'A bit dangerous' - Afghan paraglider who braves conflict to train

Daniel DE CARTERET, Emal HAIDARY
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Lida Hozoori is representing Afghanistan as paragliding makes its Asian Games debut

A horrifying plunge at the Asian Games is nothing for Lida Hozoori, a trailblazing Afghan paraglider who trains in one of the world's hottest conflict zones.

The 24-year-old TV presenter said she wanted to inspire Afghan women to take part in sport as paragliding, where athletes take off from a hillside and manoeuvre a parachute, made its Asian Games debut.

On Wednesday, she was helicoptered to hospital with neck and back injuries when a sudden drop in the wind sent her plummeting 15 metres (50 feet) to the ground.

China's Wang Jianwei also suffered a broken leg when his parachute folded 20 metres from the finishing area, in what was an inauspicious start for the sport.

However, Hozoori shrugged off her crash, sending smiling pictures from her hospital bed and complaining that her coaches wouldn't let her get up and fly again.

Her reaction is perhaps not that surprising given the extra risks in Afghanistan, where paragliders sometimes need police escorts just to go out and train.

In a country which has suffered decades of war, suspicious villagers have been known to mistake paragliders for military aviators and confront them armed with stones.

"Paragliding is not that dangerous, because when you fly you have full control over it," Hozoori told AFP in Bogor, the Asian Games' paragliding venue.

"In Afghanistan it is a bit dangerous. There are some nice mountains in the country but unfortunately because of insecurity we cannot go there."

- 'I want women to fly' -

More important for Hozoori is the signal she's sending out to people in Afghanistan, where women were barred from sport under the Taliban and which remains deeply conservative in many areas.

"As the first women paragliding pilot, I want to inspire other women, so they can forget about the wars we have had and can play sport," she said.

"It doesn't matter if it is taekwondo, gymnastics or volleyball -- I want women to fly."

Hozoori's team-mate Navid Popal formed the Afghanistan Air Sports Federation about 12 months ago, after years spent convincing the Afghan government that the parachutes weren't going to be used by militants.

Popal recalled that in the early days, he was sometimes faced with nervous Afghan villagers carrying stones, having never seen a "flying man" before.

"At first, they thought I wasn't from Afghanistan," Popal said. "Or they thought I was in the airforce, or from the US, or NATO," the 32-year-old added with a chuckle.

Security concerns mean paragliders usually stick to Kabul's airspace, although they occasionally receive police escorts when exploring new areas outside of the capital.

The federation has quickly grown to 120 members, often sharing equipment and looking to raise funds to make the expensive sport more accessible.

Just 25 are women, but traditions are shifting, Popal said, with more families encouraging young girls to try the sport.

"When we came to Indonesia people here couldn't believe we were Afghans. They would ask: 'how can you paraglide in a country that is full of violence?' Hozoori added.

"When people think of Afghanistan, they think of war and conflict. They think of the Taliban."

But "things are changing", she said, with role models emerging in a number of sports.

"We want to show the world that we can fly."