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Outrage grows in another cricket nation

Long before the attack on Sri Lanka's cricket players during their tour of Pakistan, a less well-publicised tragedy hit the sport in this region.

KHOST, AFGHANISTAN // Long before the attack on Sri Lanka's cricket players during their tour of Pakistan, a less well-publicised tragedy hit the sport in this region. One night last summer, Rahmat Wali, a former member of the Afghan team, was killed in his home during a house raid by foreign troops.

His death meant he missed out on seeing his colleagues reach the brink of World Cup qualification. It also left a legacy of sadness, anger and the desire for revenge among his friends and family that still exists today. "People in Khost hate the Americans and, by any means necessary, as they kicked out the Russians they will kick out the Americans too," said his brother, Ahmad. According to residents, Mr Wali was detained by US troops six months before his death and held briefly at Bagram airbase, north of Kabul. Then, in August, soldiers burst into his home and shot him dead. In the immediate aftermath, the provincial governor confirmed the killing.

"I was not in Afghanistan when the Russians were here, but my uncles and other family members tell me that they never treated people like this," said Ahmad Wali, 24. While it does not share the fanatical following it has in other parts of the subcontinent, cricket is still a very popular sport here. In particular, it is played with devotion in the south and east - where the cultural influence of Pakistan is strongest.

The national team has reached the final qualifying stages for the 2011 World Cup, having won a tournament in Buenos Aires. In a country with little to cheer these days, they were given a heroes's welcome on their return to Kabul last month. But for those who knew Mr Wali, any success now or in future will be bitter sweet. The bloody raid is part of a wider trend in Khost, with security deteriorating rapidly as people become increasingly disillusioned with life under foreign occupation.

Jalaluddin Haqqani, a senior insurgent and former commander in the anti-Soviet resistance, has harnessed much of that anger, orchestrating a number of attacks against American troops in the area and gaining growing support from the public. However, residents insist that Mr Wali, who played for the cricket team between 2001 and 2006, had no links to any militant groups. "They accused him of being connected to Mr Haqqani Sahib and working for him, but as a villager I don't believe that," said Sardar Gul, a taxi driver.

Like many other men, Mr Gul is now edging closer to joining the insurgency. Local unemployment levels are high and the government has no real control outside the provincial capital. Rebels effectively hold the power in rural areas, while foreign militants can also move freely back and forth across Khost's border with Pakistan. Here in this deeply conservative and fiercely proud province, it is quickly becoming a religious and moral duty for all Muslims in the area to fight the occupation.

"We have never before had such a time in our culture when someone can go into our houses without permission," Mr Gul said. "It is enough for everyone, especially for me as a Pashtun, and I can't take this anymore. I am really thinking of resisting [the occupation] and this is also why most of the young men are willing to join the Taliban. It is the right thing to do, it is the right time for jihad.

"OK, we were born in war and we grew up in war, but still we can't accept this anymore. We really want to join the Taliban and that is what I am going to do." The attack on the Sri Lanka team as it made its way to a match in Lahore has thrown the future of cricket in this part of the world into disarray. But here the killing of Mr Wali was every bit as tragic and it will never be forgotten, even if friends and family do get their revenge.

"It is better to die than to live like this and be dishonoured by the Americans," said Jawed Khosti, his cousin and neighbour. "We will kick them out just as we kicked out the Russians." skarim@thenational.ae

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