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KABUL, Afghanistan – From her wheelchair, Maryam Samimi punched the air as the referee's whistle signaled her basketball team's win in an Afghan national tournament, a moment of joy in a country often unkind to those missing limbs.
Many amputees in Afghanistan languish without access to care and become depressed and isolated. And with mines and unexploded ordinance still scattered across this country ravaged by decades of nonstop war, more will be maimed or lose limbs from explosions.
However, an International Committee of the Red Cross program offering sports to amputees has seen hundreds sign up to play wheelchair basketball.
"From my experience, I know that when you lose a part of your body, big or small, for the first month you don't want to be alive any more. You don't want to see the future, everything stops," said Shukrullah Zeerak, a supervising physiotherapist at an ICRC center who lost his right leg below the knee in a mine blast in 1995. "But slowly you adapt, you survive."
Afghanistan is often described as one big minefield, with experts estimating that 10 million mines — mostly from the former Soviet Union but also from the United States, Britain, Belgium and Italy — have been dropped or laid across the country. The explosives, including those planted by the Taliban, continue to kill and maim.
Some 40,500 amputees have registered with the ICRC's Orthopedic Project in Afghanistan since 1988. Of that figure, 67 percent are victims of mines and 76 percent are civilians, statistics of war that has lasted more than 30 years and which, even as most of the U.S.-led foreign combat forces are withdrawing, shows no sign of ending. The true number of amputees living in Afghanistan is likely even higher.
Four years ago, the ICRC decided to recruit amputees for sports teams as a way to help them both physically and mentally. Now, hundreds of amputees play wheelchair basketball in teams in six of the country's 34 provinces, with the best of them playing in the national league.
"They become stars that they wouldn't have been if they hadn't been disabled," Zeerak said.
Jess Markt, of Boulder, Colorado, served as a referee at the national tournament. He has been travelling to Afghanistan to coach wheelchair basketball players since 2009 and now spends up to four months a year in the country. At home, he plays point guard for the Denver Rolling Nuggets in the National Wheelchair Basketball Association and coaches the women's team.
Markt compared Afghanistan with the United States after World War II, when people with disabilities who had been marginalized from society began organizing activities that are now, like the Paralympics, part of mainstream sport.
"This is changing society," he said.
And for Samimi, who lost both her feet above the ankle after stepping on a land mine when she was 6, the joy of her Mazar-if-Sharif beating Herat 33-9 wasn't just for the final score.
"I am very happy that we won, but I am happy for them, too," she said.
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