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High Stakes in Afghan Camel Wars

Betting men turn out for the annual camel-fighting season in northern Afghanistan.

The massive camel stands surrounded by a circle of admirers, exhausted but unbowed, white foam collecting at the corners of its mouth. Amin, its elated owner, accepts plaudits and cash from his animal’s many fans.

The animal has just fought a three-hour battle to become the undisputed champion in the latest round of camel-fighting.

“I am so proud of this camel,” said Amin. “I’ve spent thousands of dollars on him. And now I know that all my hard work has brought results.”

Across the sandy pit, another animal stands alone. He is still bleeding, and his owner, Nauroz, looks angry and disgusted.

“I kept this son of a bitch for a year,” said Nauroz. “I gave him the food out of my mouth. But he ran away like a chicken. Now he’s only fit for the butcher.”

Spring brings tulips and tourists to the northern town of Mazar-e-Sharif, famed for its 40-day celebration to mark the Afghan new year, which begins on March 20. It also brings out the owners of fighting camels, who put their animals’ skills to the test and collect hefty profits into the bargain.

Dog fights, cock fights, and now camel fights have a long history in the free-wheeling north. Despite Islam’s strictures against gambling and cruelty to torture of animals, the “kharabat” or gamesmen eagerly await the yearly battles.

It is an expensive habit. According to Amin, a proper fighting camel can cost up to twenty times more than an ordinary one.

“I can buy a fighting camel for 10,000 dollars,” he said. “If he loses, I sell him to the butcher for 500 dollars.”

A fighting camel is larger than the average pack animal, and has a darker coat, said Amin. Breeding is important, so buyers need to know the animal’s bloodline before they put down the money.

“Once I buy a camel, I hire an expert to train him,” said Amin. “I pay him 20,000 afghani [400 dollars] a month – that’s the wages of ten civil servants.”

The trainer designs a feeding regimen for the animal and gets it into fighting form.

“I can communicate with camels by sign language,” said Abdul Latif, 64, Amin’s chosen trainer. “We take care of the camel as if it were a bride.”

“On the day of the fight, we put special decorations on the animal, and bring him to the fighting pit. And then if he loses, all our hard work is for nothing. He will be hanging on a butcher’s hook the very next day.”

The sport has many traditions surrounding it. The night before the fight, the camel owner throws a large party, where guests come and place their bets.

“On a big fight, we can take about three million afghani [60,000 dollars],” said Amin. “This time I took two million.”

Two referees are chosen to supervise the fight and hold the bet money.

“We arrange the game,” said Nazar Mohammad, one of the referees. “If we weren’t there, the game would be a complete mess. Some camel owners put drugs on their animal’s neck or snout. This can make the opposing camel faint or run away. But that’s cheating. If we catch someone doing it, we rule in favour of the other camel and cancel the match.”

Fights commonly last six rounds, each lasting 30 minutes.

Thousands of people flock to the games, which take place every Friday.

Hashmatullah, a young man, is among the avid fans of the sport. “Everyone has a hobby – mine is watching camel fights,” he said. “It is very exciting, a wonderful pastime.”

Hazrat Shah is a serious gambling man rather than an onlooker. “I have bet 2,000 afghani [40 dollars] on one of the camels, and I am sure he’s going to win,” he said. “I come every Friday, and I can predict which camel will become champion.”

After the game, the winner throws a party where he serves guests the traditional Afghan pilau.

Amin is planning a three-day celebration, but first he has an important job to attend to.

“I need to take my camel for a walk around the Rauza,” he said, referring to Mazar’s most famous shrine, the mosque said to contain the tomb of Hazrat Ali. “Then he will be safe from the evil eye.”

Sayed Yaqub Ibrahimi is an IWPR staff reporter in Mazar-e-Sharif.

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