War-weary Afghan youth turn to snowboarding for thrills

Tameem Akhgar

KABUL, AFGHANISTAN (AP) — Aspen! Zermatt! Kabul?

While Afghanistan’s capital may seem an unlikely destination for snowboarders, a group of young Afghans is looking to put the city on the winter sports map and change perceptions about their war-weary nation.

Kabul is better known for its hulking concrete blast walls and tense security checkpoints. But it also sits in a valley in the Hindu Kush mountains at an elevation of around 1,800 metres. The rugged terrain has inspired young Afghans to take to the surrounding mountains in search of fun.

Ahmad Romal Hayat, 22, who founded the Afghanistan Snowboarding Federation, said that even a country plagued by war and sectarian conflict can have room for sports.

“We started doing it (snowboarding) to show this new face to the world,” said Hayat.

ABOVE & BELOW: Ahmad Romal Hayat, 22, a founder of the Afghan snowboarding federation adjusts snowboards during a practice session in the snow-covered hilltop on the outskirts of Kabul, Afghanistan; and Ahmad Sorush, 22, a member of the Afghanistan Snowboarding Federation practises on the outskirts of Kabul. PHOTOS: AP

Ahmad Sorush, Nizaruddin Alizada, Karim Faizi and Mohammad Farzad during a practice session on the outskirts of Kabul

As a teenager, he started out on a skateboard. Later, he bought a snowboard in neighbouring Iran and taught himself how to ride it. Hayat said he’s the first person to bring a snowboard into Afghanistan, and the first to try it there.

These days, he and handful of federation members hit the slopes outside Kabul each weekend, usually with around a dozen male and female students and plenty of spectators. They come for the free training on a snowy hillside west of the capital, often shrouded in pale grey mist.

The mountain, known as Kohe Koregh, was used by the Afghan mujaheddin to rain artillery and rockets down on Kabul during the Afghan civil war in the 1990s.

Now, it’s a place for laughing kids who sled on plastic bags, while Hayat’s team members work on improving their snowboarding skills on about 60 centimetres of snow.

They still have to share snowboards, and the hill has no lift facility. That means they’ve got to hike back up to the top after each run — a tiring process.

While climbing back up the hill, Karim Faizi described his path to becoming a snowboarding instructor. He fled Afghanistan in 2016 to escape the almost two-decade-old war between the United States (US) and Taleban militants.

He ended up seeking asylum in Germany where he fell in love with snowboarding. In 2018, he returned to Afghanistan, saying he did so without awaiting a final decision on his asylum case.

Now he is worried about the future.

“If the Taleban come back, it’ll be impossible to keep snowboarding, because the Taleban are not sports-friendly people. They want neither peace nor sports,” he said. A few sports, like football and wrestling, were allowed during the Taleban’s harsh religious rule from 1996 to 2001.

Fighting between the Taleban on one side and the US and its Afghan government allies on the other has continued to rage, even as the US works to hammer out a peace agreement with the insurgent group. The US and the Taleban are negotiating a reduction in hostilities or a cease-fire to allow the signing of a peace agreement. That deal would open the way to a broader post-war agreement for Afghans, and allow for the withdrawal of most, if not all, US and coalition forces.

The country’s post-war future and the role of the Taleban remains unclear. The Taleban currently control or hold sway over around half the country.

Right now, the only places with enough security to offer winter sports activities are in Kabul and the central province of Bamiyan. Hayat said skiers and snowboarders haven’t been able to explore mountains with great potential in Ghazni and Wardak provinces southwest of the capital because the Taleban hold those areas. Bamiyan province is infamous for once being home to two massive 1,500-year-old statues of Buddha carved into a mountain, which the Taleban blew up in 2001.

But Bamiyan also hosts a skiing competition each year, and the country’s small snowboarding community is set to travel there for an indoor competition on Saturday. They’re also heading east to neighbouring Pakistan’s picturesque Swat valley later this month to take part in an outdoor competition.