Grapple gangs: Afghan fighters seek glory on a dusty Kabul field

·2-min read

Every weekend, fighters from around Afghanistan gather on a public field in the capital to pit their skills against each other in a sport that is a mix of judo and wrestling.

The informal gatherings attract big partisan crowds, with fans cheering for their favourites -- usually someone from their home district -- and jeering those they want to see lose.

"I have been fighting for 17 years," said Mohammad Atef, a well-built 31-year-old from Samangan province in northern Afghanistan, after disposing of his opponent with an expert throw.

"It is popular is Samangan, Kunduz, Baghlan -- and there are many famous wrestlers in Sheberghan too."

Judo and wresting are particularly popular in the north, with villages and districts producing local champions they put forward for regional contests and even national glory.

The discipline the Afghans follow on the dusty field is a mix of both, with referees to make sure an obscure set of rules is followed and to declare a winner.

Bouts are usually settled quickly -- a fight rarely lasts longer than a minute or two -- with opponents giving each other a sporting hug no matter the result.

"Today my competitor was from Kunduz," said Atef after disposing of his rival with an acrobatic throw.

"I used a spiral technique and I finally defeated him."

Matches are made by promoters who choose opponents based on a combination of weight and record.

There is a small purse for the winner and although gambling is officially banned by the Taliban, it is clear side bets are made on the bouts -- with money furtively changing hands between wily old spectators after each fight.

Hekmat, a 21-year-old also from Samangan, is just starting his career and was beaming after his first victory at the weekend.

"It is around 10 years that I am wrestling... from childhood," he told AFP.

"I have just come to Kabul in recent months after I have wrestled in other provinces and districts."

There was no sign of the Taliban in the crowd gathered in Kabul -- those present say the group eschews physical contests.

"We organise this ourselves," said one referee. "This is not for the Taliban."

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