How wheelchair basketball helps Nepal’s war victims

As the government still focuses on managing the post-conflict transition, a group of basketball enthusiasts moved to offer something much needed by the victims of Nepal’s decade-long civil war– recovery from trauma through sports.

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The conflict between government forces and Maoist insurgents claimed the lives of 17,000 people, displaced an estimated 100,000 more, and ultimately brought about the abolition of a 240-year-old monarchy in Nepal. The Comprehensive Peace Agreement of 2006 terminated the armed mobilization but the impact of the war on people’s lives is still visible.

“It took me two years to get adjusted but once I did I felt like nothing was impossible,” Himal Aryal, now captain of Nepal’s Army wheelchair basketball team, told the Baltic Review in Kathmandu on Sunday.

IMG_4284Aryal was just a teenager when a bomb blast paralyzed his legs, leaving him disabled for life. The 35-year old Nepali soldier has been playing wheelchair basketball locally and nationally for the past 4 years.

Most of the players in Aryal’s team suffered injuries and trauma resulting from ambushes, cross fires and bombings from Maoist fighters.

In 2003, his teammate, Tilak Ram Pokhrel, was involved in an insurgent attack leaving him confined to a wheelchair. Pokhrel said his decision to play basketball was to become an example for his 9-year-old son.

“I am very proud of my husband as he is showing our son and the Nepalese society at large that a disability does not necessarily stop you from doing what you like,” Pokhrel’s wife said, while passionately cheering for her husband during a friendly match held in Kathmandu.

The sport of wheelchair basketball emerged out of the Second World War with the first documented game played in 1946 by a group of veterans in the United States.

The global conflict left thousands of soldiers and civilians physically disabled but many still possessed a desire to participate in sports and basketball was perceived to be among the most adaptable ones. Everything you expect to see when watching a basketball game can be found in wheelchair play. Shots, no-look passes, 3-point plays, fouls, are all there. 

Last week, Nepal’s wheelchair basketball team received its first official invitation to participate in an international event. A group of 10 players will fly to Savar in Bangladesh to compete against other teams from across the region during the 13th Asian Spinal Cord Network (ASCON) conference from 27 to 29 November. Even though the athletes will travel to the tournament to win, they have already overcome the greatest obstacle of them all.

“The fact that they will be competing in an international competition will help change people’s perception of disability which still has huge social stigma attached to it in Nepal,” Aakas Shrestha, project coordinator at the Nepal Spinal Cord Injury Sports Association (NSCISA) told the Baltic Review.

Shrestha said that the players will be able to test sports wheelchairs for the first time next week.

Over the past couple of years, basketball has become one of the most popular games played by people with disabilities in Nepal. There are currently 9 wheelchair basketball teams in the Himalayan nation, competing at local level. The NSCISA and ENGAGE, a social venture promoting volunteerism in Nepal, are supporting the training of more than 100 wheelchair basketball players.

“We want to prove that people with disabilities can also be active citizens; it is not merely about helping them, we focus on showcasing their many abilities and skills,” Simone Galimberti, an Italian citizen and founder of ENGAGE, explained.

Fourteen ENGAGE volunteers are currently training 3 wheelchair basketball teams across Nepal. According to Galimberti, the project is about capacity building of both volunteers and athletes with the overall aim of creating a more inclusive society for people with disabilities.

IMG_4311“Wheelchair basketball is becoming increasingly popular among women in Nepal. I don’t want my existence to be confined to my home and to be defined by my disability,” Laxmi Kunwar, a 24-year old player who is being trained by ENGAGE said, adding that her dream is to represent Nepal in the next Paralympics games.

As a child, Laxmi fell off a tree while collecting grass in a jungle nearby her village. Her mother found her lying on the ground – unable to move. Laxmi was forced to drop out of school and spent most of her days wondering how to get her life back. The family of four, eventually moved to Kathmandu where Laxmi had easier access to disabled-friendly facilities and was able to resume her studies. She is currently completing her Bachelor’s degree in Business Administration.

Data from the latest World Report on Disability shows that around 15 percent of the world’s population, or one billion people, live with disabilities. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), to achieve the long-lasting development prospects that lie at the heart of the 2015 Millennium Development Goals, we must empower people living with disabilities and remove the barriers which prevent them participating in their communities; getting a quality education, finding decent work, and having their voices heard.

As per estimates, about 7-10 percent of the total Nepalese population suffers from disabilities of some form. A research has indicated that 69.3 percent of the disabled persons depend upon financial support from their family members and that this posed problems in 90.5 percent of the households. Laxmi, who is slowly becoming totally self-sufficient, is the proof that often people’s attitude is the biggest handicap.

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Wheelchair basketball is one option available to those with a disability, helping with their self confidence and providing opportunities to socialise with others.

Too few people with disabilities get involved with sporting activities in Nepal.  Many despair at their apparent disadvantage and end up overlooking the physical therapy and psychological advantages offered by playing sports. Together with other organisations, the Nepal Wheelchair Basketball Association (NeWBA) established in 2010, is promoting and supporting the game among the differently abled people in the country. This joint effort has made it possible for a wheelchair basketball team with active players ranging in age from 15 to 55 to train almost every day in Kathmandu. 

Wheelchair basketball is increasingly popular across South Asia with teams gradually emerging all over the regional bloc – from Afghanistan to Bangladesh – and people’s passion for the game only growing.  

Bibbi Abruzzini
Bibbi Abruzzini is a foreign correspondent for the BALTIC REVIEW and international news agencies in South Asia. She is Italian, grew up in Brussels and has reported from several countries, including Belgium, Bosnia and Herzegovina, Colombia, Croatia, France, India, Italy, Lebanon, Nepal, Tunisia,Turkey and the US – writing largely about social and development issues.