KABUL (Reuters) - Hundreds of men crowd round a dusty clearing, more squat on a hillside straining for a better view as the sound of angry barking fills the air and an old man raises a stick to announce the start of a new Afghan dog-fighting season.
“This dog is ready,” he shouted as an enormous speckled brown and black animal, its hackles raised, strained at two leashes each gripped by a handler struggling to hold it back.
“Is there a challenger for this dog?” shouted the old man Khalay, the limping, bad-tempered referee of dog fights in the Afghan capital Kabul for as long as anyone can remember.
A single smiling handler brought a sandy-coloured dog into the ring. Though still looking like a Labrador on steroids, the second dog was much sleeker than its opponent and it looked an uneven match.
Banned by the Taliban, dog-fighting — or literally “dog-war” in Dari — along with cock-fighting and other traditional sports, made a swift come-back after the strict Islamist militia were ousted from power in late 2001.
Banned again by Afghan courts last year, no one seemed to take any notice on the first meet of the dog-fighting season on Friday and policemen armed with Kalashnikovs stood among the spectators, occasionally assisting with crowd control.
Referee Khalay raised his stick again, this time to beat back some of the surging crowd, then dropped the green cloth he and his assistant had been holding to stop the two dogs seeing each other and the handlers unleashed their “dogs of war”.
The sandy coloured animal — called, like most of the dogs present, Tiger — at first appeared reluctant to fight its bigger and more fearsome-looking opponent and growling stood its ground.
Then came the clash and each bit hard to grab the other by the scruff of the neck, holding on for a protracted battle of strength, until Tiger’s foe was toppled and pinned to the ground.
“This is his third fight and he’s won all three,” said Najib, his proud owner, a 22-year-old airline office worker.
“It’s a hobby, we have all been coming since we were kids,” he said, perched on a tomb on the hillside, smoking with friends.
With more than 30 years of more-or-less constant civil war behind them, many Afghans have an almost casual attitude towards violence and the crowd delighted in seeing the dogs fight.
Good dogs can change hands for hundreds, sometimes thousands of dollars and money discreetly changes hands after each bout.
“What are we supposed to do?” asked Fardi, leading away his mammoth beast after a fight, pouring water to clean a cut on its face and rubbing it with his scarf.
“There are no sports, no recreations, we can’t go out with girlfriends, we can’t go on holiday, what else can we do?”
Editing by Sanjeev Miglani