Afghans celebrate with horses
Updated: 2013-03-25 09:10
Buzkashi players say they consider the sport to be a symbol of peace
A group of 150 horse riders fighting over a headless carcass might look chaotic, but Afghan buzkashi players insist their sport demands skill, guile and force.
At the biggest tournament of the season, which was held in Mazar-i-Sharif on Friday to celebrate the Afghan New Year, riders explained that the best horses understand the rules of the game and enjoy the excitement despite all the dangers.
Afghan horsemen competing for a veal carcass during a game of buzkashi in celebration of Nowruz in northern Mazar-i-Sharif, the center of Afghanistan's New Year or Nowruz celebrations. Shan Marai / Agence France-Presse
The action is fast and furious as riders wrestle over a dead calf, trying to grab it and then charge across the dusty field, swerve around a pole and drop the animal into a chalk circle.
Buzkashi players often hold their whips between their teeth or use them to hit their horses and other competitors. The area of play is flexible and spectators flee as they try to avoid getting caught up in the fray.
"There are a lot of techniques to buzkashi," said Mirwais Hootkhil, a veteran competitor who hails from a famous family of players.
"For example, this big horse does things that other horses can't do," he said as he stood with the horses before the game. "When we grab the carcass, he knows what to do.
"But he's so big that he can't be used to pick up the carcass from the ground. So we pick it up with a smaller horse, and we give it to the person who's riding this one."
Buzkashi players have to be talented horsemen to stay balanced at high speeds and remain mounted despite rivals trying to push them to the ground.
"When I was born, my father took me home on a horse," said Hootkhil. "I married the daughter of a chapendaz (buzkashi rider). I have 15 children and my five boys want to become chapendaz too.
"It's a great sport for us. I'm from a family of chapendaz. It's a great honor for me."
Hootkhil, who is coy about his age, retains the film star looks of his youth, but buzkashi takes its toll.
The little finger on his right hand is badly twisted after many breaks, and he admits that these days he does not ride in the thick of the action, instead shouting advice from the fringes.
"Now I'm a farmer and a trainer for other players," he said. "During buzkashi, I've seen men break their legs, their arms and their heads. I've seen people and horses die on the field, but I was never afraid."
For Haji Saleh Mohammad, 65, who owns some of the best horses that competed on Friday, buzkashi - which was banned under the Taliban government - is the ultimate test of Afghan males.
"It's very tough out there, and you need skills," he said.
"This sport is as important to me as religion. As a man, you need to have a rifle, a horse and a woman. The last of those I would be willing to get rid of is my horse."
The New Year game in Mazar-i-Sharif attracted thousands of spectators, despite fears of insurgent attacks after a suicide bomber killed several people at a game in Kunduz province this month.
Players compete for individual as well as team glory, and the overall winner, after scoring five times, was Najibullah, a huge 24-year-old man in a fur hat who is paid to play by a wealthy general during the November-to-April season.
Najibullah's hard-fought victory had required raw aggression, horsemanship and a fierce competitive instinct, but he said the game itself was a symbol of peace and harmony in a nation decimated by decades of war.
"I'm happy. I'm proud but not overwhelmed. I don't show off," he said. "If we can play buzkashi, it shows that there's still some peace in the country."