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Mar. 10, 2015 - Updated 04:16 UTC



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Shooting Hoops for Hope

Fumio Kanda

Oct. 22, 2015

After years of war, there are now more than 600,000 people with disabilities in Afghanistan. Workers at one aid group have been trying to help them through sport. And they've made a difference in the lives of many Afghans living with disabilities.

Japan hosted the Asia/Oceania Championships for wheelchair basketball last week, to see who will go to the 2016 Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro.

Afghanistan’s team received approval in March to compete in the tournament. All of its players suffered permanent injuries during Afghanistan's long conflict.

"I never believed that one day I'd be able to come to Japan and play against such strong teams from around the world," says one player.

"Our goal is to learn as much as we can during the game. That should be a positive experience,” says another.

Mohammadullah Ahmadi was 14 when a bomb blast near his father's store left him partially paralyzed. The injury made him lose hope.

"When I became disabled, I thought I wouldn't be able to do anything,” he recalls. “I didn't even want to talk to anyone. I just sat in the corner by myself."

But that changed when he started rehabilitation at the age of 20.

The International Committee of the Red Cross, or ICRC, has run rehabilitation centers in Afghanistan since 1988. It now has 7 such facilities across the country. They helped 100,000 people last year, including by providing free prosthetic limbs.

Ahmadi later borrowed about $1200 with the help of the ICRC's microcredit system. He opened a small car-goods shop and was able to gain some financial independence.

Then he joined the basketball team, which was another dramatic change. His health improved significantly, he strengthened his self-confidence and built a larger circle of friends.

"When I play basketball I feel totally comfortable,” Ahmadi says. “Basketball changed the direction of my life."

The basketball program was the brainchild of Alberto Cairo, an Italian physiotherapist who has been supporting people with disabilities in Kabul for 25 years. He was looking for new ways to help his patients.

"Physiotherapies are painful. Now for the first time, we offer something that is only fun, only joy. They are proud,” says Cairo, who is head of the ICRC’s physical rehabilitation programme in Afghanistan. “They have a body, they want to show it. And it's perfect."

Today there are nearly 400 male and female wheelchair basketball players in the country. But the security situation is still precarious. Fighting and terrorist attacks continue across Afghanistan.

A bomb blast two months ago damaged the building that houses Ahmadi’s shop in Kabul.

"On the day of the explosion, there was a lot of trouble. I didn't even go to Basketball. I was really shocked by it,” he recalls. “Now the business is running OK but it's not back to normal. And I'm worried that something similar may happen again."

But Ahmadi was determined to travel to Japan, and weeks later he was battling a strong Japanese team on the court.

The Afghan players tried their best but they were overwhelmed by the Japanese side. At one point Mohammadullah got the ball and fed it to a teammate who scored a basket.

In the end, Japan won the match 91 to 12. But Cairo still praised the team.

"We didn't expect to achieve so much in this three-and-half years,” he says. “The fact to be here is already big success, and now they have achieved confidence.”

Ahmadi says playing in an international tournament was a valuable experience for him and his teammates.

"When you see the situation in Afghanistan, it doesn't seem like it would be easy to play basketball there,” he says. “But basketball is my life. I don't know what I'd do without it. I dream that one day our team will be first or second in the world."

After the game, the team took a short trip and visited the sea. It was an exhilarating experience for people from a landlocked country like Afghanistan.

Joining the world sports community is a major step for the team. And their next major goal may be to compete at the 2020 Games in Tokyo.

There's still a war at home, but these athletes are shooting hoops for the hopes of their country.

Dominik Stillhart, the ICRC’s director of operations, joined Aki Shibuya and Sho Beppu in the studio.

Shibuya: Why are there so many people with disabilities in Afghanistan? Is the fighting the main cause?

Stillhart: Afghanistan is a country that has seen war for more than three decades, and fighting is definitely the main reason for the fact that there are so many people living with disabilities in Afghanistan. I went to Afghanistan just a few months ago, in May, and I visited one of these physical rehabilitation centers that the International Committee of the Red Cross is running, in Jalalabad, a place in the east of Afghanistan. And I met a small girl, only 5 years old, who had just lost both her legs in a bomb blast that affected her home. Now this being said, it’s not only the fighting. It’s also poverty and disease that is taking a heavy toll and is another important reason why there are so many people living with a disability in Afghanistan.

Shibuya: Do you feel there is enough support from the international community for Afghanistan?

Stillhart: Well actually, international attention has clearly been moving away from Afghanistan for the past few years, since the drawdown of international troops. And we see that for ourselves. For the first time, our operational budget in Afghanistan, the operation that the International Committee of the Red Cross is running in Afghanistan, has been underfunded -- last year for the first time, this year again. And I think that is a clear indication for the fact that international attention has shifted away. And it is really important -- given the escalation in fighting today with what recently happened in Kunduz, in the north of the country -- that international attention comes back to Afghanistan because the conflict is having serious humanitarian consequences.

Beppu: Isn’t that very ironic though because we know the situation underground is worsening. Also the warring factions are splitting. There’s the rising influence of the Islamic State militant group. With this trend going on, how much does it complicate your operations?

Stillhart: We indeed see not only an escalation and an expansion of the conflict in Afghanistan into areas that have so far been spared from conflict, especially in the north. We also see increasing fragmentation, more and more groups that are fighting on the ground. And that is first and foremost affecting the Afghan people who had so much hope for a better future, and they really see a country where again there is more fighting. And also for us, the situation is of course more complex but we are used to situations where there are more than just two parties to a conflict. And we are as much as possible working towards acceptance by all these parties to the conflict so that we can assist and protect people affected by conflict.

Beppu: But isn’t this acceptance getting very scarce nowadays? International NGOs are sometimes targeted by the warring factions. There is no such neutrality that probably existed before. How do you see this rising challenge?

Stillhart: Yeah, it’s dangerous out there. We are operating in contexts like Afghanistan, Yemen, Syria, Somalia, where our people are exposed to the risk of conflict. What we are doing is working towards acceptance, investing a lot of time in building relationships with all the different parties on the ground. We are not operating with armed protection. We are just operating like this. And the only way to be able to operate is to have acceptance by all the different groups.