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QUETTA: Hundreds of fans gathered at a hockey pitch in the southwestern city of Quetta this week to watch a match of buzkashi, Afghanistan’s national sport – a test of equestrian skills and warrior spirit imported to Pakistan by refugees from the neighboring country in four decades ago.

Buzkashi, which roughly translates to “pulling the goat”, has been played for centuries throughout Central Asia, passed down from the time of Genghis Khan, the founder of the Mongol Empire, in the 13th century.

Buzkashi players from Khurasan and Arayana clubs seen on their horses at the Quetta Hockey Ground on March 11, 2022. (AN Photo)

In the original version of the game, the living body of a defeated enemy was used as a ball, historians say.

Today, however, teams earn points by throwing a headless goat or calf carcass into the scoring area. The animal is slaughtered the previous night and filled with sand, sewn up and soaked in water to make it heavy.

The game is so popular in Afghanistan that it has lived through the midst of foreign invasions, civil wars, militant attacks and now the return of the Taliban regime, with thousands of Afghans coming together to cheer on their favorite riders.

In the Pakistani province of Balochistan, which shares a border with Afghanistan and is home to nearly 800,000 Afghan refugees, buzkashi has always drawn crowds. In the spring, games are a regular part of community events.

On Friday, the match between two local clubs was played on a square hockey pitch under the rugged mountains that overlook Quetta, the provincial capital.

A Buzkashi player on his white horse at the Quetta Hockey Ground on March 11, 2022. (AN Photo)

More than a dozen riders, many wearing traditional Uzbek hats and dresses, battled for control of the goat carcass to cheers from the crowd.

The game was organized by the Balochistan government’s sports department “as part of Pakistani friendship”, according to the sports ministry.

Buzkashi was banned in Afghanistan under the harsh fundamentalist regime imposed by the Taliban in the 1990s. However, players returned to buzkashi grounds after the US invasion in 2001.
After the US withdrew last year, there were fears the Taliban would renew their ban on sport, but domestic league games resumed on February 24 for the first time since militants took control in August last.

Buzkashi players from Khurasan and Arayana clubs seen on horses at the Quetta Hockey Ground on March 11, 2022. (AN Photo)

Zabihullah, 21, a spectator of the Quetta game, said buzkashi was a “tradition of my ancestors” who migrated to Quetta from Kunduz province in Afghanistan.

“Today my uncle took part in the event as a player, so I came here to cheer him on.” Zabihullah said, adding that he hoped the authorities would also promote the sport in other Pakistani provinces.

“We want the government to organize a buzkashi match between Afghan and Pakistani players,” he said.

Ghaffar Pehalwan, 60, the only Pakistani national in Balochistan who plays buzkashi, told Arab News the game is as famous in Afghanistan as cricket is in Pakistan.

“When the Afghan refugees came to Pakistan, they brought the sport to Quetta in the 1990s,” Pehalwan said on the sidelines of Friday’s game after celebrating his team’s victory.

“I used to ride my own stallion in Quetta and started watching and practicing buzkashi with Afghan nationals.”

Sahibzada Rafiuddin, co-secretary of the Pakistan Buzkashi Association, said buzkashi events in the country will strengthen relations between Pakistan and Afghanistan as well as the Central Asian region.

“We don’t have a permanent ground for buzkashi, but we organize events to encourage the players,” he said. “The association wants to attract Pakistani nationals to start playing this historic Afghan sport.”

As Friday’s game drew to a close, the faces of the winning players shone. The best part comes now, they said, when the scruffy goat is roasted and the team enjoys a feast.

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