KABUL — It could be any skateboarding park in the United States: Kids whiz off ramps into midair, shoot up and down half-pipes and spill frequently onto the floor after failed maneuvers.
What makes this one unique — and tragically Afghan — is the pall that hangs over some of the young skaters, who lost four of their friends Saturday to a suicide bomber their same age. The four skaters were among the seven children and two adults killed in the blast near NATO headquarters, an incident that demonstrated the Taliban’s continued ability to penetrate the most well-guarded enclaves of Afghanistan’s capital.
The victims’ names were listed on a chalkboard inside the cavernous hangar where an unlikely nonprofit organization called Skateistan, established here five years ago, melds skateboarding, the arts and education for some of Afghanistan’s poorest children.
No coalition troops or foreigners were killed in Saturday’s attack, but the loss of the children has resonated among Americans and other Westerners. These, after all, were the very sort of children that the 11-year war has been waged to protect and uplift.
The children supported their families by selling chewing gum, scarves and trinkets to military personnel, diplomats and aid workers in Kabul’s well-fortified international zone. Some called them beggars and urchins, but at Skateistan they were success stories.
“They were all my students — Khorshid, Nawaz, Mohammed Esa, Parwana,” Skateistan education coordinator Benafsha Tasmim, her voice catching and eyes moist, said Thursday. She recalled how the children, ranging in age from 8 to 17, bonded over a distinctly American sport in a country savaged by an Islamist insurgency.
“Most of these kids spend all their days on the street,” said Tasmim, 23, who has a degree in psychology. “Here they made a little society for themselves.”
Skating wasn’t just about fun: It built the children’s self-confidence. And Skateistan, founded by an Australian skateboarder and now operating in several other nations, exposed them to a world of new ideas, where education mattered and boys and girls were equals.
“It gave them goals,” Tasmim said. “It gave them hope for the future.”
On Saturday, the forces of progressive and regressive Afghanistan collided on a street that houses embassies, intelligence services and other foreign outposts. An intruder — a boy of 14 or 15, carrying a backpack — made his way onto the turf held by the scrappy Skateistan crew.
The Taliban later asserted responsibility for dispatching the bomber, but claimed that he was much older. Kabul police said Thursday that they believe he was almost 16,
but they did not release his identity and had not determined his target.
Accounts vary about what happened that morning, but by most tellings there was an altercation. The street children thought the boy was horning in on their vending business. During the ensuing tussle, he detonated his explosives — about 150 feet from the blast-wall-protected headquarters of the NATO-backed International Security Assistance Force.
Although the gates to military and other facilities are well secured, foreigners can travel by foot up and down the road. Even if the children had no way of knowing the bomber’s intent, they may have prevented him from getting close enough to the headquarters entrance to do any harm.
“Many feel as though the children saved them,” said Rebecca Zimmerman, 35, a Rand Corp. project associate who works in the international zone.
Foreigners and Afghans have been tying scarves to a young tree at the blast site that now serves as an impromptu memorial. They have been trading photographs of the children.
“All they have is photographs. It is much more touching in a way: They only realized the fullness of those lives once they were lost,” Zimmerman said.
Four hundred children participate weekly in Skateistan programs. About 46 percent of them are girls, making it the largest female sports program in the country, the group says.
When Khorshid, 14, got interested in the skateboarding program, her mother wasn’t keen on letting her join because it took time away from hawking, Tasmim said. But, eventually, her mother saw how Khorshid was thriving. And one week ago Khorshid’s little sister Parwana, 8, became Skateistan’s newest enrollee.
Both of them died Saturday.
“Right now Khorshid would be zipping around here,” said Duncan Buck, 28, a Scottish skater and program staffer, gesturing to the teenager’s portrait, set in a bright-green frame on a classroom shelf.
“She had a radiance. She told us her name meant ‘happy,’ ” he said. “But then we found out her name means ‘radiant sun,’ and it was such an appropriate name. She wore the brightest colors.”
Downstairs, 16-year-old Noorzai Ibrahimi, considered one of Afghanistan’s best skateboarders, sat at a desk doing homework. He knew those who died and 14-year-old Navid, who was seriously injured.
“We are very sad about them all,” he said.
Why would a kid his age blow himself up in the name of religion? Ibrahimi was asked.
He answered in fragile English: “With the Taliban, they don’t get an education. The one thing good they study is the holy Koran, but they have nothing like this school. . . . If someone is in school, they learn to write, they learn things.”
In the hangar, the clamor of wheels on wood continued into the afternoon as more and more students arrived. While some children soared, others lost their balance and watched as their boards skittered away.
They fell, and it hurt, but the only thing to do was get back on and keep going.