It took a pair of landmines that amputated Malek Mohammad’s legs for him to find his life’s passion for swimming in land-locked Afghanistan.
He was 11 years old when he stepped on the mines as he gathered firewood in a vacant lot in Kabul, a city still trying to recover from years of civil war.
“When I lost my legs … I was in a terrible condition because I didn’t know about my future and I was feeling very bad,” Mohammad, now 24, told Reuters as he rested after swim practice on a recent morning in Kabul.
Faced with an uncertain future in a country where many war victims face lifetimes of suffering, Mohammad’s life changed when a U.S. government official arranged for him to receive treatment, physical therapy, and education in the United States.
It was there that Mohammad first learned to swim, and put him on a track to what he hopes will eventually be sporting glory at the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Tokyo.
“I hope to be selected there to represent my country, because the amputee community are looking at me,” Mohammad said.
His dreams of competing in the Olympics have been dashed before, when he failed to make the cut for the summer games in London in 2012.
He hopes that a good showing in the World Para Swimming Championships in Mexico City in September will help him get close to his dream.
Nothing in Afghanistan is easy, however.
Mohammad says his application to the Mexico games has been delayed by conflicting details on his identification papers, a common problem in Afghanistan where many people, including Mohammad, don’t know their exact birth date and other information.
The team members hope to follow 18-year-old Abbas Karimi, who recently qualified for Mexico while living and training in the United States.
The lack of resources for a world-class training programme makes it difficult for the members of the Afghan paralympic swimming team who don’t have access to international facilities and support.
Three members of the team, all with amputations from war wounds, train in small public pools with little government support.
They are coached by Mohammad Jawad, a veteran javelin thrower, who volunteers his time to help.
“Malek is a talented person and he has already competed in international competitions, but this time if he does his best efforts, God willing, I am sure he can achieve great things for his country at the Olympic Games as well,” said Jawad.
COMFORT IN SWIMMING
Like many Afghans, Mohammad has been caught in the increasing global tensions as fighting sends hundreds and thousands fleeing.
His prosthetic legs have begun to wear after eight years, and a clinic in the United States has offered to provide treatment.
Mohammad’s application for an American visa was denied last year, however, with the State Department saying he had not proved that he would willingly return to Afghanistan.