Afghanistan’s Olympic champion

My latest story in The New York Times, a feature on Rohullah Nikpah, Afghanistan’s only Olympic medalist.



No Longer Unknown, Afghan Athlete Has Eyes on Gold


KABUL — It was only by chance that a 10-year-old Rohullah Nikpah found taekwondo.

Unlike most Olympic athletes, Nikpah was not groomed from an early age to compete. Rather, he grew up in a refugee camp in Iran, and one day he accompanied his brother to a makeshift gym for a taekwondo sparring session.

The connection was immediate, a little like love at first sight.

“I just enjoyed practicing this sport,” he said simply.

He does more than enjoy it. Just four years after returning to Afghanistan from life as a refugee, Nikpah was standing on the podium at the Beijing Olympics in 2008, a bronze medal around his neck. Unlikely as it may seem, that day produced Afghanistan’s first Olympic medalist.

Photo by Gabriela Maj

When Nikpah defeated the Spanish world champion Juan Antonio Ramos in the 58-kilogram, or 128-pound, category, he became a national hero in a place that has seen few in the past 30 years. To welcome him home, thousands of his countrymen gathered in Ghazi Stadium, which, until then, had been known more for the Taliban’s public executions, including stoning women to death.

When the preliminary round in taekwondo starts Aug. 8, Nikpah will no longer be an unknown but a returning champion. And this time he has his eyes on the gold. “I don’t have any stress for this competition, and I hope to Allah to go there and I will bring a good achievement back to the country,” he said.

Having moved up two weight classes since the Beijing Olympics, Nikpah is ranked 13th by the World Taekwondo Federation in the men’s 68-kilogram category.

If Hollywood is looking for its next hero, Nikpah fills the bill. Born two years before the Taliban took power in 1989, his family — ethnic Hazaras, a minority community that suffered discrimination under the Taliban — had to escape to Iran, where Nikpah grew up among fellow Afghan exiles and discovered taekwondo, a hugely popular sport there.

His family returned to Afghanistan in 2004. At age 21, Nikpah not only competed in his first Olympics, he took home a medal. He is tall, fit and blessed with movie-star looks. Even his haircut is popular with young men eager to imitate their hero. For a nation synonymous with the destruction of war, he is a welcome face of a new Afghanistan.

Photo by Gabriela Maj

“We are the young generation and can introduce our country to the world through the sports,” he said one morning at the Kabul home he shares with his family, a gift from President Hamid Karzai for his showing in Beijing.

Expectations are high in London. “He will definitely medal,” said Usman Dildar, an Afghan member of the London Organizing Committee who runs a large taekwondo studio in London. “What color? Inshallah, we’re hoping for gold.”

Continue reading “Afghanistan’s Olympic champion”

Hunting for gold in Ghazni province

Part 3 of 3

Right now, Afghanistan depends on foreign donor money for more than 90 percent of its budget. Decades of war and Taliban repression have left its business institutions fragile. A good part of its own homegrown economy is illicit – think poppy – while another part, the bakeries, groceries and SIM card purveyors, might operate in more of a gray area. Bank laws, tax codes and related legalities have had to all be rewritten, modernized and put into effect. For the first time, Afghanis are using the banking system to deposit weekly paychecks (as opposed to stuffing cash around the house.) Visa has only offered credit card services there since 2008.

One hope to boost the domestic economy is through the mining sector. Afghanistan is blessed with a treasure chest of precious minerals and metals such as gold, copper, iron ore and chromite as well as oil and gas reserves that could be worth as much as $1 billion. We traveled by helicopter from Camp Morehead, to Ghazni province about halfway between Kabul and Kandahar to visit a copper and gold mine that was initially explored by the Soviets in the ’70s and ’80s. The U.S. Geological Service digitized their old maps and is now preparing to offer tenders to mining companies interested in excavating the metals. It’s one of several sites being opened in the hopes that the mines will generate economic development, not only from the wealth they extract but through related jobs they create in villages nearby.

The potential is huge. But mining projects are not overnight fixes. The infrastructure needed to support the mine and the surrounding roads will not be built quickly. A thriving mining village might not take hold for several years. And, there is the worry over insurgency. The area is still considered “hot,” — the special forces officer who led the team that cleared the site before we landed said he felt our security situation was secure but that “the Taliban does know we are here.”



Part 1 of 3

Afghanistan is probably what you’d call a niche travel destination so I was surprised to find a Lonely Planet guidebook for the country, sitting beside those for other Central and South Asian locales.

Along with a fairly good history of the country detailing the many emperors Afghanistan has hosted in the last half-millennium, the book included, in its typical format, hotel and restaurant pics, categorized by quality and price, as well as recommendations for sight-seeing. It made for surreal reading given the pictures of war and strife most of us have witnessed via satellite TV in the last decade.

But, of course, these businesses exist. Afghans have gone out to eat, visited parks and mosques, and have made a life even in all the chaos. I had no sense of what to expect when I traveled there last week on a reporting trip to write about a U.S. program to support economic development in the country. As soon as I landed at the Kabul airport, I settled into a routine typical of an American visitor to Afghanistan, traveling in an armored SUV and accompanied by former British and American special forces officers who now work for private security contractors there.

Each car trip began with a security briefing, detailing what, if anything, happened overnight or during the day. (There were no incidents during my stay, thankfully, though the threat level was raised the Friday after the video emerged of the Marines urinating on the bodies of dead Taliban. There were concerns about retribution.) I stayed in a villa inside the Green Zone, near ISAF headquarters, Camp Eggers and the U.S. embassy — and the presidential palace of Afghan president Hamid Karzai.

Security is a priority, understandably. While in the car, the procedure is, if under attack, that the driver will continue to drive through the incident to a safe house. (Our vehicle had rim flats, which allow driving even if the tires are blown. And we had an armed chase vehicle behind us that would provide cover. My job would be to get down low in the vehicle.) In any case, incidents or no, getting out of the car was unadvisable even though I really wished I could have captured the street scenes of everyday life there. I particularly loved the bakeries, with their human-sized naan hanging in the windows. These photos are all taken from the backseat, through the car window, all the while trying to keep my headscarf from slipping down to my shoulders.