Martial Arts in Afghanistan is a welcome distraction to the Violence besetting the Country
Presently, only men have competed in the handful of competitions, but organizers say they are training women fighters. The walls of the club feature posters of American martial arts competitor Ronda Rousey.
Kabul, March 31, 2017: In a custom-built arena in Kabul, crowds cheered as young Afghan men punched, kicked and wrestled in the country’s first professional mixed martial arts league, a welcome distraction to the violence besetting the country.
While cricket and football more commonly grab public attention in Afghanistan, fighters and fans see martial arts not just as entertainment but as a constructive pastime for youths in a country torn by war and economic malaise.
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Against a soundtrack of booming music and shouts of encouragement, sweat, and blood mixed inside the cage. Each match, however, ended in a hug.
Outlet for frustration
“I think it provides a very good platform for the social frustrations that we have here in Afghanistan,” said Kakal Noristani, who a year and a half ago helped found the Snow Leopard Fighting Championship.
To date, only men have competed in the handful of competitions, but organizers say they are training women fighters. The walls of the club feature posters of American martial arts competitor Ronda Rousey.
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Noristani and his partners want to develop mixed martial arts as a professional sport in Afghanistan, hoping to host foreign fighters and send Afghan competitors abroad.
“We’ve just begun here in Afghanistan,” Noristani said. “The professional structure was nonexistent before this.”
That’s helped some fighters dream of national and international glory.
“This is the wish of every fighter: To reach the highest level and be able to fight abroad,” said Mir Baba Nadery, who won his match that night.
Revolutions Devour Their Own Children – Jacques Mallet du Pan
To most people familiar with the Cuban Revolution, there are two men who symbolize its leadership; Fidel Castro and Che Guevara. They believe that the revolution was orchestrated by them, and, its salient features were devised by their – referring to Castro and Guevara’s – genius. Had the militant lawyer, and intrepid Argentine revolutionary not been at the helm of navigating the anti-Batista rebels of the Sierra Maestra, all would have been lost. Such individuals would be rather intrigued, had they heard none other than Castro himself, state in the opening decade of the twenty first century, how Cuba’s revolutionary war, was masterminded not by him and Che, but by two unlikely figures, who have remained less known to the wider public outside of Cuba. The two in question are; Celia Sanchez and Frank Pais. The Cuban dictator’s forthright admission had only come when his rule over his people was all but over, and a change of guard was in order.
It had been very different during the anti-Fulgencio Batista movement, when Fidel Castro was planning to attack the Moncada army barracks. Contrary to popular notions, the revolution was not the handiwork of two men, but many participants, with the other notable figures being: Frank Pais, Celia Sanchez, Huber Matos, Camilo Cienfuegos, and Haydee Santamaria.
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When the movement was in full swing, one of the aforementioned, was brutally executed. After its success, two of the others, were quietly annihilated. The cover-ups have left generations of Cubans and those interested in the history of the country, confounded and pained. How and why, were such important figures of the Twenty Six July movement, removed? We shall examine below.
In the words of historian Pedro Alvarez Tabio, Fidel Castro had become a non-entity among those desiring an overthrow of Fulgencio Batista in the intervening years between 1953 and 1956. Instead, Celia Sanchez and Frank Pais, had sustained the anti-Batista movement through recruiting, funding, and training. Too embarrassed to admit that their musclemen had been defeated by a very young schoolteacher – Pais – and a woman – Sanchez – historians of post-revolution Cuba (for the most part funded by Batista supporters exiled to Miami, alongside the powerful Havana mafia, and the CIA); attempted to fabricate a record, that showed the enemy to be a pair of macho men in the form of Che and Fidel.
Frank Pais was a quiet and serious twenty-two year old instructor, who was essential in spearheading the Twenty Sixth of July Movement. So feared were Pais and his mentor Celia Sanchez, that Batista had unleashed the sinister murder syndicate MASFERRER TIGERS, at their heels, in the hopes of having them assassinated. Frank Pais underwent many sacrifices in his single-minded goal of having the dictator removed from power. His brother, then seventeen years of age, by the name of Josue Pais, was hunted down, tortured, and publicly executed by the regime’s secret police. Josue’s body was left on a Santiago de Cuba street in full public view, with the intention of serving as a warning to Frank, and others in the rebel fraternity. The name of the movement has been derived from the date, on which the older Castro brother – Fidel – and about one hundred and thirty trained rebels, had carried out their attack on the army barracks of Moncada. As a diversionary tactic, it had been left to Frank Pais, to simultaneously arrange for an assault on the adjoining city of Bayamo. The theatre of guerrilla activity now intensified through a two-pronged approach, had intimidated Batista’s men, bringing them heavy losses. Fidel Castro may have been captured after the ill-fated Moncada incident, but had it not been for Frank Pais, the military forces that met up with the band of a few dozen revolutionaries, would have been far greater, resulting in certain death for Fidel.
Author Jose Alvarez in his biography of Pais (available in English) named FRANK PAIS: ARCHITECT OF CUBA’S BETRAYED REVOLUTION takes the reader through neglected chapters of the Cuban Revolution’s history. What is relevant to the scope of this synopsis, are the ones on the last days of Pais’ life. He may have been a co-founder of the anti-Batista movement and played a leading role in its functioning along with the heroines Haydee Santamaria and Celia Sanchez, but Pais’ outlook on the future of Cuba had been vastly different from that of Fidel. This had resulted in bitter arguments between the two. Frank was a deeply religious man who took his Christianity very seriously. Had he survived, he may have wanted the Cubans to have a definite spiritual direction. This was quite unpalatable to his fellow revolutionary Fidel, who was a true Marxist.
The events surrounding Frank Pais’ death, are the focus of this section. As mentioned previously, his efforts had been instrumental in galvanizing anti-Batista forces throughout the country on a massive scale, both in the cities and the interiors. The dictator was well-aware of the young man’s potential, and had placed a large bounty on the former’s head.
Raul Pujol and Eugenia San Miguel were friends of Pais, whose homes were treated as safe abodes by Pais and his confidantes. He was hiding there on the 28th of July 1957, when law enforcement came looking for him. According to the official account, Frank was betrayed by a squealer whom he had known since his days at grade school. He was then shoved into a government vehicle idling nearby, for interrogation. Like his dead brother Josue, Frank was tortured, but the attempts were futile. The young school teacher bore his adversity with defiance, and plenty of resolve. This was later attested to by his interrogators. His angered captors then executed him publicly, on a by-lane of Santiago de Cuba.
The only account we have of the events surrounding the death of Frank Pais, fellow revolutionary and arch rival of Fidel Castro within the July Twenty Sixth Movement, originates from a woman named Vilma Espin. She was a revered figure among the rebels, being an educated woman who came from a background of prestige and wealth. Her forefathers had been landlords in Batista’s Cuba, but she had fought against their wishes, joining the anti-Batista forces in order to end the island’s American-backed dictatorship. In the years following Pais’ assassination, her account changed several times, with new characters, locations and scenarios making their appearance, and sometimes an entire scrapping of a previous one, for an unheard-of setting.
But what interest would a fellow revolutionary who was a member of the rebel forces, and therefore in agreement with Frank Pais over the removal of Fulgencio Batista, have in providing conflicting eyewitness accounts of Pais’ death?
It so turns out, that Espin, despite being a comrade within the movement, was vying for the top spot in the organizational hierarchy of the revolutionary brigade, along with Pais. The two had shared an acrimonious rivalry. But Vilma Espin was not going to play second fiddle to Frank. She had the backing of Fidel Castro himself! Espin was the wife of Raul Castro, Fidel’s younger brother, and her position of influence within the Castro family, helped her case. Once the Cuban Revolution was successfully over, her brother-in-law would assign her to high posts within the country. It would have suited Vilma and Fidel well, to have joined hands and ‘taken care’ of Frank Pais, who was increasingly posing as an ideological rival to the two.
A number of unanswered questions remain pertaining to Pais’ assassination. Who was the squealer that ratted him out? Who had paid him to betray Frank? Is it possible that Frank Pais had been released post his interrogation, and been slayed by other shadowy interests? No subsequent findings have proven satisfactory enough.
Among the Cuban rebels, the one who wore his beard the longest, was Camilo. He was the son of immigrant parents from Spain to Cuba. In the words of his friends, Camilo epitomized the typical Cuban spirit of joie de vivre. He was a good-looking, outgoing fellow; a man who enjoyed his drinks, the company of women, was a jokester, and could dance the merengue like it was nobody’s business. Born to parents in the tailoring profession, who ran a small shop from their home to provide for the family, Cienfuegos – meaning a hundred fires – was enrolled in Art school of his own choice at fourteen. Soon he had to drop out from a lack of funds. Subsequently, he worked many odd jobs, and once, travelled to the United States on a month-long work visa, seeking to make a future for himself in the new country, through struggle. Long after his visa had expired, Camilo and the friend who had come along with him, continued to stay back in the US, with Cienfuegos once employed as a dishwasher at the Waldorf Astoria. This is mentioned in the book ‘A Hundred Fires In Cuba’ by John Thorndike. He made a further attempt at American citizenship, by marrying a Salvadorian nurse Isabel Blandon, who had become a legalized resident of that country. Months later, the marriage was over and so was Cienfuegos’ dream of a prolonged stay in the US, when the authorities deported him to Mexico. While there he had a chance encounter with members of the July twenty six movement. With only ten dollars in his pocket and freshly exiled from Los Angeles, directionless, when the rebels offered him the promise of food and shelter in pursuance of his efforts, Camilo readily agreed. Among the eighty people who were able to safely land when their boat, the GRANMA was attacked and sunk off the Cuban coast by Fulgencio Batista’s maritime guards, was Cienfuegos.
Unlike his Marxist comrades, Camilo was not ideologically groomed. He had lacked a formal education due to a blue-collar background, and was thus not inclined to textbook Communism as the other rebels may have liked. Despite the senior Cienfuegos’ being borderline Marxists, Camilo was more of a Libertarian Anarchist, who had wished to make a fortune for himself in the United States. He stood out among the revolutionaries precisely because of his lack of pedagogy. At first Fidel had refused him entry into the army, even though he had been informally recruited by some others. But after witnessing how adept Camilo could be with machine guns, he relented and allowed him to formally join the anti-Batista forces.
Author and childhood friend Jose Duarte and Cienfuegos biographer Carlos Franqui, have drawn attention to certain ominous events in the life of Camilo. Following the ouster of Batista, there had been a battle for succession within the rebel army’s top brass. Fidel picked Cienfuegos to assume the post of Commander of the Cuban army, by overlooking Che and his own brother Raul Castro. Soon though, Castro senior was regretting his decision. Consecutive reports of the army Commander not falling into line with Communist beliefs, was pouring in. The Christ of the Rhumba/Ghetto as Cienfuegos was referred to, was already hugely popular, trumping the others among the top brass with his natural charisma. Coupled with his non-conformism towards Communist doctrine, it made for a vexing combination; one, which Castro would have wanted out of his hair as soon as he could afford. Franqui recounts many instances of Camilo getting into heated arguments with Che and Raul. He was always concerned about the human angle of a problem, while his Marxist compatriots could care less, if it suited their purpose. Once, unaware that their argument was audible to Franqui standing outside the room, Raul and Che had expressed, that the best way to deal with the problem of the Constitutional forces abandoned by Batista, was to leave them to their own devices. That way they were likely to conspire amongst themselves, giving the new Cuban order the excuse to murder them. Camilo was vehemently against the idea suggesting instead, that such people be given jobs in the public projects of Cuba. After exiting the room and having sighted Franqui standing outside, Camilo had proceeded to state how his relationship with the Castro brothers and Che, was becoming complex. It was a frustrating experience for him to have two juniors, Raul and Guevara, disobey him resulting in issues of insubordination.
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It is notable that as revolutionaries in the Sierra Maestra, Cienfuegos had opposed the murderous tactics of the Castro brothers and Che, who were in favour of executing political prisoners and deserters, without a fair trial. The trend had continued at the prison farms of La Cabana headed by Guevara, and Santiago De Cuba, overseen by the younger Castro. Humanism was a rare virtue among the bull-headed, blinkered rebel commanders. Camilo had been the exception. It was a quality, he would have to pay with his life for, in the end.
Commander of the Sierra Maestra rebel army and a former political prisoner Roberto Gonzalez had elaborated during an interview for a documentary on the life of Cienfuegos, that a fellow commander Felix Torres, who had turned out to be a Communist, had been expelled by him. Camilo had inquired upon the reason for the act, and once Gonzalez informed him that Torres’ Communist views had earned him his own expulsion, Cienfuegos had approved of the move.
So when it was reported by the state radio and television stations of Cuba on the 8th of October 1959, that the hugely popular Fidelista’s (a loyal follower of Fidel’s) Cessna 310 had gone missing, the news had been received by the wider public in disbelief. Camilo had been the youngest and the most charismatic among the revolutionaries. He was only twenty seven when the tragedy supposedly occurred. A search and rescue effort was promptly put into action which ensued for an entire week, before Castro the elder, had sadly declared to his people, that Cienfuegos was dead. Every year, since that day, children in Cuba commemorate Commandante Camilo, El Heroe de Yaguajay, by throwing flowers into the sea. Those still able to miss his presence, await for him to return.
Skipping over the official account of the Fidelista’s disappearance, let us consider some unvisited elements of the tragedy, which have never tied in. Conspiracy theories about the Commandante having faked his own death so as to set up home in Miami can be refuted with ease due to a lack of evidence. However, some others cannot be brushed aside.
The flight route of Cienfuegos was between the Cuban cities of Camaguey and Havana. It was a daytime flight of around five hundred kilometres over land. No swamps, or undrained marshes were present along the flight path. Within hours of informing his people that the popular Fidelista had gone missing along with a handful of his men, Castro had declared him dead. Search missions tasked with locating the debris, never found any vestiges of the lost plane, or human remains. Most intriguing is the fact, that Castro would henceforth describe Cienfuegos’ disappearance as being ‘lost at sea’ – the reason Cuban children dedicate their floral tributes to the waters flanking their country – when maps of the flight path taken by the Commandante’s Cessna 310, clearly depict a short detour over land. This leaves us with the doozy: Was there a flight at all? Did the Cuban Revolution’s youngest and most charismatic Commander, a darling of his people, whose popularity was envied by the Castros, and Che, indeed get on a plane that fateful night?
Camilo’s older brother Osmany, who later came to hold many positions within Fidel Castro’s government, and the elderly Cienfuegos parents, were lied to by their dictator, when he promised to go and look for their son. Camilo had become a thorn to the first family of post-revolution Cuba, a long time ago. Weeks before his disappearance, he had been relieved of his post as the Army Commander, with the Defence Forces undergoing an overhaul, that eventually came to have Raul and Guevara, as their new leaders. Reporters Guillermo Cabrera and Jessy Fernandez, who were covering the investigation over the missing Cessna and its occupants, later said, that after involving himself with the rescue efforts, each evening Fidel would Go to Turiguano islan