Archive for the ‘ The Guardian ’ Category
In a cage built from lengths of rusting steel trellis, six African lionesses sit on the concrete floor. The bare skull of a donkey lies at the back of the cell as two male lions pace up and down patrolling their shared six metres of territory.
A village on Yemen’s scorched Tihama plain is an incongruous home for African lions. Set back several miles from the nearest road and reached by a rough network of sandy paths and thorny gorse bushes, it is home to one of Yemen’s newest and most unlikely businesses.
Lion breeding in Yemen seems as improbable a venture as salmon fishing. But rampant demand for exotic pets from collectors in the wealthy Gulf states has made this exercise in animal husbandry suddenly profitable.
The kidnap of three foreigners in broad daylight, in one of the busiest and most secure streets in Sana’a, is a sign of the growing lawlessness in Yemen’s capital.
An Austrian man and a Finnish couple became on Friday the latest victims of abductions in the strife-torn country. Witnesses said the three were taken by masked gunmen as they made their way to a tailor’s shop in central Tahrir Square at about 4pm, during the busy afternoon shopping period.
Challenges for Yemen’s National Cycle Foundation include steeps hills, a lack of money – and angry locals trying to kill them
Originally published in the Guardian on Monday 31st October 2012.
The cyclists have been pedalling through the dusty outskirts of Yemen’s capital, Sana’a, for just 30 seconds when the first rock comes hurtling at their wheels.
None of the seven riders of Yemen’s National Cycle Foundation so much as flinch, as the perpetrator, a local shopkeeper, identifies himself. He shouts and waves an arm. “You gays! Cover up!”
Dressed in an eclectic assortment of sun-faded Lycra cycling attire, and riding an archaic selection of bikes in varying state of repair, the group keeps silent, and together, as they keep on pedalling.
Yemen must be one of the few countries in the world where a group of young men, on their morning ride can, and regularly does, attract such anger and ignorance from passersby. Their crime? Wearing shorts and tight jerseys.
As the riders approached the first steep climb, their coach, Saleh al-Riashi, emerges from the sunroof of an accompanying vehicle. He makes this trip three times a week, every week, with near-religious devotion, barking commands out of the car’s roof, much like the director of a pro-team on the grand tour.
It is inaccurate to describe the team as the national cycling team of Yemen, simply because they have lacked the resources to travel anywhere as a team since 2006.
Riashi is the only member of the current team to have competed abroad. He says that when they arrived in Egypt in 2006 to compete in the Arab Club Championships, his Yemeni team were almost laughed off the starting line.
“Our bikes were probably 20 years old, and our clothes worn … but we soon showed we are serious racers … we finished sixth out of 13 teams and received an apology,” he says.
Riashi, who competed in the 2008 Tour of Sharjah, is now preparing his team for the next challenge, this year’s Arab Club Championships, despite some key shortcomings. “We are probably $2,000-$3,000 dollars short of money to even get our riders to the start line, beyond the problems with our equipment.”
Money, though, is probably the least of the team’s worries ahead of the event, which is being held in the United Arab Emirates next month. Leading up the first climb is Yusuf al-Bandani, a skinny grimpeur (climber) who dances on the pedals of his steel bike like a champion from the late 1980s.
The mountains surrounding Sana’a are almost Pyrenean in feel and as Bandani climbs by the bleached, jagged rocks, he could almost be on the famous Mont Ventoux stage of the Tour de France. The air is suitably thin, and as he makes the summit of the climb he is already more than 500 metres higher than that French summit.
It is the scars on the young man’s arm that serve as a poignant reminder that he is actually training in Yemen’s highlands. “We had been preparing for ourselves for a regional competition, near Lahj, when an SUV started driving erratically near us.”
Lahj is not somewhere many cycls find themselves. It is the location of al-Anad airbase, which is home to a contingent of US troops and also a hotbed of insurgent activity. It is firmly in the middle of Yemen’s wild tribal hinterland.
“We were riding along, when suddenly we were swept off our bikes by a man in a Toyota Landcruiser. Four of our riders were wiped out. We all needed stitches and one rider needed surgery on his arm,” Bandani says with a matter-of-fact air and a shrug of his shoulders, as if being attacked and nearly killed for riding a bicycle is a normal daily occurrence. “It’s just simple ignorance.”
Sitting down for a post-training tea, Riashi is keen to explain his motivation for cycling, and his determination for Yemen to compete again, at least regionally. It takes him back to the country’s civil war in 1994: “In Yemen, every small kid has a bike and loves riding. I had to stay inside during the war, and came across the Tour de France on French satellite television. I was hooked on racing bikes from them on.
“Most families in Yemen watch the Tour de France on TV and it’s extremely popular. My hero is Mark.”
The British sprinter Mark Cavendish is fast becoming a global cycling celebrity and superstar. “No,” says Riashi, using his hands to mime a bald head. “Not Mark Cavendish.”
The group, sensing confusion, jump up in unison and begin to emulate the late Marco Pantani, climbing vigorously on sets of imaginary drop handlebars with his trademark shaved head.
How a diminutive Italian grimpeur, famous for his tenacity in the mountains, became the inspiration for a squad of Yemeni cyclists is still slightly unclear. But if Riashi and his team want to make it to race in the UAE next month, they’ll need all the Pantani attacking spirit they can muster.
The Olympic judo hopeful on why he joined the frontline of the Arab spring protests
Originally published in the Guardian on Monday 16th April 2012.
Rain pours through bullet holes that pierce the roof of Yemen’s national judo centre and is being collected in small plastic buckets on the blue matting of the training area. The agricultural-style tin hut is just metres from Change Square, scene of much of the bloodshed in the country’s recent revolution to depose President Ali Abdullah Saleh, but it also home to one of Yemen’s only Olympians.
Inside, the national champion is training in the gloom, while his coach barks instructions over the din of the rain hammering on the roof. The electricity has been off for three days, but Ali Khousrof is busy preparing for London in July, a little over a year after he was shot in the abdomen during Yemen’s Arab spring uprisings.
Khousrof seems as unlikely a judo fighter as he is a revolutionary. When we sit down together to drink tea in Sana’a's old city he is polite, gentle and candid about both politics and his country’s problems. The 23-year-old, who represented his country at the Beijing Olympics four years ago, talks at length and with pride about the achievements of the Arab spring, despite the fact that his injury prevented him training for nearly eight months. His coaches still feel he is far from ready for the Games. But the fighter seems at peace with his decision to participate in the revolution despite the sacrifice it has meant to his chances of Olympic glory.
“I fell in love with judo when I was five because I saw it as my calling, so of course I thought about the risks of getting hurt. But from the very first day of protest, my personal belief was that I had to be with the youth through everything.”
On the day he was injured, Khousrof had been running in the mountains outside Sana’a with friends. He explains that he and his fellow athletes protested every day with as much devotion as they dedicated to their sport. They had finished training and were relaxing over lunch when they received a text message about a protest outside the city’s athletics stadium. They drove straight there. Before long Ali felt what he describes as a rock hitting him. He was knocked back by the impact, but got back on his feet. He looked down and saw blood on his jacket.
“I was due to compete in Moscow 10 days after I was hit. All I could think about that I had ruined my chances of going to Russia.”
The young athlete was rushed to hospital on a motorcycle. He had, in fact, been hit by a deflected bullet, which had shattered into 11 pieces that were now lodged in his abdomen.
“After a while I started wondering, would I be able to continue judo? Had the bullet hit the bone or was it just a flesh wound?”
Nobody at Yemen’s judo foundation had any idea about Khousrof’s daily participation in the running street battles between protesters and forces loyal to the regime.
“At the beginning, my coach just thought I was going to college after training, but he didn’t know I was protesting. The day he found out was when he first visited me in hospital after I’d been shot. He was furious.”
“He told me: ‘You’re with the team of the republic, you shouldn’t be protesting.’ He told me to represent Yemen through my work, not through protest.”
Khousrof needed specialist care not available in Yemen and for a while it looked as if no one could help. The country’s Olympic committee was politically paralysed: it could not to help an athlete injured battling the regime.
“They couldn’t come into my private affairs. I’d hurt myself in a protest and it wasn’t their job to come and save me,” says Khousrof.
Eventually it was the president of the country’s judo committee, Noman Shahir, who took the risk of personally paying for him to fly to Jordan for treatment. Khousrof says he will be permanently indebted to the man he calls “The Captain”.
At the moment nobody in the tents that still line Change Square is even considering Khousrof’s chance of winning a medal in London, despite his gold at the Arab Games in December. For many of the shabaab, or youth, the revolution is unfinished and it is enough that one of them will represent their country at the Olympics. But Ali is adamant he is not interested in playing the wounded revolutionary or going to London to “be a tourist”. His determination allows his coach to dream briefly.
“If Ali Khousrof got a medal? That would be the biggest dream of ours and everyone in Yemen.” He pauses, his gaze switching to his feet. “Ooh … for Yemen … That’s a very, very big deal.”
The Guardian, 29th April 2011, p15
A leading British flying school has suspended seven trainee airline pilots from Bahrain after they attended a peaceful demonstration in London against their government’s violent crackdown on dissent.
The trainees’ lessons at the Gatwick-based Oxford Aviation Academy (OAA) were cancelled after a request by the Bahraini authorities, who have told them to return home immediately and face questioning. Some told the Guardian they would stay in the UK, fearing arrest and torture if they went home. In Bahrain on Thursday a military court sentenced four Shia protesters to death over the killing of two policemen during anti-government protests last month.
The students’ training was arranged through the Gulf Aviation Academy in Bahrain, which is ultimately controlled by the crown prince, Salman Bin Hamad al-Khalifa, whose government is accused of killing dozens of pro-democracy protesters. The order to suspend the seven came from the GAA but it gave no reason.
The trainees believe it is a direct consequence of their decision to protest outside the Bahraini embassy in London in late March and demand democratic reform of the Gulf state and an end to the killing of protesters. The trainee pilots said about 70 other Bahrainis on the course who did not attend have not been affected.
The OAA, which trains pilots for airlines including British Airways and Qantas, has come under fire for agreeing to suspend the trainees, some of whom were weeks away from qualifying and were likely to have flown for Gulf Air, Bahrain’s state-owned airline.
The Guardian, 16th April 2011, Front Page
The government of Bahrain is putting intense pressure on the families of students in Britain who were photographed attending a peaceful protest in Manchester in solidarity with the country’s pro-democracy movement.
The gulf kingdom has stripped government-funded scholarships from those who attended the event outside the BBC building last month, the students say, and told parents to order their children home.
Students involved have told the Guardian they have “strong and well-founded” fears that they and their families could suffer beatings and torture as a result of the Bahrain government’s crackdown on the protest 3,000 miles away and that they are likely to be arrested on their return.
“My mother was crying when she called me,” said Rashad, whose attendance at the protest was his first such political action. “She said they are going to arrest you and that scared me. I told her I didn’t do anything wrong but she said she was worried about my safety. They said I should come back to Bahrain, but we can’t go back home. We will be arrested and disappeared. It has happened to others and I fear we are going to be tortured. We want the British government to protect us.”
The students, who used pseudonyms to protect their families, said at least nine people studying in Manchester, Huddersfield, Newcastle, Reading and London had seen their £850 a month subsistence grants removed and had been told their tuition payments would be axed. Some said they had been made homeless as a result of the cuts and were considering requesting asylum in the UK when their student visas expire.
Sulieman, another student who said his scholarship had been revoked, said the ministry of education in Bahrain called his father to order him home a couple of days after the protest, in a pattern repeated for many of the protesters. “My father asked how they knew I was there and they said they had video footage and pictures,” he said. “They told him I must come back, but I am not going back.”
The students believe some of the images were taken by Bahraini or Saudi “spies” alerted to the event on Facebook. The demonstration was disrupted by interventions from supporters of the regime and some people whom protesters identified as being from Saudi Arabia.
Some of the families have also received visits from the Bahraini authorities, according to Amin Elwassila, an Arab activist in Manchester who is supporting the group.
“It seems very strange that every time something happens here in Britain there is a repercussion there,” he said. “Some of them started receiving phone calls from their families telling them that the Bahrain government had contacted them telling them they will be removing their scholarships and that on their return to Bahrain the students will be questioned by the authorities. They were all very frightened. Some of the families were receiving regular visits. Not all families of Bahraini students were contacted, just those who had been on the demonstration.”
The Bahraini embassy in London declined to comment on the claims of government’s sanctions against students and forwarded inquiries about the withdrawal of scholarships to the cultural attache, who did not return calls.
On Friday night a further solidarity protest was scheduled at the same location, but all of the Bahraini students the Guardian spoke to said they were too afraid to go.
The sanctions against the students come amid increasing international concern at Bahrain’s treatment of dissenters. The British government has raised with Bahrain’s interior minister the deaths of four dissidents in the last week, three of whom were in police custody.
Next Thursday, Catherine Ashton, the EU’s high representative for foreign affairs, will travel to Bahrain after calling for the immediate release of all those detained for expressing themselves.
Zainab al-Khawaja, a 27-year-old mother, will on Saturday enter the sixth day of a hunger strike in protest at the arrest and beating of her father, the human rights activist, Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, and her husband and brother-in-law. Her US-based sister, Maryam al-Khawaja, said she was now very weak and dizzy and her family want her to go to hospital. She is resisting partly because the hospitals are said to be in the control of Bahrain’s military.