Kites and spirits soar at UNHCR spring festival in Pakistan
QUETTA, Pakistan, March 19 (UNHCR) - "If the kite was the gun, then tar, the glass-coated cutting line, was the bullet in the chamber." This is how UNHCR Goodwill Envoy Khaled Hosseini describes the Afghan passion for kite-flying in his acclaimed novel, "The Kite Runner".
That the sport can trigger explosive excitement was clear as necks craned and eyes squinted to follow blue and white dots dancing in the clear blue skies at the UN refugee agency's spring kite festival in Pakistan's south-western province of Balochistan last weekend.
March is the time to celebrate the spring festival of Basant, to say goodbye to the frosts and fogs of winter and welcome the warmth of the blossoming spring. In Pakistan, kite-flying is associated with spring because of the vivid colours of these delicate "paper birds."
UNHCR celebrated this year's Basant with more than 300 Afghan and Pakistani schoolchildren from some 50 schools in Balochistan's capital, Quetta. For this occasion, the agency specially manufactured blue and white kites with UNHCR's protecting hands logo.
"Through kites, we tried to provide an opportunity for Pakistani and Afghan students to play together, learn and interact with each other in an amiable and informal atmosphere, because these children are the future," said John Solecki, who heads UNHCR in Quetta.
As the children gathered in the lush green fields of Askari Park in Quetta, the grounds were covered with UNHCR kites, ready for take-off like airplanes on the runway. One after the other, the kites took flight and every flyer tried to soar his kite higher than others, flapping and diving strategically.
"Cutting the string of the opposing kite to secure a high place in the sky is the real fun of flying kites. It makes you feel victorious and proud," said Muhammad Hashim, a 13-year-old Pakistani student.
Kite-flying may seem like a harmless hobby, but there are hidden dangers. The use of metallic and glass-coated string, for example, has caused several deaths in recent years. Other risks associated with kite-flying are falling from rooftops and chasing the severed kites into oncoming traffic. The Pakistan government has banned the activity, but lifts the ban every year for a day during Basant.
To pre-empt any accidents, UNHCR prepared the kites and string under strict supervision and held the event on flat ground.
Adding to the festivities, a traditional musician played Pashto and Farsi songs for the crowd. Those who could not fly kites entertained themselves and others by dancing to the rhythm of the drum.
Afghan teacher Abdul Shakoor said he was glad his students learnt and enjoyed the local style of kite-flying with Pakistani children: "This generation of Afghans has been born and brought up in Pakistan, they don't know about most of the Afghan traditional games and festivals, including kite-flying."
The event was not only for children living in urban settlements in Quetta. UNHCR also sent kites and strings to 10 remote refugee villages in Balochistan, where the agency is supporting primary education for some 13,000 students in 59 schools.
Farhad Fatehi, a 14-year-old Afghan student, used the occasion to launch an appeal: "Today at this forum, I want to tell the world that we the refugee students also want to be on par with the rest of the world. We want computers; why should we still count on fingers when the whole world has been digitalized?"
Levelling the playing field will require not just increased international support for refugee education, but also mutual understanding between the refugees and their hosts.
"We appreciate UNHCR's efforts for conducting such a lively event that has brought together Afghan and Pakistani children and conveyed to them the message of brotherhood and friendship," said Afghan Consul-General to Quetta Mohammad Daud Mohseni, who participated in the festival with his family.
"Sport is the best way to bring together nations, as this kite festival has done, and we hope that the two countries at a higher level will flourish with the same brotherhood and friendship," he added.
Basant day may have ended in Quetta, but spring has just begun. Even as the children packed away their kites, something lingered in the air - the hope of new beginnings and new possibilities.
By Duniya Aslam Khan in Quetta, Pakistan