After a one day postponement due to my flight getting canceled and further delays the next day as we waited out another set of spring storms, I finally made it to Faizabad in Badakhshan Province. It was my first time training the new men’s wheelchair basketball team on their freshly-built outdoor court at the ICRC’s new Faizabad Orthopedic Center, and the experience, while all too brief, was wonderfully memorable.

I was joined in Badakhshan by two Kabul players and longtime pupils of mine – Safi, who had spent the previous three weeks coaching the new team in their first practices, and Ashraf, who served as my interpreter on the trip – and had a lot of fun getting to spend some quality time with both of them. It was so gratifying to see my former students – now full-fledged players in their own right – doing their part to bring the game to Afghan wheelchair basketball’s next generation.

As I mentioned in my previous post, this was also the first chance I’ve had to travel outside Kabul since the spring of 2013. A combination of heightened security precautions and rapid growth in the number of players and teams around the country have conspired to keep me rooted in one place to maximize the limited time I have here each year, with the teams I’ve coached each coming to Kabul for training rather than me traveling to teach them in their home cities. It’s obviously very exciting to have seen the league expand so rapidly, but I had really missed my experiences absorbing the distinct cultures and meeting the vibrant people in each of the provinces I had visited earlier in the program’s development. As a result, I was thrilled to have the chance to go to a brand new province, particularly one as famously beautiful as Badakhshan.

Baset

The birth of Badakhshan wheelchair basketball actually started way back in 2012, when a young paraplegic from the province named Baset was visiting the ICRC Orthopedic Center in Kabul. The timing of his visit allowed Baset to be a spectator during our first men’s national wheelchair basketball championship tournament in Afghanistan, and he was instantly bitten by the basketball bug. He’s traveled to Kabul to watch several subsequent tournaments and has been asking each time when he can start a team himself. When Alberto Cairo managed to secure a land grant to expand the site of the new orthopedic center the ICRC was building in Faizabad last year, there was finally a place to build Baset his home court and start the team he’d been waiting four years to be a part of.

Baset hadn’t been able to come to the last couple national tournaments, so I was surprised when he greeted me upon my arrival to see how much he had matured over the previous year and a half. Now 24, he’s handsome, tall, and muscular, with a light beard that completes the striking transformation from the baby-faced kid my wife Lindy found so endearing when she met him during her 2013 visit to Afghanistan (Lindy has lent her voice to Baset’s cause ever since, regularly asking me when he was getting his team in Faizabad; she was understandably thrilled when I told her it had finally happened and that I’d be going to coach them). When we hit the court for the first time just two hours after our plane landed, it was clear that Baset has grown into a natural leader as well, having taken on the role of managing the team while also showing early signs of becoming one of its best players in spite of his relatively high injury level.

Seeing how invested Baset already is in his new passion brought home to me again the impact wheelchair basketball is having on the ever-growing group of players across Afghanistan. I have no doubt that getting to see him take the next step in his journey when he returns to Kabul in two weeks to participate in his first national tournament as a player is going to be one of the all-time highlights of my ongoing Afghanistan experience.

Scenes from Badakhshan

Below are a few photos of my time in Faizabad to give a sense of what may be the most visually stunning place I’ve seen yet in Afghanistan (not that my limited photography skills can do it justice) and to capture some of the memories I’ll take from my two days there.

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I can confidently say I’ve never played on a basketball court with a setting as gorgeous as the one in Faizabad

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I went out for lunch with a few players and colleagues – my first meal out in Afghanistan in 3 years. Where did we go? KFC: Kabul Faizabad Chicken. The logo may have been familiar, but the menu items were… different.

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Enjoying the mountain scenery with (l-r): ICRC colleague Maryam, Faizabad players Baset and Basir (standing), and Kabul player/coaches Ashraf and Safi.

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Baset, Ashraf, and Safi take in the view of Faizabad and the surrounding hills.

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An afternoon drive in a Land Cruiser up a steep dirt track led to a chance meeting with a group of young Afghan goatherds and their charges.

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Wildflowers grow up through the rusting metal runway left behind by the Russians next to Faizabad Airport.