Sportsmen ‘helped’ 86 Afghans escape for safety

A ragtag group of American sports supporters helped 86 Afghans flee the country for the safety of neighbouring Pakistan and Europe, an Afghan sports official and two relatives told Fox News on Wednesday.

Abdullah Haroun, of Kandahar, has compiled a list of 81 Afghans, including baseball players, ballroom dancers and a champion table tennis player, who fled their homes after the Taliban made it clear that they would not tolerate such displays of sportsmanship as recent bloody clashes during the Pashtun spring festival of Dari.

“The insurgents had threatened to kill any one, or any athlete, and use the sports as a deterrent to enemy soldiers,” Haroun said.

He hopes the list of 81 names, compiled by volunteers from a largely anonymous non-profit, will be enough to prompt the United States to help the remaining 24 Afghans fleeing Afghanistan. The latter are calling for humanitarian asylum in Israel, he said.

“I have formed the group, ‘The 83rd.’ I came together with other Afghan sportsmen who left to escape the Taliban,” Haroun said. “This is a group of sportsmen from mostly Pashtun background, but some Hanseatic culture. It’s a ragtag group of people. We want to help our comrades in trouble. We cannot take care of them.”

Helped by an airlift by the Civil Air Patrol in Nevada, the 86 Afghans were flown to Dubai from Kandahar on Sept. 29 last year and then to Britain and then to a large transit centre for migrants at Cherbourg in France.

According to the sports official, who also spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared reprisals, most of the asylum seekers remain there, awaiting a decision from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

“To be honest, it’s really difficult to know where the asylum seekers stand,” he said. “They haven’t yet been assigned a port of arrival or wherever they are going to end up. So, they are just sitting there. Everybody is waiting for this decision from the UNHCR.”

He said that on their way out, the 86 Afghans were flown home by private companies and paid for their air travel. “They paid a hefty sum,” he said. The sports official said he intends to track down the supporters of the 86 Afghans and ask them to donate to a new humanitarian aid organization helping displaced persons in Afghanistan.

Before the Afghan government was overthrown by the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, Pashtun sportsmen were respected and celebrated. On that trip, the Afghans were carrying on the tradition, some of which dates back to the ancient times of the Pashtun race, according to Haroun.

“The Afghans respect sportsmen,” he said. “It’s a very special time for us.”

The Pashtun are Afghanistan’s largest ethnic group, with an estimated 43 percent of the country’s 26 million population. Although they have lived together peacefully for centuries, Pashtuns dominate the Afghan government and military.

Copyright (c) 2011 The Christian Science Monitor

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