Pontos para a Esperança: a Paz irrompe em quadras de basquete na Caxemira

Algo tão simples, e tão divertido, como aprender a jogar basquete pode ajudar a restaurar os frágeis laços que  amarram a paz, mesmo em lugares tão problemáticos como a Caxemira.

(English version)

Upon arriving in Srinagar, Kashmir in 2007, J.D. Walsh was keenly aware of two things: how much he -- a tall white man -- stood out, and the tense geopolitical circumstances that necessitated heavy security measures.

Kashmir has been wracked by hatred and mayhem for years, caught in a bloody dispute between India and Pakistan. Quite improbably, Walsh felt right at home and was immediately convinced of two things: that this "was a time for peace" and that it could be achieved through a game unknown to the Kashmiris: basketball.

Walsh’s mission in Kashmir was to bring the sport of basketball to kids who had been orphaned by Kashmir’s violence. This curious notion attracted all kinds of youngsters, who had never played basketball, to JD's two-day workshop.

The local press reported that less-privileged kids played with wealthier mates—a mixing of classes not at all common in this part of the world. By the end, some quiet messages had gone out: about team play in a tough game, about bridging economic divides, and yes, even about peace.

For a state so torn by brutal violence, these are rare and hard-won lessons. But that makes them valuable and hopeful ones.

Walsh came to Kashmir through Chinar, an organization in Srinagar that works toward the "psychosocial rehabilitation" of children who have lost their parents to Kashmir’s violence. Several concerned Kashmiris started Chinar in 2004 with a pilot project: 20 kids between four and seven years old.

“These kids had "gone through various traumatic conditions, maybe seen something bad happen," said Chinar's president Nazir Ahmed Qureshi. “These children become easy recruits for all sorts of violent causes,” Qureshi said. “Chinar seeks to end that cycle.”

Chinar’s young people live in a building in Srinagar that Chinar rents and attend local schools. Two trained women care for them, supported by doctors and psychiatrists who see the children regularly. The idea is to give them a secure, happy environment to grow in, something that is rare for many Kashmiri children.

See Chinar's entry in the Changemakers/Nike Sport for a Better World competition

Kashmir’s senseless violence is a legacy of the long years it has been a festering sore between two large and hostile countries. Once a single nation under the British, India and Pakistan were partitioned in 1947. Kashmir's then-king acceded to India at that time, but Pakistan never recognized the accession.

Decades and several wars later, the neighbors continue to quarrel over the state. Since 1989 especially, Pakistan has supported a flourishing Islamic insurgency. India has responded by stationing tens of thousands of troops in Kashmir. The result is many thousands dead—one estimate is 80,000—and terrorism that has driven nearly the entire Kashmiri Hindu minority into squalid refugee camps in Delhi and elsewhere.

The brutality of this struggle has turned innumerable Kashmiri kids into orphans. This is what Chinar's founders believe they must address. In 2006, one of their United States. trustees connected them with Walsh, a New York City basketball coach who sees the game he loves as a vehicle to spread a simple yet profound and lofty idea: peace.

On the first day of the workshop, both Walsh and Nazir discovered it was hard to get the kids to focus. This was a novelty in every way. In Srinagar as all over India, cricket rules and soccer comes second. Basketball? Forget it. Maybe on TV—but none of the kids had actually played before.

Now here was this towering stranger from a far-off land, who had even played professionally. No wonder they couldn’t focus. But on the second day they took it more seriously and learned some of Walsh's basics.

One of his fundamental themes is that "everything in life is a dance," and if you watch a basketball game, you can "put it to music, pretty much." There's a spatial relationship between the players and the lines on the court. Bring together body and movement and the free flow of the game, and that's the core of basketball. Walsh gets kids to think that way on court.

All this, according to Chinar, made a "significant impression on the Chinar youth and has aided in their psychosocial rehabilitation." Nazir says the workshop brought "the positives out of the kids," where earlier they had "no avenues to express themselves."

That's groundwork solid enough that not only will Walsh return to Srinagar for more workshops, he and Chinar plan to hire a local coach and build a "sustainable" program for the game. There will be a court, and eventually a team that will travel out of Kashmir for tournaments.

Chinar's vision doesn't stop there either: they see this as a model that can scale up; cooperating with Walsh, they'd like to take it around the world. So, where's the connection to peace?

Walsh once ran a camp in the Middle East for Israeli and Palestinian teenagers. One Palestinian girl arrived with her hand shot off in an Israeli attack. It was tense, but when everyone got up to play, the tension dissipated.

You can never underestimate the power of such experiences, Walsh notes. Last April, then-Senator (now U.S. Vice President) Joe Biden held a hearing on national security reform during which former U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage, posed this question in his testimony: "You know the most effective public diplomacy I've seen? It's been basketball . . . J.D. Walsh is . . . in India . . . using it, as they teach basketball, to also have HIV/AIDS testing, to teach courses in nonviolent conflict resolution. He's not talking about Arab-Israeli peace issues, or Al Qaeda, for that matter, but he's having more effect in diplomacy than you can imagine." Something as simple, and fun, as learning to play basketball, can help restore the fragile bonds that allow for peace, even in a place as troubled as Kashmir.

By Dilip D'Souza