Kabul project seeks peace through skateboarding

Afghans have taken up skateboarding with a passion for peace.

Kabul: They may not be a common sight on the streets of Kabul yet, but hundreds of young Afghans have taken up skateboarding thanks to the unlikely dream of an Australian with a passion for peace.

Thirtysomething Oliver Percovich, who first stepped on a skateboard aged six, helped set up Skateistan after arriving in Kabul armed with just three boards in 2007.

Now around 330 young Afghans regularly ride the giant ramps at the skateboarding school and educational NGO`s indoor skatepark in a giant hall in Kabul.

As well as teaching both boys and girls, aged between five and 19, how to carve and boardslide, Skateistan aims to help educate and build trust between young Afghans of different ethnicities.

After 30 years of war -- most recently a Taliban insurgency which has brought 140,000 international troops to the country -- many Afghans have grown up knowing nothing else, and suspicions between different ethnic groups are common.

The country`s educational system has also been hit hard by the conflict. Schools have been frequently targeted by the Taliban, particularly those for girls and in rural areas, despite international efforts at rebuilding.

"I like skating because of the movement and speed," says 16-year-old skater Omar, who works as an apprentice in a tailor`s shop. "Here is better than school -- we can relax, train, read, paint -- we feel free."

Two boys alongside him, 13-year-old Nawab and 14-year-old Nawi, came across Skateistan when they were selling chewing gum and cleaning car windows in the street to support their families.

Percovich, who grew up in Papua New Guinea and used to work for the Australian government, is convinced that education can "solve things" in Afghanistan, where around half of the population is aged under 25.

"Ultimately, what Skateistan wants to achieve is building trust, links between Afghans... some understanding between ethnicities," the youthful executive director of Skateistan says.

"Skateistan is mixing social backgrounds. Here a street kid can meet the son of a minister."

He adds: "We promote activities that don`t exclude -- how do you reconcile a kid that has Internet at home and writes emails with one holding a pen for the first time?"

Everything at the project is free. As well as skateboarding, children take classes in English, Dari, painting, photography, poetry and even puppetry.

Boys and girls do not take classes on the same day but girls have days of their own when they take to the ramps and also receive instruction in the other subjects from female teachers.

"Lots of sports are seen as for boys (but) skateboarding was too new to be related to a gender," Percovich says with a smile.

Construction of the project, which opened in 2008, cost around 200,000 euros (275,000 dollars) and funding came from Denmark, Norway and Germany. Local construction companies also offered to work for discounted prices.

It now has a long list of private sponsors and has started producing its own range of branded, urban-cool streetwear in a bid to build up its financial independence.

For most young Afghans, skateboards are too expensive to buy for themselves and in any case, the rutted state of Kabul`s streets would make it difficult for them to ride freely around the city.

But Skateistan is expanding to the Afghan city of Mazar-I-Sharif in the north, as well as to neighbouring Pakistan and, further afield, Cambodia.

Bureau Report