LOVE AND LANDMINES
The Invictus Games Foundation meet with competitors as they relax in gaps between the sporting competition schedule, and discover a love story Down Under.
Surrounded by his pals, Talash cuts quite the dash in his suit. The others are noticeably more casual.
His hair is styled to within an inch, the aftershave is ever present and he’s freshly shaved. He is just like any other 18 year old boy heading out on a date or trying to impress a girl…
…Except he’s not heading out on date and he is not just any other boy.
Talash is perched on the edge of the sofa with five of his fellow countrymen from Team Afghanistan for the Invictus Games Sydney 2018.
The nature of his injury is not apparent at first, it’s the same for many at the Games. The hidden injuries, whether it PTSD, a chronic illness or otherwise, aren’t always obvious and for many, sharing the reason they are competing is not something they want to, or feel comfortable, talking about.
The handsome young Pashtun’s suit shrouds the severity of his wounds. A right leg missing below the knee and the severe scarring on his left betray an all-too-familiar story for many of his generation, and for those competing in Sydney.
One year ago, Talash stepped on a mine in his home country. Whether the legacy of conflict with the Soviet Union in the eighties or something repurposed by the Taliban, he doesn’t know. He doesn’t care.
“What does it matter who put it there.” His mate Abdul says to me.
It’s true, what does it matter? Right now, Talash has other things on his mind than musing the indiscriminate violence of legacy mines.
His eyes are darting around the ‘Friends and Family Zone’ of Invictus Games House, he’s looking for something or someone…
“He met a girl” Abdul says. “That’s why he’s wearing that. He’s trying to impress her.”
Abdul is 37, he thinks. “I’m not sure how old I am exactly.” To look at him, you would say he might be older, maybe by a decade or so, but then given the life he’s had, a level of premature ageing is to be expected.
Abdul is also the victim of a landmine. The one he stepped on took both of his legs above the knee. “Unlucky”, he explains; That day he had already cleared 48 mines, but then when the Taliban surrounded his position, the only escape route he had was to rush through the minefield he had been tasked with making safe.
Faced with the prospect of death or capture at the hands of the Taliban or risk life and limb through a minefield…
He took the risk. He survived, but it cost him both of his legs above the knee.
‘Unlucky’ doesn’t seem to do his story justice. But we move on from the past and discuss adaptive sports. He tells me that shotput is his main focus.
“In my village, everybody does the shotput. We train with rocks because we can’t afford proper balls.”
Talash interjects, handing me his phone. The picture shows him and a young lady holding hands.
“He wants to know if you know her and if you can help him”, Mirwais, the translator says.
Clearly Talash has another agenda in agreeing to allow me an interview. Conducting a serious discussion with the young 18-year-old lothario becomes all the more challenging as he probes for any and all intelligence on offer. Sadly I have none.
I try to steer the conversation back on track.
“Have you enjoyed being here?” Clearly he’s enjoyed it. Possibly not for all the right reasons, but you can forgive him that.
“The Games has refreshed my soul” he says. It is perhaps the most poetic response I could have expected.
“Would he apply for the Games again?” Finally concentrating on the interview and forgetting that he might miss an opportunity to spot his heart’s desire for just one moment, his eyes focus and offers a response startling in its maturity: “This has been the most beautiful experience of my life. Being among people like me, playing sport with people like me, while people not like me, at all, watch and cheer. Who would not want that experience again?”.
He continues: “But I am one of many hundreds, probably thousands.
What would make me more happy is giving this experience to someone else back home, someone else like me.”
He pauses. Just for a second, and returns to look around wistfully again for the girl in the photograph.
By Liam Maguire