Camels: Afghan proxy warriors
Camel fighting is a violent feature of daily life in Afghanistan.
Mon, May 31, 2010 at 12:25 AM
POPULAR PASTIME: Camel fighting has made a comeback as a spectator sport since the U.S. overthrew the Taliban regime in 2001. (Photo: ZUMA Press)
Afghan warlords Ghawsudin and Sher Arab have been at war for most of their lives, sometimes fighting side by side as they did against the Soviets, other times fighting each other.
Now, almost nine years into a new era — a U.S.-sponsored government challenged by a Taliban-led insurgency tearing their country apart — the two men are again at war, but this time they use proxies to fight their battles.
At sports festivals across Afghanistan's relatively peaceful north, Ghawsudin and Sher Arab are represented in the ring by giant Central Asian camels.
Banned as un-Islamic under the Taliban's radical 1996-2001 regime, camel fighting is a violent feature of daily life in Afghanistan, a country where the value of both men and animals is based on their fighting skills.
In the northern province of Balkh, Ghawsudin and Arab are well known, not only as veteran warriors but as owners of the best fighting camels in the land, and as masters of the game.
"We wait all year for this," said Khwaja Habib, a farmer from Balkh's Dawlat Abad district, ahead of a mighty clash between Luk and Nar, two enormous camels representing, respectively, Ghawsudin and Arab.
"They have the strongest camels, it's going to be a real game," Habib told AFP, as more than a dozen men escorted the two camels onto a dirt field circled by thousands of spectators, almost all of them men.
The animals are positioned face-to-face and then, spitting with fury, ram each other in a battle that resembles a men's wrestling match.
The crowd roars its approval as one of the camels — it is Luk, Ghawsudin's beast — forces the other into submission by pressing down on his neck with his massive chest.
"He's going to kill him," shouts the referee in the muddy ring before ordering that the muzzled animals be separated ahead of a second round.
The men, with their long beards and turbans, roar their protest but the decision has been made by the losing camel, Nar, who has picked himself up and is running out of the ring.
According to the rules of camel fighting, by turning tail the giant grey has conceded to Luk.
Laughter erupts, banknotes are exchanged as gamblers collect or pay on their bets and Ghawsudin accepts congratulations as a dozen of his men parade Luk in a lap of honor.
"Yes, we won," Ghawsudin said. "As usual."
"It's an old tradition that we have inherited from our ancestors," Ghawsudin, who uses only one name, told AFP as his fans cheered his victory.
"We like it — especially when we win," he said, with a loud laugh.
Camel fighting has made a strong comeback as a spectator sport since the Taliban regime, which also banned music, kite flying and education for girls, was overthrown in a U.S.-led invasion in late 2001.
Its popularity is mostly concentrated in the north, where the Taliban have had little influence, even when they were in power.
As a result, the northern provinces have been largely shielded from Taliban excesses, though Kunduz and Baghlan have seen a rise in insurgency-related violence in recent years.
The relative peace of the north — especially in Mazar-i-Sharif, capital of Balkh — has allowed people to revive such traditions as buzkashi, a frantic, mounted polo-like sport using a headless goat carcass rather than a ball, and kite flying.
But making animals fight each other and betting on the outcome is a favourite pastime: along with camel fighting, sports festivals often include ram fighting, dog fighting, even bird fighting.
The enthusiasm on show in the north stands in stark contrast to the south, where the insurgency is concentrated and where most ordinary people live in fear of both the militants and the NATO-backed forces fighting them.
Animal fights have been specifically targeted by militants in the southern provinces, making attendance a high-risk venture.
In February 2008, a Taliban suicide bomber killed 80 people at a dog fight in Kandahar. Most of the dead were farmers having a flutter.
But even in Mazar-i-Sharif, nothing is taken for granted.
"We have security. Without security you can't have fun," Ghawsudin said.
Negotiations begin for a second bout and a fresh pair of camels are escorted into the ring — again representing the former warlords.
But this time the fighting lasts hardly two minutes as Arab's camel pulls back after the first contact with Ghawsudin's spitting light-gray.
Mocking laughter from the crowd fills the air.
"It's his unlucky day," said one spectator, referring to Arab who has left without saying a word.
Copyright 2010 AFP South Asian Edition