Different realities: Winter Park man documents, coaches Afghani female ultra-runners and finds an Afghanistan that is unseen in the mainstream
When Tyler Tomasello returned to Winter Park from Afghanistan he wasn’t expecting it to be harder than when he left for the war-torn country.
But it was — and still is, he says.
“I got to see a part of Afghanistan not many people get to see,” Tomasello explained.
Tomasello, a local freelance photographer and ultra-running guru, spent a little more than a month overseas in April, documenting and ultimately coaching a group of courageous Afghan women who were to compete in an upcoming ultra marathon.
He anticipated danger, going as far as purchasing body armor before embarking upon his journey. He would be traveling alone, meeting up with a nonprofit group called Free to Run that gives women a safe place to run in Kabul and around Afghanistan. They were also there putting together curriculum for a life skills program for different schools and clubs.
It’s more than just a tumultuous atmosphere in Afghanistan, as Tomasello explained, and for women to show a hint of independence, namely running in public, it’s considered dangerous. Though now free from Taliban rule, Afghanistan is in the process of rebuilding and, perhaps, shifting attitudes, albeit slowly.
Despite the massive security and battle-scarred appearance, the 34-year-old Winter Park native experienced an Afghanistan not portrayed in the mainstream media — one boasting a colorful, active people, a people he came to respect and appreciate. And the feeling was mutual, he said.
Tomasello said he felt more comfortable among the Afghanis than sometimes in Winter Park, ironically being able to be more open and communicative with his new foreign friends.
“I became a member of their family,” he boasted.
Still, the atmosphere that surrounded him was drastically mixed. He acknowledged that while the people were pleasant and hospitable, there was only an illusion of safety from day to day.
He would observe frequent security checkpoints, checkered with heavily armed military. On his flight into Kabul’s airport, he could make out the sites from bomb blasts. The airport was tattered and downtrodden. Driving around he would notice a random palace that had been destroyed.
“There were probably three to four attacks a week while I was there,” he said flatly. Those were namely from suicide bombers. “One day there was a total siege of Kabul; bombed like three police stations, militants in the street shooting. You never hear about this stuff on the news.”
A suicide bomber blew up in the city center hiding in a group of photographers. Several were killed. It had been in an area where Tomasello was heading. Had he left only minutes earlier, he could have been among the victims.
There was no mistaking it: Afghanistan was still a country very much reeling from war. There was always the threat of terrorist activity. At any time, there could be an attack.
But the people that Tomasello encountered seemed to make that reality fade.
For the love of sport
With his camera equipment in hand and an eager attitude, Tomasello followed the group of Afghani women, ranging in age from 23 to 27 most of whom spoke English, to a location about three miles outside the relative safety of the “green zone,” where the embassies and military bases are established in Kabul.
It was there, on a .8-mile stretch of road flanked by barbwire security gates and a concrete blast wall, where the women would run. They were training for the Gobi Desert March in Mongolia, a 250-kilometer stage race.
They would face occasional harassment, like when boys would throw rocks at them and yell insults. The women’s stride, however, continued unfazed.
“It’s taboo for a woman to be doing any kind of sport because when the Taliban was in control, women weren’t allowed to do any sports,” Tomasello explained. “If they were caught, worse-case they get killed.”
“Just to run 200 feet is risking their lives,” he added. “These girls are really standing up against the status quo and trying to change things a little bit.”
They persevered in the name of sport; loving what they were doing and not letting people detract from their passion.
Their attitude fit in well with Tomasello’s mission.
“I did this for the love of sport and women’s rights; humanity as a whole,” he said. “They deserve to have their voice heard.”
Expectation vs. experience
As Tomasello’s time in Afghanistan progressed he shrugged off his initial feelings of uncertainty and fear, becoming more ingrained with the people and the culture. Being in Afghanistan and among its people was becoming less of a big deal.
“It’s a simpler lifestyle,” he said. “People are more open.”
Tomasello balks at the stereotype that many have of Afghan people, that they supposedly all feel great disdain for the United States and Americans. While that is usually true for the Taliban soldiers and other terrorists still active there, it’s not for the typical residents of Kabul.
He believes the mainstream media focuses far too much on the sensationalism of the violence over there and not the people.
“I think we all, here in America, think we know what Afghanistan is like from what we see on the news,” he admitted, saying he, too, had those expectations of the country before he left American soil.
“But when I got there, you walk down the street and see men hugging and kissing each other on the cheek and holding hands; everyone is smiling and laughing,” he explained.
He recalled a point when he was walking around Kabul and somebody randomly offered for him to come into their shop and look at their colorful, intricate rugs for sale. He suddenly found himself sitting on one of those rugs drinking tea for half an hour, enjoying great conversation.
“It’s a very welcoming society and everybody’s so kind and nice,” he said. “The opposite of what I expected.”
His experience was so positive that he’s planning to return to Afghanistan and keeps in frequent contact via Skype and social media with the friends he made there.
In the meantime, he continually faces awkward questions, as he described them, from people whenever he mentions his recent travels.
“Did you join the Taliban? Are you Muslim now? Did you buy an AK-47?” he laughed. “It’s maybe they don’t know and they want to know.”
At first he was frustrated with the perceived ignorance, but then realized people seemed to have the same misguided assumptions of Afghanistan and its people as he initially did. “You can’t blame them or fault them for not knowing,” he said.
“I wish everybody could go there,” he said with a beaming smile. “It’s an absolutely incredible place.”