Olympic dreams: Palestinian swim team braves pollution to train in Gaza waters

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The young Palestinian swimming squad dreams of competing in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, though they know that is improbable. (AFP)
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Aged between 11 and 16, they make up a rare swimming club in the Palestinian enclave. (AFP)
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Environmental experts say the water near Beit Lahia in northern Gaza, where the swimming club trains, has the lowest rates of pollution. (AFP)
Updated 22 October 2018
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Olympic dreams: Palestinian swim team braves pollution to train in Gaza waters

  • Conditions are far from perfect; the waves make serious training difficult and they have little equipment
  • ‘We lack even the simplest equipment such as goggles and swimsuits’

BEIT LAHIA, Palestinian Territories: On one of the world’s most polluted coastlines, 30 young Palestinians dive head first into the sea off the Gaza Strip, their minds filled with dreams of Olympic glory.
Aged between 11 and 16, they make up a rare swimming club in the Palestinian enclave, and perhaps its only mixed-sex one.
Coach Amjad Tantish talks through a warm-up before they race from the trash-strewn beach into the sea as he continues to bark instructions.
Conditions are far from perfect; the waves make serious training difficult and they have little equipment.
But Tantish explained that there are no free public swimming pools in the Gaza Strip, so they had to brave the sea.
“We lack even the simplest equipment such as goggles and swimsuits,” he said. “We don’t have any funding.”
The Mediterranean hugs the entire 40-kilometer western border of the Gaza Strip, but almost no one enters its waters.
The desperate shortage of energy and lack of sanitation infrastructure mean around 100 million liters of poorly treated sewage are pumped into the sea every day, according to the United Nations.
In the worst spots along the shore the sea is tinted brown.
More than 95 percent of tap water is polluted, and water-related diseases are the primary cause of child mortality in Gaza, according to the World Health Organization.
The UN says the situation has come about mainly because of Israel’s crippling land and sea blockade of Gaza, warning recently the enclave is “imploding.”
Israel says the measures are necessary to isolate Hamas, the group that runs Gaza and with which it has fought three wars since 2008.
It accuses the group of squandering international aid on arms and fortifications.
Israel has seized dozens of diving suits and other swimming aids it says Hamas was seeking to smuggle into Gaza for military purposes.
For those still willing to get wet, environmental experts say the water near Beit Lahia in northern Gaza has the lowest rates of pollution.
And so the team train there a few times a week, helping to fuel their dreams.
Tantish says the squad dreams of competing in the 2020 Olympic Games in Tokyo, though he knows that is improbable.
Even getting a visa to leave Gaza via Israel is an almost insurmountable hurdle.
“We have many opportunities to participate in outdoor training camps and in Arab competitions, but travel is a major obstacle,” he said.
The Palestine Olympic Committee sent only six athletes to the 2016 Games.
Four of those, including the two swimmers, were invited to attend despite not meeting the minimum requirements.
But even they had regular access to pools and neither were based in Gaza.
Abdul Rahman, 15, said he hopes to become a “hero and achieve first place in international competitions.”
Mixed-gender activities are rare in conservative Gaza, particularly in the sporting arena.
The girls mostly wear long black swim trousers and red blouses, with their heads largely uncovered.
Tantish, 42, said in the past it “was not an acceptable idea, we faced many difficulties and troubles.”
Now, he said, attitudes have changed.
“Families drop their daughters off to practice swimming and the proportion of women reached 30 percent.”
Rania, 32, was walking with her husband along the beach but stopped to watch the swimming.
“I don’t think being religious stops our girls from being like other people or from having this beautiful ambition,” she said.
Most of the girls joining this year decided to get involved at their own initiative, Tantish said.
Ruqiya, 14, said she loves the atmosphere at the club.
“I started learning to swim three years ago and recently I joined the team. My family supports me and I train and play with my friends in the sea.”
She dreams of becoming a professional: “We want a large swimming pool specially to train for the Olympics.”


Ancient Afghan citadel collapses, cultural heritage sites at risk

Updated 15 June 2019
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Ancient Afghan citadel collapses, cultural heritage sites at risk

  • The old citadel known as Ghaznain Fort originally had 36 towers, but 14 of the towers had collapsed in recent years
  • The fort is one of dozens of unique historic sites in Afghanistan in urgent need of protection

GHAZNI, Afghanistan: An ancient tower dating back 2,000 years in the historic Afghan city of Ghazni collapsed this week, local officials said, raising concerns about the vulnerability of the country’s cultural heritage and the government’s ability to protect them.
The old citadel known as Ghaznain Fort originally had 36 towers, but 14 of the towers had collapsed in recent years due to decades of war, heavy rain and neglect.
The fort is one of dozens of unique historic sites in Afghanistan — ranging from the pre-Islamic Buddhist center in the Bamyan valley to the 12th century minaret of Jam in a remote area of Ghor province — in urgent need of protection.
Officials in Ghazni, which nearly fell to the Taliban last year in some of the heaviest fighting seen in the war, said the tower collapsed on Tuesday following heavy rain. A short video posted on social media shows it crumbling but local residents say negligence also contributed to its collapse.
“The government paid no attention to the sites and didn’t build canals to divert flood water,” said Ghulam Sakhi, who lives near the citadel.
“We have warned the government about the dire condition of the citadel but no one visited,” Sakhi said.
Mahbubullah Rahmani, acting director of culture and information in Ghazni, said heavy rain and recent fighting had contributed to the tower’s collapse but said the government was working on a plan to protect the site from complete destruction.
He said a German archaeologist had worked at the site as recently as 2013.
Ghazni, a strategically vital center on the main highway between Kabul and southern Afghanistan and two hour drive from the capital, is home to a range of cultural and archaeological artefacts, some of which date back to pre-Islamic period.
The province and its cultural heritage was officially declared as Asian Capital of Islamic Culture in 2013 by the Islamic Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, a Morocco-based body created in 1981, supported by UNESCO.
The collapse of the tower in Ghazni follows concern over the condition of the 900-year-old Minaret of Jam, in Ghor, which has been on the UNESCO List of World Heritage Properties in Danger since 2002.
The Taliban during their austere regime from 1996-2001, before they were toppled by the US and coalition force in late 2001, blew up two giant Buddha statues in central Bamiyan province, calling them idols.