Refurbished Kabul stadium retains memories of Taliban abuse

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 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.

About The Author:
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.