Two athletes from Afghanistan have arrived in Tokyo to compete in the world's biggest sporting event for people with disabilities after being evacuated from their country, now under the control of the Taliban, and welcoming the duo was "extremely emotional," an International Paralympic Committee official said Sunday.
The two are female para-taekwondo athlete Zakia Khudadadi and male track athlete Hossain Rasouli, who left Afghanistan a week ago and arrived Saturday evening in Tokyo on a flight from Paris, according to Paralympic officials.
They have started living in the athletes' village and preparing for their competitions, the IPC said in a statement late Saturday.
"Zakia and Hossain are now in Tokyo to fulfill their dreams, sending out a strong message of hope to many others around the world," IPC President Andrew Parsons said in the statement after meeting with them at the village.
"The meeting was extremely emotional. There were lots of tears from everyone in the room. It really was a remarkable meeting," IPC spokesman Craig Spence told a press briefing on Sunday.
The IPC had earlier said there was no safe way to bring them to Japan for the Paralympics, which kicked off on Tuesday.
But several governments and organizations carried out what the IPC calls a "major global operation" to help the athletes, who were keen to be part of the sporting event running through Sept. 5.
"Both athletes expressed their sincere gratitude for their safe evacuation from Kabul, and the opportunity to fulfill a life-long dream of attending a Paralympic Games," Spence said.
Spence said the IPC will work with the athletes and Arian Sadiqi, chef de mission of the Afghan team, to make sure they receive "all the care and support they need both during and after" the games.
Thanking everyone for their support, Sadiqi, who is also in Tokyo, said in a statement, "I strongly believe that, through the Paralympic Movement and the Paralympic Games, we all can deliver the positive message that peaceful co-existence is best for humanity."
"We should keep and cherish peace because quarrels and negative feeling only destroy humankind," Sadiqi said.
After arriving in Paris on Monday, Khudadadi and Rasouli "expressed a strong aspiration" to participate in the Paralympics, Spence said, adding that they were tested twice for COVID-19 before they left for Tokyo and were screened once again and tested negative after touching down at Haneda airport.
As part of measures to protect the athletes' mental health and welfare, the IPC spokesman said no media will be allowed to meet them during the games.
"Human life is the most important thing here," he said. "I think their performances will do the talking on the field of play."
"The last thing they want at the moment is to be asked multiple questions about either what's gone on or the future."
In a symbol of solidarity with the athletes and people of Afghanistan, the country's flag was carried by a volunteer at the opening ceremony of the games in which about 4,400 athletes with disabilities from around the world are competing.
Khudadadi, 22, will be Afghanistan's first female athlete to compete at the Paralympics since Athens 2004 on Thursday. Rasouli, 26, will compete in a long jump event on Tuesday because the men's 100-meter event he originally qualified for has already ended.
When asked where the two plan to go after the Paralympics, Spence, who stopped short of elaborating, said, "That is a question that will be open to the athletes to choose."