BELGRADE, Serbia -- They practiced in secret and struggled to get to an international tournament in Europe. Now, members of the Afghan national boxing team are seeking refuge in the West, hoping to continue both their careers and their lives without danger or fear.
The Afghan boxers, their coach and a top boxing federation official remained in Serbia after the AIBA World Boxing Championships finished in early November, saying they could face retribution from the Taliban if they returned home.
"When the Taliban regime came to Afghanistan, everything became changed,” Waheedullah Hameedi, the secretary general of Afghanistan's boxing federation, said. “It was difficult to come for a world championship during the new regime, the new government.”
The team has contacted several foreign embassies about securing humanitarian visas and asylum protection. Some European Union nations have turned them down, but the 11-member group has not given up hope of finding a safe haven.
Tens of thousands of Afghans, including athletes, have fled the country since troops from the United States and other foreign nations pulled out in August and the Taliban took over. Hameedi said the Taliban do not approve of boxing, and team members stand little chance of pursuing their careers freely in Afghanistan.
“As you know, the situation in Afghanistan is very tough, very bad,” he said, speaking in English. “They (Taliban) didn’t allow in first days to continue the boxing and open the gym. Everyone was afraid to go anywhere for boxing or for anything else.”
Hameedi’s father, a previous secretary general of the Afghan Boxing Federation, was gunned down in 2019 by unknown assailants. After the national team participated in the Asian Boxing Championships in Dubai in May, Hameedi was determined to take his boxers to Serbia for the world championships in late October.
Boxing was banned in Afghanistan during the Taliban's previous rule in 1996-2001. While its leaders have sought to portray themselves as more tolerant this time around, Hameedi insisted the officials and boxers have faced threats and feared for their safety.
“Boxing is ‘haram’ for them (Taliban,) something in Islam that is illegal for them,” he said.
Ahead of the trip to Serbia, the boxers trained at hidden locations and tried to stay under the radar, hiding their plan to compete in the international tournament, Hameedi said. They managed to get visas to go to Iran, and once in Tehran they applied for visas at the Serbian Embassy before rushing on to Belgrade, he said.
The 11 Afghan boxers competed in Serbia as part of a 14-member “fair chance” team sponsored by the International Boxing Association for refugees and other athletes who had to flee their countries, said Hameedi.
The group's Serbian visas have since expired. Hameedi said friends and relatives warned them not to return to Afghanistan. While thousands of migrants and refugees arrive in Serbia, most do so planning to continue on to countries in Western Europe where it is easier to find jobs and make a living.
'We hope we will receive visas as soon as possible so there is no problem in Serbia," Hameedi said." We can leave easily to some safe country and their future will be granted.”
Hameedi said he, the coach and the nine boxers who still are with them in Serbia do not want to cross borders illegally to reach Western Europe, but neither have they applied for asylum in the Balkan nation.
Attorney Marko Stambuk, who works with the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, said the Afghan boxers contacted the organization and have been informed about their options for seeking asylum in Serbia.
Stambuk acknowledged that the boxers fear the return to Afghanistan because of the Taliban policies and a generally volatile situation. They are "aware of their rights and obligations (in Serbia), and now they are thinking of what to do next,” he said.
Amid the uncertainty, the boxers have continued training in local gyms. Hasibullah Malikzadah, 20, said he is afraid to go back to Afghanistan and wants to continue boxing somewhere else.
“I want to be good champion,” and a role model for children around the world, he said after a practice session. “I really want this. I really have a good dream.”
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