On September 8 last year, a teenage boy detonated a suicide bomb at the gates of the Nato-led International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) in Kabul, Afghanistan. Four of the six people killed were street children who regularly gathered at the gate to sell trinkets, scarves and chewing gum to Nato personnel. The 14-year-old suicide bomber had pretended to be one of them to get up close to the Isaf gates, blowing the small group apart when he detonated his device.
In the context of the Afghan conflict, this was not particularly unusual. More than 1,800 children were killed or injured in conflict-related violence across Afghanistan in 2010-11. What was different in this case was that these weren’t anonymous street kids, they were Skateistan children – part of a unique skateboarding project in the heart of Kabul. Within hours, social media was alive with the children’s faces, grinning up from poses on a half-pipe, kids with scuffed shinpads and shy smiles.
Nawab, 17, Khorshid, 14, Mohammed Eeza, 13, and Parwana, eight, were all regulars at the project, the older ones instructors at the skateboarding school. A fifth Skateistan volunteer called Navid, 14, was among five wounded, seriously injured by shrapnel from the blast. Skateistan worker Duncan Buck blogged about Khorshid: “She knew what she wanted in life and wasn’t afraid to fight for it despite having more responsibilities and sorrows than a child should ever have.”
It took a tragedy to show the world what Skateistan does. The project, a sprawling 1,750m sq complex of ramps, classrooms, bathrooms and offices on land that once belonged to the Afghan Olympic Committee in Kabul, is built on cultural contradictions. Girls in headscarves – usually banned from taking part in sports – fly through the air on the skateboards. Street children who have worked from the age of five experience moments of genuine childhood. Dusty Afghan streets resonate with sounds and words that originate from Californian surf culture 7,000 miles away. The rebellious subculture that speaks to millions of kids in US high-schools and among European highrises turns out to speak to Afghan children too.
Oliver Percovich, the founder of Skateistan, realised this in 2007, the moment he put his board down at the Mekroyan fountain, an empty, abandoned Russian-era concrete structure in Kabul. A restless, then-33-year-old Australian skateboard fanatic, Percovich had arrived in the capital in the wake of an ex-girlfriend. In a city where foreigners generally live behind razor wire and security restrictions, it never occurred to him not to skate.
“I was looking for work and skateboarding on the side,” he recalls. “People were amazed to see a foreigner on the streets. But I felt very comfortable. I’ve never met as many friendly people in my life as in Afghanistan.”
The skating foreigner attracted street kids from far and wide. “They all wanted to skate. Even girls. That got me thinking. You didn’t see girls doing any other sport – I thought maybe they can skateboard.” The more Percovich learnt about the children’s lives, the more they troubled him. “I read that half the population of Afghanistan were under 16 and 70 per cent under 25 – and that there were 70,000 street kids in Kabul alone,” he says. “I realised that by the age of eight they had gone through more than most people do. A lot of them are sent out to work on the streets at age five by parents who are addicted to drugs.” He also saw how trapped the children were, not just by war but by poverty. “I met a man who had washed cars in the same street from age six to 36, through three regimes – the Russian, the Taliban, now.”
Percovich wasn’t surprised to find a connection with the children through skating. A son of itinerant parents who took him all over the globe, he had used skating all his life to fit in. “Kids may be different,” he says, “but they all fall off a skateboard the same way.”
Building a skatepark – with an indoor facility that would mean girls could skate – took two years of persuading diplomats, NGOs and donors. “They all thought, who’s that daft Australian,” Percovich says. “I was just a skateboard guy with a big mouth. All the solutions around me seemed to have been designed in Washington DC, London, Paris. I wanted to do something different. It seemed to me the aid industry was basically the medical profession in the 1500s. Their hearts were in the right place but they were still applying leeches and sawing off arms.”
Skateistan has since grown into an international organisation with headquarters in Berlin and development aid programmes for young people in Afghanistan, Cambodia and Pakistan, using skating to engage with children who are among the hardest to reach in the world. Many of the original kids from the Mekroyan fountain are now instructors and teachers. Last year, the project was engaging 400 children a week in Kabul alone – and was ranked in the top 100 NGOs by the Geneva-based global governance periodical, The Global Journal.
Percovich tells a story about showing a Skateistan picture to a sales rep at a skateboard trade fair in Germany. “The picture was of a man in full, traditional, shalwar kameez with a big, full Afghan beard, helping a young boy to skateboard,” he says. The salesman looked hard at the picture. “I saw something fascinating play across his face,” Percovich says. “A flash of recognition. A gap had been bridged. It was as if he recognised an Afghan as a person for the first time.”
Then, in the middle of all the successes, came the bomb in September – a reminder of how children in Afghanistan are constantly under threat. “They were all people we were very close to,” Percovich says. “Nawab was one of our best skateboarders and a bit of a ringleader around the Isaf base. He had won the 2012 Go Skateboarding Day competition at Skateistan only a few days earlier.” Colleagues say that as well as his technically perfect kickflips, Nawab was known for his extreme kindness.
Mohammed Eeza, 13, had been part of Skateistan since the old days of the Mekroyan fountain. Meanwhile, Khorshid, an instructor, was a livewire. “She was extremely bright and cheeky,” Percovich says. “I guess I saw a bit of myself in her there. It was really cool to have someone like her involved in Skateistan. When you dug a little bit deeper into her life, it was incredibly tough.”
The youngest child who died was Parwana, aged eight, Khorshid’s youngest sister, who often tagged along to skate sessions. Just a week before she had officially enrolled herself as Skateistan’s newest student. Their cousin Assad died too. He wasn’t a student at Skateistan, but was well known to staff and students who worked with him on the streets.
“What happened at Isaf showed me how important our work is,” Percovich says. “Most of those killed were extremely vulnerable children. If anything, the bomb attack steeled us to keep on. It proved to us that what we are doing is really, really important.”
In two weeks’ time, Percovich is presenting a book and film about Skateistan at the South Bank Centre in London as part of the Alchemy Festival. It will be a homecoming of sorts. It is 24 years since he put his board down as a 15-year-old on the concrete underskirts of the centre, drawn like a generation of skaters before him to the skating mecca along the River Thames. Percovich was travelling with his German mother; his Croatian father had just died from cancer. Until that moment he was as exotic as anyone in 1989 London, a rank outsider. Then his board touched the ground: “It was a feeling of total connection,” he remembers.
After Khorshid died, one of the younger girls in her charge remembered how the older girl had taught her to go down the big ramp at Skateistan. “If you are scared, you end up doing nothing and without doing you cannot achieve anything,” Khorshid had told her. “But if you do things, all that can happen is you succeed or fail.”
When she still struggled with the ramp, Khorshid told her to simply close her eyes and imagine herself succeeding. On the next attempt she did.