Sat, Mar 18, 2006 - Page 16 News List

The sport of true warriors

The winter game - a likely precursor to modern-day polo - is a relentless struggle between two teams over a calf that has been beheaded and drained of blood


Aziz Ahmad has spent almost every day of Afghanistan's chaotic years of conflict on horseback.

Much of the time he was a guerrilla, spending long hours in the saddle to fetch weapons from across the mountainous border with Pakistan. But more important to him is the time he spent on something almost as dangerous.

Ahmad plays buzkashi, Afghanistan's passionate national game -- a violent pastime that has brought him honor and wealth.

Buzkashi, a wild contest involving an unlimited number of men on horseback, is believed to have been invented by 13th century Mongol conqueror Genghis Khan to train his troops for war.

The sport still has a proud following, primarily among northern Afghanistan's ethnic Uzbeks, Turkmens and Tajiks.

And Ahmad is -- by reputation -- the best of them all, a distinction he is not shy about.

"I've no rival," the rugged 40-year-old said after a match in Kabul in which he and his chestnut stallion scored eight of the 12 goals.

"He really is the best," agreed other players, dusty and sweaty after the game.

The winter game -- a likely precursor to modern-day polo -- is a relentless struggle between two teams over a calf that has been beheaded and drained of blood. Sometimes the carcass is soaked in cold water for 24 hours to toughen it up, although it is often shredded by the end of play.

Dozens of men -- wearing small caps, a short robe and baggy trousers -- and their charged animals jostle around a circle marked out in a corner of a large dusty field, and fight to bend down and yank out the calf with their hands.

The one able to grab it leads a gallop around the perimeter of the field while fighting off other competitors trying to snatch it away.

The player who eventually manages, after the mad dash around the field, to hurl the carcass back into the circle scores a goal, usually earning himself cash prizes besides points for his team.

The excitement is keenest when the horses are crowded around the circle, trying to block out each other so their tough riders can swoop down to pick up the calf and sprint off to score.

"[They struggle] like it is the end of the world," said a spectator on the edges of the field, long trampled under the hooves of countless horses.

Ahmad said he was only 16 when he first climbed into the saddle for a buzkashi game in his home village in green, valleyed northern Kunduz province. The occasion was a rite of passage into manhood in male-dominated Afghanistan.

"When I got onto the horse, I felt like I was flying," Ahmad smiles. "When I grabbed the calf, I felt like a man.

"Even though I played really badly," he said.

The teenager steadily rose through the ranks of the village-level competition, improving with each match but still unable to beat off his older rivals.

The next winter, the school student had emerged as a successful young horseman and his ambition to be village champion was realized.

"I'd narrowly got what I was dreaming of," said Ahmad, who these days is a father of nine. "At least I was the number one of my own village."

Meanwhile word of his skill was spreading.

At 18 he was conscripted into the army of the fragile Soviet-backed regime that was trying to crush the mujahidin or holy warriors who had risen up against the Soviet Union, which invaded Afghanistan in 1979.

At the same time, he was invited to join the various resistance fronts made up of millions of farmers, students, mullahs and illiterate villagers who had taken up arms against the "infidels."

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