- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 26, 2000

PESHAWAR, Pakistan From the far corner of the camp a horseman in a fur-trimmed hat comes galloping wildly through a cloud of dust. In his clenched teeth he holds a whip and in his right hand he grips the carcass of a headless goat.

This is one of the few remaining players of the endangered Afghan sport of buzkashi.

Just as the rider nears the crowd, scores of horseman descend on him, trying to wrestle the goat from his hand. The violent scuffles continue for hours and there are few rules to follow.

Twenty years of war since the Soviet invasion have virtually wiped out the buzkashi tradition in Afghanistan, but Afghan refugees in Pakistan have begun to revive the game, which has its roots in central Asia.

Matches are rare there are still only two teams and just 30 horses strong enough to play but the crowds are huge.

Haji Abdul Bari is the man behind the buzkashi cause in Peshawar. He has been a buzkashi horseman, a "chapandaz," for 30 years, having learned to play in his home province of Baghlan in central Afghanistan.

"We want to show to the world that the people of Afghanistan are proud and brave," said Mr. Bari, 46.

Mr. Bari was one of the 6 million Afghans who fled their homeland during the Soviet occupation in the 1980s. He returned after resistance fighters finally drove the Red Army out of the country and served briefly as president of Afghanistan's Olympic committee.

But he fled again as the Taleban militia extended its grip to the capital five years ago and now directs the action during the matches. Dressed in a lurid green jacket, he screams through a loudspeaker to encourage the players with promises of cash prizes for the winners.

The aim of buzkashi is simple enough: to pick up the goat and drop it in a small white circle on the field. But in the frequent scrimmages only the most accomplished riders even get close to the carcass.

"Afghans just don't have any other entertainment. This is our national heritage and our national sport. We must continue playing it; otherwise we will lose it," Mr. Bari said.

Under the Taleban, the hard-line Islamic students who seized Kabul in the autumn of 1995, cinema, music and clapping at sports matches are banned. But buzkashi has so far escaped their edicts.

It takes years of training to become a chapandaz. One rider was famed for eating 40 eggs for breakfast every day to build up the strength to lift a goat carcass that weighs 75 pounds. Traditionally in Afghanistan, an even larger animal weighing up to 150 pounds would often be used.

"A good chapandaz must be a brave person, a good horseman and a good wrestler," said Mr. Bari.

"It would be difficult for someone even to pick up the goat if he wasn't a wrestler. Now we are worried if we don't keep playing we may lose our players and their skills."

The horses, mostly from northern Afghanistan, cost up to $3,000 and are lovingly cared for. Mr. Bari has even bought Afghan horses that were being sold for labor in Pakistan.

"I couldn't bear to see these precious horses pulling carts in the streets," he said. "We look after them as if they were our babies."

The horses are owned by a handful of wealthy Afghans, who lend them to the best riders.

The games are played on a dusty stretch of ground by the mud compounds of the Khurasan refugee camp close to Peshawar. At a rare match this month a crowd of several hundred, all male, gathered to watch the two teams, Khurasan and Ariana.

As the riders fought to grab the goat, they whipped each other's horses to try and force the other to lose control. Although the players wear heavy padding over their legs, broken legs are common and most bore the scars from earlier clashes.

Each time a player dropped the goat in the circle he won 400 rupees worth about $7. By half-time the goat carcass was badly mauled. Only three legs were left and Khurasan was already far ahead in points.

"Cricket is the game everyone in Pakistan loves to play. But this is much more interesting than cricket. You have to have a good horse and you have to be strong too," said Hamid Ullah, an Afghan businessman working in Peshawar.

"We should be playing this in Afghanistan, but there has been too much fighting. But buzkashi is in our blood."

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