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Yemenis at Asian Games divided by war, united by sport

South Korea's Hong Min-jun (left) and Alsendi Tharwt Mahyoub Ali Naiji from Yemen during the sanda men's 56kg quarter-finals at the Asian Games. ST PHOTO: CHONG JUN LIANG

HANGZHOU – One delivered gas cylinders in government-run Aden for a living and the other cooked meals in rebel-held Sanaa. Now the two athletes from war-torn Yemen find themselves on the same team at the Asian Games.

The Middle Eastern nation has been in the grip of a war since 2014 that has pitted forces loyal to the internationally recognised government against the Iran-backed Huthi rebels. The conflict has cost hundreds of thousands of lives.

According to delegation chief Abdel Sattar Al-Hamadani, the Yemeni team at the Asian Games in Hangzhou is the only sign of the country’s unity.

“We marched behind a single banner at the opening of the Games,” Al-Hamadani told AFP.

“Sport has paid a heavy price for the war,” added the head of the Yemeni Basketball Association, pointing out the absence of any material support, apart from that provided by the International Olympic Committee and Asian bodies.

Said Al-Khodr, a judo fighter from Aden, worked in the morning and trained in the afternoon to make the Games team.

“The love of sport runs through my veins and I toil from dawn until 3pm carrying gas cylinders on my back to deliver across the city,” said the 19-year-old father-of-one.

“Then I take a shower and go to my judo training session 9 or 10 kilometres from home.”

The judoka also said he often hitchhikes to training because the transport allowance from his judo club “isn’t enough to cover my costs”.

The Yemeni economy was already in crisis before the Huthis seized Sanaa in September 2014, prompting a Saudi-led military alliance to intervene the following March.

Al-Khodr said at one stage he quit the sport given the difficulties, including a close call when shrapnel from bombing fell around the car in which he was travelling.

“I gave my uniform to someone else because I couldn’t bear to see it hanging up in my house,” he said. “I lasted five or six months and then one day my feet took me to the club and I had to pay US$300 (S$410) for a new outfit.”

Yussef Iskander, another athlete in the small Yemeni delegation, says he narrowly escaped death when a shell exploded as he left the hall where he was practising the martial art of wushu.

One piece of shrapnel pierced his foot, another killed one of his teammates and a third caused the amputation of another’s foot.

The explosion happened in Taez, a city in the south-west of the Arabian Peninsula country.

“Because of the injury I stopped training from 2015 to 2021, but eventually resumed to raise the Yemeni flag in China,” he said.

A silver medallist at the Arab Games in Beirut in 2014, Iskander, who is expecting his second child, trains for about an hour a day even in unsafe surroundings.

He rejects the idea of emigrating, but judoka Abdalla Faye wants to escape his war-ravaged homeland.

“I want to go to France, where judo is practised, where I can flourish, but I have no money,” he said.

The Sanaa resident has two jobs, alternating between delivering ready-made meals and working as a security guard in the rebel-held capital.

“I go to training exhausted, which doesn’t help me prepare for big tournaments,” said Faye, who came 17th in the -73kg category at the Games.

Yemen’s medal tally in Hangzhou is still zero with the multi-sport event halfway through.

But Al-Hamadani hopes his country can take part in the 2024 Paris Olympics, saying he has already received invitations for athletics, boxing and swimming.

He intends to lead an official delegation to France – if he can get out of Yemen, where airports are few and numerous checks are carried out by the warring factions for movement between areas. AFP