On the dusty streets of Kabul, amid the ruins of war, a group of young Afghans are finding freedom among the blast walls and checkpoints through the jumping, backflipping sport of parkour.
They practise the discipline, which combines running, acrobatics and gymnastics, in forgotten corners of the Afghan capital such as Darul Aman, the former royal palace reduced to a wreck by nearly 40 years of war.
Parkour, which originated in France in the 1990s and is also known as free-running, involves getting around urban obstacles with a fast-paced mix of jumping, vaulting, running and rolling.
For Khair Mohammad Zahidi and the rest of Afghan Parkour Generation, a 20-member group based in Kabul, it brings joy and a sense of liberty in a city permanently on edge for fear of Taliban attacks.
“When we do parkour, it raises our confidence. It brings us excitement. And we really enjoy it,” the 21-year-old told AFP outside Darul Aman.
It is a far cry from the days of the hardline Taliban who banned most sports apart from football and bodybuilding during their 1996-2001 rule.
Exposure to Western culture since the Taliban were overthrown in a US-led invasion in 2001 has transformed Afghanistan’s previously isolated society.
“Since this sport is new in Afghanistan, when we do parkour a lot of spectators come around us, and it looks funny for them, they think we have springs inside our bodies,” Zahidi said.
Parkour has thousands of loyal followers and practitioners around the world, but it remains rare in Afghanistan.
Zahidi and his friends discovered it on the internet and taught themselves through online tutorials — and this new-found passion brought them together.
They started training together five years ago and now practise every day. Zahidi, a student, said he took his inspiration from Frenchman David Belle, regarded as the pioneer of parkour.
Leaping around the rusting shell of an old bus, throwing giddying backflips from its roof is 19-year-old Ali Amiri, who used to do gymnastics before discovering parkour.
With the international troop presence in Afghanistan falling fast, the future direction of Afghan society is uncertain after the tumultuous experiences of recent years.
For some Islamic clerics, the end of NATO’s war is a chance to re-establish traditional values and end the baleful influence of the West.
But Amiri says he hopes parkour can help to keep Afghanistan on a progressive track.
“When we practise this sport, we try to push our country forward, and as parkour gets developed our country becomes more developed,” he said.
“When we do parkour, we don’t care about anything, we forget about war and stand against the challenges facing our country.”
Not just for boys
The group is keen for girls to take up parkour — a daring choice in a deeply conservative country that usually expects women to lead lives of cloistered domesticity.
To help girls take part they rented a gym so they could train away from prying eyes.
“If we want to train girls, it’s better to have an indoor club,” male student Habib Afzali, 23, said.
“Since our society is conservative, if girls get training outside, people will think that these girls have loose morals or bad character.”
One of the girls, 18-year-old Gulbahar Ghulami, was part of the national gymnastics team but was drawn to parkour by its dizzying moves.
She has been training in the gym, but has yet to practise outside in the city.
“I love parkour stunts, that’s why I decided to change from gymnastics to parkour,” said Ghulami, wearing a black headscarf as she practised backflips at the gym with the help of a trainer.
“There aren’t many opportunities for girls to do this in Afghanistan, that’s why I joined this group. I want to be the first Afghan woman to do parkour.”