Sadam Chakari still remembers the days when the Taliban banned most sports in Afghanistan. He learnt his first martial art at the age of eight in the basement of a friend’s house.
“A few friends and I set up an underground Taekwondo club in Kabul,” recalls the 24-year-old, who competes in Sambo, a Soviet-style martial art.
Somehow the Taliban got wind of their activities and raided their club, where older children were teaching the younger ones the sport.
“We were beaten by the Taliban police and given strict warning to never indulge in such activities again,” said Mr Chakari. “But a few a weeks later, we met at a different location and continued our practice.”
Perseverance paid off when the Afgani national team brought home a dozen medals from the international 2017 Asian Indoor and Martial Arts Games in Turkmenistan last month.
It was the fifth time the 12-day sporting event had been held, and Afghanistan sent 215 players, who got 26th place out of 65 national teams.
This was the first time Afghanistan had ever won any medals at the games. That it came about despite ongoing war and insecurity made the achievement — and celebrating — all the sweeter.
“Ours is a country of war and being a sportsperson helps me contribute positively to Afghanistan,” said Chakari, who made it to the semi-finals of the Men’s Combat under 90kg category but ultimately lost to Kazakhstan.
From that first act of young rebellion grew a passion for a variety of combat sports and Chakari went on to learn boxing and eventually the Sambo, a sport that came to Afghanistan with the Soviet invasion in the 1980s.
“It’s very difficult and requires a lot of strategy and practice. It is a popular sport among the Russian army men,” he explains.
“There are few things that make me as happy as watching the Afghan flag flying to mark your victory,” says Hekmatullah Hakimi, 33, coach and member of the Afghan national wrestling team.
Hakimi, a winner of the Asian Championship for Belt Wrestling in the 90kg class, led a team that won five of the 12 medals — four bronze and one silver.
Sayed Gul Mehraban and Javid Ahmad Ahmadi won two of the bronze in Men's Classic Style — 82kg and 90kg, respectively. Noor Ahmad Ahmadi and Mustafa Hussaini grabbed the other two bronzes for Men's Freestyle 97kg and Men's Greco-Roman 71kg, while Jawid Ahmad Amiri bagged the silver in Men's Freestyle 62kg.
Most of the competitors were young and, for many, this was their first international competition.
“They were extremely proud and cheered each other. They had tears in their eyes every time Afghanistan won something,” Hakimi said.
The Taliban abhorred most forms of recreation, but they allowed wrestling. Not only did they allow it, they took part in it.
“They had formed a team in Herat and would compete with the local groups,” said Hakimi, who is from the Herat province. “Afghans have been wrestling since the time when the country was called Khorasan.
"It was popular among the people of the Nooristan valley, who may have contributed to developing it to its modern day form.”
Hakimi said that his country’s long history with wrestling may have contributed to their victories at the games this year.
“We [Afghans] have our own traditional techniques and moves that our competitors were not aware of and couldn’t predict,” he says.
However, despite their talent and perseverance, Afghan players face challenges that go beyond the obvious security risks and the dangers of rising insurgency in the country.
“Our biggest challenge remains access to resources; we don’t even have a proper gymnasium to practice in,” says Hakimi. “Most of the time we play in open public grounds in Herat, which is a very windy city, and it makes practising very inconvenient and unhealthy.”
Chakari agrees, saying: “We have never received any support from the government and most of us pursue these games on our own, with our own money, often with the help of our community.”
Also, representing Afghanistan often means challenging stereotypes about their war-torn country.
“People [other national teams] often ask about the situation in our country; this happens when we participate at the international platforms. Everything they know about Afghanistan is related to war,” says Hakimi. His exasperation is evident.
Indeed, for many of the players, making it to the Asian games was an opportunity to change perceptions about Afghanistan.
"I get to show a different side of Afghanistan to the world and gain positive recognition for my country,” says Chakari.
Both see sports as an outlet for promoting peace in Afghanistan.
“It can be any sport,” says Hakimi. “The more youth join sports, the more they will show the world that we Afghans can do anything and have a lot more to offer.”