Into the arena for camel wrestling in Turkey

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People attend the Selcuk Camel wrestling festival in the town of Selcuk, near the western Turkish coastal city of Izmir, on January 20, 2019. (AFP / BULENT KILIC)
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A boy leaves the arena with a camel after winning a fight during the Selcuk Camel wrestling festival in the town of Selcuk, near the western Turkish coastal city of Izmir, on January 20, 2019. (AFP / BULENT KILIC)
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Wrestling camels fight at the Pamucak arena during the annual Selcuk-Efes Camel Wrestling Festival in the Aegean town of Selcuk, near Izmir, Turkey, on January 20, 2019. (REUTERS/Murad Sezer)
Updated 24 January 2019
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Into the arena for camel wrestling in Turkey

  • Camel culture in Turkey dates back to the Yoruks, a nomadic people whose ancestors were the ancient warrior Selcuks
  • Animal rights groups often call for the fights to end, denouncing them as cruel

SELCUK, Turkey: Erol Bilgin has high hopes. His camel, Kara Elmas (Black Diamond), might not have won the beauty contest the day before, but it might well fare better in the main event, the wrestling competition.
The two large camels stand face to face, sizing each other up, before throwing themselves head-first at one another.
Each animal struggles to bite its adversary’s feet to topple them, their long necks interlocking as the crowd cheers.
More than 2,000 people, many settled around little tables for picnics, spur on their favorite to win.
There are boos too, for those owners down in the arena who intervene too much in the matches.
The contests take place in the western Turkish town of Selcuk, at a site just a few minutes from the Aegean coast.
In the fighting arena that day, 124 camels wrestled each other in short duels — part of a centuries-old Turkish tradition.
Camel culture in Turkey dates back to the Yoruks, a nomadic people whose ancestors were the ancient warrior Selcuks, who arrived in Anatolia during the 11th century.
The first camel fight was formally organized in the region around the 1830s, says Devrim Erturk, an academic at Dokuz Eylul University in Selcuk.
As the nomads settled, the camels were used for the transport of goods, mainly toward the western ports of Turkey.
“And the cameleers started to make their camels fight” in the places they stopped at in the region, Erturk said.
He himself owns several camels, including a two year-old male that he wants to see wrestle in the arena.
Nearly 90 such events have been organized to take place in the region from Canakkale in the northwest to Antalya in the southwest between December and March.
This is the reproductive season for camels — when the males who fight are naturally more aggressive — and a quieter period for residents, as agricultural activity slows in the winter.
<b>“Cruel culture”</b>
Animal rights groups often call for the fights to end, denouncing them as cruel.
But everyone at the arena insisted that all necessary measures are taken to protect the camels, including tying a cord around their mouth to limit the opening and biting.
“For a cameleer, their camel is very precious... so the owners do all they can to ensure no harm comes to (their animal),” said Erturk.
“Many carry the name of the cameleer’s children. My father gave my name, Devrim, to one of his camels.”
The Selcuk festival, one of the most important, is held every year on the third weekend of January.
One of those in the audience is Abdullah Altintas, who has come to watch with his wife, Nilgun.
“My father and grandfather had camels, it’s an ancestral tradition. Alas, I don’t have any but I go to see all the duels,” he told AFP.
<b>Beauty contest and wrestling</b>
On the first day, there was the beauty contest, on the second, the main event — the wrestling.
That first day, owners paraded their champions through the town for local people to see.
The camels crossed the market dressed in colorful fabrics with their names embroidered on, garlands of bells and the Turkish flag.
Bilgin, from the nearby Mugla province, caressed his nine year-old camel Kara Elmas, whom the jury had not favored this time in the beauty contest.
“Obviously each person believes their camel is the most beautiful,” he says.
The two spend around 10 hours a day together, adds Bilgin, picking a straw from the thick fur of his camel, who he describes as “calm, respectful and sensitive.”
Selcuk mayor Dahi Zeynel Bakici is a champion of the festival. “Camel culture has declined, but we want to keep it going,” he told AFP.
To this end, in addition to the fights, an international symposium had been organized in Selcuk for the third year in a row, with around 100 participants.
The aim, said Bakici, is to continue the traditions in order to eventually secure a coveted place on the UNESCO list recognizing intangible cultural heritage.
<b>Camel meat</b>
The next morning, in the dark warehouse where Kara Elmas has spent the night, Bilgin makes sure everything is fine.
Because of the long distance they traveled the day before, his camel was “a little agitated but here he was able to relax before the fight,” he says.
“He knows what happens next.”
Around the arena, people stroll between the camels and the grilled sausage stands — all certified “100-percent camel meat.”
From early on in the day, the mostly-male audience enjoys their picnic with a glass of raki, a strong anizeed-flavored liquor.
But this does not prevent them from reciting verses from the Qur’an before the festivities begin.
The fights, for which there are no prizes, last a few minutes. They end after one camel manages to topple the other, or forces them to run away.
Many of the duels end in a tie, with neither camel able to make the other submit.
Down in the wrestling arena with their camels, the owners urge their charges on, trying to push their sometimes uninterested proteges into combat.
On occasion, security guards even have to step in to separate owners who themselves have come to blows.
When the name of his camel is announced, Bilgin leads Kara Elmas into the arena, parading the animal in front of the spectators before lining him up with his adversary.
The two camels throw themselves at each other, each repeatedly brought to their knees as they try to throw each other off balance.
But neither falls, the judges declare a tie and the camels are separated.
Bilgin is ecstatic.
“I am so emotional. He fought very well, beyond my expectations. I am really proud,” he says, stroking the imperturbable camel’s neck.


El Salvador court frees woman jailed for delivering stillborn

Evelyn Hernandez (C) is surrounded by activists after being released from the women's Readaptation Center, in Ilopango, El Salvador, on February 9, 2019, where she was serving a 30-year-sentence for aggravated homicide after her baby died at birth. (AFP)
Updated 16 February 2019
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El Salvador court frees woman jailed for delivering stillborn

  • Even women who abort due to birth defects or health complications risk jail sentences of up to 40 years in El Salvador

SAN SALVADOR: A Salvadoran court on Friday freed Evelyn Hernandez, who was sentenced to 30 years in prison after she gave birth to a stillborn baby at home.
After serving 33 months for aggravated homicide, 20-year-old Hernandez smiled as she was reunited with her parents and a brother in the capital San Salvador.
The court in Cojutepeque, east of the capital, ruled that she will be retried but while living at home. A hearing has been set for April 4, with a new judge, her lawyer Angelica Rivas said.
El Salvador has an extremely strict abortion ban. Hernandez gave birth in the makeshift bathroom of her home in the central Cuscatlan region. She was 18 years old and eight months pregnant.
She said her son was stillborn but was convicted of murdering him, abortion rights group ACDATEE said.
ACDATEE cited a pathologist’s report which it said indicated the baby had choked to death while still in the womb.
Prosecutors argued Hernandez was culpable for not having sought prenatal care, ACDATEE said.
The group said Hernandez had not known she was pregnant and gave birth on the toilet after feeling abdominal pains. She got pregnant as the result of a rape, which she did not report out of fear because her family had been threatened.
Even women who abort due to birth defects or health complications risk jail sentences of up to 40 years in El Salvador. Campaigners say some have been jailed after suffering miscarriages.
The country’s abortion law made international headlines in 2013 when a sick woman was forbidden from aborting a fetus which developed without a brain.
Under a ruling by the Inter-American Court of Human Rights, the Salvadoran state eventually authorized her to undergo a cesarean section. The baby died shortly after the procedure.