LONDON (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Sajjad Husaini and Sayed Ali Shah Farhang from Afghanistan’s persecuted Hazara minority make unlikely ski champions.
But the pair, now training in the Swiss Alps, are hoping to become war-torn Afghanistan’s first winter Olympians.
Husaini, 25, and Farhang, 26, are from the mountainous Afghan province of Bamiyan, famed for its ancient Buddha statues that were blown up by the Taliban in 2001.
As children, Husaini and Farhang fled to Iran with their families to escape Afghanistan’s violence. They returned as young adults just as the Bamiyan Ski Club was established in 2011. Lugging borrowed skis on their shoulders, they trekked up the Bamiyan mountains and taught themselves to ski down.
After winning three championships at Afghanistan’s national competition, the pair have been training as slalom skiers in Switzerland for three winters.
“They progressed incredibly well,” their Swiss trainer Andreas Hanni said by phone from the Swiss resort of St Moritz. “Two years ago when they first started, they couldn’t ski parallel, but now they are racing.”
Husaini thought skiing in Switzerland would be as easy as skiing on powder snow trails back home. “When we came here, I couldn’t even control my balance on the compact ski trails. We were training with short skis that tourists use for leisure,” he said.
Despite their lack of experience, both skiers qualified for the Alpine Skiing world championships in St Moritz last month. They advanced to the semi-finals after competing in four rounds of qualifying races in the giant slalom, against competitors from more than 70 countries.
“This was the first time Afghanistan was represented in the winter championships, and we are proud to be ice breakers,” Farhang said via instant messenger from the Alps.
Now the Afghan skiers are training for the 2018 Winter Olympics in South Korea.
An instinct for survival may have helped them make such extraordinary progress.
The Hazara are a Persian-speaking, mainly Shi’ite minority who have long faced persecution in Afghanistan, with thousands massacred by the Taliban and al Qaeda in the 1990s.
In-fighting between Afghanistan’s two skiing federations meant they received no support from home, the skiers said.
“Like everything, unfortunately sport has also become politicized in Afghanistan,” said Husaini. “We came here to represent our nation, but none of the officials called us, not even for a minute to give a word of encouragement.”