A wrestling coach who fled Afghanistan after being forced to train Taliban fighters hopes to put his skills to better use, and has dreams of producing Olympic wrestlers for Australia.
Afghan-Australian wrestler Aminullah Yaqubi escaped his home country after eight months reluctantly coaching Taliban militants.
Far from your regular weekend training sessions, Mr Yaqubi witnessed stonings and amputations in between wrestling bouts at Kabul Stadium. Fans were forced to watch and learn from the punishment or be whipped by roving mullahs.
“I remember the person who had been stoned was pleading ‘I am innocent, I am innocent’,” he said. “No one heard him. We left the stadium and came home.”
Another time, Mr Yaqubi watched as someone’s hands were cut off. The wrestlers wanted nothing to do with these punishments and made some gentle requests of officials.
“The wrestlers requested the Taliban not to do it on the wrestling mat,” he said. “That mat is sacred for us and we don’t want any murders to happen here.
“They were forcing people to watch the punishment. When people refused watching, they were hitting them with a whip.”
Mr Yaqubi says working with the Taliban was dangerous and the men with long beards and angry faces were confronting and terrible. Even social sport was risky.
“One day the Taliban asked the wrestlers to have a football match with them,” he said. “We accepted because we had to.
“When we goaled and won the game, they became angry and put us in prison for seven hours. After seven hours, they freed us but cut everyone’s hair.”
The rogue Taliban regime imposed strict Islamic law in Afghanistan in the late 1990s, forcing women to be covered head-to-toe and banning them from school, work or travel without a man’s permission and supervision. Television was outlawed.
As a teacher to the Taliban, Mr Yaqubi was understandably scared of his students.
“I was not comfortable to correct them,” he said. “Most of the time I ignored their mistakes. If me or my other colleagues wanted to correct them, they became angry.”
After witnessing these cruelties and others, Mr Yaqubi and his family fled to Pakistan in 1998. In 2006, he came to Australia and started a new life.
He brought his talent and knowledge to his new home and again became a wrestling trainer. His dream of international competition is long since over, but he now hopes to find an Australian protoge.
“I want my student to represent Australia in the Olympic games,” he said.
Local student Melissa Crawford says the support that she receives from Yaqubi doesn’t end at the gym doors.
“Amin has done quite a lot for me, not just inside martial arts but also outside of the martial arts,” she said.
“He supports me pretty much every day, always checks on me and makes sure that I am doing well. The support is not only for me but for all the class.”