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Kashmiri Youth Seek to Avoid Conflict Through Football

  • Rebecca Byerly

Kashmiri Muslim separatists have been fighting for two decades for independence from India or a merger with Muslim-majority Pakistan. More than 47,000 people have died in the conflict. Yet three years ago, a football coach from Argentina started the International Sports Academy Trust in Srinagar, and his players have achieved great success. Last year, three of them, including team's captain, even got the chance to train in Brazil.

Celebration does not come easily in Indian-controlled Kashmir. Conflict is more common. But one group has found refuge and an outlet for their daily stresses in organized football, thanks to Juan Marcos Troia, a football coach from Argentina. He and his family moved to Srinagar in 2007 to start Kashmir's first football academy.

In just a few years, his team, the International Sports Academy Trust, has climbed to the Super Division, the highest football league in Kashmir.

"We have seen in specific players a big change in their lives in the way they were doing these kinds of activities, to throw stones in the roads," he said. "And because of football, because of the program, because of the dream to play abroad to get a passport and all of these things there was focus on football."

But in Kashmir, success in football doesn't guarantee success outside the game. Last year team captain Basharat Bashir Baba and two teammates had the opportunity of a lifetime. They were selected to train with the Santos Football Club, a world renowned team in Brazil. But Baba's family history was a problem.

"When the authorities told me that I could not get a passport, I [asked] my father, 'Why?' and he said, 'Because he was involved in the militancy,'" explained Baba.

Baba was just an infant when his father joined Pakistani militants. Yet, at age 19, he was suffering the consequences.

It was only due to the intervention of the chief minister of Jammu and Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, that Baba eventually got his passport.

"My passport is a life for me now. It's everything," added Baba.

Baba's father, Bashir Baba, says there are thousands of other young people in Kashmir like his son, waiting for passports.

"60,000 cases like Basha, still pending in the passport office, waiting for the disposal," said Bashir Baba. "Nobody gives them the response. So their future is in dark."

Because of the unavailability of concerned government officials, VOA requests for comments got no response.

As for Juan Marcos Troia, the Argentine coach remains optimistic about his players' futures.

"So this is the purpose of the program, giving life, giving hope, giving a chance to dream," added Troia.

And Basharat Bashir Baba says he now looks to the future.

"My first dream would be to play for India and then I want to open an academy in Kashmir," said Basharat Bashir Baba. "That is my dream."

As players like Bashir continue to hone their football skills, they can only hope that things like passport restrictions don't get in the way.