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Soccer and other sports a dream for the women of Afghanistan


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NEW YORK - Not so long ago, the main sports stadium in Kabul, Afghanistan, was the site of weekly public executions. Every Friday afternoon, just before sundown, packed crowds tumbled into the concrete oval and waited for black-turbaned Taliban to announce the order of its perverse punishment.

Thieves' hands became clumps. Women who dared paint their nails had their fingers sliced by cleavers. Female adulterers took a bullet to the back of the head; unfaithful men were whipped to a bloody crisp. Murderers were executed, often by their victims' relatives, who then hung the limp bodies from goalposts. The most gruesome punishment of all was called walling, a particularly wretched form of savagery reserved for homosexuals, pedophiles and miscreants whom the Taliban considered the most vile. Buried alive under 15-foot piles of cinderblocks, the accused died slowly while 35,000 stood in the sports stadium and cheered.

I visited that stadium in early 2002, before the United States went to war with Afghanistan. Ghosts seemed to lurk behind the rotting barbwire, weeping over unimaginable crimes of humanity. The Taliban had been chased into the shadows, but its draconian form of extremist Islamic law, or Sharia, still contaminated the land. For nearly two decades, the Taliban banned sports and games, deeming them immoral and unlawful. Soccer, volleyball, kite-flying and even chess were prohibited, ostensibly because they might cause youth to miss some of their five daily prayers.

Here are the Kabul fields now, alive with strong voices and happy feet carving divots in the fresh grass. They aren't the most precisely manicured pitches, and the feet aren't always graceful but, oh, those voices! They kick balls, release kites, stretch their boundaries. There might not be a more joyous sound in the world than the sound of healthy children playing sports.

Awista Ayub sensed the void long before most of us. Twenty-three years ago, her parents fled the Soviets' march into Afghanistan, immigrating to Connecticut rather than watching their homeland mutilated by yet another invading country. From her comfy confines in Waterbury, Ayub was raised on stories about an Afghanistan that no longer existed. But what was she to do? She stayed on an All-American path: playing tennis in high school, founding an ice hockey team at the University of Rochester, working toward a career as a research chemist.

Then came that horrible September morning, and nothing was the same. Hijacked planes flew into buildings, killing thousands. While a country mourned and prepped for war, Ayub realized she could change the world. Eventually she quit her job and focused on one little dot on the planet, a blade of grass, really. Soon the power of one became the Afghan Youth Sports Exchange (AYSE), and countless lives were saved.

If that sounds like hyperbole, try telling Shamila Kohestani and Roia Noor Ahmad where they'd be without Ayub's vision. Like tens of thousands of young girls living under Taliban rule, they were forced to remain hidden under burqas and forbidden from attending school. The Taliban had a saying: a woman should leave her house twice - on her wedding day, to go to her husband's home, and when she dies, to be taken to the graveyard. Female mortality rates, nudged by rampant domestic abuse, were alarmingly high, the literary rates shamefully low.

Change doesn't necessarily ride piggy-back with enlightenment. At first Ayub could barely find enough participants to field a complete soccer team. The children who followed her trail often had trouble shaking their individualistic instincts, but eventually they grasped the concept of team. Now the Afghanistan Football Federation, 15 teams strong, features 250 children wearing new cleats and kicking proper balls donated by investors in Ayub's AYSE. Females still train in veils and long pants, and never in front of the public, but at least they aren't stoned for daring to dream.

"We're just trying to empower girls and boys and help them work together to build leadership and structure," Ayub says. "The girls especially are learning life skills through sports. It's amazing to see these young women so positive and happy and productive. We truly believe sports are the gateway to peace and equality in Afghanistan."

Unfortunately, people connected to sports are also prime targets in certain pockets of the Middle East. Armed men wearing camouflage and police uniforms recently raided a sports meeting at a Baghdad cultural center. They reportedly kidnapped dozens, including the president of the National Olympic Committee of Iraq. This followed the abduction of 17 members of an Iraqi tae kwon do squad who were whisked into the desert and never heard from again. The coach of Iraqi's wrestling team was shot dead. Gunman also killed two members and the coach of the Iraqi tennis team; reports suggest the gunmen were Islamic fanatics offended by the length of the tennis shorts.

There are also accounts of the Taliban creeping back into Afghan society, but Ayub, wise and brave at 26, presses forward. She does so without a heavy hand or self-righteousness. Kohestani and Ahmad, two of her teenaged recruits, joined Ayub in Los Angeles last week to accept the Arthur Ashe Courage Award at the ESPYs.

"Their country has to progress within a natural time frame. They have to make their own decisions. It's not my place to tell them why they should do something," Ayub says. "In due time the people will come around. I'm just fortunate to follow my passion at such at an early age and use it to hopefully spark a real change with these girls. I feel like a proud mother when I see how they've turned their lives around and grown into young women who are encouraged to embrace who they are, be opinionated and believe in something. "In 10 years," she adds, "I look forward to seeing what they're able to do with this experience."

During Ayub's April visit to Afghanistan, after one of the AYSE's clinics, she encountered a sticky problem. Voices were indeed getting a workout.

"I went to a girls' basketball practice and a girls' volleyball practice," Ayub says. "Both teams were upset with us because we hadn't come to help them."

A single kick begets two dribbles, then three spikes. That's how the power of one spreads.

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(c) 2006, New York Daily News. Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune News Service.

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