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Afghan stadium once site of Taliban executions remodeled, reopened

December 15, 2011 |  7:28 am

REPORTING FROM KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — In Taliban times, it was a killing ground. On Thursday, it was a place of celebration.

Kabul’s newly refurbished main sports stadium was the scene of a festive formal reopening, with a crowd of thousands looking on. In the chill but sunny air, Afghan athletes — some of them Olympic hopefuls — paraded on the resurfaced track and staged exuberant soccer matches on the brand-new artificial turf.    

During the reign of the Taliban movement, from the mid-1990s until the U.S.-led invasion of 2001, the stadium was used as a venue for public executions. Terrified spectators were often rounded up on the streets and forced to watch harsh punishments such as chopping off the hands of accused thieves.

Under the Taliban’s stringent interpretation of Islam, women accused of capital crimes were put to death still clad in their all-covering burkas. On Thursday, female athletes — who in the Taliban era would not have been able to leave their homes unescorted or go to school or work — took part in the celebrations.

Afghanistan’s sports culture languished under the Taliban, which banned most forms of entertainment. Many of those on hand for the ribbon-cutting were onetime athletes whose sports careers were derailed by the movement’s five-year rule.

With a drawdown of NATO forces set to accelerate in the coming year, Western officials are doing all they can to spotlight progress in Afghanistan, battered by decades of war and still facing a lethal insurgent threat.

The stadium refurbishment was paid for with primarily U.S. funds, and senior representatives of the American government and the NATO force, including U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Gen. John Allen, the U.S. commander of Western troops in Afghanistan, offered congratulations to their Afghan hosts.

Afghan VIPs called the stadium’s renaissance a symbol of the country’s potential.

“This is something everyone wanted,” said Lt. Gen. Mohammad Zaher Aghbar, a onetime goalkeeper for the army’s soccer team, who now heads the country’s Olympic committee. “It’s a happy day for Afghans.”


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