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Pakistan’s beloved kite festival lost to violence

Pakistan Kite Festival
People fly kites to celebrate the spring festival, Basant, in a Feb. 9, 2003 file photo, in Lahore, Pakistan. Violence and turmoil ended this year's festival. B.k.bangash / AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

A festival that draws thousands to Pakistan's cultural capital to usher in spring by flying colorful kites has fallen victim to the country's violence and political turmoil.

Lahore's annual Basant celebration usually occurs over a weekend in February or March. But this year, spring came with no sign of the festival.

Sohail Janjua, a city government spokesman, said Basant was first postponed because of national mourning for former Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto, who was assassinated in late December.

The Feb. 18 parliamentary elections further delayed the festival, he said. And it was indefinitely put on hold after three suicide attacks struck Lahore last month, including two that killed 27 people and wounded more than 200 on March 11.

"How can we ignore the deaths of innocent people to celebrate anything?" Janjua asked.

Kites once blossomed
In the past, Lahore's youth send thousands of brightly colored kites into the sky during Basant, which means yellow in Hindi — a reference to the mustard flowers that blossom in the region in early spring.

Crowds of Lahoris typically clamber onto rooftops to watch. Well-heeled guests from around the country pack city hotels for a few days of late-night partying.

But even before the recent bloodshed and political upheaval, the region's kite-flying tradition was threatened.

Religious conservatives oppose the festival because it is a reminder of Pakistan's pre-Islamic past and say it encourages drinking and dancing. Lahore, a generally liberal Muslim city, was home to many Hindus before Pakistan's partition from India in 1947.

Others oppose the festival and kite flying on public safety grounds.

Competitive cultural tradition
The sport was banned in recent years in Pakistan after several people were accidentally killed by low-flying kite strings coated with glass. But the ban is difficult to enforce, and was relaxed each year to allow people to celebrate Basant.

Kite-flying duels involving betting are popular during the festival. Some fliers reinforce strings with wire or ground glass to give them an advantage in the congested sky. When strings cross, competitors try to cut loose opponents' kite.

Such kite duels became well-known after the best-selling 2003 novel "The Kite Runner," which recounts the narrator's childhood in Afghanistan — where kite flying is also popular but was banned under the Taliban regime.

A 16-year-old girl and a 12-year-old boy were fatally injured by stray strings last year at the Basant festival. Others have been killed or badly injured during from celebratory gunfire or by falling from rooftops.

Irfan Chaudhry, a 24-year-old who hurt his arm in a tumble from a roof while flying a kite last year, says he's disappointed that Basant did not happen this year.

"It is a positive activity, and we should be given a chance to relax and entertain ourselves," he said.