Shooting for fun in Afghanistan with an army of middle-class paint-ballers

Toy guns are proving a popular diversion for some in a country flooded with the real thing

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The Independent Online

The hidden gunman, dressed in long, green coveralls and a Swat  team-style vest and helmet, looks ominous as he fires off a short burst.

But this isn’t a Taliban attack in the heart of Afghanistan’s capital – it’s just a friendly game of paintball.

The arrival of recreational paintball to Afghanistan may seem peculiar to outsiders, especially in a country that’s known decades of war, faces constant bombings and attacks by Taliban insurgents and is preparing its own security forces for the withdrawal of most of the foreign troops currently situated in the country by the end of the year.

However, it shows both the rise of a nascent upper and middle class looking for a diversion in their spare time, as well as the way American culture has seeped into the country since the 2001 US-led invasion aimed at toppling the Taliban.

“These people deserve to have more fun,” said Abbas Rizaiy, the owner of the “Eagle” paintball club in central Kabul.

Mr Rizaiy brought the game to Afghanistan just a few weeks ago. He’s a long-time fan of the first-person shooter video-game series “Call of Duty” and stepped up to the next level by playing paintball in neighboring Iran where he was born.

He moved to Afghanistan 10 years ago and eventually decided to open the club this year in Kabul, a city more-closely associated with real bullets than the ones that splatter paint.

For those who have never suffered played the game, paintball involves participants gearing up in helmets, goggles and protective clothing firing at each other using gas-powered guns that shoot paint pellets. The games can be complicated affairs that last for hours or as simple as a capture-the-flag contest that lasts only a few minutes.

The arrival of recreational paintball shows the way American culture has seeped into the country since the 2001 US-led invasion (AP)

Naqibullah Jafari, a marketing officer in Kabul who came to the club with his friends acknowledged that they didn’t have much of a strategy when he took to the field – other than to shoot each other.

“It is my first time here and I don’t have any special tactics in this game,” he said, with his goggles pushed up to his forehead and his weapon at his side.

Mr Rizaiy said he hasn’t had many issues with the neighbours, though he turned down the speed at which the weapons fire to reduce the noise. Instead, he said the biggest challenge was to get the paintball guns to the range, as the ones he imported from India got stuck for six months in Afghanistan’s bureaucracy laden customs department.

Paintball is one of a small number of leisure activities that have sprung up in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban. A bowling alley called “The Strikers” opened a few years ago and a number of pools around the city provide a place for residents to cool off in the summer months. There’s also a nine-hole golf course a short drive outside the city.

But most of these activities are geared toward the city’s small, upper and middle-class elite who can afford the admission. And customers are overwhelmingly male because of Afghanistan’s conservative society  which deems it generally not acceptable for women to go to activities involving men who aren’t relatives.

Mr Rizaiy said he’d like women customers but claimed they don’t want to be stared at while wearing all the equipment needed to take part.

This year is one of many transitions for Afghanistan, with a presidential election that currently remains undecided and foreign troops scheduled to leave the country. Mr Rizaiy said he thinks at least some US troops are likely to  stay, providing  Afghanistan with some stability.

Meanwhile, his customers seem to appreciate the irony of firing toy guns in a country which is flooded with the  real thing.

“We can use guns for positive things and also for negative things,” customer Ali Noori said. “These guns are for entertainment.”