U.S. project flies democracy message on Afghan kites

KABUL (Reuters) - Hundreds of kites danced over the Afghan capital on Friday emblazoned with messages championing justice, transparency and equal rights for women in an unusual U.S.-backed effort to boost democracy.

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Banned under the Taliban, kite flying is a national pastime in Afghanistan. Hundreds of men and young boys take to a bluff overlooking Kabul to fly them each Friday afternoon.

Workers for the U.S. Agency for International Development, or USAID, handed out around 1,000 gaudy orange, pink and blue kites, each bearing messages in national languages Dari and Pashto.

“On all the kites there’s a rule of law message concerning anti-corruption, access to the courts and justice for all Afghan citizens,” said USAID contractor Mike Sheppard. “As you can see, they love kites, and they are all up in the air.”

Violence is at its worst across Afghanistan since U.S.-backed Afghan forces ousted the Taliban in late 2001.

President Barack Obama’s administration is set to review its Afghan war strategy in December and the kite project came six days after closely watched parliamentary elections, which were seen as a key test of stability but were marred by Taliban attacks and fraud.

Sheppard said USAID would take the project to western Herat province next week and then elsewhere in Afghanistan.

Women rarely fly kites in deeply conservative Afghanistan, where men traditionally dominate public life.

The activity is often competitive. Rivals put ground glass on the lines, and try to sever those of their opponents, often betting on the outcome.

Afghans’ passion for kites gained international attention in 2003 with Khaled Hosseini’s best-selling novel, “The Kite Runner,” which followed the friendship of two boys from Kabul through decades of war and upheaval.

Student Munib Helal, 19, flew a pink kite which read “bad actions lead to worse consequences.”

“I think it’s a useful message for everyone,” he said.

The pro-democracy message was lost on some, however. Poverty is rife in Afghanistan and fewer than 30 percent of the population are literate.

“I don’t know what it says,” said Mohammad Wasil, a 14-year-old mechanic, cradling a fragile kite with the message “education is a right for men and women.”

“I just like to see it fly. It makes me happy.”

Writing by Tim Gaynor; Editing by Paul Tait