By Ron Synovitz
RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi
December 16, 2021
Silab Nouri is one of nine boxers on Afghanistan’s national team who have been stranded in Serbia since competing in an international tournament there last month.
Their temporary visas to participate in the World Boxing Championships organized by the Amateur International Boxing Association (AIBA) have expired. But they refuse to return to Taliban-ruled Afghanistan.
Instead, they hope to receive humanitarian visas or asylum in any European country that will take them.
“The current situation in Afghanistan is completely messed up,” Nouri told RFE/RL’s Radio Azadi. “We are witnessing suicide bombings, explosions, and targeted killings every day there. We cannot make progress in terms of our sport or our education there.”
“We are waiting in Serbia until we can move to a country where our future athletic activity and our education will be guaranteed,” Nouri said.
Nouri’s 20-year-old teammate Hasibullah Malikzada told RFE/RL that the lives of the boxers will be “in danger” if they return to their homeland.
“We hope we will receive visas from European countries for the sake of our sport and our lives,” Malikzada says.
“After the Taliban came, we couldn’t continue boxing,” the lightweight amateur national champion of Afghanistan explained.
The gym where the team trained in Kabul was closed shortly after the Taliban seized power in August. But the boxers continued to train secretly for months, moving their equipment in gym bags to undisclosed locations for each workout.
Malikzada says is he also is worried about the safety of his relatives because some family members had ties with the government that was ousted by the Taliban.
He also says his brothers had joined the anti-Taliban resistance movement in the Panjshir Valley north of Kabul — a group of former government troops and militia fighters who had briefly staged a last stand against the militant group.
“If the Taliban find us, they will kill us,” Malikzada says. “I just want to be a champion. I really want this. This is my dream.”
Hundreds of athletes and sports administrators have fled their homeland since the Taliban forcibly seized power, including top male athletes as well as female soccer, volleyball, and basketball players.
Their fears have been driven partly by the Taliban’s rule of Afghanistan during the 1990s when many sports were considered “against human dignity” and banned along with music, films, and other forms of entertainment.
This time, the Taliban has claimed it will not ban any sport so long as it complies with its tribal interpretation of Islamic law. But it has not confirmed whether it will allow women to play any sports.
Afghan athletes have also been alarmed by the mounting reports of human rights abuses committed by the Taliban, including extrajudicial killings, arbitrary arrests, and torture.
Waheedullah Hameedi, the secretary-general of the Afghanistan Boxing Federation (ABF) who traveled to Belgrade with the team, says the saga is “a painful story.”
Hameedi says nobody wants to leave their homeland. But he has received “too many warnings” from family and friends who say he should not return to Afghanistan.
The 24-year-old Hameedi inherited the post as Afghanistan’s top boxing administrator from his father, who was assassinated by the Taliban in 2019 for recruiting women to the sport.
With the responsibility of the Afghan team now in his hands, Hameedi has been sending desperate messages from Belgrade to contacts around the world in the hope that someone will help.
According to Hameedi, the Afghan boxers have faced numerous threats from the Taliban.
“Boxing is ‘haram’ for the Taliban — something that is forbidden,” he says.
Taliban members who were appointed as de facto officials in the Afghan National Olympic Committee (ANOC) deny that the lives of the boxers are at risk if they return to Kabul.
Dad Mohammad Nawak, the Taliban’s chief information officer at the ANOC, told RFE/RL that his department has been in contact with some of those who have expressed fears about returning home from Belgrade.
Nawak insists they will be safe, saying the Taliban “has proven to be a strong supporter of sports.”
But that has failed to allay the fears of Afghan athletes, who have heard tales of brutality committed by the Taliban in recent months.
Nada Al-Nashif, the United Nations deputy high commissioner for human rights, has expressed alarm about “continuing reports of extrajudicial killings across the country, despite the general amnesty announced by the Taliban” after it regained power.
“Between August and November, we received credible allegations of more than 100 killings of former Afghan national security forces and others associated with the former government,” Al-Nashif said on December 14.
“At least 72 of these killings [were] attributed to the Taliban,” he said. “In several cases, the bodies were publicly displayed. This has, of course, exacerbated fear among this sizeable category of the population.”
Mahjabin Hakimi, a member of the Afghan women’s youth volleyball team, was reportedly beheaded in Kabul in August as the Taliban was advancing into the city.
Zaki Anwari, a 19-year-old member of the Afghan national youth soccer team, was crushed to death by the landing gear of a U.S. evacuation flight he had grabbed onto in a desperate attempt to stow away shortly after the Taliban arrived in Kabul.
Video footage showed Anwari’s body falling from the plane. U.S. military officials confirmed that human remains were also found in the landing gear after the flight arrived in Qatar.
International Olympic Committee (IOC) President Thomas Bach has called for other countries to help evacuate more than 700 athletes who remain in Afghanistan, asking foreign governments to help secure humanitarian visas.
“There are still many members of the Olympic Community in Afghanistan who are at risk,” Bach said. ‘We have to and we will continue to help them.”
“But we need for this the support of as many as possible governments and national Olympic committees,” Bach said. “We can only get them out in many cases if we can give the assurance that they are welcomed by humanitarian visas in countries.”
‘What To Do Next’
The new Taliban regime’s efforts to present a moderate image than its rule from 1996 to 2001 has included attempts to promote the men’s national cricket team.
But it has not yet made a formal ruling about the future of boxing in Afghanistan.
Bashir Ahmad Rustamzai, the Taliban’s new sports chief, said in September that the militants “will not ban any sport, unless it does not comply with Shari’a law,” although he did not confirm if women could participate in any sports.
The Taliban did give the Afghan boxers permission to go to Belgrade after talks in Qatar between IOC delegates and the Taliban-appointed head of the ANOC. The Taliban maintains a political office in the Gulf state.
“Both parties reiterated the fundamental right to access and practice sport safely for all individuals without discrimination,” the IOC said in a statement.
But the IOC also said it “continues to recognize the existing National Olympic Committee of Afghanistan” rather than the ANOC’s Taliban-appointed de facto leadership.
That meant the Afghan boxers in Belgrade could not compete under Afghanistan’s flag.
Allowing that would have meant the AIBA was offering de facto recognition of the Taliban as Afghanistan’s legitimate government — something no country has done yet.
Instead, the Afghan boxers competed as members of the AIBA’s “Fair Chance” team — a group composed of athletes from countries torn by crisis and war.
Now that the international tournament is over, Hameedi says the Afghan boxers do not want to cross borders illegally to reach the European Union.
But he says he has contacted several European embassies in Belgrade about obtaining humanitarian visas and asylum.
Although he says some EU countries have already turned them down, they have not given up hope.
Marko Stambuk, an attorney who works with the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, says the Afghan boxers have contacted the group and have been advised about their asylum options in Serbia.
But the team members have not yet applied for asylum in Belgrade.
“Now they are thinking about what to do next,” Stambuk says.