Wheelchair basketball gives new hope to disabled Afghan women

Kabul (AFP) - They have lost limbs to landmines and been disabled by mortar shrapnel, but Afghanistan's wheelchair women basketball players refuse to call themselves victims.

Clashing wheelchairs, hooting supporters and balls swishing through hoops brought a drab grey court in downtown Kabul alive Wednesday, in the final of the country's third annual competition organised by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).

At the end of the forty minutes of play, the scoreline read Mazar-i-Sharif 26, Kabul 9 -- but for many of the athletes who took part it was also a personal triumph over years of adversity.

Mariam Samimi, a member of the winning side, was just six when she stepped on undetonated ordnance in her native northern province of Balkh, blowing off her toes.

It was 1996 and the height of Afghanistan's civil war, when prosthetics and good medical treatment were in short supply.

Now a trained social worker as well as a competitive athlete, the 23-year-old said she wanted others to know that a disability does not mean having to give up on your dreams.

"Don't be disheartened, always have courage, and do not say I can't do it. Be confident all the time, don't feel that you are disabled and (that) I should be at home," she said.

Afghanistan has been at war since 1979 when the Soviet Union invaded to prop up the communist government.

After the Soviets withdrew in 1989, a civil war began. The hardline Taliban seized power in 1996 but were ousted in 2001 by a US-led coalition.

The Taliban have waged a guerrilla war ever since against Afghan and foreign troops.

The country is one of the world's most heavily mined nations, with dozens of people still killed or maimed every month.

It is also one of just three countries where polio is still a problem, due to the disruption of health services and Taliban opposition to vaccination.

Nineteen-year-old Kamila Rahimi, who helped her side to victory with five goals, has been unable to walk since she was a toddler due to the disease. When she's on the court, it doesn't matter.

"I feel very happy to be playing basketball because I like the company of my teammates. When I laugh, they laugh with me, when I cry, they cry with me," she said.

In the final Kabul took an early lead but were comfortably beaten in the end by a more polished Mazar side, as several players were forced to give up on their hijabs while whizzing around the court.

The best players from the two-day tournament, which included the western city of Herat, will go on to play for the national team, said Alberto Cairo, head of the ICRC orthopaedic programme in Afghanistan.

Twenty-three-year-old Aziza Ahmadi, who was paralysed in her left foot when shrapnel from a mortar attack on her Kabul home hit her 18 years ago, said she hoped to make the grade.

"My dream is to go to play in European countries like Italy, Germany and France," she said with a smile.