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Inside Afghanistan’s bloodsport: Spellbinding images of the country’s violent past-times dating from the reign of Genghis Khan that are popular once more after the Taliban’s fall

On Fridays, for some men in Afghanistan, sport is attended as routinely as Friday prayer at the mosque 

Games with roots dating back to the reigns of Genghis Khan and even Alexander the Great still attract huge crowds 

They include teams on horseback fighting over headless animal carcasses and dogs battling one on one

Many were banned by the Taliban’s vice and virtue police – but are now widespread again after their defeat 

Dogs fighting in the bloodied snow, men wrestling on the field and grim-faced horsemen chasing headless animal carcasses in dusty arenas. They are the brutal sports of Afghanistan, variations of which have entertained rich and poor alike, for centuries.

And now photojournalist Andrew Quilty has captured in these stunning images and gripping report how they are as much a part of Fridays as mosque and prayer for some Afghans after the fall of the Taliban.

At the top of a dusty hill in central Kabul, Hasan walks his dog, Diwana, alongside an empty Soviet-era swimming pool. The leash in his hand is doubled for strength and attached to a body harness made out of a heavy leather. It is fastened around the dog’s neck and waist as if for a horse to pull a cart. Above them, a giant Afghan flag flaps in the cold air at the top of a flagpole that stretches some 260 feet into the sky

In a few hours, Hasan and Diwana will drive half an hour to the capital’s eastern outskirts, where the Afghan National Security Forces’ presence runs thin, ceding to local strongmen who pay gunmen to provide at least a sense of security.


Popular: A chapandaz (horseman) on a white horse reaches for the calf carcass as two teammates protect him from rival riders during a buzkashi match in Afghanistan’s Panjshir Valley. This is one of the country’s most loved sports

When they arrive at the gate to the mud-walled compound, men in military fatigues carrying Kalashnikovs will pause their body searches as Diwana — 5 feet tall on hind legs, ears clipped, and with bloodshot eyes matching his henna-daubed coat — muscles his great frame out of the car. The men and boys waiting in line will turn to flatten themselves against the wall, giggling in excitable fear. They’ve come to watch Diwana fight.

It’s Friday in Kabul, the second day of the Islamic weekend — a day of peace, mercy, and blood sport.

Few countries have experienced the tumult that Afghanistan has in the past four decades. The 1979 Soviet invasion marked the beginning of more than 20 years of extreme violence and depredation.

Following nearly a decade of bloodshed in which an estimated one million civilians were killed, the Soviet withdrawal in 1989 gave rise to a brutal civil war that ultimately saw the birth of the Taliban in the mid-1990s. Despite a new war raging in the hills and valleys of the provinces, the first decade of the new millennium was imbued with a sense of hope in Kabul and is telling of Afghanistan’s stamina in the face of violence. Piles of diamonds and porn, Concorde and

The optimism that came in 2001 was a first for more than half the young population. Afghan society and culture had been either hobbled or completely hogtied for more than two decades.

For many men in Afghanistan, sports — often violent in nature — as entertainment are as ingrained in Friday’s routine as prayer. In the post-2001 decade, friends could attend matches in public without fear of being arrested by the Taliban-era vice-and-virtue police or being strafed by Soviet gunships. Ancient blood sports were given tacit approval by the government and police. Betting and hash smoking went hand in hand with these events, but for the most part they remained incident-free.


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