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  • Writer's pictureSana Uqba

A leap of faith through war: Aden's freerunners

The circular-shaped city is surrounded by water, a land engulfed by the Arabian Gulf. The nature of this landscape means heavy sounds of gunshots echo from one side of the city to the other; like dry thunder, it sends shockwaves through the body.

In the distance, a young man is running barefoot, chasing another as he grasps a camera in his hand. He follows him swiftly as the boy pounces from wall to wall like an Arabian tiger against the backdrop of a destroyed city. The camera abruptly switches and focuses on another flying body as it interjects and catapults off the remnants of war. These are the Aden free runners; a group of young lads creating hope out of a hopeless situation and using phenomenal talent to deliver a message the world needs to hear. Mohamed Samy is a 21-year-old International Business Management student from Yemen's coastal city. He established the group in 2012 when a parkour documentary shot in London inspired him to copy the superhero-like moves he saw for the first time.

"I went outside to copy one of the moves in the film, and since then I haven't stop doing it," he told The New Arab. The hard slog With an estimated 20 million living in extreme poverty, Yemen is widely known as the poorest country in the Middle East. Malnutrition, unemployment as well as a lack of electricity and water make life difficult for the average citizen. But even more so in Aden, where locals complain of oppression and inequality from their northern counterparts.

Services are scarce, youth centres are non-existent and a year-long war makes life all the more difficult for the youth of Aden.

"Aden city doesn't have any place specified for this sport, so we had to improvise," Samy said.

"What we basically do is watch YouTube tutorials online then go to the beach and use sand bags as obstacles to practice with - since there is no gym in the city.

"So that's why we're not so good," he modestly, almost naively says, "we don't have a safe place to train in like parkour gyms in London or Egypt or everywhere else in the world."

But the six-man-and-growing team is good. Really good. With over 70,000 views on YouTube, Aden Freerun has gained widespread popularity in the small city. Locals, who at first mocked the runners, now recognise the talent and skill they boast while leaping from surface to surface.

"At the beginning, people weren't familiar with the sport," he said.

"All the flips, tricks, and jumps on rooftops were new to the community, so most of them called us thieves or even monkeys.

"These days parkour is known in Aden thanks to Allah first and us second. The community of Aden is proud of us now, and we'll try our best keep it that way."

The group's first few online videos are light-hearted and full of smiles. The boys are seen quite obviously having a good time as they train on sun-kissed beaches while local children watch and attempt to innocently imitate.

"These were all pre-war," Samy prompted. In March last year, after months of unrest, the drums of war began to beat.

Fighter jets pierced through Yemen's clouds as heavy boots thumped the ground. A Saudi-led coalition of majority Muslim nations had decided to take action against Houthi rebels who had seized control of the capital months earlier.

Forced to flee, the government had taken post in Yemen's second city but were soon joined by rebels that swiftly marched behind them.

Schools closed, curfews began and life paused for local Adenis as fierce clashes ensued between the rebels and local resistance groups. For Samy, the escalating situation had forced him and his friends to descend from walls and taxi on land. The freerunners were split up when the families were made to escape to safer parts of the city or country.

"In the first three months of the war we couldn't even meet because it was too dangerous to go outside," he recalled.

"Then Abod and Ahmed had to travel to Hadramaut with their families," he said, referring to his partners. "Taha and I stayed in Mu'alla for six months and Rami stayed in Crater. After that, we decided to move to the Mansura district because it was safer than Crater and Mualla."

Millions of people have been affected in Saudi's ongoing war against the Houthis, with families having to bury more than 6,100 bodies and counting.

These are scenes shown in Samy's latest film Rise - a darker, more serious sequel to his previous works that aims "to send a message to the world showing exactly what is happening in Aden using our sport and my filming experience. We wanted to show them that war cannot stop us from living and doing what we love".

"Nothing in life has ever made us mature as much as this war," he said, adding that "it was a lesson for all of us to remember nothing remains the same, and no one knows when they will die".

But as predicted of parkour athletes, the 21-year-old filmmaker showed unwavering optimism.

"The war was really bad and very terrifying but we had to adapt with it and start training again even as it continued. As they say, what does not kill you only makes you stronger."

Freerunning, also known as parkour is a sport with routes in France. Discipline, focus and belief are required to execute the mix of running, gymnastics, climbing and swinging involved in the practice.

"It [parkour] gives you the ability to overcome not only the material obstacles, but also the mental obstacles. It has made us all strong both physically and mentally.

"Facing your fears and being outside your comfort zone forces you to become mentally powerful and this helps you face whatever life throws at you - even if it is war."

This article was first published on The New Arab

"Facing your fears and being outside your comfort zone forces you to become mentally powerful and this helps you face whatever life throws at you - even if it is war."

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