What the bronze medal means for Afghanistan

by Fariba Nawa

Republished from New America Media.

The unity and exhilaration was contagious. I felt like I was standing in the audience at the Olympics watching the taekwondo match between the Afghan and British contestants. But I was home in California on my laptop cheering for the Afghan athlete.

When Afghan Rohullah Nikpah won to secure the bronze Thursday, the applause was deafening on Facebook, twitter and email, where Afghans meet from all over the world. In a year filled with suicide bombings, school poisonings and kidnappings, the bronze for Afghanistan was more than gold. It united all the rivaling Afghan ethnic groups, religious sects, men and women for one day. I bet even the Taliban watched the match and cheered. Beating the British was symbolic — Afghans defeated the British in war three times in the last two centuries.

But it was more important for Nikpah to win something for a battered Afghanistan known to the world as the globe’s most dangerous and divided place. The 25-year-old was under pressure to prove to the world that Afghans can do more than fight for blood. Nikpah is one of six athletes competing in the Olympics, and the only one who has won a medal so far.

Afghanistan's Rohullah Nikpah poses with his bronze medal on the podium for the men's taekwondo in the category under 68 kg as part of the London 2012 Olympic games. AFP

Esmael Darman, an Afghan psychologist in charge of the only Afghan mental health website, wrote on Facebook. “These are the rare fleeting moments that can bring a nation together and we should not let them slip away! Such historical occasions simply prove that a group of people can become a nation through a different medium other than blood or bloodshed, money, power, war, arch rivalry, detrimental competition, illogical possessiveness, deep hatred, and extreme paranoia.”

In 2008, Nikpah brought his first Olympic bronze medal for Afghanistan from Beijing. A large crowd greeted him in Kabul, and President Hamid Karzai showered him with cash, a car and house paid for by the government. He was a national hero. But four years ago, Afghans had much more hope for a brighter future. The US troop surge had not occurred, and Afghans who supported the US-led intervention still believed that the Taliban would be defeated. Obama had not announced the US withdrawal. Nikpah’s Beijing medal came at a time of anticipation, when the direction of the war was still a question.

Now, there’s no question. The return of the Taliban and another bloody civil war looms. Many of the educated Afghans, the inspired youth and urban women are leaving the country, seeking asylum where they can. The government is rampant with corruption, dealing in illicit drug money and stealing foreign aid. The world’s view of Afghanistan is as a lost cause full of savages who can’t be tamed.

Self-loathing and criticism among Afghans is common on Facebook, where I keep in daily contact with my Afghan friends and family. Some have come to believe they are the image of what the media propagates. Others deny any wrongdoing and put the blame on imperialism. Objectivity and unity are rare. I skim through the verbal spats over ethnicity, language and religious sect. I search for the positive comments, discussions that could bring us together.

On Thursday, Nikpai made that happen, even if for a day. Pashtun, Hazara, Tajik, Uzbek, Shia, Sunni all agreed that we can be a nation, that a national identity exists when there’s an occasion of happiness. Emotions were charged. Family members called each other and shed tears.

One friend wrote, “It has been a very, very, very long time since last I saw Afghans this happy.”

For a country that’s constantly in mourning, one day of celebrations cured injured souls.

I realise it’s common for the Olympics to bring people in one nation together, but for Afghans, that togetherness is something to savour, something to aspire to for peace. The psychologist Darman pleaded with his Afghan readers to take this one day and make it last. “We need to build on these emotions. We need to invest in this oneness. Oneness is not about being the same, but to work for the same goals in different ways. Nikpah proved this.”

If only that one day of solidarity among Afghans could last long enough to bring peace.

Fariba Nawa is an Afghan-American journalist and the author of 
Opium Nation: Child Brides, Drug Lords and One Woman’s Journey through Afghanistan.