KABUL: Discarding their prosthetic legs and wheelchairs, Afghan war veterans disfigured by Taliban bombs and bullets begin pumping iron in preparation for their next battle: the Invictus Games.
The eight-member Afghan team meets at a military gym in Kabul to train for the international sports championship for wounded, disabled and sick military personnel and veterans.
The event — the brainchild of Prince Harry who will attend the fourth edition in Sydney starting Saturday — brings together 500 competitors from 18 countries.
“In Afghanistan they call you a hero so long as you have a rifle on your shoulder. As soon as you are wounded, they take you to the military hospital and say 'goodbye',” said Sohail Naseri, whose legs were blown off by a landmine in the southern province of Helmand in 2012.
In that moment, the 31-year-old said, he became an “old man”.
Naseri and his team mates will compete in three of the 11 medal sports on offer — sitting volleyball, powerlifting and indoor rowing.
At a recent training session, double amputee Abdul Hanan Fehrdus lay on a bench as he pressed more than 55kg to build strength for the powerlifting event.
A soldier held down his leg stumps to prevent him falling on the floor.
“Each of us dreams of bringing back a medal from Sydney,” Fehrdus said.
“I do not want a bronze or silver medal, but a gold medal for my country”.
Fehrdus said he wallowed in despair for months after losing his legs during a mine clearance operation in the northern province of Kunduz in 2012.
Sport helped him to recover.
As well as winning medals in Sydney, Fehrdus hopes to meet Harry, who is in Australia as part of a Pacific trip with his expectant wife Meghan.
Fehrdus “greatly respects” the British royal for serving two tours of duty in Afghanistan during his decade in the British army.
“I have prepared an Afghan flag that I will give him as a gift,” he said.
Tens of thousands of Afghan soldiers have been killed or maimed since the bloody conflict began in 2001 with the US-led invasion that toppled the Taliban regime.
Despite the camaraderie from training for the Invictus Games, life is a daily struggle for the veterans as they try to support their families — and retain their dignity.
“We cannot go to a store or anywhere else without somebody helping us,” said Naseri, who is married with four children.
With little financial or psychological support, some wounded and disabled soldiers turn to drugs or even kill themselves out of desperation, he said.
“Joining this team has helped me a lot, both physically and mentally”. — AFP