BELGRADE, Serbia: They practiced in secret and struggled to compete in an international tournament in Europe, but members of the Afghan national boxing team, currently in Serbia, are seeking refuge in the West, hoping to continue their careers and their lives following the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan.
The Afghan boxers, their coach and a top boxing federation official remained in Serbia after the AIBA World Boxing Championships finished in early November, stressing they could face retribution from the Taliban if they returned home.
"When the Taliban regime came to Afghanistan, everything changed," said Waheedullah Hameedi, secretary-general of Afghanistan's boxing federation, as reported by the Associated Press.
The team's members contacted several foreign embassies about securing humanitarian visas and asylum protection, though some EU countries have turned them down.
Many thousands of Afghans, including athletes, fled their country after the Taliban took over following the withdrawal of troops from the U.S. and other foreign nations in August.
The Taliban do not approve of boxing, and team members stand little chance of pursuing their careers freely in Afghanistan, Hameedi added, stating in English, "As you know, the situation in Afghanistan is very tough, very bad."
Hameedi's father, a previous secretary-general of the Afghan Boxing Federation, was killed in 2019 by unknown gunmen.
Boxing was banned in Afghanistan during the Taliban's previous rule in 1996-2001, and Hameedi claimed officials and boxers have faced threats and feared for their safety.
"Boxing is 'haram' for them (the Taliban,) something in Islam that is illegal for them," he said.
Ahead of the trip to Serbia, the boxers trained at hidden locations and stayed under the radar, hiding their plan to compete in the international tournament, he added, noting they received visas to go to Iran, and once in Tehran they applied for visas at the Serbian Embassy, before rushing to Belgrade.
Sponsored by the International Boxing Association, the 11 Afghan boxers competed in Serbia as part of a 14-member "fair chance" team, said Hameedi.
The group's Serbian visas have since expired, but Hameedi said friends and relatives warned them not to return to Afghanistan, explaining, "We hope we will receive visas as soon as possible so there is no problem in Serbia."
Hameedi said he, the coach and the nine boxers in Serbia do not want to illegally cross into Western Europe, but they have also not yet applied for local asylum.
Attorney Marko Stambuk, who works with the Belgrade Center for Human Rights, said the Afghan boxers contacted the organization and have been informed about their options for seeking asylum in Serbia.