A Nation in Need of Heroes Boxing for Peace in Afghanistan

As a child, Hamid Rahimi fled the war in his native Afghanistan to Hamburg. After struggling to fit in, he developed a pair of angry fists that eventually landed him in juvenile prison. But he learned to control his temper and now wants to use his skills for good -- and for peace in his homeland.

They sent bomb-sniffing dogs through the building, unscrewed light bulbs and disassembled loudspeakers to search for explosives. On this evening in late October, some 1,200 Afghan soldiers are guarding the Loya Jirga Hall in Kabul. Pickup trucks armed with machine guns block the access roads in front of the building, which is normally used for meetings of the Loya Jirga, or council of elders, and where battles are normally fought with words instead of fists.

Anyone who managed to get a ticket for the fight -- and could afford one, at between $60 (€47) and $200 (€157) apiece -- has to pass through four security checks and walk through three metal detectors. It takes almost an hour for a ticket holder to get to his seat.

On this morning, a Taliban fighter has shot and killed two British soldiers near the city of Gereshk, 600 kilometers (375 miles) southwest of Kabul, and now Hamid Rahimi is putting on his boxing gloves. He is standing in a heated tent next to the building, wearing a hooded vest and shorts. Someone holds a phone up to his ear. It's Afghan President Hamid Karzai, calling to apologize for not coming in person. He says that he'll watch the fight on TV with his son, and he wishes the boxer the best of luck. Rahimi stretches his hip and spits into a corner.

Rahimi, 29, was born in Kabul as the youngest son of an agricultural engineer and a teacher. He fled the country before the 1991 war, and now lives in Hamburg as a German citizen. He has fought 21 matches as a professional boxer, winning 20 -- nine with knockouts. He is celebrated as a hero in Afghanistan , and he holds the country's highest state honor.

His trainer pats his shoulder, indicating that it's time to go.

Some 3,000 people are waiting for Rahimi in the building. A crowd perhaps four times as large is pushing against iron gates and barriers outside, hoping in vain to get in. A leather armchair in the first row is reserved for the interior minister, the chief of police is present, the head of the intelligence service is sitting on a sofa at the front of the audience, generals and warlords are in attendance, and there are men from the Uzbek, Hazara and Pashtun tribes. No women.

An imam opens the event by reciting a few verses from the Koran. "We pray for our friend Hamid Rahimi," he says. "May he be strong and then, Insha'Allah, God willing, may he win." The audience answers: "Allahu akbar," or "God is great."

Round 1

This is the first professional boxing match in the history of Afghanistan, that eternal battlefield in the Hindu Kush. Two TV stations are broadcasting the fight live to all 34 provinces. The fight is for the World Boxing Organization's intercontinental middleweight championship, for boxers weighing up to 72.58 kilograms (160 lbs.).

Artificial fog is pumped into the building, and the moderator can hardly contain himself when he says: "Here he comes, and he's boxing for peace. Haaaamid … Raaahimiiiii!"

His opponent, Said Mbelwa from Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, looking brawny and fierce, is already waiting in the ring. Mbelwa has the red corner.

The timekeeper strikes the gong with a carpenter's hammer.

In the first round, Rahimi jabs with his left hand and punches with his right. Mbelwa is agile and his evasive maneuvers are effective.

"Hamid!" the fans shout. "Hamid, Hamid!"

The world has become deaf to good news from Afghanistan, and Rahimi's dream is to change that. Two years ago, he came up with the idea of stepping into the ring in Kabul and turned it into a project called "Fight 4 Peace." He believes that boxing has the power to unify a nation.

He negotiated with the government and met with tribal leaders. The World Boxing Organization (WBO) became involved, because boxing, as it states in its official resolution, is a "peaceful and true sport." But to be perfectly honest, boxing isn't nearly that romantic.

'Only Guests in Germany '

At first Rahimi wanted to fight an American, but officials at the fortress-like headquarters of the International Security Assistance Force (ISAF) didn't think it was such a good idea. Rahimi reached a deal with a boxer from the Dominican Republic, but that opponent later backed out. That left Said Mbelwa. "He has balls," says Rahimi. "He's not afraid to come here."

It's five days before the fight, and Rahimi is in the best shape of his life. To prepare for the fight, he fought in 130 rounds of sparring matches, instead of the usual 70. He is now running on the treadmill, to be followed by some shadow boxing on the terrace of the Kabul Star Hotel. His trainer is satisfied.

Rahimi is staying in a suite on the sixth floor, accompanied by his mother, Fatima, and his manager, Christof Hawerkamp. His brother, Wahid, who studied communication design and is constantly filming with his video camera, has also come to see the match.

A portrait of Rahimi's father is on the dresser, and a black ribbon with the words "We miss you" hangs above the frame. Aminullah Rahimi left Kabul a year before his family because he was afraid that he would be murdered if he stayed there. He had wanted to go to New York, but he only made it as far as Hamburg. He died in July at 87.

After training, Rahimi sits in the steam sauna. "My father always said we were only guests in Germany. It was clear to him that we would return. Bearded fanatics aren't the only ones living in Afghanistan. Young people here need other heroes. They shouldn't hang posters of mujahideen over their beds, but of athletes instead." It's time for his midday nap, and after that he plans to take a little trip.

Trauma of War in Childhood

Macroyan 1 is a development of grey, concrete buildings built by the Soviets in the eastern part of Kabul. Undergarments are hanging out to dry in front of the window, and a boy is driving a herd of goats. Rahimi stands with his mother in front of building 18, looking up at apartment 15 on the third floor, where they lived 21 years ago in a three-room apartment with a kitchen and a bathroom.

A small market behind the building sells roasted peanuts, women's clothing and ice cream. "This is where it happened," says Rahimi. "I can still smell death and burning flesh here."

He was five years old and had just gone to get an ice cream with his best friend Samir when the bomb exploded. Body parts and blood were everywhere. A piece of shrapnel hit Samir in the heart. Rahimi also remembers the time when missiles were exploding night after night, and how they used to squeeze into the bathtub together, hoping the tiles would protect them. His mother read from the Koran, and the children sang "Cheri, Cheri Lady" to distract themselves.

One day a shell landed next to Hamid's kindergarten, smashing the windows. There was smoke, fire, debris and blood everywhere. This time the attack was too much for Hamid to take. He caught a high fever and lost his ability to speak, stuttering like a diesel engine. He would break out in sweats and wet the bed. Sometimes his entire body became rigid.

Doctors treated him at the hospital for five months. He still chokes up when he tells the story today.

A few months later, he fled from Kabul with his mother and three siblings. The journey to join the father in Hamburg lasted 18 months, passing through Moscow and Prague.

Idolized by Children

There are four more days until the fight. Hawerkamp, his manager, uses the ISAF intranet to find judges for the bout. They need a referee, and Hawerkamp is struggling with the technicians, who don't speak English. He also needs the Tanzanian national anthem, and so far all he has as a flagpole is a broomstick.

"What we're doing here," he says, "is like walking on eggshells."

Rahimi is driven through the streets of Kabul in an open car. He's wearing a traditional robe and holding up the Afghan flag as he hands out autographed cards. He goes to the zoo and the city park, and he hikes up to the old city wall, where people live in huts with no running water and rarely have electricity.

With his brother filming, the pictures are the same everywhere they go: Children and adolescents crowd around him, touch him and want to be photographed with him. "Long live the champion!" they shout, as more and more children join the crowd. "Just look at their faces!" Rahimi shouts. "Look how happy they are!" His schedule is completely full. He has interviews at the Tolo TV, Yak TV and Khurshid studios, and President Karzai has invited him to prayers at his palace. It's the first day after the Feast of Sacrifice, celebrated at the height of the Hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.

Back at his hotel, Rahimi is told about a suicide bombing in Maymana, in Faryab Province, which claimed 41 lives. He sits down at his laptop and posts a photo of a child crying on his Facebook page. "Let's stick together," he writes. "Only together we can bring peace."

The Amani School, in Kabul's diplomatic district, has a football pitch and biology and chemistry labs. Rahimi pays a visit to a third-grade class consisting of 30 boys with jet-black hair, dressed in blue shirts and gray trousers. He stands at the blackboard and tells the boys the story of how he became a boxer.

From Prison to the Boxing Ring

When he was in school in Hamburg, he could hardly utter a sentence without stumbling over his words. He was an easy target for bullies, and he suffered greatly as a result. He felt like an outcast, and when three boys deliberately shot a wet football at his face, he let loose with his fists.

"Suddenly the others were nice to me," says Rahimi. He got into more and more fights, and along the way he cultivated his fighting stances and started a gang called the Real Street Boys. "I broke four noses in a week," he tells the boys. At 17, he punched a Turkish boy in the groin, was convicted of aggravated assault and sent to the Hahnöfersand Juvenile Prison.

In prison, he hated his fists and kept hitting the cell walls until they bled. He was ashamed to face his father and mother.

Then he saw a fight with Dariusz Michalczewski on TV. "He used his fists, too, but he was rich, and he was famous in Germany and in his home country, Poland. He made his parents happy." One of his sisters brought him the boxer's biography. Rahimi read it and began training. He drew the outline of a person on his prison mattress, using it to practice uppercuts and jabs.

His father was against his becoming a boxer. He wanted him to learn something worthwhile, like his daughters -- one is an attorney, the other a fashion designer. Rahimi had his debut as a professional boxer in November 2006. One of his first sponsors was an Afghan from Hamburg who trades in rice. He shot promotional videos with Rahimi and aired them on television at home, which is how the boxer became known in his native Afghanistan.

He stands in front of the children in the Amani School and says: "Since I've been boxing, I've never had a fight on the street again. I have my aggression under control."

Tense Meeting with the Ambassador

The sun has set, the streets are empty and Rahimi pays a visit to Sima Samar, a physician and human rights activist who will receive the so-called Alternative Nobel Prize in December. She is the best friend and former schoolmate of Rahimi's mother.

Samar, wearing a fleece jacket and tennis socks, is sitting in front of a plate of apples, bananas and grapes, as she talks about the European Union as an arms dealer and the Afghan government's lack of vision. Rahimi talks about Don King, the American boxing promoter, who sends his greetings to Kabul. He talks about an "historic opportunity" and an "initial spark for Afghanistan."

Samar smiles. "I won't watch the fight," she says. "It doesn't convince me. It's good that Hamid is getting the young generation to think about other things. But boxing has to do with aggression. I don't know if that's compatible with peace." Rahimi peels an apple.

Hawerkamp is in a good mood the next day. He is having a referee flown in from Berlin, and he found some potential judges: five Afghan amateur boxers. They are sitting in room 214 at the hotel, going over the rules. Hawerkamp explains to them that blows below the belt are forbidden, and that they also have to judge the defensive moves. Rahimi's trainer, sitting in a corner, says: "They'll all be judging in our favor. Mbelwa will have to knock out Hamid if he wants to win."

It's the day before the fight, and the German ambassador, Rüdiger König, wants to meet with him. Rahimi is nervous, because he plans to give the man a piece of his mind. "I presented my project to him a year ago. I asked for his support. I didn't even receive a rejection." Now he wants to know why.

The ambassador's trip to the hotel is short: 350 meters, just around the corner. He arrives with three armor-plated Mercedes limousines. His stone-faced bodyguards, armed with pistols and wearing bulletproof vests and sunglasses, don't say a word. "They scare me," says Rahimi. "They're pit bulls. If you give them your hand they'll bite into it. That's not how to make friends in Afghanistan."

He sits down with the ambassador in the hotel restaurant, and he talks and talks, gesticulating with his arms and bending over the table. The ambassador nods politely in response to the boxer's tirade, while his press spokeswoman stares silently into her coffee cup. She doesn't speak until the afternoon, and then it's only to say that no part of the conversation can be quoted.

"They've got to be kidding," says Rahimi. "They come here, wanting to teach the Afghans democracy and freedom of the press, and then this."

'We Showed the World'

It's around 7 p.m. on the evening of the fight. Mbelwa is furiously attacking his opponent, but his left straight-arm punch isn't working, and neither is his hook. After 17 seconds, Rahimi hits him on the right shoulder and Mbelwa crumples defenselessly, holding his arm.

The referee stops the fight, sends Rahimi into the neutral corner and calls the ringside doctor. Rahimi sinks to his knees and waves his fists in front of his face, waiting. Then the referee announces that Rahimi has won the fight, by virtue of a technical knockout.

The fans jump up from their seats, hopping, screaming, clapping and kissing each other. They push their way forward to the ring and climb up into it. Hawerkamp shouts in panic, and then police officers turn up with shields and batons, pushing back the crowd.

The fans hoist Rahimi to their shoulders in the ring. He is holding up the Afghan flag. Then he speaks into the microphone, as his words are broadcast to the entire country: "This title doesn't belong to me. I won it for you. It belongs to all of Afghanistan. We showed the world that it's worth it to fight against war and terrorism."

Back to Germany

Soon afterwards, Rahimi is in the shower while the crowd outside continues to howl like drunkards. "That was so cool. I didn't want to leave," he says. He dries himself off and puts on a shirt and tie. "We made history today, and my father was looking down at me. Now I can die happy." His brother is standing next to him, filming the scene with tears in his eyes.

Back at the hotel, the first thing Rahimi does is read the new messages on his Facebook page. Then he orders room service and calls his sisters in Hamburg.

After that, Rahimi and his team go out to a bar where a can of Heineken costs $10. But he isn't as fired up as the rest of them, drinking only Diet Coke. He's tired and it's close to 1 a.m. The tension has left his body. "Not everyone here is a terrorist or a drug dealer," he says. "The young people want respect. I will fight for that as long as I can breathe."

The next morning, there is a breaking news report on television and on the radio that a roadside bomb planted by the Taliban in Musa Qala, in Helmand Province, has killed seven women and three children.

Forty-eight hours later Hamid Rahimi, 29, Kabul-born and Hamburg-raised, boards his return flight to Germany.

Translated from the German by Christopher Sultan

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