Last month, Mountainfilm Festival Director David Holbrooke visited Skateistan, a skate park in Afghanistan that represents much more than just a place to skate.
In December 2013, I traveled to Afghanistan to film part of a documentary about my father, the late Ambassador Richard Holbrooke who was President Obama's Special Representative to Afghanistan and Pakistan. While I was there, I interviewed some of my father's former colleagues, past and future Afghan Presidential candidates and New Yorker writer Dexter Filkins (the brilliant book The Forever War.)
Filkins wrote about my father when he worked for The New York Times and returned to Kabul on my invitation. Of the places he wanted to show me, his agenda included the city's soccer stadium. In 1998, Filkins was one of the few Western reporters allowed to enter the country, and the ruling Taliban government, wanting to show him something special, told him to come to what was then the former soccer stadium. When Filkins showed up, there was an enormous crowd, and he was ushered to the equivalent of the field's 50-yard line, a front-row VIP seat.
Not long after he had arrived, a Toyota pickup truck drove onto the field with several "terrifying-looking" Taliban in the back with a tied-up man. The man was an accused thief, so the Taliban was going to mete out their punishment, which, in their perverse and archaic moral code, was amputation. Filkins told me that he watched several Taliban thugs gather around the man who screamed for a while, and then an amputated right hand was held up. The crowd cheered, but Filkins felt that the enthusiasm was fueled by fear of meeting some unfortunate fate of their own.
Then another truck pulled onto the field with another man in the back. This unfortunate soul was accused of murder. The punishment for that was a capital one, and the only way out of the predicament was if the victim’s family would pardon the condemned man. The accused man’s family pleaded, but to no avail. The brother of the victim was handled a rifle and stood over the now-blindfolded convict and shot him. As the brother walked around him and saw some small signs of life, he shot him again. The crowd cheered reluctantly once more.
Filkins told me all of this in the soccer stadium, and the juxtaposition was startling because a lively, refereed game of soccer was happening at the time. The stadium was part of a larger sports complex in Kabul that had other venues, such as a basketball court and a skate park. The skate park isn't just any skate park; it’s called Skateistan and is a beacon of hope in a place like Afghanistan. It’s also the name of a short documentary we screened at Mountainfilm in 2011.
Being there and actually seeing Skateistan with my own eyes was revelatory. Here was what would be in many countries a sign of normalcy, yet in Afghanistan, it was much more. Young children could play like kids everywhere should be allowed to do (remember the 2012 Mountainfilm Audience Award-winning Right to Play?). Kids were safe in Skateistan, but outside of that haven, it was tough. We saw children working, begging and often at risk. In fact, one of the storylines in the Skateistan film is about a young girl, a regular at the park, who was killed in a Taliban attack in Kabul.
These days, the big question in Kabul is what will happen when the Americans draw down troops over the next year or two and scale back investment in Afghanistan. Are the Taliban going to return? It’s hard to answer that vexing question, but I found myself encouraged by what I saw and by the people I met, particularly the women whose rights have changed dramatically. It’s been more than a decade since the Taliban were in power, and while they are clearly capable of continuing to terrorize, the country has changed significantly, particularly with the introduction of communications.
I don't think my father ever made it to Skateistan, but I know he believed that the only way forward for this often-backwards country was for a massive change to occur in the culture. I know that if he had made it to this cool skate park, he would have found a tangible sign that Afghans, like so many people around the world, want progress and peace.