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It’s the stuff of dramatic world events – 86 Afghan athletes, officials and their families crammed into a plane bound for America to escape the Taliban. It sounds impossible, but it wasn’t.
Kabul airport was shut down during the Taliban’s 13-year reign of terror from 1996 to 2001. Only the most dedicated of travelers managed to get through the chaos to secure passage to Europe or India for the winter. As a result, the ethnic Hazara minority suffered the most. They were particularly vulnerable because their movements were heavily monitored.
The 2010 Hazara Winter Games were not an exercise in high-level athletic competition. At best they were a small family affair, where Afghanistan’s children competed in the soccer games, participated in ski races and had a chance to swim in the English Channel and slide down ramps in a high jump. The winners were awarded a prize for the most pain on the jump or in the high jump.
The Winter Games were originally planned for Bala Murghab, a small village located about 20 kilometers (12 miles) south of Kabul, close to the Pakistani border.
‘Seven to nine people’
So why did Afghan officials choose to hold the competition in the United States?
“It was very difficult for us to hold the event back in Afghanistan,” explained Kandahar governor, Tooryalai Wesa. “When we were planning to hold the Winter Games in our province, it was very difficult. We only had around seven to nine people there. So we decided to take the event to the United States because the Americans would be very helpful to us. They would help us and evacuate us. We called the Americans and were able to get an agreement. The United States was very good to us. They were very good to us.”
In 2008, Kandahar airport was renamed Shindand International Airport to commemorate the female soldiers who died there in battles with Taliban forces.
It’s hard to know how many members of the Hazara ethnic minority were killed by the Taliban. It’s even harder to estimate how many people traveled through Kabul airport each day and were threatened or attacked by the Taliban.
It’s also not an accurate picture of the Hazara population in Afghanistan. There are more than 80 groups of Hazaras with distinct ethnic identities and tribal affiliations, as well as the Tajik minority, and the Uzbek, Hazara, Tajiks and Uzbek minorities. This diversity complicates the definition of ethnicity.
However, according to the Department of State’s “In the 21st Century” report on human rights and the rights of religious minorities in Afghanistan, there were more than 17,000 Hazaras killed by the Taliban.
By the US embassy, 7,629 individuals were killed, and 1,581 female political and religious leaders were killed.
Like many other events held by the Taliban during its rule, the use of sport as a political tool was controversial.
“Sport is not meant to be used as a vehicle for political purposes; it is meant to be a vehicle for active and healthy development of the human body,” the report states.