afghan journalist Zaibullah, according to Reuters, as he watched the parade. Pointing to a corner in the pitch’s penalty area, Zaibullah recalled Islamic punishments administered by the Taliban in the stadium.

"There was a thief who stole something from his village ... they cut his hand, right here. A man and a woman were having illegal sexual relations. They were caught, brought here, given 100 lashes each and told to marry each other ... I also saw people beheaded and shot. Afghans will never forget these bad memories,” he said.

"The place that once was used to execute people during the Taliban, and then football played on their blood, is now turned into a peaceful place. Sport helps societies get together, it will strengthen our national solidarity," Lt. Gen. Aghbar said.

That solidarity absent in the strife-torn nation, Afghan and US officials, is vested in the stadium’s name. The title ghazi is bestowed in the Muslim world on fighters who kill infidels in battle, but in Afghanistan it also refers to those who lost their lives in battles for independence against the British in the early 20th century.

Nonetheless, like in the case of Zaibullah, the memories of the punishments meted out in the stadium by the Taliban in line with its severe interpretation of Islamic law that were forcibly attended by thousands are never far from the surface.

Daud, a driver, remembered in a conversation with Agence France Presse, the execution in 1999 of Zarmeena, a woman accused of killing her husband. Dressed in a blue burqa she was made to kneel on the pitch. "The Taliban got the Kalashnikov, put it behind her head and shot her two times. She fell down on the ground. The crowd went very quiet. It was a strange and dangerous atmosphere. People were shocked and scared. Sometimes I remember that woman, I even dream about it,” Daud said.

James M. Dorsey is a senior fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies at Nanyang Technological University in Singapore and the author of the blog, The Turbulent World of Middle East Soccer.

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