Two decades ago, 93 Afghan athletes, officials and their families formed an unlikely team. But the ragtag group was a crucial stepping stone in the war against the Taliban.
As a surge of Taliban fighters advanced on the capital Kabul in the early 1990s, an elite group of 28 Afghan athletes and officials made a risky trek across the Pakistani border and into safety.
Through a complex set of smuggling transactions, the refugees were able to fly out of Pakistan, claiming asylum in Canada. But the athletes and their family members, many of whom had lost loved ones and relatives, continued to live as refugees in Montreal.
Wednesday marked the 20th anniversary of the daring escapade.
The combined 84 members of the team included 14 international Olympians who had entered the 1988 Olympic Games in Seoul, South Korea. But after their nation was formally declared a communist country by its former government in 1973, the athletes and officials were prohibited from participating in international sporting events.
Several of them worked under extreme poverty and mental anguish to come up with a plan to flee to safety, as the Canadian Press reported.
“They had to be clear about what they wanted, and how they wanted to get to Canada,” recalled Bilqis Karimi, who organized the escape attempt in 1993 for the athletes and officials. “They wanted a life that was free.”
Karimi, who served as general secretary of the Afghanistan Athletic Federation until she died earlier this year, started her quest to arrange the escape with a wealthy Afghan businessman and member of the Afghan Parliament named Abdul Aziz. The businessman sent two planes, one to Afghanistan and one to Pakistan, carrying baggage for the refugees and to help with their evacuation.
Two Iranian soccer teams and some minor national titles and wins were also on the slate for the deportees.
“A ragtag group,” Karimi recalled, “that people didn’t know we existed.”
But by the time the refugees reached Canada, the entire Afghan Olympic team had been granted asylum. Most were soon added to the list of Olympic medalists.
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