SANAA: With rebel fighters on the ground and warplanes in the sky, the stakes could not have been higher for Yemen’s equestrians-and their horses-at a stadium in the capital Sanaa. In a rare respite from the country’s grim reality, 180 equestrians donned their riding breeches and walked their horses out onto a plot of land in the heart of a city controlled by the Huthis, the Iranian-backed rebels locked in war with the government and its Saudi-led allies.
Riyadh regularly carries out air raids on the capital in a campaign to drive out the rebels who seized control of Sanaa in 2014. “It was impossible to host the championship at the Sanaa Riding Club. It’s just too exposed to planes,” Najib al-Adri, vice president of Yemen’s Riding Federation, said. Organizers of the May 30-June 3 event settled instead on the smaller Al-Wahda Club, with its astroturf surface and relative safety.
A mere 230 kilometers to the west-just over a two-hour drive the Huthis and government loyalists backed by the Arab military coalition have been battling for control of Hodeida port. The Red Sea port, the main conduit for humanitarian supplies into a country where 22 million people are in dire need of food and medical aid, is controlled by the rebels. But in Sanaa, dedicated riders and fans are determined to try to live a normal life.
“We are not afraid, despite the bombing. We want to prove that life goes on here in Sanaa,” Adri said. In the bleachers, dozens of men and women applauded enthusiastically as riders walked out with their horses-some of the animals noticeably gaunt. The “Unity and Peace” competition, as organisers dubbed it, brought together civilians with the rebel police academy and military equestrian teams for Yemen’s first organised show jumping event since 2015.
Horseback riding is much less popular than football in Yemen, where the national team in March qualified for the Asian Cup finals for the first time in the country’s history. But show jumping is one of the few distractions available to the two million Yemenis caught in the capital, where water, power and food shortages have become a way of life.
Impossible is nothing
On its Facebook page, Yemen’s equestrian federation made a bold statement: “’Impossible’ is not a word that exists in Yemen. “No matter the challenges, our willpower and our faith are strong enough to overcome.” Long the most impoverished Arab state, Yemen is now the scene of what the UN has dubbed the world’s worst humanitarian catastrophe. Both the rebels and Saudi-led coalition stand accused by rights groups of failing to protect civilian lives, while the UN has blacklisted Riyadh and its allies over the maiming and killing of children.
And for some residents of Sanaa, sports has provided brief solace from that harsh reality. “This championship is our way of challenging the bombings,” spectator Nasser Hamadi said at one of the shows. Loyalist forces are now fighting to close in on rebel-held Hodeida. The battle for Hodeida has left more than 100 soldiers and insurgents dead in less than a week, according to medics and military sources. In March 2015, Saudi Arabia led a regional military coalition into the Yemen war, in a bid to restore the government of President Abedrabbo Mansour Hadi. Some 10,000 people have since been killed, with more than 55,000 injured and millions displaced.—AFP