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In country long awash with weapons of war, paintball takes hold in Afghanistan with splat

KABUL - The hidden gunman, dressed in long green coveralls and a SWAT-team-style vest and helmet, looks ominous as he takes aim and fires off a short burst.

But this isn't a Taliban attack in the heart of Afghanistan's capital — it's just a friendly game of paintball.

The arrival of recreational paintball to Afghanistan may seem peculiar to outsiders, especially in a country that's known decades of war, faces constant bombings and attacks by Taliban insurgents and is preparing its own security forces for the withdrawal of most foreign troops by the end of the year.

However, it shows both the rise of a nascent upper and middle class looking for a diversion with the time to spare, as well as the way American culture has seeped into the country since the 2001 U.S.-led invasion to topple the Taliban.

"These people deserve to have more fun," said Abbas Rizaiy, the owner of the "Eagle" paintball club in central Kabul.

Rizaiy brought the game to Afghanistan just a few weeks ago. He's a longtime fan of the first-person shooter video game "Call of Duty" and stepped up to the next level by playing paintball in neighbouring Iran where he was born.

He moved to Afghanistan 10 years ago and eventually decided to open the club this year in Kabul, a city more associated with real bullets than ones that splatter paint.

For those who have never suffered a welt from the game, paintball involves participants geared up in helmets, goggles and protective clothing firing at each other using gas-powered guns that shoot paint pellets. The games can be complicated affairs that last for hours or as simple as a capture-the-flag contest that lasts only a few minutes.

Naqibullah Jafari, a marketing officer in Kabul who came with his friends one day, acknowledged that they didn't have much of a strategy when he took to the field — other than to shoot each other.

"It is my first time that I came here, and I don't have any special tactics in this game," he said, with his goggles pushed up to his forehead and his weapon at his side.

Rizaiy said he hasn't had many issues with the neighbours, though he turned down the speed at which the weapons fire to reduce the noise. Instead, he said the biggest challenge was to get the paintball guns as the ones he imported from India got stuck for six months in Afghanistan's bureaucracy-laden customs department.

Paintball is one a small number of leisure activities that have sprung up in Kabul since the fall of the Taliban. A bowling alley called "The Strikers" opened up a few years ago and a number of pools around the city provide a place for residents to splash around in the summer months. There's also a 9-hole golf course a short drive outside of Kabul.

But most of these activities are geared toward the city's small, upper- and middle-class elite who can afford the admission. And customers are overwhelming male because of Afghanistan's conservative society, which deems it generally not acceptable for women to go to activities involving men who aren't relatives.

Rizaiy said he'd like women customers, but said women don't want to be stared at while wearing all the warrior gear.

This year is one of many transitions for Afghanistan, with a presidential election that is still undecided and foreign troops scheduled to leave the country. Rizaiy said he thinks at least some U.S. troops likely will stay, providing stability for Afghanistan.

Meanwhile, his customers seem to appreciate the irony of firing toy guns in a country flooded with the real thing.

"We can use guns for positive things and also for negative things," customer Ali Noori said. "These guns are for entertainment."

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Follow Rebecca Santana on Twitter at www.twitter.com/ruskygal .

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