Members of the Kunduz Central Club and their director with Mohammad Anwar in the center.
In a large, renovated warehouse in Afghanistan's Kunduz City, 24 young athletes are training like madmen. They are dressed in mostly dirty, mismatched gees and colored belts that signify their will to improvise, rather than the achievement of a certain skill level. Here they only use the equipment that is available—a giant mat and their own bodies.
They take turns carrying each other on their shoulders and successively jumping over and crawling under each other. As many as four athletes line up and bend at the waist, while one of their brothers launches himself like a flying squirrel over their backs. It’s both impressive and exhausting to watch.
It’s also encouraging to see this many young men of military age not pointing guns at each other. Instead, they are cooperating in training for the one thing that all Afghans—whether they're Tajik, Uzbek, Hazara or Pashtun—can all agree on: kurash. The sport is so popular in Afghanistan, even the Taliban like it.
According to the sport’s Asian Confederation, it originated in what is now modern Uzbekistan at about 1500 BC. Kurash could be considered a mixed martial art in the sense that it combines elements of both upright wrestling and judo. Since opponents cannot grapple below the waist or wrestle on the ground, kurash moves at a very fast pace. The goal is to put your opponent on the mat. When a competitor’s knee touches the floor, the action is stopped and they begin again from a standing position.
Kurash is so popularly that even amateur matches can draw thousands of spectators (male only, women are not allowed). Often men will bet on the outcomes. In Kunduz, it was local money, not international money, that paid to transform this building into a gymnasium.
Mohammad Anwar is the Director of the Kunduz Central Club which boasts 2,000 members and runs recreation centers like this across Kunduz.
“It keeps them from doing bad things,” says Anwar. “They come here and they make their bodies healthy. It helps keep them away from drugs and other trouble.”
For those who do it, it’s also a chance to briefly escape from the dangers and everyday problems of living in a nation that has been at war for decades.
Akram Uddin (in blue jacket) is the pride of Kunduz and a Kurash champion in Asia.
A 29-year-old tree-trunk of a man named Akram Uddin started training at this club 13 years ago when he was just 16. He got so good that by the time he was 22, he was invited to compete in a tournament in Macau. Akram Uddin lost.
“But when I saw how hard all of the other athletes trained, how good they were and what it looked like when their flags were raised up when they got their medals, I said to myself, I will do that for Afghanistan.”
And so he did. Akram Uddin came home and trained hard enough to compete in 20 different countries throughout Asia and Europe. He eventually went on to become a top champion in the Asia Confederation.
Participants work out by propelling their bodies over the backs of as many as four other people.
Kurash was reportedly being considered as a sport for the 2020 Olympic Games to be held in either Istanbul, Tokyo, or Madrid, but it did not make the shortlist announced this month. It lost out to stuff like sport climbing. Still Akram Uddin would’ve been 36 by then, way past his prime for an athlete in combat sport. Although he insists he would’ve been ready, he will have to settle for making Afghanistan proud on a smaller stage.
For now, the other members practice their moves, gracefully shifting their weight, using the laws of energy, gravity, and motion to throw each other in hard slaps against the mat.
Akram Uddin referees a few practice matches between heavy, medium, and lightweight fighters. Each shows an intensity and skill level that could rival mixed martial arts clubs anywhere in the world.
The warrior spirit, is not in short supply in Afghanistan, after all. Fortunately, when young men fight each other here—no one ends up dead.
All text and photos by Kevin Sites.
Kevin Sites is a rare breed of journalist who thrives in the throes of war. As Yahoo! News’s first war correspondent between 2005 and 2006, he gained notoriety for covering every major conflict across the globe in one year’s time and fostering a technology-driven, one-man-band approach to reporting that helped usher in the “backpack movement.” Kevin is currently traveling through Afghanistan covering the tumultuous country during "fighting season" as international forces like the US pullout. Keep coming back to VICE.com for more dispatches from Kevin.
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