May 2017

I spent the past week with Alberto Cairo on a whirlwind tour of three U.S. East Coast cities – Boston, New York, and Washington D.C. – speaking about the physical rehabilitation work of the International Committee of the Red Cross in Afghanistan, including our wheelchair basketball program. The tour was organized by the ICRC’s delegations in D.C. and New York and was a fantastic opportunity to raise awareness among several key audiences about the challenges faced by people with physical disabilities in Afghanistan and what the ICRC is doing to help.

Alberto and I flew from Kabul to Boston, where we gave a keynote presentation at the launch of the ICRC’s new collaborative platform for humanitarian innovation in partnership with Swissnex Boston. The presentation was formatted as a moderated discussion led by NPR’s Tom Ashbrook. We followed addresses from several impressive speakers, including Ban Ki-Moon, recent former Secretary General of the United Nations. Our discussion, which can be viewed here, was very well received by an audience of diplomats, thinkers, and humanitarian leaders. Afterward, Ban Ki-Moon came up and personally thanked each of us for the work we’ve done, saying the presentation was very moving for him, particularly since he had spent time in Afghanistan himself during his years leading the U.N. I’ll admit: it was pretty cool to be thanked by someone who has himself done so much important work in global affairs (and whom people address as “your excellency” in conversation).

While in Boston, we also had the chance to meet with several professors at MIT – including the amazing Hugh Herr – to discuss projects they’re working on to develop breakthrough technologies in the field of physical rehabilitation. It was fascinating to hear about the innovation happening on topics including prosthetics, spinal cord regeneration, and wheelchair design for the developing world. What an amazing opportunity to get to hear from true geniuses about the important work they and their students are doing.

After Boston, we spent parts of two days in New York, where we had a string of meetings and presentations lined up. The first meeting was with the deputy UN representative from Afghanistan who, upon our entering his office, immediately recognized Alberto. It turned out that early in his career he spent a year teaching English at the ICRC Orthopedic Center in Mazar-i-Sharif. Everyone in Afghanistan is connected to Alberto somehow; he’s the Kevin Bacon of Kabul.

The following afternoon, Alberto and I were invited to the Italian delegation to the U.N, where we were scheduled to present our story to members of the U.N’s “Friends of Afghanistan” group as well as members of the U.N. Security Council. We assumed that just a few country representatives would make the time in their busy schedules to join, but the conference room quickly filled to capacity, with U.N. representatives from over 20 countries attending. We again got great feedback, with the representative from Canada speaking for the group in saying that they very rarely get to hear such inspiring stories. It was a great chance to build the foundation for important bonds with such an influential group.

We then spent two days in Washington D.C. meeting with more interesting groups – including one at the State Department – and doing several media interviews, including one at the offices of National Public Radio (for their Goats and Soda international development blog, which should be posted soon).

It was an honor to be able to join a legend like Alberto and tell my small part in the phenomenal story of the ICRC’s work on behalf of people with physical disabilities in Afghanistan. It was also great to draw the attention of several important audiences back to Afghanistan after it has increasingly drifted off the radar of the international community in recent years due to fatigue over what seems to be an endless war. Sitting in meeting rooms in U.S. metropolises may not be quite as exciting as teaching players in conflict zones how to play wheelchair basketball, but I hope taking the opportunities offered to do the former will lead to support that will allow me and the ICRC to do much more of the latter.

I arrived in Gaza today to spend the next week and a half working with players, coaches, the local Paralympic Committee, ICRC colleagues, and my old friend, Ehsan Idkaidek from the West Bank, with the goal of helping Gaza wheelchair basketball take another big step forward in its development.

Two days after the women’s national team returned from the IWBF training camp in Thailand, we held the female national tournament in Kabul. For the 10 players who had traveled to Chon Buri, it was a tall order to get back in their basketball chairs on a single day’s rest after such an eventful week. The three teams (Kabul, Mazar, Herat) tackled the tournament with their usual gusto, though, with the star players pushing through their fatigue to lead their teams to impressive performances and a series of close games throughout. In the final game, Mazar came out victorious over Kabul for the third straight tournament, with Freshta – one of the players who attended the Thailand camp – winning her third straight Most Valuable Player award. Freshta is the five foot-tall Lebron James of Afghanistan women’s wheelchair basketball.

Following the one-day women’s tournament, the girls returned to their home provinces – the national team players undoubtedly overjoyed to see their families (and eat familiar food) again – and we moved onto the men’s tournament. For the second year in a row, we had eight men’s teams competing for the championship, which meant six days of games over a seven day period. The first two days of the tournament went well, with the teams showing noticeable growth in their games since I was here just six months ago. It was clear that the coaches had been pushing their players to take the next step in their development, both from individual and team perspectives. The newest teams – Badakhshan and Maidan Wardak – had started to coalesce and were finally able to put up competitive performances in their first two games against their more experienced opponents. Afghanistan wheelchair basketball was getting closer to reaching an international standard of play.

The best moment of the first few days was seeing Viktor Thiessen, the former director of the Maimana Orthopaedic Center and the architect of the basketball court there (the site of my first experience coaching in Afghanistan), watch the team he’d formed play for the first time since he had departed Afghanistan for Germany back in the summer of 2009. When he last saw the Maimana players they were still kids trying in vain to push huge, three-wheeled offroad wheelchairs around the newly-constructed court, unsure of what to do with the ball he’d given them. Seeing them now, adult athletes playing in a highly-competitive tournament and making mind-blowingly skillful moves in their basketball wheelchairs, his eyes were glistening with pride and awe at how far they’d come. He thanked me for everything I’ve helped them achieve, and I returned the thanks for everything he did to help start this process. It was a beautiful, full-circle moment.

On the third and final day of the tournament’s first round, play opened with a matchup between Maimana and their archrivals from Kabul. The two teams have each won multiple national championships (three for Kabul and two for Maimana) and the winner of the game would take the top seed from their group, along with momentum and a lot of confidence, into the tournament’s playoff round. As expected, the game was hotly contested from the outset. Both teams were playing fast, leading to some hard falls on touch fouls and a bit of trash talking from both sides. Kabul built a 10-plus point lead in the first half, which it maintained through most of the third and fourth quarters despite strong play from Maimana. In the game’s final minute, though, Maimana went on a run that saw it score seven points in 20 seconds on a pair of steals leading to fast break layups followed by a three pointer from Ramazan, their star point guard. Suddenly a comfortable Kabul lead had been cut to five with 30 seconds to play.

When Kabul called a timeout following Ramazan’s three, the cadre of Maimana supporters in the crowd cheered wildly, sensing that a dramatic finish was on the way and that their team still had a chance to steal a victory. Coming out of the timeout, the tournament director cautioned the Maimana fans not to whistle during their cheers, as it could make the players mistakenly think the referees were blowing their whistles to stop play. In response, one of the fans hurled an insult at the director, initiating a heated back-and-forth that nearly ended with the fan’s ejection from the gym. He was ultimately allowed to stay for the game’s conclusion, and the contingent of Maimana fans amped up their support even louder.

In spite of the cheering section for their opponents drowning out their home crowd, the Kabul team managed to score two quick baskets following the Maimana timeout, putting the game out of reach as it neared its end. Following the second goal, which gave Kabul a nine point lead with just six seconds to play, the scoreboard operator neglected to stop the game clock, allowing the final seconds to tick away. I immediately rushed to the scorer’s table to correct the error and told them to put six seconds back on the clock so Maimana would have its final possession. One of the Maimana players, furious at the mistake, met me at the table and shouted that the table staff were all cheating on behalf of the hometown Kabul team. I ushered him away, demanding that he calm down and stop making such inflammatory accusations. I could tell my words were falling on deaf ears as he continued to fume. Maimana finally took the ball and inbounded, time expired, and the game ended with a Kabul victory. Then everything went crazy.

One of the table staff, deeply insulted by the Maimana player’s accusations, grabbed a microphone and started shouting, “KABUL! KABUL!” into the public address system while staring straight at the Maimana players on their bench. Recognizing that this had the potential to get dangerous given the tension in the gym, I immediately ripped the microphone out of his hands. As I did, I heard a commotion on the opposite side of the gym and turned to see Maimana and Kabul supporters in the crowd shouting at and shoving each other. I dropped the microphone and flew across the court to try to stop things from escalating further. Before I could get there, though, the spectator’s section erupted in violence, with punches being thrown in all directions. Suddenly half of the gymnasium was engulfed in a brawl, with several of the players from Kabul wading into the fray. Alberto, myself, and several ICRC security guards attempted to break up the fight, but it was out of control. Chairs were being swung and thrown, crutches were being used as weapons, and fists were flying everywhere. It was hard to tell how long it lasted – it was probably less than five minutes total, but it seemed like it went on for hours as we jostled through the scrum trying to separate people, our commands to stop swallowed by the cacophony.

Eventually things reversed course from punches to shoves to yelling, and finally the group was spent and the fighting ceased. Miraculously, aside from a few bruises and scrapes, no one was seriously injured (thankfully all the chairs in the gym are made of plastic). However, I was in complete shock that something like this could have happened at all.

Perhaps I was being naïve in thinking that our game in Afghanistan would maintain its innocence forever, no matter how skilled and competitive the players became. I see the game evolve here in positive ways every time I visit, but there are elements of team partisanship that have evolved as well. Clearly steps need to be taken to ensure those are channeled in a positive manner as we move forward.

Once the spectators and players had been cleared from the gym and order restored, Alberto and I decided that the only possible response to such a scenario was to cancel the remainder of the tournament. A message had to be sent that violence would never be tolerated in our game – whether by players or fans, and certainly not at the ICRC facility – and we felt that sending everyone home was the most direct way to deliver that message.

There will be additional disciplinary measures for all those who were directly involved in provoking and escalating this situation – something the Wheelchair Basketball Federation of Afghanistan and I hate having to do, but realize is absolutely necessary if we are going to prevent this type of occurrence from ever happening again.

The coaches of all eight teams met the afternoon of the fight, then came to me pledging that each would to commit himself to establishing a team culture in his province that will not allow this type of antipathy to exist in the future. I’ve also talked to the players who were involved and tried my best to make them understand that, no matter what provocation they experienced or what excuses they have for behaving in such an inexcusable manner, they are responsible for their own actions. First and foremost, they need to see that they are always representatives of their teams, their country, and our game, and that their decisions in a moment like this leave a permanent impression about all these entities. It’s a sad end to my time in Afghanistan this spring, but I hope this will be a powerful learning moment for everyone and that we will all be able to grow from a situation I hoped we’d never have to deal with.