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The snow is patchy. Equipment basic. But the enthusiasm is abundant. Welcome to skiing, Afghan-style.

In a nation wracked by violence
lies a place that still offers that rarest
of commodities, peace.

It is an hour up,
and five minutes down, in the sixth annual
Afghan Ski Challenge.

Absolutely broken. It's a really tough climb,
much harder than I expected.

The field comprises a few
adventurous Westerners, with a horde of hardy locals,
well acclimatised to the lung-tearing,
kilometre-long climb to the top.

It was really funny, you know,
struggling up the hill, you know, sucking wind,
just absolutely dying. And then you
see these little Afghan kids, skis over their shoulders, just breaking trail straight up
the mountain. And you just have to, you know,
chuckle about it.

The race was conceived
and is still run by European ski enthusiasts
working in Kabul. Locals have taken up the challenge
with passion, even if there is still not quite enough
donated ski equipment to go round.

it's all a tremendous amount of fun. A lot of hard work, especially having to go up
under your own steam. The Governor here
wants to put a ski lift in, to make that easier, and obviously there's a lot of peopl
here would be keen for that. But the Taliban
are just over these hills, and it does all beg the question of whether all of this will be
here tomorrow.


Bamiyan is the ancestral home
of the Hazara people, a Shia Islam minority making up about 10%
of Afghanistan's population. The Sunni-majority Taliban
regard them as infidels, to be subjugated and massacred.

(APPLAUSE) The mountains,
as high as 5,000 metres, shield them from a resurgent Taliban
who await the spring thaw. For now, the Hazara
focus on transforming this place into an international
adventure-tourism venue. But fear of the escalating conflict
means that, like this year's snow, foreign visitors
are thin on the ground.

You get here and you
kind of forget all that, when you just see, you know,
people hanging about, having a good time,
participating in a ski race. Everybody's really warm
and welcoming and friendly. So it feels very normal, actually,
when you're here, you know, compared to what you see on the news
when you're away. But yeah, I mean,
you just pause and think, and it's pretty surreal to be here.

Texan lawyer Jeff Olson
caught the snowboarding bug a couple of years ago,
and happened across Afghanistan, surfing the web for exotic slopes.

You know, you see the military guys
down here, and you think about where you are
and what you're doing, and it's just incredible. You just have to stop
and pause for a second, and, you know,
appreciate the moment.

Today, at least, these Hazara 'military guys'
appear suitably chilled. Attacks here are rare.

But the situation
in the rest of the country is increasingly grim, as the Taliban
seize large swathes of countryside.

You know, think about what it is
we're doing here, and, you know,
what makes it possible, and how quickly it
could turn into being impossible if the situation changes,
and just really how delicate the balance, you know,
is still in this country. Shah Aqa! (APPLAUSE) Living fully in the moment,
the ski crowd celebrates the win of Shah Aqa, a young mechanic
from a local village.

Located on the ancient Silk Route, Bamiyan is the capital
of Bamiyan Province, and lies about 240 kilometres
north-west of Kabul.

According to legend, the Hazara descended
from Genghis Khan's Mongol hordes, that swept all before them
in their conquest of Eurasia. Their distinctively Asian appearance
sets them apart from other Afghans. At home, that helps them spot the predominately
ethnic-Pashtun Taliban. But venture out, and they're easy targets
for the extremist Sunni insurgents.

Long before skiing, the Hazara
were custodians of a great treasure, famed Buddhas of Bamiyan,
dating back to the sixth century AD.

1,500 years of history
was obliterated when, in early 2001, Afghanistan's Taliban rulers declared the Buddhas
to be un-Islamic.

Allahu Akbar! Allahu Akbar!
Allahu Akbar!

Looming large over Bamiyan today
are two gaping reminders of where the great icons
of Hazara identity once stood.

The lower caves over the years were used for local people
for animal feed. They'd shelter in there
and they'd build fires. And some of the higher rooms
still have plasterwork, and some of the paintings
from 1,500 years ago.

Guided tours of the world's hotspots
are becoming big business. But, even for this new breed
of adventurers, Afghanistan is
regarded as an extreme destination. It's what happens when I lag behind,
I get lost. What did your friends think when you
said that you were off here? (LAUGHS) Well, I've been here before,
so they weren't completely shocked. You know,
I have some friends who are... ..were like, "Oh, my gosh!
I wish I could come with you," and other friends
who think I'm insane. On tour with Texan Jeff Olsen is New York financial analyst
Lisa Fuerst. I think there's a term in the States
called war tourism, or something like that,
and that's not what I'm coming for. I mean, I have no interest
in going around and seeing bombed-out cities,
and seeing people suffering, and things like that. I'm really -
I'm here to see the beauty. And to the extent that I
can help tourism grow, you know, spending my money
in places like this, I really am happy to do that,
and enjoy doing that. But no, I don't want to see
the unhappy side effects of war. And I know there are people who...
who do that, and that's just... Yeah, I don't.
That's not what I'm here for. It's very sad, it's very bleak,
and tourism is a way out. But if you can't guarantee
the safety of tourists, and most people are fearful
of Afghanistan, and if you can't absolutely say, "Yes, you're going to be safe,
and, you know, "we're going to drive you around
in a two-decker bus," or something, you know,
people aren't going to come. Which is very sad,
because they're missing a lot.

Amid the uncertainty, an assertive generation
of young women has no intention of returning
to the conservative past.

21-year-old Zakia Dawood
is university-educated, and works as a hotel receptionist. And she is a member
of Afghanistan's female cycling team All of this is done with both
parents' enthusiastic blessing.

This is my home. Ah, very nice. Yeah. Oh! And here's my brother and...
my father and my brother. His name is Dawood. Salaam.
Salaam. Dawood, James. And this is Mahdi, this is James.
Mahdi, nice to meet you. Zakia's family
is comfortable by Bamiyan standards. Her father
works as a university driver. Brother Mahdi
and sisters Reihana and Haniah attend school. And my mother. Does your father ever cook? Yes, sometimes my father cook. Just eggs, simple and easy to cook,
just my father cook. When my father cook,
my brother also help. So you're
not a very traditional Afghan family Yeah. Yeah, it' Though Zakia's father, Mohammed,
is not in the kitchen tonight.

Thanks, thank you. Like many Hazara,
Mohammed fled to Shia Iran during the civil war of the '90s. There he married,
and started his family.

They were encouraged to return
10 years ago, with the promise of a better life
in the new, post-Taliban Afghanistan. Now, he fears that the very freedom
Zakia enjoys makes her a target.

Zakia draws strength
from like-minded Hazara women, who defy pressure to conform
to traditional female roles. Najiba Noori
runs her own handicrafts business, and aspires to be a photographer
and documentary maker. Fulfilling her dreams
means leaving the safety of Bamiyan, and making regular road trips
to the capital, Kabul. But it is a career path
fraught with great risks.

Steely nerves are essential. Between here and Kabul
is now Taliban territory.

While international tourists can afford the $200
for a safe flight to Kabul, Hazaras
are forced to run the gauntlet down what is now
dubbed the Death Road.

The Taliban now compete
with the newly arrived Islamic State for power amongst jihadists,
each faction seeking to demonstrate their brutality
against the Shia Hazara.

Last November, in another province, seven Hazara travellers,
including a seven-year-old girl, were pulled from a vehicle
by suspected IS militants and beheaded.

Well, this checkpoint
is about half an hour from Bamiyan city. And about another half an hour
down that way, you'll meet the first Taliban
checkpoint. It's an hour or so if you're
coming in from the Wardak way. For the Hazaras, who brave extortion
kidnappings, even beheadings, making it here
brings a sense of great relief. But, for the border guards
who search and patrol this area, it is a difficult and dangerous job. Not only do they have to keep
potential insurgents out, they
also have to search for explosives that can be hidden
in just about anything. And that
is perhaps the greatest threat here, is not an all-out assault
over the mountains, but an ever-increasing campaign
of intimidation through bombings.

Police commander Reza Moin
and his men seized 350 kilograms
of bomb-making material last year. They search 500 vehicles
which pass through here each day. One car bomb, and this gateway
to Bamiyan could be breached.

Hazara civil rights activist
Jawad Sady Lakoo says this is a community
still traumatised by the recent past

First, the Soviet invasion,
civil war, then the Taliban takeover
in the 1990s.

I remember the burning
of the cities, the bazaar.

I remember the burning
of the cities, the bazaar. And just lining up the people, and killing them, massacres,
like this.

I remember that three of my uncles,
they just... They took them from their farms,
and line with more than 300 people. Once they shot, just killed them,
just fired on them. The Taliban were swept away
by the US-led coalition in late 2001 New Zealand soldiers kept the peace
in Bamiyan for a decade, before leaving in 2013. Now, the fighting
edges ever closer to the valley.

Even by Afghanistan's standards,
Bamiyan is desperately poor. Hazara complain that they never saw
the billions of dollars in aid poured into the country
after the US-led takeover.

A few hundred metres
from where the Buddhas once stood are caves which, centuries ago,
sheltered Buddhist monks. There are 1,200 caves in Bamiyan. Jawad says this is now home
for hundreds of families driven off their lands
by years of conflict.

18-year-old Sakina Ghafar
is mother to two small children. She is struggling to feed them
and stay warm, while her husband
is off looking for work.

Jawad says the absence of mains
power or running water in a city of 350,00
shows wilful neglect by Kabul.

There is one more
unresolved question. Should the Buddhas be rebuilt from these caged pieces
of precious rubble?

Last summer,
a wealthy Chinese adventure tourist provided a glimpse of the possible,
bankrolling this light show.

argue rebuilding at least one is just as important for Afghanistan as the resurrection of New York's
ruined World Trade Centre site was for America.

The rebuilding of Buddha niches, it is the dream
of each and any of the Hazaras, because we think the important...
or the greatest proof of our identity and our civilisation
we have is the Buddhas' niches.

But that dream is tempered by fear. One of the questions, it was that if we
start rebuilding of the Buddha, the Taliban will tread once again
on Bamiyan. Do you have the power
to save the Buddha again, or no? And it is a threat. We
do not want to start building now.

Back on the slopes, it is time
for the local Hazara women's race. Zakia is not only a national cyclist
she is also a skier, and her parents are here to
support her.


Amidst the enthusiasm
remains the question of what, and who,
lies beyond the horizon.

Hundreds of thousands of Hazara
have already fled abroad, seeking asylum across the globe,
from Germany to Australia.

If the Taliban came again, I
don't know that they would survive. That's crushing. I mean, they're warm people. They have so much to give
and so much to offer to the world. The culture here, to lose this just a sin. It would be shameful,
just beyond shameful. We shouldn't allow that to happen.

This program is not captioned.

This program is live captioned by Ericsson Access Services. The Prime Minister rules out changes to negative gearing. What Labor is proposing is a huge, reckless shock to the market. His big plan for Australia is to lie about Labor policies. The death of Masa Vukotic prompts a crackdown on violent sex offenders in Victoria. A woman found dead after a violent attack. And, the world's first solar powered plane glides into California, after a high-risk flight across the Pavific. Hello, you're watching ABC News, I'm Gemma Veness. A quick look at the weather for tomorrow... Partly cloudy in Brisbane and Sydney. A sunny day for Melbourne, Adelaide, Hobart and Darwin. Mostly sunny in Canberra. And showers forecast for Perth.