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Dogfighting Makes Comeback

Afghan men flock in their thousands to watch outlawed blood sport.
By Shahabuddin Tarakhel

It is against their laws and religion and has been banned nearly everywhere in the world, but Afghans seem determined to uphold the 250-year-old tradition of dogfighting.


On a Friday morning earlier this month, some 1,500 people gathered in a field on the outskirts of Kabul to watch several pairs of very large and angry dogs fight it out - though not to the death.


Dogfighting was banned as anti-Islamic during the five-year regime of the puritanical Taleban - along with cockfighting, kite flying, dancing, music and television - though in some regions fights were held in secret.


Since the collapse of the student militia more than a year ago, Afghans have quickly rediscovered their passion for dogfighting, which began during the rule of the 18th century emperor Ahmad Shah Durrani.


This month's competition at Chaman Babrak some six km west of Kabul, was only the third since the Taleban's fall. At the first, there were 15 competitors and 85 spectators. At the second, twice that number took part while 800 visitors came along.


The most recent match drew a crowd of 1,500 to watch 50 participants.


There were no women amongst the spectators. Barred from working and forced to wear the full-veil burqa under the Taleban, they still find it difficult to go out to restaurants, cinemas and public events in Afghanistan's male-dominated society.


"I have been taking part in these events for over two decades, with 17 different animals," Wazir Ahmad, from nearby Parwan province, told IWPR as he watched the competition with his current fighter on a lead. "When the Taleban came to Kabul we had to stop, they said it was against Islam."


Unlike illegal dogfights in some other countries, the animals do not fight to the death, and often there is no bloodshed. The fight is normally stopped when one dog has the other pinned to the ground, or drives its opponent out of a 10-metre wide circle. However, deaths and serious injury do sometimes occur, when a main artery is severed or a dog loses an eye, and the scars and missing patches of fur on veteran fighters attest to the ferocity of some contests.


The animals, bred from local sheepdogs and many standing as high as a man's waist, are exercised daily and fed a high-energy diet to increase bulk and aggression. Many have their ears and tails clipped or taped to prevent them offering an easy target for a rival's teeth.


"My father and my grandfather were active in dogfighting," said 15-year-old Habib from Kabul, who brought along his dog, which he's training up to be a fighter "Now that they are no longer with us, I want to keep this culture alive."


He said he took his dog running in the nearby mountains for half an hour and on the sandy plains outside the city for an hour every day. "After running I feed it five eggs mixed with milk, followed by meat. A good fighter has to be fit and strong," he said.


Although dogfighting is forbidden under Afghan law, the presence of military commanders and uniformed police at the event in Chaman Babrak - some with fighting dogs, others to provide security for the crowd - indicated how deeply rooted the tradition is in Afghanistan's otherwise deeply conservative and strictly Muslim society.


Competitions are held early on Friday, the Muslim holy day, but invariably end by late morning to enable everyone to get to noon prayers.


Malik Jan, a commander from a local army regiment, was leading a large dog and looking for action. "Dog-fighting has been passed down through generations. I have been competing with more than 50 animals, and I can tell just by looking which dogs are good fighters and which are not," he said.


"The Taleban stopped this tradition because they were not Afghans," he went on, referring to the student militia's backing from neighbouring Pakistan. "They didn't want us to have any fun."


Humayoon, an armed policeman in full uniform, said he was in Chaman Babrak in an unofficial capacity, to watch the fighting and provide security for the spectators. "We have not been posted here by the government, but it is the job of police to serve everybody everywhere, and to ensure there is no crowd trouble," he said.


"Dog-fighting is a very old tradition in Afghanistan. Now that is alive again, we will not allow anyone to put an end to it."


Another local army commander, Shah Jan, was equally defiant, saying, "This is our culture and we are not going to give it up. If the government tries to stop it, we will ignore them."


He said he and other commanders had arranged their visit to the fight with local police, "If we have any problems, they will look after us."


This claim was firmly rejected by the police chief for the area, Abdul Samad, who told IWPR, "We are not responsible for Commander Shah Jan and we have not sent any of our officers to protect him. In fact we don't know anything about this."


However, he also indicated that the police were not about to crack down on dog-fighting, saying, "If senior officials authorise us, we will organise a competition for dogs in our area."


Officials at Afghan's supreme court were unavailable to comment on the issue, as were officials at the Ministry for Religious Affairs and Pilgrimage.


But senior cleric Ayatollah Muhseni told IWPR, "Fighting between dogs can never be part of Afghan culture, and it can't be called sport. Organising competitions between dogs and cocks is against Islamic law because they are being forced to do it. It is leading society astray."


Nasreen, an young woman who was shopping in Chaman Babrak, was surprised to discover that dogfighting was still going on in the area and said the government should step in to stop it. "Hundreds of young people are coming here and wasting their time," she said. "They should be studying science and technology. What can they learn from watching dogs fighting?"


Shahabuddin Tarakhel is a radio and television journalist in Kabul.


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